Category Archives: Military Life

The Typesetter in “The Post”: “The Hand of Labor”

December 23, 2017

Yesterday, Linda and I took Laurel Ann Bogen out to a movie and dinner as a Christmas present. She wanted to see “The Post,” which turned out to be a surprisingly good film for its category. The main driving point is the publication of “The Pentagon Papers” by the New York Times and the Washington Post. The latter paper is facing a financial bind, and the hopes of providing some relief on that pressure depend on a successful stock sale, which is up for grabs at the very time that its publisher (Kay Graham) and its editor (Ben Brantley) must decide whether to challenge a court injunction that blocked the New York Times from further publication of this material.

Rather than add to the commentary of the typical aspects of a review, I have decided to concentrate on two very, very minor moments in “The Post.” This idiosyncratic preference for minuscule meaning drove my English teachers crazy when I was a freshman in college. Obviously, this is one other feature of a blog that I truly love. I get to do what I want.

Laurel, Linda, and I all worked at newspapers at various times in our lives, and each of us at dinner expressed the pleasure we got from the film during its moments when it displayed the production process of the paper itself. Bringing a newspaper into a reader’s hands, each of us knew, was not some magical process, but involved considerable physical labor, effort, and concentration. Towards the end of the film, the publisher stands behind a typesetter. Not a word is spoken, but the body itself of the typesetter was remarkably full of history. A Korean War veteran, most likely, whose son had forestalled being drafted by going to college. This typesetter was not a combat veteran like the protagonist of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” In fact, he had learned to be a typesetter in the military. Did he vote for Humphrey or Nixon in 1968? Or did he vote at all? To a certain extent, he is a more representative character than anyone else in the film of the pressures that have faced the American electorate the past half-century. Yet he does not have a voice, only the nimble fingers that reflect “The Hand of Labor.”

The second moment in the film that I want to comment on involves a scene where the publisher, played surprisingly well by Meryl Streep, is sitting on the edge of a bed. The left third of the screen is taken up by a lamp on a small table. The camera does not move for quite some time. No doubt it was less than 90 seconds, but it seemed more like three minutes. I had an odd “Fluxus” moment: I wanted the whole screen to fill up with the image of the lamp and for the soundtrack of John Williams’s fine understated music to play without any human voice, and then for the people who worked at the factory that made the lamp to appear and for them to begin to speak, out of history to history. If a newspaper is the “first rough draft” of history, it is their words that need to be recorded in its opening paragraphs and in the intonement of its final pronouncements.

Note: It was hard to resist making the headline of my blog post today about a milestone in my blog: 1,000,000 total hits. At some point in the next few hours, my blog will surpass that symbolic figure. When I woke up and checked this morning, the official number was 999,751, so it won’t be long before my blog’s dispersal over the past year and a half reflects a wider audience than it was getting in its first two and a half years. I am not under any illusion that this mean my blog has some kind of wide readership. That is hardly the case. To a large extent, I write this as a version of an intermittent diary, albeit one that is available for others to read. To those of you who read it, and have on occasion written me, thank you for your attention and care.

An Academic Walks Next Door to the VA

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Academic Walks Next Door to the VA

My father was a career enlisted man in the U.S. navy, and my mother also served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. My father died in late September, 1994, but my mother is still alive. She is somewhat frail, though certainly capable of conversation. This past summer, for instance, we discussed the meaning of the word “balmy” and spoke of the various regions in the world with occasional climates to which that word might apply.

My mother is currently living in a skilled nursing facility (SNF) about a fifteen minute walk away from where I live in Long Beach, and I suppose one could say that I have chosen to write about her tonight because I have just come back from visiting her there. I brought her a ripe avocado and one of her favorite cookies to eat, but she was too full from dinner to consume more than a fourth of the cookie. Her appetite had been faltering in recent months, so I am heartened that she seems to recovering it enough in the past week so that she is eating three times a day.

