Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Argentinalogue #2: Buenos Aires: Day One

Argentinalogue #2: Buenos Aires: Day One at


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Argentinalogue #1: Argentina, Te Quiero

For the next several Thursdays, please tune in to, where I will be blogging about my month in Buenos Aires, Argentina!


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Read the Sunday June 7 Commercial Appeal!

For any of you Memphians out there who read the Sunday Commercial Appeal, look for me!  My Jackass Moment will be featured in that newspaper's My Words column space!

As for the Sunday Essays on this website, those are indefinitely on hiatus as I prep for the grind of graduate school. I'm throwing myself into some longer pieces, and I hope to share those in the future.

As always, thanks for reading!


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday Essay #7: Twitter Me This, Twitter Me That : Conversations with Talk Show Host Larry King

<---Sunday Essay #6: My Jackass Moment

"Have you ever known anyone who was murdered?"

I stared into the oily hot lights. My mind blanked. My eyes watered. "Why are you asking me that question?"

"Very well," he bellowed, pivoting his chair away from mine. "Back with more after the break."

The red RECORD dot of the camera disappeared. We were off the air. "I'm confused," I told Larry, he of the ubiquitous glasses riding high on his pterodactyl nose. "Why am I even here?"

"You're been following me," he said simply, shuffling the stack of papers in front of him.

"Following you? Why? Why would I follow around a 75 year old talk show host?"

He set down the papers and chuckled, suspendered shoulders bobbing.

"I'm sorry." I peeled off the microphone clipped to my shirt collar. "This interview's over."

"Number 264,300."


"You're on my list."

I looked at him. He looked at me.

"On my list of followers," he said. "Please, put the microphone back on."

He was talking Twitter, the express short messaging service embraced by celebrities and common people alike, a place where a talk show host could ask his hundreds of thousands of followers, "what ever happened to galoshes?"

I was "following" Larry King on Twitter, and I had to pay.

The RECORD light flicked on. We were back. "On April 17th, you asked New Raleigh writer Acree Graham if you were, and I'm quoting, 'selling out the future of the written word by Twittering.'"

"I did say that."

Larry nodded. He wanted more, so I gave it to him.

"I was skeptical," I said, "Twitter seemed like the ultimate language killer. Nonsense, really. Like the Internet doesn't have enough crap?"

"On April 21st, you tweeted basketball star Shaquille O'Neal?"

Damn, the lights were hot. "I don't recall, Larry."

"You don't recall?"

"Maybe...probably," I said. "Yeah."

"What did you ask him?"

I looked down at my hands. I was rubbing them together, hard. It was almost as if they were a separate entity, disconnected from all bodily thought. "I asked Shaq, 'What's in your iPod these days big man?'"

"Does that fit under your definition of nonsense, Alex?"

"I don't know! It seemed like a smart thing to ask at the time!"

Like a psychiatrist Larry deftly slid his thumb under his chin. "Did you learn to love Twitter?"

"No, that's too much," I said, recovering. "It can be entertaining, that's all. I'm not some holier-than-thou Maureen Dowd who dismisses it completely."

"What do you like about it?"

"Comedians. Paul Scheer tweeted, 'Just found out Dr. Dre isn't a real doctor, now I understand why he botched my hernia operation.' I laughed, Larry. I laughed."

"Why do some baseball players wear the brims of their hats flat?" he asked without missing a beat.

"You asked that from your Twitter, right?"

"What's the difference between a frankfurter and a hot dog?"

"I don't know, Larry."

"My sons will be bat boys at tonight's UCLA baseball game -- I am not sure who's more excited, them or me!"

"Do you want me to respond to that, or - "

"Have you ever known anyone who was murdered?"

"I think you tweet from the dark side."

I waited for Larry to laugh but he didn't. He stared at me, waiting for an answer. "I didn't murder anybody," I said, the words sounding, oddly, like a murder's on my tongue, "but I do know you spoiled the finale of The Celebrity Apprentice for me. You congratulated Joan Rivers before I watched the episode!"

For some reason, that snapped Larry out of it. "As an admitted user of the service, do you think this Twitter phenomenon will last?"

I shook off the verbal whiplash. "It might not. I read an article in AdWeek that said, 'about 60 percent of people on Twitter end up abandoning the service after a month.' That's a bad retention rate. People apparently don't stay. The other night, I was listening to Loveline with Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew -"

"Dr. Drew tweets."

