The comb-over

I saw a guy who had a comb-over yesterday. Like that guy, I no longer have much hair growing on the top of my head so I kind of understand. 

I think if you’re going to have a comb-over you’ve got to let the side you’re going to comb over grow down to your shoulder, then you can flip it over the top of your head and comb it in place. To keep it in place, the guy probably has to use something like Brylcreem or one of these new gels that weren’t around when I was younger. 

The guy also had his hair dyed to cover up the gray. I know because I could see the roots. That and the comb-over made him stand out. 

At least to me it did. 

I’m not without vanities. I’d like to get rid of my pot belly but so far nothing has worked. I’m not going to starve myself for the sake of being slim, though. And I’m not going to run — “jog,” I hear people call it, but it’s still running to me — or do a million push-ups and crunches either.

I keep my hair short because it’s comfortable short and don’t worry about fooling with a comb-over or fussing with hair dye. Like I say, though. I’m not without vanities.

The Booster Shot

It was easy enough to get the Pfizer booster shot. I made an appointment through the internet at the Walgreen’s at Park and Highland in Memphis (a two mile walk from where I live) for Wednesday, September 29, at 12:30pm.

I showed up at noon and got in line to go through all the paper and screen work to prove that I am who I am, let them check my medicare card and vaccination card, and then double-check everything to make sure that I was going to get the right shot, all of which took no more than twenty minutes.

I got the shot, browsed through the merchandise at Walgreen’s, and then walked home.

It’s now two days later and I feel fine this morning. I was a little achy and stuffy yesterday but it was no big deal. Of course, I’m glad I got the booster and can’t see why anybody would refuse to get vaccinated against Covid-19. I will continue to wear my mask when I go grocery shopping, distance myself from other shoppers, and wash my hands frequently because I don’t see any reason not to.

I have known eight people so far who died of Covid-19 and a couple of dozen who have suffered through being sick with Covid-19 so I’m still scared of Covid-19. If the CDC advises us to get another booster sometime in the future, I will do that.Thanks to the people at Walgreen’s (all of them Black) for the efficient, quick, and courteous service in providing me my booster shot.

September in Memphis

Most of September in Memphis doesn’t belong to either summer or autumn. It still gets hot in the afternoons but it’s not the sweltering heat of July and August with the sun beating down on you. It’s getting cooler during the nights too — down into the low 70s and into the 60s — and the early mornings are mild enough so that you can take long walks without getting hot and sweaty.

Most days in September you don’t need the airconditioner except maybe during the hottest part of the day. Front lawns are still green and the trees haven’t yet started turning into their autumn colors, not in Memphis anyway. There’s still a lot of summer here but these are the last days of it. Even the crickets are not as loud or as many as they were a couple of weeks ago. This is a pleasant interlude between seasons.

By the end of September it will be fall, a beautiful and long season in Memphis that will take us deep into December.

The equipment we left behind in Afghanistan isn’t a big deal

The talking points about all of the intact equipment — helicopters, armored vehicles, rocket launchers, ammunition, among other equipment —  the U.S. Armed Forces left behind in Afghanistan have turned out to be ridiculous and those who stick to them them look foolish. As it turns out, the equipment will not be of much use to the Taliban, it wasn’t much use to the U.S. Armed Forces since the U.S. didn’t win the war with what many proclaimed (chief among them Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld) was the best equipped, best trained, and highly motivated military force the world has ever seen. It won’t be long before all that equipment will be rendered by time and the elements useless and rusting hulks.

After twenty years of war, after approximately 2,500 U.S. deaths, after the U.S. squandered the official tally of $2.26Trillion (which was probably at least triple that), it took the Taliban ten days to take over the country. The real winners in the U.S. were the parasitic war contractors such as Blackstone, Raytheon, and Dick Cheney’s Haliburton. After twenty years of war all the U.S. accomplished was death and destruction, heartache and hatred.

Afghanistan is rich in valuable rare earth minerals that are largely untapped, chief among them lithium. Lithium is vital to industries that will drive emerging technologies that will define the future, yet during twenty years of war we did nothing to secure any of these minerals for our nation’s industries, but how could we? We were too busy killing and maiming.