Being responsible for and monitoring the care of an elderly parent can be an overwhelming task, and certainly the next few months are going to be even more challenging than this past summer. Of my mother’s six children, I am the only one living in the vicinity of her current residence. It gave me a boost of solidarity, therefore, to get a message from the poet Garrett Hongo this afternoon that included a photograph of him with his mother. I don’t spend much time with poets my age these days, and it was reassuring to see a poet I have known for a long time also helping a parent along the same road, the one that leads (as he put it) to the River of Heaven.

This afternoon, the contingent part of that road led me once again to the VA center on Seventh Street in Long Beach. The VA is right next to the CSULB campus, so I am able to park at work and just walk over. I felt very fortunate this afternoon. Several people, one named Tim and the other Monique, were exceptionally helpful in helping me move my mother’s paperwork along. There were a couple other people, whose names I didn’t manage to record, who also were helpful. On behalf of my mother, I want to thank the VA for the assistance they are giving her. Being a Navy brat was a difficult way to grow up, but seeing my mother get this assistance helps compensate for those hardships.

Getting my mother assistance, including her benefits as a WWII veteran, during the past three years has involved keeping copies of all her service related documents, including her honorable discharge.
One detail, however, almost eluded my search. Fortunately, my mother can still recall her mother’s maiden name. Most of the time, when the VA asks that question of a veteran, they are not expecting a name to be cited that was exchanged for a husband’s surname well over a century ago. In fact, the name the VA had on its records for my mother’s mother’s maiden name was wrong, and it was satisfying to get that tiny part of her record corrected.

As I walked back to my car on the CSULB campus, I thought to myself how few of my fellow faculty ever have the need to walk onto this adjacent institution. I must admit that one of the factors in my discomfort with academic culture has to do with my upbringing in the military and the sometimes contradictory virtues its discipline fuses into a sense of duty and honor. While I wish it were otherwise, I don’t think it’s possible for my fellow academics to understand how much it shaped me, or how that shape will always make me a stranger in their midst.

The Anniversaries of Empire

November 22, 2013

While I was in the front yard raking up leaves from the huge maple tree late this afternoon, I heard my 80 year old neighbor, Kathy, call out, “Look at the rainbow.” I glanced over my shoulder, and was much surprised to see a full arch opposite the glowing pink of the sunset. It lasted at least two whole minutes (4:47-4:48). I suppose if I were someone who believed in signs and portents, I might attribute some significance to the appearance of this rainbow. It does seem an unusual coincidence to have this rainbow appear on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, but it’s no more than a quirky conjunction. Even to categorize it in that manner, in fact, is to give it more credit than most people alive in the United States in 2013 would be able to apprehend. Of the people in Long Beach who saw this rainbow, less than twenty percent of them probably have a specific memory of where they were when they learned of Kennedy’s murder. It’s a rapidly dwindling generation of nostalgic grief.

The best books I’ve read about this event are Don Delilo’s Libra and Robert Stone’s Hall of Mirrors. Stone’s novel was published six months before the assassination, and there’s nothing in it that specifically hints at even the possibility of an attempt on a president’s life. Yet Stone’s story summons up New Orleans in the early 1960s with such palpable vividness that one can almost see Jack Ruby standing on a street corner as a nameless extra filling out a scene. Anyone who read the book from the mid-1960s on has the advantage of recognizing this retrospective cameo and the book’s vatic quality is amplified by an eerie recoiling sense of proleptic déjà vu.

The most discouraging coincidence of today’s anniversary is that the United States finds itself more enmeshed in empire mode than ever. A “security agreement” has been negotiated between Afghanistan and the United States that guarantees the continued expenditure of our nation’s wealth on a war that has no justification other than the maintenance of U.S. interests in the mineral and rare earth resources of that country. The likely Democratic candidate in 2016, Hilary Clinton, is no more likely to speak up against the occupation of Afghanistan than she was to object to Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The minimal number of people against the war in Vietnam fifty years ago had far more reason to be optimistic about the success of their movement than anyone currently dismayed by the fantasies of this nation’s military-industrial complex.