"I know, and that sentence sounds filthy, but they were discussing our society's obsession with pushing the boundaries of what's extreme and what's immediate, whether it be energy drinks, sexual practices, or satellite television. They were suggesting that perhaps there will come a day when we can no longer go any faster or get any more now, and that the scales will tip towards delayed gratification. Longer will be cooler, if that makes any sense."

"A return to the days of hand-writing letters with quill pens?" Larry asked.

"Who knows? The point is, I don't know if Twitter will be around forever, but in the meantime I'll check it out now and again. I get a kick out of comedians and other smart folks who wring a visceral reaction from limited words. I mean, it's no replacement for any real communication; by comparison, it makes Facebook look bed-sharingly intimate. But Twitter can be a supplement, and as long as it makes me laugh, it's not the worst way to burn a minute or two."

Larry turned to the camera. "If you want it to rain, wash your car! I guarantee it will rain... happens to me everytime!"

"Thanks, Larry. Thank you very much."

Related posts:
Breaking Up With Facebook for a Week, Part I
Breaking Up With Facebook for a Week, Part 2
Breaking Up With Facebook for a Week, Part 3

<---Sunday Essay #6: My Jackass Moment

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunday Essay #6: My Jackass Moment

Last Sunday I almost burned my face off.

I can still feel the tension of the wire bending against the clomp of my scissors, the SNAP and SIZZLE like a firecracker splitting, me yelping "Oh!" like a grandma with a mouse in her pantyhose, and smoke: waxy, electric, hanging like a cloud in the den. Smoke.

Thinking I had unplugged the broken DVD player, I'd picked and jogged its rear cord through a mystical jumble of wires. The quickest way to clear the mess would be to chop the leash off the machine. After all, it had been squatting unused in a dusty bin for eight years. What could go wrong?

This: the TV gone black, the cable box too, a near fire, and me inches away from winning a Darwin Award, a monument to, "improving the human genome by honoring those who accidentally remove themselves from it."

I've always thought myself a cautious guy. One of the first words I learned was "hot," which I'd say when I was eighteen months old, pointing my little finger at the oven. "Hot," I'd state with the firm eloquence of a junior fire marshall, keeping a good two feet away from the oven and stove. When I got older I didn't climb limp-limbed trees or bike down 90-degree hills. My parents raised me for a life devoid of jackass moments. I didn't do dangerous things, but there were cracks in my armor.

On a dare from a friend with a mustache (we were ten), I ran across the green tarp of a swimming pool covered for the winter. The tarp slackened under my weight as I padded across it, a blur in black mesh Bulls shorts and Penny Hardaway sneakers. I was cool, hazardously cool. "Are you stupid?" my seventeen-year old sister asked. She approached the fence with a look somewhere between befuddled and dissapointed. That was the last time I ever raced across a covered pool.

The MTV show Jackass premiered in 2000, inspiring a whole generation of teenagers to stick worms into their nostrils and smear themselves in refried beans. I was not one of these teenagers; I had no desire to watch a grown man taser his testicles. Little did I know, I would create my own Jackass episode in my living room years later. All that was missing was a camera and me cocking my eye brow with a squirmy arrogance to say, "Watch this!"


The Burned Scissors Incident of 09' falls in between chapters of my life: college is done, Korea is over, and grad school doesn't start until August. One of my high school buddies, now a Ph.D student at an Ivy League university, was in a similar what-the-hell-am-I-doing-now stage last year: "I'm listening to Rhianna's 'Umbrella' and inputting stock at Book Traders," he said, "my life is great." Did the most memorable moment of my week really involve scissors and electricity? Is that how I'm taking my lessons until I move on? Well, yeah. I did learn something: if you turn off your brain and sleepwalk towards the Next Big Thing, you just might grow into a Jackass.

By the way, my grandfather is an electrician.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sunday Essay #5: The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!

<---Sunday Essay #4: Cracking Open the Mailbag
--->Sunday Essay #6: My Jackass Moment

Vladimir splashes a shot of vodka into one glass and a shot of vodka into another. Both drinks are for him. His black hair, sweaty and flatly curly, halfway between John C. Reilly and a mullet, crowns a cherry tomato face with still beads for eyes. "I have genius idea," he warbles, "you will write it and I will correct it and we will receive Pulitzer." I expect him to smile but he doesn't. "Do you want to receive Pulitzer, Alex?"

