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?