The Taliban is in need of a good line of credit, technical expertise, and a willing and able partner who will help them build their country but they won’t get that from the U.S. nor do they want anything from the U.S. The Chinese stand ready to provide them with what they need and want, though. The Chinese will enter Afghanistan not with a military force but with engineers and the much needed capital and expertise to fund and sustain construction and mining projects, and their investments will pay off for them, handsomely and soon too. China will get the valuable lithium and other rare earth metals and in return the Taliban will receive the funds and technical assistance from China to build a viable and prosperous nation out of Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, we have our own house to fix (so to speak). We have to rebuild our long neglected infrastructure and at the same time we need to overcome Covid-19 for all of our citizens. We have to fix our education system so that every child in the U.S. — regardless of who their parents are or where they came from — will get the best education possible. We need to commit ourselves to understanding climate change and then do all we can to mitigate its effects.

We can give up the idea of getting any rare earth metals from Afghanistan, though, because for the last twenty years, we’ve squandered that. You could say we’ve given that opportunity to China because we have.

By every conceivable measure, the war in Afghanistan was a colossal failure for the United States of America.

Becoming a professional student

Getting a degree was the last thing on my mind when I was in college. Doing all the work it would’ve taken to maintain a high grade point average didn’t interest me either. I wanted to read and write and learn all I could but I wasn’t going to kill myself doing it, and didn’t.

I liked the classes I took. I didn’t take them for the grades and wasn’t planning on using them as stepping stones to graduation or to a career. I took them for the fun of it. My grades were okay and sometimes even sterling, but grades weren’t important to me as long as I passed.

After my first couple of years in college I figured out I could mostly take the classes taught by those professors I respected and liked, but that didn’t make the school work easier. If anything, these professors were more demanding of me, but the work was exhilarating and I enjoyed it. Also, I was discovering that college was opening the world for me.

I was what people thought of as a professional student. I did what I had to do to stay in school with no goal other than to learn about things I didn’t know anything about before. 

To maintain myself I worked at a lumber yard during the summer unloading railroad boxcars of spruce, pine, cedar, and fir boards. During the school year on the weekends I worked at a restaurant bussing tables.

It was fine with me if I remained in college for as long as I could because engaging in class work with other students and the professors was a wonderful way to live and my ambitions didn’t go beyond that.

Except that after five years the university notified me that I had accumulated enough credits to graduate which made me feel like I was getting kicked out of school and I didn’t want that to happen.

So I enrolled in graduate school and happily for me the university awarded me a tuition waiver to attend graduate school and a stipend to teach two classes of freshman composition. 

In those classes I taught the students, and myself, how to write sentences that people could read and understand. Though I wasn’t being paid much, I was thrilled just being paid to teach.

I wasn’t entirely free from the need to work but thanks to the stipend I could quit one of the jobs that got me through college. So I quit the weekend job bussing tables and had more time to study. Also, I could give proper attention to the students to whom I was trying to teach the craft of writing.

Graduate school, I quickly learned, was more demanding than college had been, a lot more. There was more reading, more writing, and the teaching took a lot of effort and time. The professors I studied with demanded I strive constantly to write better papers. They were patient with me though and helped me learn what I needed to know so I could become a decent scholar and good writer.

The grad school was respectable as far as graduate schools go. There were many professors there who seriously and capably applied themselves to the practice and teaching of their fields of interest and put all the effort into their scholarship worthy of the professors at the more renown and generously endowed universities.

Grad school was daunting for me and from the start I had difficulty with the work just so I could keep my tuition waiver and maintain my stipend but that didn’t mean I didn’t love it. I loved the reading, I loved it when I sweated through writing a paper and knew I had something my professors would enjoy reading, I loved initiating the students I taught into the craft of writing. I loved it all and still do.

And that’s why I never left college. Except that the university wasn’t going to let me stay a student forever.

But since I had somehow learned just enough after being in college and graduate school all those years, it dawned on me I could work as a teacher at universities, colleges, and community colleges anywhere in the world, and that’s what I did.

A soldier on an airplane

Traveling on a Boeing 747 from Los Angeles to Seoul in 2007 my seat was next to that of a U.S. Army sergeant who couldn’t’ve been older than thirty. He was on his third enlistment in the Army and had already served two tours in combat zones in the wars in the Middle East. 

“I come from a hard place,” he said. “And that’s why I joined the Army.”