I'm at my Uncle Jacob's 70th birthday bash and I'm surrounded by Russians. This is no Bolshevik Revolution; this is a family celebration, a kind of gathering to which I've grown accustomed over twenty-four years. When I was little, I sneered at the plates of toast slathered in butter and red caviar. Russian food was gross, I thought. Who'd want to touch a beet salad when you could eat bologna on Wonder Bread? But that was the point of view of my six-year-old self, a skinny kid who read Bernstein Bears and snapped legs off Ninja Turtle action figures. Now I'm a graduate student in my mid-twenties. I've lived overseas and fattened my belly with live squid and raw cow liver. No longer do I find Russian food gross. Now, I find Russian food weird-looking.

At least I don't play with Ninja Turtles anymore.

Vladimir's Pulitzer question hangs in the air, unanswered. Meanwhile, I watch the toastmaster as he rises from his chair to entertain fifty guests with fifty opinions. Who is this master of ceremonies? He's the guy with a gray tangle of chest hair bristling apologetically from an underbuttoned silk shirt. His smile a you-think-I'm-funny-like-a-clown warning, his silver-spiked hair a certificate of a thousand past toasts at a thousand past weddings, he's Andre the Giant-tall and he has brass rings on his knuckles. He's no DiMaggio, but I bet he's swung a baseball bat. Paging Marty Scorsese, here's your lead for Goodfellas 2. "My Russian is not so good, so I will give toast in English," he jokes, before launching into a hearty Russian-tongued introduction.

My understanding of the Russian language is either laughably bad or surprisingly good, depending on your expectations. When I assure people that my vocabulary can't outwit a Moscow toddler's, I shock them with a casual, "Knee mah goo jaw vul lutz uh" or "I can't complain." For that reason, my Aunt Inna has enlisted my help to translate tonight's toasts for the American couple sitting across me: Mr. Weiss, a friendly but finicky-eyed gentleman, and his wife Ms. Weiss, a heavyset brown-eyed women with a metaphorical leash tapering her husband's ankles. "You lived in Atlanta?" Mr. Weiss asks me, his left eye blinking quickly, a tic. "Have you ever eaten a hamburger at The Varsity?"

"Shh!" hushes Ms. Weiss. "Listen to the toasts!"

I smile at Mr. Weiss, who rolls his eyes as if his wife were his drill sergeant mama.

As for the toasts, I completely understand maybe one of every seven beats, just enough to use creative liberties: "Family is important," I say, underlining fragments of my uncle's sister's words to Ms. Weiss, "Happiness...Jacob's wife...very good...can't want anything more...very good," I say. Lina and Katya giggle at my stuttering performance. They're recent high school graduates, teenage twins who I remember still as little girls in t-shirts stretched to their toes, spinning around in circles at the Cherry Rd. apartments thirteen years ago. We've spent a good chuck of the night talking about college, and then my childhood best friend, whose parents hit it big with a chain of popular liquor stores and subsequently moved into a house with a widely ballyhooed golden toilet. Vladimir bothers the girls with pointed questions about their majors, questions they answer with respectful smiles and I-dunnos. He then turns to me: "You want to be like Coen Brothers?"

"The Coen Brothers are great," I say.

"Academy authority say they are good," he says with a wave of the hand, "but that movie No Man, No Place For No Man, boring. Slow."

"I liked No Country for Old Men," I say.

He waves his hand again. "Do you want to hear my genius idea, Alex?"

I'm distracted by my cousin's three-year-old son, unfazed by the scratch on his nose, marching with a staff through the den as if he's a baby Moses. I offer him a high-five, which he delivers crisply. I offer him another one, but this time, I pull my hand away at the last second. Spooked, he looks at me. "Okay," he says, turning away and walking off. Sorry, baby Moses!

I don't always have a good time at these Russian-heavy functions, but tonight is an exception. "Law school, Alex, go to law school, Alex," my Uncle Jacob says. He is not my biological uncle, but he fills the role with back-slapping advice-giving warmth. His son Eugene, a product manufacturer lawyer, intervenes with commaless precision: "Don't go to law school don't go to law school don't go to law school." He summarizes his father's words with a classic one-liner from The Graduate: "I want to say one word to you. Just one word....Plastics."

After a few more drinks, Vladimir finally offers me up his genius idea; unfortunately, I don't really understand it. It involves an old woman, cancer, an affair, and some lugubrious twist muddled by whiskey. I lose interest. He wags his finger at me and says, "If you don't like it, you can be small teacher at Florida school!" In no uncertain terms, Vladimir is telling me to forget about the Pulitzer. Oh well.

There's always plastics.