The Acupunctured Counterpoint to Social Insecurity

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Acupunctured Counterpoint to Social Insecurity

On Monday, September 16, I turned in my mother’s applications for VA Health Benefits at the hospital next to CSULB. One of the small details I learned about my mother’s life is that she had the desire to attend college, even after she had gotten married during World War II. Her discharge papers from the U.S. Navy in October, 1945, include a box to indicate plans for further training: “attend u. of California” (lower case “u”). My father, on the other hand, was never interested in attending college. Even if he had also gotten out of the Navy at the end of the war, it’s difficult to imagine him encouraging my mother to attend college on the G.I bill while he headed off to work as a clerk in a retail store (which was his first extended job after a 20 year career as an “aviation mate”).

My own application for social security benefits back on August 1st seems to have run into a classic case of bureaucratic indifference. It’s bad enough that a couple weeks ago I had to wait 45 minutes on the phone, listening to a recorded voice loop with all the officious sincerity of a “Do not park in the loading zone” command of a metropolitan airport, in order to get sent a copy of my electronic application that was supposed to have been automatically mailed out. That’s a minor irritation, compared to waiting for some statement from social security about the status of my application. Finally, I spent half a morning in a local office two weeks ago to find out that additional information is needed and that nothing can be done on my application until I submit that information. “And why did I not receive a phone call or an e-mail or a letter requesting this information at some point in the past six weeks?” “Oh, we’re sorry.” There was no explanation of why I was not contacted or acknowledgement that I could very well have just kept waiting and waiting and waiting, wondering when my application would receive the slightest processing.)

I should emphasize that nothing on my Social Security application portended that any kind of specific document would be required from the University of California about my time as a graduate student, during which I was part of UC’s retirement program. Now I am given a deadline to get this information, and have been informed by the workers at UC that it will take a couple weeks to process my request. Unfortunately, the Social Security retirement date begins in 10 days. All of this could have been resolved if only the workers at Social Security had done their job and sent out a simple letter or e-mail a month ago. I guess working and contributing to Social Security for almost half a century is not enough to earn the basic respect that should be accorded any worker’s co-operation with a painfully unequal system of rewards and punishments.

Meanwhile, it turned out that by yesterday (Friday, September 27), nothing had happened with my mother’s application whatsoever. I had twice called the number I had been given by the intake worker to inquire about the application, but my message was never returned. Finally, early yesterday afternoon, I parked in a school lot and walked over. It turned out the intake worker was out for 10 days with a serious cold and had just gotten back on the job, but if I were willing to wait, the application would be processed. I settled into a chair with the Complete Poems of Robert Frost, whose work is just ahead in one of my classes. By the end of the afternoon, my mother was officially in the Health Care system of the VA as a WWII vet, with a “group five” designation. Now begins the process of getting her vetted as being eligible for a “group four” rating, which would provide an allotment for assisted care.

Fortunately, the morning had its exquisite counterpoint. Susan Wiggins and George Hart (one of my very favorite colleagues at CSULB) spent the past summer at work on converting a commercial space on Atlantic Boulevard in Long Beach into a community-based acupuncture clinic that offers a sliding scale of payment. Neither Linda nor I had ever tried acupuncture before, but both of us have reached the age when we feel we have very little to lose by trying alternatives. The unexpected part of the acupuncture treatment was that it gave me a period of rejuvenating surrender: I leaned back in a recliner and permitted the entity I am conscious of as the performer of a public identity to experience the absence of that need to perform. A vulnerability set in that allowed me to meditate in an integrated manner distinct from any sitting seance with Nothingness. Instead of having my knees folded in selfless-enchantment, the acupuncture encrypted my stiff body into an elongated horizon that cradled me in a gentle levitation. What secret messages were sent from nervousness to mindful nerves remain too whispered to have been heard by other than the recesses of my body; more than an hour after the first needle was inserted with exquisite precision by Susan, though, my mind found itself clarified with remunerative aftertastes of unusually peaceful continuity. My posture (both physical and psychological) has never been vibrant and its accumulated disintegration has put more pressure on my spine than it is designed to absorb; hence, I was gratified beyond expectation about twenty minutes into the treatment when a tender but firm warmth began slowly effusing from my spinal fusion. It was like an infinitely tiny solar eruption of a pent-up knob, as if a hemisphere of remorse had had a tectonic plate settle back in its proper groove. Leaving the clinic, I walked with a new sense of purpose, which I turned out to need later on in the day.