He came from Oklahoma. His father worked all his life in an open pit mine unprotected form the sun and the elements. Rather than resign himself to the rigors and low pay of that life this young man joined the Army. He said he was saving as much of his pay as he could so that when he got out of the Army he would be able buy a used Caterpillar and go into business for himself excavating and grading dirt. He said the Army would help him buy the Caterpillar with his GI Bill. 

I didn’t ask him about using the GI Bill to go to college for I could see that college was out of the question for him. I did suggest to him that while he was still in the Army he should take a course on bookkeeping and also a course on business law. I did my best to explain to him that if he was going to contract himself out doing excavation work it would serve him well to understand at least these basics about business. 

During the years that I lived in Korea I encountered and talked with many American soldiers, some of them officers who had gone to college — some had even gone to West Point — but most of them were enlisted men like the guy I sat next to on the airplane. I don’t recall that any of the enlisted men joined out of a sense of patriotic duty to the country but joined because they had come from “hard places” like the young sergeant had.

The men and women who are obliged to go into combat zones for the sake of keeping American business humming are expendable and always have been — especially since Vietnam and even more so in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S Armed Forces spent twenty years fighting those wars in which more than 7,000 soldiers were killed and more than 20,000 suffered horrible wounds they will live with for the rest of their lives, the cost of which was untold trillions of dollars (the “official” figure is something like $2.6 trillion but that’s surely a fiction — triple or quadruple that is more accurate and that’s probably not enough either). 

Instead of sending these young men and women and all that money to the Middle East only to be gobbled up by military adventurism, we could’ve put them to work on infrastructure projects that would serve our country for the next hundred years.

That the Army spent twenty years in Afghanistan, only to have it fall to the Taliban in a matter of days, clearly reveals the ineptitude of America.

 God bless America?

God should do something else to America and it’s not to bless it.

Why Memphis is the way it is

The Black people who live in Memphis today are the descendants of slaves who were brought here by certain identifiable white speculators, some of whose descendants still enjoy the wealth created by the labor created by the Black people their ancestors held in bondage.

Near Second Street and Adams Avenue, before the Cvil War, stood one of the largest slave jails in the world at the time, owned and operated by Nathan Bedford Forrest. The buying and selling of slaves — Black Americans whose ancestors were kidnapped from West Africa and brought to the British Colonies beginning in 1619 — made Forrest one of the richest men in America.

Until recently, a statue of Forrest astride his horse stood in the small park that bore his name next to the medical college. Drunken Civil War re-enactors, all dressed in their rebel get-ups, used to march into the park on Forrest’s birthday and salute the statue. Well, they can’t do that anymore.

No question many of the Black citizens of Memphis today are descended from people who spent their first miserable nights in Memphis at Forrest’s slave jail near Second and Adams. From there they were sold to white entrepreneurs who put them to the brutal work of cutting timber, clearing land, building the railroads coming into town, and planting and harvesting cotton. This is how the first rich white families of the region made their money.

This was the start of Memphis.

Colin Kaepernick and national anthem

Before the start of a ball game anywhere in the United States, the crowd is asked to stand for the national anthem _ “The Star Spangled Banner” _ and the presentation of the national flag. They stand and place their right hands over their hearts. Members of the military, the police force and firefighters stand at attention and salute. There is not a ball game of any type in America _ from elementary school to the pros _ where this doesn’t happen.

No law in the United States demands that the national anthem be played at public gatherings such as football games. It’s only a custom, but one that is not challenged. Maybe because of its prevalence, the national anthem has come to be observed merely as a perfunctory ritual, a routine, and most of the fans can’t wait for it to be over so the game can begin. Immediately after the last strains of the music, one can hear the refrain around the ball park, “Play ball!” The ball game, after all, is what they paid their money to see, not a rendition of the national anthem.

It is not against the law in the U.S. for a person not to stand for the national anthem if they don’t want to, though there are more than a few Americans who would love for Congress to pass a law that would mete out severe punishment to anyone who would refuse to stand for the anthem. So when Colin Kaepernick of the SanFrancisco 49ers decided to sit on the bench when the anthem was played before a game against the Green Bay Packers on August 26, it drew the ire of self-described patriots from across the nation who hold the flag and the anthem sacred.