<---Sunday Essay #4: Cracking Open the Mailbag
--->Sunday Essay #6: My Jackass Moment

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sunday Essay #4: Cracking Open the Mailbag

<---Sunday Essay #3: Who Wants to Be a Speed Dating Veteran?
--->Sunday Essay #5: The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!

"You seem to have a tendency of stalking people," he wrote anonymously.

The pronouncement was a fortune cookie from hell, made by an online stranger in the comments section of my essay The Sammy Mystery. I had written about a friend of mine, an Ethiopian Jew who'd mysteriously entered my life years ago only to vanish without a trace. I'm not sure what in the piece implied that I had stalkerish tendencies: was it because I mentioned emailing the Israeli absorption embassy to search for my friend? Could the anonymous commenter be *gasp* Sammy himself?

Though my plot-twist-hungry mind wants that to be the case, the guilty party is more likely someone who googled "Ethiopian Jew," found my essay, and decided that I was a moonbat who stalked people.

Since June 2007, I've posted 114 blog entries. (WHAT YOU WANT, A COOKIE?) Most of the correspondance I've recieved has been flattering, even generous. But what I want to address today are the times I rubbed readers the wrong way.

Let's crack open the mailbag!

On Small Talks and Rent-a-Cops 7/12/2007
Laney Shin wrote..."I got the feeling of a slight superiority complex on your part; no offense but maybe that's what you were going for." (comment via facebook)

This comment came on the heels of a lightly comedic observational piece I'd written about a security guard with a colorful personality. Thinking I had been too tough on the guy, I issued a mea culpa a few weeks later. Was that necessary? If you're curious, you can read the original article and decide for yourself.

What interests me more is Laney Shin's classic use of the "no offense" card. Has anyone in the history of mankind used "no offense" as preamble for something positive: No offense, but your risotto tastes like the flesh of a fallen angel! Does that ever happen? Probably not. Instead we get, "No offense, but I will now try to passive-aggressively offend you!"

When A Neighbor's Dog Craps in Your Yard... 7/26/2007
Jeff wrote..."rather than the passive aggressive approach, how about being more direct and just saying, 'would you like a bag to clean that up?'. they won't do it again, and they'll respect you for it, instead of hating you forever for being angry at them."

Jeff does not approve of the way I stared down a neighbor whose dog polluted my parents' lawn. What starts off as a condescending reproach ("rather than the passive aggressive approach, how about being more direct") ends with a verbal sledgehammer ("hating you forever"). So, I write a tongue-in-cheek essay about guilt trips and the only feedback I receive burns with words like "hating" and "forever"? Really? I guess that's what happens when you pimp your blog on the gently Democratic Republic of Craigslist.

Teaching English in Bundang, South Korea - Your FAQ Answered! 1/29/2009
Anonymous wrote..."Ha. You were my neighbor [in Korea]...weren't too friendly either. I hope you improve on that."

Who is this person? My spidey sense tingles Canadian, Canadian, Canadian. I'm picturing a maple leaf backpack and an aura of don't-you-dare-mistake-me-for-a-U.S.-American defensiveness. I might have launched a continent-shaking fart when I shared an elevator with this individual, but I don't think I did that. Maybe I should have.

On Sunday Essay #1: Party Like a Writer! Party Like a Writer? 4/12/2009
Anonymous wrote..."I remember that party. You were the quiet guy in the Cosby sweater with snowflakes on it. I'm not sure what that means."

That sweater was a GIFT!

If you're using Cosby as a pejorative, know that I bow at the altar of Jell-O Bill. Plus, those aren't snowflakes; they're carefully-woven Eddie Bauer stiches. Though my Facebook rankings tell me otherwise, my fashion sense needs no improvement, thank you.

While my dream is to make a living writing about my life and the lives of others, do I turn strangely defensive when someone writes about me? Well, it does feel a bit weird and a bit icky to be at the mercy of another person's pen. That might make me a hypocrite, but I think that's just part and parcel of the writing game. We're all characters in somebody else's story.

Until next time, this is the mailbag. Remember to drive safely and drink your milk, or I will hate you forever.

<---Sunday Essay #3: Who Wants to Be a Speed Dating Veteran?

--->Sunday Essay #5: The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday Essay #3: Who Wants to Be a Speed Dating Veteran?

<---Sunday Essay #2: How I Got Fired From Kumon Math and Reading Center
--->Sunday Essay #4: Cracking Open the Mailbag

This is a stakeout.