Perhaps the most meaningful part of my visit to this clinic is the realization that not all the aspirations of my youth have foundered in the vortex of conservative obeisance in the 1980s. The willingness of gifted individuals to commit themselves to a life of generous service that empowers others by strengthening their frailties is exemplified in this community health project, which is a member of POCA (People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture). If you are living in or near Long Beach, you can find Susan’s clinic at:

If you live elsewhere and want to give your body and mind an equally restorative moment, then start your search at:,0/18000/


The Superficies of Servitude (Part Four)

Saturday, September 14, 2013


The Superficies of Servitude

Part Four: Class Act

“The superficies is the world.” – T.S. Eliot


Inimical truth? Why not?

If signs are artifice,

And only that, then face

The placid, flatulent rot


Of imagined fact: “We thought

You grew up in a house

Troughed with books and mounds

Of residual bon mots.


Rosaries, Navy issue-

Ligorian, The Guns

Of Navarone, and artificial

Ice milk glowed like icons.


For years I’ve minimized

The maelstrom of this rift.

The work that others shirked

I muscled up as heft,


A cunning counterfoil,

Pretending to be nice

In hierarchy’s toil

Of munificent class.



The Superficies of Servitude (Part Three)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

(The Superficies of Servitude)


Part Three: The Brat’s Inscriptions


Aggrieved by formula, he wailed all night.

Colic, doctors claimed, as he flailed at the lactic brawl.

Stray twilight dogs showed up, enthralled recruits

Whose only purpose was to demonstrate

Rejection rates. Go find another bowl

Emptied enough to match your solemn howl.

“He must’ve gotten out during all our ruckus,” his dad

Would say, and what were we but animals

Too raucous to be handled . . .


Futility, thy name is brat, and mine.


There’s nothing to romanticize. Best friends?

Since when do thugs pretend to make amends?

An ideal betrayed is knowledge mocked:

“Could you change your brother’s diaper, push

Him in a stroller round the block? The bullies

Will let you be as long you’re helping me,”

She says. Was all of it that bad? Not so. Not so,

Insists a quiet voice. Who wants to loathe

One’s youth as utter emptiness? Weren’t boxes

Cheap with chocolate layered to nibble,

The sugar twisting logic to a scribble?

A mother is a saint, but if her child commits

a single mortal sin, her child will suck the tits

of Satan for eternity. Our fathers strut

on decks, three months at sea, revolving six.

Each afternoon, Queen for a Day forages

for bathos. Crouched on a hallway chair,

A mother sobs to four boys and two girls:

“You kids will kill me yet.” Imagine saying that

To Mr. Bailey. Jack, not George.

What other prizes loll in storage?

I am no gracious punk, nor was primed to be.

My mother watches others whimper and entreat,

Holds out cold cream, and asks if I’ll rub her feet.

Doesn’t now redeem that prison-house?

If it exists for someone else, then no.

Let all that trumpery of super-sacrifice

Dissolve within these streaks of soldered woe.



The Superficies of Servitude (Part Two)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Superficies of Servitude (Part Two): Shore Leave


Capitulation doesn’t mean you cannot catapult:

Small plastic planes on a wooden floor

Gain valence from his younger brothers’ roars:

The plane goes up,” one grimaces with glee

The mother’s hands jerk and quiver —

Wings pinched to polished hurtling descent —

And the plane comes down. He smashes it

And domes his freckled hands as cenotaph

For wreckage. Their mother flinches. Again, again,

His hands toy with the likelihood

Of perishing at sea: head, arms and torso strewed.


“Don’t be such brats.” The speaker wants to shame

This gyroscope of snot for not accepting blame

That others shun. They’re secretive:

Can’t you tell how quickly each has said farewell?