Explaining why he sat on the bench during the national anthem, Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way…” (

Almost half a century ago, American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in the Black Power Salute while standing on the podium during the national anthem _ played in their honor for crossing the finish line first and second in the 200-meter sprint, winning gold and silver medals _ at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, protesting against the, for them, unacceptable practice of segregation that Black people and other minorities routinely endured at that time in America.

Today _ almost fifty years after Smith and Carlos raised their fists during the national anthem _ Colin Kaepernick is choosing to sit on the bench or kneel during the anthem at nationally televised professional football games in which he is a player. What’s more, other players are joining him, and not just professional players, college and high school players too.

American football is the most popular spectator sport in the U.S. attracting huge crowds at stadiums and a national television audience numbering in the hundreds of millions every Sunday during the season. By choosing not to stand for the national anthem, Kaepernick is using the popularity of football and the prominence of his reputation as a football player to draw attention to the killing of Black Americans at the hands of the police across the country. In the media, Kaepernick has been attacked for grandstanding and calling attention to himself, so were Smith and Carlos in their day.

Though Kaepernick has not broken any law by refusing to stand for the national anthem, he has lost endorsements worth millions of dollars. Even without the endorsements, though, he is still richer than all but one percent of the entire human population. So losing endorsements because of his defiance doesn’t threaten his standard of living. Still, he’s received death threats from those who no doubt are perfectly capable of killing him.

The wealth of America dwarfs that of every other nation on Earth and the American military has such overwhelming might that it is invincible like no other country or empire has ever been. America’s real problems, though, are not from beyond its borders but from widespread human rights abuses festering at home. If we Americans cannot make our country fair and just for all, then the American flag and the national anthem stand only for corporate greed, war mongering, and privilege for the few _ symbols of a nation gone terribly wrong, no matter how rich and powerful it is.

In an opinion piece in the August 30, 2016 edition of The Washington Post, basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes that Colin Kaepernick should be admired for risking his career because of the choice he has made.

“What should horrify Americans,” Abdul-Jabbar writes in The Post, “is not Kaepernick’s choice to remain seated during the national anthem, but that nearly 50 years after Ali was banned from boxing for his stance and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s raised fists caused public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequities. Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here.”

The ideal of any nation should be to protect all of its citizens from harm, provide each of them with ample opportunities to develop themselves so they can contribute to society by living the best lives it is possible for them to live, and ensure that all of them _ regardless of ethnic origins or socio-economic circumstances _ are granted their full measure of the rights and privileges of citizenship. A nation, after all, is made up of flesh-and-blood people, not flags and anthems.

Colin Kaepernick is doing more than just protesting against injustice in America. His demonstration shows that he believes and hopes that America might still live up to its best ideals, that we truly can be a great nation if we choose to be. This is real patriotism, and by his choice, it’s clear that Colin Kaepernick is a real patriot.
Published in THE KOREA TIMES on Monday, September 26, 2006.


Becoming a writer of English

“Give up on mathematics and you give up on college,” the Korean man said in crisply enunciated English. “But if you give up on English you give up on life,” and this is true not just in Korea but all over the world. English is the global language of commerce, science and diplomacy, and if you can’t understand, speak, think and write in English, if you’re not reading English media two hours a day or more, you can’t expect to prosper anywhere in the world.

This wasn’t always so, but in the modern world _ where second language speakers of English outnumber native speakers by at least three to one _ it is. The object of gaining fluency in English, even for native speakers, is to work with it as the best educated and wisest speakers and writers of the language _ native or not _ do, not to flash it around as an ornament but to use it every day as a valuable tool.

It’s not enough just to be able to understand and speak the language, though. You must keep striving to become better with it through constantly reading English language magazines, books, and newspapers, through watching and listening to astute commentators whenever and wherever you can, through enjoying dramas and documentaries and through engaging in lively conversations with other people who are just as eager to speak English as you are.

You must also be able to write reports, essays, articles and stories in English, crafting them so they are easy to understand, informative, and even a joy to read. To do this well you must read every word you write at least a dozen times before you let others see it. Mastering the craft of writing in English is vital to becoming fluent which alone makes it worth doing. But there are greater benefits.