It's the dead zone of a Saturday afternoon- the sky a gray curtain and choppy winds rippling its threads. In the parking lot of a Dan McGuiness Irish Pub, a 97' Toyota Camry crouches uninspired. Through its pollen-splotched windshield I spy a cute girl on her way to the bar or no, not really, oops, she's probably 57 years old.

It's 5:10pm. I tap my index finger against the steering wheel. Fifteen minutes ago I walked into the cavernous hole that is Dan McGuiness, with tvs bleating professional golf and video slot machines frowning neon. At beer-slickened tables, former frat brothers with distended bellies under Polo shirts commiserated with thirtysomething yellow-haired woman in UMemphis hoodies. Their conversation was couched in the easy Saturday familiarity of friends rather than the awkward energy of strangers. I saw no one wearing a name tag.

Why was I hunting for people wearing name tags?

"Meet Fun Dates is the fun and convenient way to meet single professionals... At these events, you will get the opportunity to meet up to 10 exciting professionals in a single evening."

In other words, Dan McGuiness was hosting a Meet Fun Dates speed dating party, and I had paid a $20 reservation fee to dip my feet into the pool. My friends raised eye brows at my mission, but to them I wore a shield of I'll-show-you defiance: I will go speed dating, I will have fun, and I will tell you all about it!

Or not, which brings us back to the statekout. Having spotted not one person of interest at the bar, I have retreated to my car to wait for a sign, any sign, of action by the entrance. I call my sister and ask her if she has any tips. "Wait, Alex, so you're just sitting in a parking lot?" Um, yeah. "That's kind of creepy." Fair point, Anna. My dad's advice? "Go inside and order a margarita." Margarita? Why a margarita in an Irish bar? Who am I, Cormac Gonzales?

Still, I'll kick myself if I don't check out the scene once more. Cell phone to my ear, I ask my imaginary cell-phone-friend "How's it going, dude?" as I walk through the side door. Look at me. I'm Casual Joe. Am I half-loitering half-scoping-out-a-speed-dating-event? No way. I'm chillin'. To quote Outkast, "I'm cooler than a polar bear's toenails."

And then I spot them: name tags. But they're not stickered on the dresses of ten sexy women; they're pasted on the shirts of two sleepy-eyed dudes drinking beers in a we-waitin'-for-somethin'-that-ain't-comin' manner. I see a
portly woman in floral print, the Meet Fun Dates organizer, hovering about these guys as if to say hey, sorry about the turn-out, but have you ever considered dating each other?

I see not one single woman. Not one. It's 5:30pm.

I'm out of here.

Confession: this is not the first time I've tried speed dating. Three years ago I participated in a Jewish speed dating powwow in Atlanta, where I talked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with a bosomy redhead whose bosoms I tried, hopelessly, to ignore. Awesome. Maybe it was foolish of me to attempt a comeback, or maybe Meet Fun Dates just plan sucks. Either way I'm not crying. If you take chances in life, even small ones, you're bound to feel like a superstar or a schmuck. I came, I saw, I didn't conquer, but I don't regret
going to Dan McGuiness Pub on that blustery Saturday afternoon. I don't regret it at all.

Vive Margarita.

<---Sunday Essay #2: How I Got Fired From Kumon Math and Reading Center
--->Sunday Essay #4: Cracking Open the Mailbag


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sunday Essay #2: How I Got Fired From Kumon Math and Reading Center

<---Sunday Essay #1: Party Like a Writer! Party Like a Writer?
--->Sunday Essay #3: Who Wants to Be a Speed Dating Veteran?

"Did you get any sleep last night?" my boss asked with a prickle in her voice.

"I'm sorry," I muttered, fumbling with my timecard. It was 9:43 on a Saturday morning. At 9:30AM, I had woken up with an oh-shit-oh-shit-oh-shit! realization rousing me from a deep slumber. Thirteen minutes later, unshaven, morning-breathed, and sloppy-sweatshirted, I had stumbled into work. Thirteen minutes late. Could have been worse, right?

"Sorry," I repeated, but she didn't say a thing. She was hyper alert and well-dressed, as usual, in a black blazer and a baby blue button-down shirt, the colors popping brightly against her moisturized brown skin. The epitome of the woman in the workplace, her smile exuded a careful, temporary warmth that said I-am-your-boss-not-your-mama. I was intimidated by her when I was on time, but when I was late...

Did you get any sleep last night? What was she thinking? That I had been on a bender in an illicit massage parlor, downing shots of tequila and pull-snapping strippers' g-strings from sundown to sunrise? The reality was far more damning: I had spent the evening watching Dateline NBC with my mom. I was in bed by midnight.

