By the time my enlistment in the army was finished, I was comfortable in Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam. NSA hired me at a grade six steps higher than the normal starting level and immediately sent me to Vietnam. I spent more time there for the next thirteen years than I did in the U.S. and escaped under fire when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975.
During those years, I had no time for further schooling. But I made up for it during the next eight years. I enrolled at the George Washington University for graduate work in government and ended up taking a doctorate in Public Administration in 1983. I didn’t return to school for a degree; I went back to learn. I was admitted provisionally because my undergraduate grades were less than stellar, but I earned straight A’s all the way through and graduated with distinction. Turned out I wasn’t so dumb after all.
The study of government was new to me, and once again I was fascinated. This was a new kind of schooling for me, much of it grounded in both science and philosophy which forced me to think at levels I had never before attempted. I loved it.
I was to have one more bout with schooling before I called it quits. That was to study Spanish, the most commonly spoken foreign language in the U.S. which I, a linguist by trade competent in six foreign languages, had failed to learn. After I retired from the government, I went for classes to the Howard County Community College in Columbia, Maryland. Once again, I relished the time in class. But this time it was a new experience. I was the oldest class member. My fellow students were young enough to be my grandchildren.
Hence my schooling. And my thorough enjoyment of learning in the classroom. I can bear witness that school is neither necessarily boring or unpleasant. It can be a distinct pleasure.
Put differently: I’m here to bear witness to the joy of learning in the classroom.
After I graduated from college, I enlisted in the army to go to the Army Language School (later called the Defense Language Institute or DLI) to learn Chinese, a language that had always fascinated me. The army, in its wisdom, decided that I should study Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of. This was, after all, 1958, and we called that part of the world French Indochina. So I spent the next year in intensive study (six hours a day in class plus two hours of private study each night, five days a week, for fifty-two weeks) of this mysterious language.
Despite my disappointment at not being able to study Chinese, I was surprised to find that Asian languages were fascinating. Because of my musical training, I had no trouble understanding and using Vietnamese tonal inflections. The whole way of thinking in Vietnamese was entirely different from the western languages I knew (Italian and French, which I had taught myself as a child; Latin throughout the four years of high school; and German which I had taken in college). I looked forward to my daily classes and took great pleasure in learning.
When I graduated from the language school, the army assigned me to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland. Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. wasn’t far away, so I enrolled in Chinese classes. I found spoken Chinese a good deal easier than Vietnamese, but the written language using characters was a new challenge. The Chinese spend their whole lives perfecting inscription of characters which is actually an art form. I spent countless hours practicing the writing of characters but never achieved anything past the apprentice level.
Once again, I enjoyed my Chinese classes to the hilt. And I came to understand that part of the reason I liked school so much was that learning invariably opened up new worlds to me.
More next time.
From all I can observe, it appears to me that we Americans on the whole dislike school. The conventional wisdom is that school is a bore, restricts freedom, and discourages innovation. My recent review of comics in the Washington Post, done to prepare for my blog post on the subject, brought home to me the popular perception that school is a drag.
Once again, I’m a nonconformist. Throughout my life, I have enjoyed school. In my early years, I didn’t do well in school due to my unfortunate home life (father in prison, mother drunk) which, among other things, sometimes led to few clothes to wear and not enough to eat. In those days, school was escape. I cherished my hours away from home at a place where people acted sane.
Because of my mediocre scholastic performance, my high school counselors advised me not to go to college—in their judgment, I wasn’t bright enough to make it. But I was determined to attend the University of California in Berkeley, a mere bus ride from my home in Oakland. As per expectations, I didn’t do well. I had accepted the opinion of my high school advisors that I wasn’t intelligent enough for college. Besides, while attending the university, I had to work twenty hours a week to feed and clothe myself. As a result, my college grades were second-rate, just good enough for me to graduate. I missed my graduation ceremony because I was in the university hospital with exhaustion.
Despite my less-than-desirable grades, I loved attending classes. My studies opened new worlds for me, taught me about things I didn’t even know existed, and deepened my understanding. In my attempt to escape my vocation (writing), I majored in music, one of the great loves of my life, and was in awe of everything I learned.