Disposable as kindness best forgotten

As having as its source, the brat,

His whooping loyalty to something rotten

Is puzzled by Authority’s abrupt

Reward for a lifetime of service:

Contempt that makes the honor nervous.


The Superficies of Servitude (Part One)

Monday, September 9, 2013



Nos pavidi trepidare metu crinemque flagrantem

executere et sanctos restinguere fontibus ignis.

Aeneid, Book II, lines 685-686



One: The Navy Brat Changes Schools Yet Once Again


Each morning he contrives a pledge

Allegiance to the wedged

Mutations of his chromosomes,

Devoted to the wealth of others’ homes.

With daily recitations of his credo

And commissary gravy embedding mashed potato,

The brat, no doubt, is gratified to be fed

As pigs whose greasy welfare will be bled.

One replicates the thing one is devoted to:

The servitude his father was corroded through.

Only officers’ sons beribbon patrimony.

The brat salutes his father’s twenty-year enlistment

Whose moiety’s a lunch of mayonnaise and baloney.


The Navy Brat grows fond of obscure words:

Causerie. “Doesn’t what we’re saying make total sense?”

They jeer and tsk. Only to a bloated recidivist

Of absurdity, he wants to say, but playing dumb

Only proves their rules as jokes to be abused.

His disrespect is meant, since nothing else

Impales their mawkishness. He’s little more

Than excrement in their eyes.  “You listen to me well

Small brat, inhale the smell of firm shit,

And praise the way it masticates your spit.”

Move here, sleep there, dangle from the rim:
The charisma of asthma strangles him.

His soul is insubordinate

To that which he should love as prickling fate:

Strange agony he hardly could endure

That now seems nothing more

Than penitential blur.


A chaplain listens to abhorrent

Sprees of sailors sloshed.

The fleet, in port, recoils.

As turrets mount a current,

The distant shame grows hushed —

The brat no longer needs their horns

To jazz his muted moan:
He’s got the suppurating forlorn blues.

His daddy’s headed out on a one-way cruise.

Butchwax shimmers; hormones rave;

Who’s there

to teach the eldest how to shave?

The C.O. Memorial Highway

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Conscientious Objectors Memorial Highway

One can walk a quarter-mile from the entrance/exit gate of the VA hospital next to CSU Long Beach and arrive at a portion of Pacific Coast Highway that is designated as a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway. I don’t know if there’s a census of this road marker of military service, but over the past two decades I’ve seen more than a few such stretches of highway, including one that was less than a hundred yards from where Linda and I lived in Lynbrook, New York.

I don’t object to honoring the veterans of that war. Those whose service enabled the policy makers of U.S. government to engage in their post-colonial fantasies in Southeast Asia are entitled to as much compassion as can be summoned. Highway markers, in fact, are hardly sufficient to compensate for the lack of care that many Vietnam veterans encountered upon their return to the United States. If such public markers can in some way assuage, reconcile, or dignify their decision to be part of that war, then let the memorials be maintained. So far, I have never seen any tagging on a VV memorial highway sign. Almost everything else has been fair game for graffiti, but this road sign appears to be off-limits.

On the other hand, it strikes me as odd that not a single highway has ever been named “The Vietnam War Protestors Memorial Highway.” Or even more to the point of genuine self-sacrifice: “The Vietnam War Conscientious Objectors Memorial Highway.” Do not the young men who went to prison or insisted on alternative duty rather than submit to America’s pathological war machine deserve at least one memorial road with a decent vista on the continental United States? If there’s a highway dedicated to those who serve in “Military Intelligence,” surely those who have refused to participate in state-organized mass murder have earned the modest singularity of “The C.O. Memorial Highway.” I doubt I’ll live long enough to drive that stretch of road, but I, too, have a minimal dream.