To quote Sports Guy Bill Simmons, I will now light myself on fire.

After I clocked in, I turned away from my boss and trooped on to my "desk," an Office Depot cardtable bedecked by a plastic chair, a rolodex of answer books, and a cradle of red pens low on ink. I sat surrounded by a batallion of fourth through ninth graders armed with pencils scribbling through thick piles of math and reading worksheets. Most of these students were Indian or black, but one kid looked like a miniature Conan O'Brien, all freckles and a blaze of orange hair. His name was Tariq (?) and judging by the two women who picked him up each day, I suspected that he had two mommies. Otherwise, he was just like the rest of his worksheeting comrades: he'd finish a pile of problems, turn them into me, and wait for his score while I flipped through answer books. He'd correct the ones he got wrong, turn them in again, and wait for his new grade. This process would repeat itself until he answered all the questions correctly.

I was the grader. That was my job. Few students knew my name, and even fewer treated me as anything more than a robot with a red pen. They knew I had the answer books, so the questions they posed were meant to elicit an A, B, C, or D and nothing more. What was their rush? Did they realize: there's always another worksheet. There's always another worksheet. They wrote and bubbled and circled with the on-and-on momentum of Bangladeshi kids stitching decals into soccer balls.

Welcome to Kumon Math and Reading Center, where fun comes to die.

How I got the job was an accident, a happy accident, I thought. It was Christmas Day, and my parents and I were in line at the movie theater when we happened upon a girl I knew from my high school days. Anu Parikh was now an attractive young woman - an academic superstar, an Ivy League senior with one sister at Harvard and the other a soon-to-be valedictorian. Her dad was an accomplished but unpretentious businessman, and her mom, well, her mom was the queen bee at two Kumon Math and Reading Centers. While I flirted cautiously with Anu, the rest of the Parikh family circled the ticket counter. My mom sprang into action, articulating my credentials to my future boss and doing everything short of negotiating a contract.

I was reluctant to push the issue. Getting a job in Memphis would mean staying put at home, at least for the next eight months. (Grad school was on the horizon, but by no means a certainty.) I harbored thoughts of trying life in Atlanta, but I had no clear prospects there. What I did have was teaching experience and a desire to make immediate coin. My mom was Jerry Maguire, and Anu's mom was showing me the money... at eight dollars an hour.

"How do I do this?" asked a ten-year-old Indian boy in college professor spectacles. He pointed to a math problem:

3 (x + 9) / 12 (y -4)= 42

that to my eyes looked more like:


"Well, did you try process of elimination?" I asked, buying time.

"Why's that important in this problem?"

Um. Uh. I studied the numbers, but they blurred into each other like The Matrix. "Look at it a little more closely," I said.

"Oh, I got it."

Whew. Close one.

Every grader at Kumon was responsible for scoring both reading and math, but when I was called upon to answer a question about an advanced equation, I felt like I was wearing a stranger's slippers. My enduring memory of math class in high school was not nailing the Pythagorean Theorem; it was Charity Rogers, who sang Nelly's "Hot in Herr'e" every time somebody would ask Mr. Stalls to turn on the air conditioner. I wasn't bad at math, but I didn't have the swagger to teach it.

When Ms. Parikh stripped me of my math duties, I was relieved...until I realized that I had become half an employee. After all, I wasn't working for the Kumon Reading Center; I was working for the Kumon Math and Reading Center. I was a pilot who could fly but couldn't land. A sprinkling of reading worksheets would engage my red pen, while an avalanche of math would be sent to my colleague, 14-year-old middle schooler Vijay Nunley. Vijay outworked and outhustled me, and he didn't even shave.

"You can go now, Alex," my boss told me on one particularly slow day. "Don't forget to clock out."

IN: 4:30PM
OUT: 4:31pm

Thirteen cents. I made thirteen cents that Wednesday. Not bad...if only I was Alfalfa selling lemonade in 1932.

By the end of February I had worked at the center for two months. I had been late, sent home early, and corrected on my grading. ("I don't see what's wrong," I'd said. Ms. Parikh pointed to the end of the student's sentence. Shit. No period, and I hadn't caught the mistake.)

"Everybody, please listen," my boss announced. "Salim Bandiopatay has just completed Level H, and he is only a fifth grader!"

We were supposed to applaud. Perhaps thimble-sized Salim was dunked into toilet water during school hours, but this was no time to speculate on his nerddom. This was his moment, his hour. I tepidly smacked my hands together, as if I had just joined a cult by accident. Level H? Was that a Scientology workshop?

