Category Archives: Military Life

“Lawrence IN Arabia”: A Centenary Backwards Gaze

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

I have a stack of books of poetry I will soon begin listing and making some comments on, but first I want to encourage anyone concerned with the ongoing conflicts at the eastern rim of the Mediterranean Sea to read Lawrence in Arabia, the subtitle of which proves to be the thematic summary of the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution. Although this year marks the centenary of the final year of World War I, I have been struck by how little commentary seems to mark this juncture. World War I apparently has as little presence in the lives of present-day American citizens as the Napoleonic Wars. Anderson’s subtitle, “War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern East,” instructs us to reconsider our indifference. The consequences of World War I, after all, are more turbulent than ever. The decision of President Trump’s administration, for instance, to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a choice made possible because of the cast of characters who epitomize the drama of Anderson’s scintillating, extraordinarily acute, and easy to follow narrative.

The primary advantage of Anderson’s book in examining the historical origins of the current multi-national crisis in the Middle East is that people other than T.E. Lawrence are as equally vivid as the book’s titular, best known protagonist. I have a hunch that this book’s capacious point of view was the inspiring triggering point in the dinner conversation with his editor Bill Thomas that Anderson mentions in his acknowledgements. As one reads about the lives of the Zionist agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn, a German spy named Curt Prufer, and the American agent for Standard Oil, William Yale, in Lawrence in Arabia, one begins to comprehend the ground-level simultaneity of global economic and political determinations with local aspirations for identity with land and its layers of ritual knowledge and daily enactments. Anderson’s book is an archeology of a volcanic eruption in the modern ear of human civilizations; our imaginations have faltered in the past in coming to terms with that epic event. With wit and precise detail, Anderson makes it all seem as if it were being told for the first time. Even those who believe they are familiar with this particular front of “imperial folly” will finish this book with a renewed ambivalence about whose claims to self-rule have any substantial legitimacy outside of self-interest.

From the Greatest Generation to the Search Engine Generation: A Field Report

Sunday, August 19, 2018

It’s been almost a month since my last post. My mother seems to have settled in at the skilled nursing facility she moved into a month ago. I visited her this afternoon, after attending a meeting to welcome the new contingent of M.F.A. students in creative writing at CSULB. My mother’s face lit up when she saw me. Even though I have very few happy memories of my childhood, other than having enough food to eat and a warm place to sleep (no small things!), it’s hard to resist the appeal of a very elderly face realizing that the outside world has not completely forgotten her. She will be 97 years old in December, and she only dimly understands what I do from day to day as a teacher. If I were to have told her this afternoon that I was interviewed this past Tuesday by KCET for a television program on Venice West that will be broadcast in two or three months, it would mean no more than an announcement that I have had my 20 year old car painted by a local auto body shop, owned by a man whose son is studying marine biology at CSULB. There is no longer an hierarchy of significance to retain as a plumb line for social value and accomplishment. The impingements of frailty have left her unable to remember even how old she is, or how that span of endurance might even give her oldest son a reason in its comparative meditation to gaze beyond his own youthful privation. The stubbornness in my mother’s eyes has begun to yield to an acceptance that is less judgmental of her fate and misfortunes. Until recently, that stubbornness was the provisional aspect of her resilient willpower as a resource bestowed upon her in compensation for the penury of my father’s 20 year career in the U.S. Navy. Now she has let the grip of that lifetime of economic restrictions be someone else’w concern. I let her nibble at a very ripe banana. She savors it, not as if for the first time, or the last, but with a gratitude that it exists at all.

I will be on sabbatical this semester, so I could have excused myself from being at today’s MFA meeting, but I wanted to meet some of the students whose application I read in the spring semester. They seem eager to get to work, and I believe they will be pleased to have chosen CSULB to get their “union card” of a degree. We have an exceptional faculty: Stephen Cooper, Lisa Glatt, Suzanne Greenberg, and Ray Zepeda teach fiction; Patty Seyburn, David Hernandez, Charles Harper Webb, and I teach poetry. In the middle of the last decade, only half of the current faculty were on the roster of the Department of English, so it’s a program that has grown despite few chances for the students to work as teaching assistants. On the whole, it’s a veteran faculty, with over 200 years of combined teaching experience and publication in several hundred literary magazines. Not everyone necessarily benefits from academic training in creative writing, but if one is going to choose this path, then you can hardly do better than to study at CSULB.

I suppose one piece of encouraging news on the domestic side of things is that Linda has found some studio space in San Pedro. It’s a bit of a drive from our residence in Long Beach, but more than worth it to have space where we don’t have to worry about having a palette of oil paint traipsed though by a resident feline and then tracked across the floor. Linda will move in on September 1st, and we are looking forward to a chance to work on some big canvases, which is hard to do in one’s daily dwelling place.

Finally, it is hard not to comment on the political contretemps of current American life. The ghastliness of Trump’s administration is on a scale beyond the normal limits of human comprehension, if only because I fear so many worse developments are yet in the making. In gauging his expectations that we should trust him, I am hardly the only one who has noted that President Trump has no capacity for appreciating anything but adulation. Far worse, however, is his pathological self-absorption, in which anything that can be ascertained as positive is supposed to be credited to his acumen. The current economy, for instance, is not thriving because of Trump, although it’s not thriving because of Obama, either. Rather, I believe that the prosperity bubble is largely due to the “work” being done by computers. The efficiency of computers has generated a considerable amount of wealth in terms of job productivity, and it is this factor that buoys things up for the time being. Unfortunately, very few companies, let alone politicians, have any idea of how to make best use of the this temporary benefit.

A couple of years ago, in this biog, I discussed how the current generation of youth should be called “the search engine generation.” It is a generation that was humiliated by the economic collapse of 2007-2008. The revival of the economy in the past four years does not erase the harrowing penalties of that debacle and its impact on youth people as well as the baby boom generation. That Trump has made no effort to compensate either generation for what they endured is just one of the things that causes me to despise him more than ever. If Trump is to be disposed of, it will involve the commitment of the “search engine generation” to a campaign focused on making his mendacity a matter of complete public knowledge. Given that he is no doubt tracking negative commentary with fanatical diligence, the willingness to speak up and risk being categorized as an “enemy of the people” requires more courage on the part of “the search engine generation” because they are the ones whose careers can be most decimated by Trump and his allies. Nevertheless, the rest of the electorate is truly depending on them to lead the way. Onward!

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:

http://www.longbeachcommunityacupuncture.com/

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

https://www.pocacoop.com/clinics/search/0,0/18000/

 

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

THE SUPERFICIES OF SERVITUDE

 

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?