When students begin teaching themselves how to write, they often buy overpriced writing manuals when all they need is a pen or a pencil and a pad of paper. With just these they can write and read and reread what they have written, aiming to rewrite it so as to make it read better. Students must take the time to read carefully and deeply what they have written, and then rewrite it until they are happy with it. This is how they become good writers.

Nothing helps your writing as much as reading. Reading is like weightlifting for the mind. The more you read, the stronger and better writer you will become. Read the writers who enchant you with their work and learn from them, then strive to make your writing read like theirs. Don’t be afraid to copy the work of your heroes, for all the great writers started out copying the writers who were their heroes.

It is the rare student who is lucky enough to find a teacher who loves to read and who struggles mightily to become a good writer, inspiring students and bestowing upon them insight about what it takes to write. Most of us must teach ourselves. The best teachers will lead the students to read good books, for they know that becoming a writer is an act of self-discovery that will take countless hours of reading, writing and rewriting.

Through dedication and diligence, earnest students will discover for themselves how they can write. In getting to that point, they will face endless frustrations and unavoidable failures as they grapple in their efforts to put this alien tongue on paper so that it might read like fine literature. Becoming a good writer of English doesn’t come easy for anybody. You have to want it as much as you want to breathe.

The best writers write so they can amaze themselves. But if it happens that a reader should enjoy reading something you have written, and it keeps them reading to the last word, still wanting to read more, maybe it will amaze them. Maybe one of your stories or articles articles might inspire a young reader to write.

Becoming functional with English

Test English and fluency are not the same. Preparing for a test _ whether it is a Suneung, a TOEFL, SAT, or an exam in biology _ most students cram in the weeks leading up to test day, not because they have any interest in the subject or want to learn something, but to goose up their test scores. A couple of weeks after the test, they will have forgotten most of what they had furiously crammed into their heads, and by that time couldn’t answer half the questions on the test.

It’s impossible to gain fluency in a foreign language or learn anything worth doing through the frenzy of trying to memorize a couple of hundred questions, mostly multiple choice, purported to measure one’s knowledge about the subject. The only thing a student might learn from sitting at a desk for a few hours filling out an answer sheet is how to become a test-taker. But as long as most governments, corporations, and universities put a premium on test scores, parents will gladly spend their money and commit their children’s precious time chasing after test scores.

Fluency _ unlike a test score _ is a never-ending pursuit of study and practice with the aim of understanding, listening, speaking, thinking, and writing in English, striving to be as good as the most eloquent speakers of the language are. As with everything, to be good with a foreign language you have to love it so much that you want to get close to it, spend time with it, even revel in its difficulties.

Those who aspire to fluency in English or in any language know they would lose all they have gained if they ever stop working with it. The smart ones keep studying relentlessly, for they realize there is always more for them to learn. Indeed, many Koreans have an obsession with English as if they are its scholars, which in fact they must be if they are to continue honing their talent with the language.

Most Koreans who are fluent with English have never lived outside of Korea, they practice their English here where they never need to use it in their daily lives. If they become as literate with English as well-educated speakers _ and there are many Koreans who are that good _ it’s not because they’ve crammed for high test scores.

In their pursuit of fluency, they make time each day doing things like watching CNN, the BBC and Hollywood movies. They get DVDs of the movies they like and watch them again and again, shadowing the dialogue of the actors until they can enunciate the words and phrases as good as, say, George Clooney and Gwyneth Paltrow.

They read articles and books in English not just for the practice, but to learn about the world through the language. Many Koreans devote time every day to read the daily English language newspapers such as the one you are reading now. These newspapers have the latest information about the most pressing issues of the day in the nation and the world. They meet in small groups a couple of times a week on their own to talk about what they are reading. Of course, for their discussions they speak with each other only using English.

“When I became determined that I was going to be functional with English,” a student I know said, “my test scores dropped but not by much. Though they were still respectable, they weren’t the top scores that I used to make. But at that point I no longer cared about test scores. It became more important for me to be fluent with English than to get a high test score. For me, the real test was when I could talk with an educated and informed speaker of English about subjects and ideas at length.

“My biggest thrill, however, is reading a book like Ruchir Sharma’s ‘Breakout Nations’ (2012) in English and being able to understand the ideas Sharma writes about and brings to light. When I could do that _ when I began to understand the world through what I was reading in English _ I knew I was starting to gain depth with the language, and that beats a test score hands down.”