The VA (the value added tax of class servitude)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The VA (the value added tax of class servitude)

The Veterans Administration, popularly known as the VA, at some point set up its health system in Southern California so that its hospitals were located next to major colleges or universities. In San Diego, there is a huge VA center next to UC San Diego; in Los Angeles, the VA is on the flip side of the 405 freeway from UCLA; in Long Beach, the hospital is adjacent to CSU Long Beach. I went over to that VA the other day to work on getting some veterans benefits for my mother, who was a WAVE in World War II. She receives medical care through both Medicare and a program called TriCare, which is available to the surviving spouses of career military personnel. She will need to be in an assisted care home at some point in the near future, though, and I wanted to get information about her benefits.

Walking around the grounds of the VA complex, I felt on one level as if I could relax in my performance as a college teacher. How much chance was there that I would meet up with a colleague in a building at the VA? In fact, when was the last time any of the tenured professors I have taught with or studied under or conversed with at conferences would have found themselves visiting the VA? It is a social ghetto, in certain ways, and the fact that it is right next door to the campus only mounts the spotlights on the three hundred and fifty-nine degrees of separation between military and civilian life. Power extends from the organization of space itself, and the milieus one is assigned are meant to delimit your activities in a manner befitting one’s station in life. That I find myself at the VA, in hopes of finding a remedy for my mother’s plight, is only what might be expected, given the initial terms of my childhood enlistment. I remember a spokesperson from Brotman Hall who greeted the cohort of new faculty at CSULB in 2006: “When one has a Ph.D.,” she said with utter sincerity, “class is no longer an issue.” Even if one has severed all contact with one’s family, I doubt that’s true. To the credit of my colleagues, a skeptical murmur of disagreement ricocheted around the room.

I did, in fact, have one teacher who was a veteran, and he was perhaps the crucial teacher in my development. In the fall of 1967, I ended up enrolling in classes at San Diego State, mainly because my application to UCLA’s theater department had been turned down. I would be successful the following spring in gaining admission, but in the meantime I decided to study at SDSU and found myself in a poetry class with a young poet named Glover Davis, who had studied under Philip Levine. I had never heard of any of the poets Davis taught me about in the 1967-1968. I was 19 years old when I started studying in his classes and by the time I was 20 I had learned more from him than most MFA students learn in their two or three years in current programs.

Glover Davis’s class would serve as a prime example of how Don Allen’s The New American Poetry ended up as the most influential anthology of the past half-century. After his discharge from the U.S. Navy, Davis had enrolled at Fresno State University and had moved on to the Iowa Poetry Workshop, where I believe one of his classmates was James Tate. I took poetry writing courses with him as well as a survey of poetry course in which I first read Hart Crane’s The Bridge as well as substantial amounts of WC Williams. We read Williams first, so encountering Crane was initially a bewildering experience. I was utterly intrigued by Crane’s dense lyricism and imagery, but how could his poetics be reconciled with Williams’s? Which side was Davis on? He seemed to be presenting an equal case for each poet, and I found myself unable to decide between the two. In the end, I liked Crane’s sense of the line better than Williams, whose sense of enjambment never really matured.

One of the best parts of the year was a chance to attend readings by Allen Ginsberg, Philip Levine and Robert Mezey. Ginsberg didn’t read “Howl” or “Kaddish,” but instead gave a powerful reading of “Wales Visitation,” which even the conservative member of the English faculty, John Theobald, appreciated. Ginsberg by far attracted the largest crowd, but it was his talk in the afternoon that made an equal impression. In retrospect, I have to concede that the overwhelming emphasis on male poets in Davis’s canon would have been daunting for the female students; perhaps this is part of the reason for Rae Armantrout’s unflattering characterization of Davis in her memoir. She neglects to mention, however, that he would have been the first teacher she had to have praised at length the writing of Denise Levertov, with whom Rae went on to study at UC Berkeley.  Memory can be capricious, and maybe Rae wasn’t in the class in which I remember Davis giving “The Sharks” a close, deeply appreciative reading. Davis was perhaps the most fortunate encounter I could have hoped for at that point, given my limited options. For the first time, I encountered a man who embodied a masculine variant of physical prowess that was also vulnerable to the subjunctive.