Ms. Parikh fired me on a Saturday. The whole episode was politely anticlimactic: she blamed the economy, but the economy didn't axe Vijay Nunley. It axed me.

Though I'm gone, I still wish good luck to Salim. Get ready for Level I, man, where shit really goes bananas.

We talkin' bout' FRACTIONS!

<---Sunday Essay #1: Party Like a Writer! Party Like a Writer?

--->Sunday Essay #3: Who Wants to Be a Speed Dating Veteran?


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sunday Essay #1: Party Like a Writer! Party Like a Writer?

<---Please allow me to re-introduce myself...
--->Sunday Essay #2: How I Got Fired From Kumon Math and Reading Center

The man with the long ponytail is wearing white gloves. Thriller-era Michael Jackson white gloves.

Creeping behind a platter of carrots and ranch dressing, I watch this man with incredulity and suspicion. I imagine him an hour ago in his bedroom, surveying his ironed black pants draped on a hanger and his dress shirt strewn on a stool. He's thinking: I'm going to a literary party populated by grad school literati. There will be readings of poetry (delicate, hushed) and readings of prose (dry, ironic). There will be white wine in plastic cups. I'll put on a vest, but will that be enough?

Billie Jean is not my lover.

Gloves. Gloves. Gloves!

It's a Friday night and I'm wandering solo through the cozily-lit basement of the Woodruff-Fontaine House in downtown Memphis. I've come here for the release party of the University of Memphis literary journal, The Pinch. Since I'll be starting an MFA (Masters of Fine Art) program in the fall, I'm looking for a little taste of the MFA lifestyle: will I be an outsider, or will I be one of them?

My carefully crafted stereotype colors them as lovers of Ira Glass, the BBC, Vietnamese restaurants, and Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem. I thought Alexander's poem was plodding and pretentious and emblematic of why most folks stop reading poetry after eleventh grade. Rather than listen to Ira Glass, I download Adam Carolla podcasts. And the kicker: I didn't even vote for Barack Obama.

How will I fit in with them?

Fifteen minutes before the first reading, I lock eyes with an older gentleman whose owl-frame glasses belie a prominent forehead. "Dr. Shaheen," he says. "Alex," I say. He leans into me, as if to sharpen the shaky antenna in his right ear. "Nice to meet you, Alec."

I don't want to correct him, because he mangles my name with the careful precision of a Romanian gymnast sticking a landing.

"Do you use the Google?" Dr. Shaheen asks, his weathered voice bopping gleefully against the vowels. If I do a search on him, I'll find that he is the world's foremost scholar in Shakespearean biblical references. Shaheen's a brilliant guy, and here he is, rapping about the publishing history of his books with me, a young Joe Schmoe who finished undergrad two years ago. Am I now an official citizen of Academia? "Take care, Alec."

Not quite.

"So Dr. Shaheen got you all to himself?" asks a lanky redheaded woman in a black dress. With intense silver-gray eyes, she looks at me over her shoulder.

"Shaheen's an interesting guy," I say.

"HA HA HA HA," she booms, "HA HA HA HA." Her laughter herky-jerks my insides, gnarling them into a tiny ball of help!

I thread myself back through the slowly building crowd, where the dominant color of clothing is black and the dominant disposition bemused - authors referenced are obscure but smiles are knowing. The man with the white gloves is suddenly gloveless. Did the temptation of chips and salsa convince him to peel off his fingerpants? Perhaps not, for he quickly rolls his gloves back on. He is the Count Chocula of the literary party scene.

Eight minutes before the first reading, I find myself talking to a woman whose librarian glasses dangle on the precipice of her nose, making it appear as if she's looking down at me or at the world. "It's romantic writers mostly," she states cheerlessly, "one's published about sixty books." She's telling me about a writing group she joined, but I'm distracted by the tissues lying like upturned blossoms at the open rim of her bulky purse. She dabs one of these things against her nostrils. "I should leave now," she says, "my bipolar is acting up." Her bipolar is acting up? "I hear you," I say inexplicably.

So far, I've chatted with a Shakespearean expert hard of hearing and a bipolar woman who crashed the party for free wine. I haven't talked to any current MFA students; that is, until I cross paths again with the redhead. Linda. Linda reaches out to me, sharing her experiences at the Memphis writing program and introducing me to a few of her MFA friends. She gives my face a name, saving me from the fate of being the stranger who hovers silently by the salsa. Her roommate, black-haired and earnest, engages me in a ping-pong match of literary reference. I swing and hit Michael Chabon, but she easily volleys that name back. She mentions Lee Gutkind and I blink a response, my eyes scrawled with huh. "You don't know Lee Gutkind?" she asks, her shock at my ignorance tempered but palpable. "He's the editor of Creative Nonfiction."

Oops. Creative Nonfiction is the big-name journal for writers of, well, creative nonfiction, the genre in which I will specialize come the fall. I guess I have a lot to learn before my next ping-pong match.

The readings go about as well as I expect: some touch me with the raw nerve endings of written language suddenly, arrestingly spoken, while others drift over my head like errant balloons. The mood matches that of a sanctuary: I am one of the congregants in the pews, and the authors are the priests, taking turns on the podium. In between the readings, they politely joke, and we politely laugh.

Linda invites me to join a few of the MFA students for drinks after the reading. Talk is spirited and dynamic and not just about literature; I tell them about my time in Korea, and they tell me about a certain Memphis writing professor's antisocial tendencies. I'm reminded of my thesis advisor at Emory, who once told me that few of his friends were fellow writers. Why was that the case? "Come on," he had said with a chuckle, "we're the most neurotic, most self-absorbed people you'll meet. We don't like having writer friends."

Though I'm enjoying this whole MFA meet-and-greet, I still find myself crawling up into my own head. Do I agree with my professor, that writers don't much want writer friends? I can't answer that question. Not yet anyway. I know I should stay open-minded. I know I shouldn't prejudge these people on their voices or their laughter.

But really, what is the deal with that guy in the white gloves?

<---Please allow me to re-introduce myself...
--->Sunday Essay #2: How I Got Fired From Kumon Math and Reading Center


Sunday, April 5, 2009

Please allow me to re-introduce myself...

--->Sunday Essay #1: Party Like a Writer! Party Like a Writer?

I've been a lazy son of a bitch.

Since November I've updated my Teaching English in Bundang FAQ and I haven't updated much else. With this blog I've been jogging. In place. And that kills me.

It's been more than five months since oh my God Alex we get it you spent time in Korea you think that makes you Magellan because you ate some fucking kimchi? Get over it. Move on. Live life. Live now.

You can chalk up the inactivity on this thing to unearned self-importance: I like the beginning-and-end conceit of my Korea writings. I find comfort in the finished nature of them: one year, fifty-five travelogues, and done. Over. Box them up and put a bow on them. I can't count how many projects I've started and never completed, germs of ideas that leapt onto the page only to die later from unruly ambition or plain immaturity. In Korea I had a plan and stuck to it: a new essay every week (almost).

What will I write about now? I'm not quite sure, but I do hope you'll check in on Sundays, when I intend to have something new cooked up each week. At times I might write about Korea, but I won't let those stories reek of stale bulgogi. I'm no longer an on-the-ground foreigner, so I won't have the same point of view.

In the fall, I start an MFA program in creative nonfiction. I'm excited, and I'm a little bit scared. I'll be investing two or three years... in ink.

It's time to get warmed up.

--->Sunday Essay #1: Party Like a Writer! Party Like a Writer?


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Vote for Me.......OR ELSE!

2-21-09- Voting is now over. With your support, Writing The Ship made the top ten blogs! The winner of the competition will be announced on April 3rd.

Thank you for your support!

Dear friends/readers/readers-who-I-

I am not writing you today to sell you a Sham-Wow; I'm writing because, hopefully, you've found something you've enjoyed in the past year on Writing The Ship: Travelogue Diaries of An English Teacher in Korea. For those of you I haven't spoken/written to recently, I returned to America in October, and since then I've applied to grad school and bought a used car. (If you see a 1997 Toyota Camry on the road, watch out, friend-o.) I'm still writing, though I have not yet decided in which direction my blog will go in the future.

Speaking of this ole' thing, it's currently in a competition (yep, apparently such a thing exists!) on I would like to humbly ask for your vote - the winner of the competition gets a crack at having his or her blog made into a movie! It might be a longshot (hell, it IS a longshot), but I'd greatly appreciate your support to barack the vote in my favor. (Sorry. That was shameless.) (Also: I asked something similar back in July 2008, but now it's the semifinals!)

After registering first at, the voting site is I'm sorry for the little registration huballoo. I hope it won't put you off too much; if it does, let me know in as vulgar of language as you'd like.

Much thanks and best wishes, and if you tell your friends, I'll get you a part in the movie! *

*offer not legally binding

Click to give BLOG4REEL vote!