More next time.
I’m an avid reader of both the daily comics and the Sunday comics in the Washington Post. I have my playful favorites, like “Peanuts,” and serious ones I always skip—“Mark Trail,” “Spiderman,” and “Judge Parker.” Over the years, two characteristics of the comics have stood out for me, the plebian use of the English language and a naïve view of the world.
The language used by comics characters is blunt, direct, and frugal. I often recommend it as a model for fiction writers who want to keep their text simple and straightforward. It is also very up-to-date. I regularly come across slang usages in the comics that are new to me. Only later do I hear them in common speech and occasionally read them in the press.
The perception of the world we live in reflected in the comics is essentially the same as I see in most of the people I know. I find it innocent and even childlike. Such a way of seeing life is only possible to those who have never witnessed violent death as occurs, for example, in combat. Those like me who have survived multiple conflicts on the battlefield have lost their innocence and accept a much darker perception of reality. And our memories of those horrific moments never fade.
So I turn every day to the comics for a few minutes of light-hearted innocence. They never fail me.
Some Americans are refusing to be vaccinated against covid-19. Among them are Republicans who believe that to be true to Donald Trump, they must claim, as he did, that the pandemic isn’t real and therefore oppose vaccination. Others are those who maintain that vaccine mandates violate their constitutional freedom of choice. Both arguments against vaccination are so obviously wrong and indefensible that I won’t waste time arguing against them.
Refusing vaccination is blatantly immoral. Vaccination not only protects the vaccinated against covid-19, it also protects those who come into contact with the vaccinated. Lest I harm others, therefore, I must be vaccinated.
Except for those who refuse vaccination for health reasons, I denounce the vaccination refusers. The U.S. has now suffered nearly 730,000 deaths from the pandemic. Any actions likely to increase that number deserve censure.
After my post on the gun case coming before the Supreme Court, a reader asked my opinion of the court. Answer: I no longer approve of it.
Donald Trump unbalanced the court by rushing the appointment to the Court of three new justices often referred to as conservative extremists with dubious credentials. The rulings they have handed down violate democratic principles and cry out for condemnation.
The result has been unparalleled damage to the Court. The Supreme Court depends on the goodwill and support of the American people for its authority. It has no power to enforce its decisions. It cannot call out the troops or compel Congress or the president to obey. The Court relies on the executive and legislative branches to carry out its rulings. If the American people turn against the Court—and there’s now evidence that many condemn the Court—it will suffer a severe loss of power.
As a result of the court’s dereliction, President Biden has created the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States. Its purpose, according to the White House, “is to provide an analysis of the principal arguments in the contemporary public debate for and against Supreme Court reform, including an appraisal of the merits and legality of particular reform proposals. The topics it will examine include the genesis of the reform debate; the Court’s role in the Constitutional system; the length of service and turnover of justices on the Court; the membership and size of the Court; and the Court’s case selection, rules, and practices.”
I don’t know enough about the Court and its jurisdiction to determine the best route forward. But I trust the president and Congress to deal appropriately with the Court’s failures. When they do, one more damage inflicted on our country by Donald Trump will be corrected.
My first book of fiction, Friendly Casualties, a novel-in-stories, will soon be available in hardcopy.
Back when the Vietnam war was still a subject of disdain and dislike to the American public, I was unable to find a publisher for my books, so I put one of them on Amazon.com as an ebook. That was Friendly Casualties. I never advertised or promoted the book, so its sales were minimal to naught. That was in 2012.
Friendly Casualties uses a form I have never found in another writer’s book. The first half is a series of short stories; the second half is a novella in which the dilemmas of the characters in the first half are resolved. My expectation is that Friendly Casualties may well outsell my other books simply because of its unique structure.
Since sales of my work have been respectable, I offered Friendly Casualties to my current publisher, Adelaide Books of New York. They accepted the book, and it will be published in hardcopy in June 2022.
I invite my readers to let me know of their reaction to Friendly Casualties when it’s in print. Its introduction describes it well:
“This novel-in-stories results from the many years I spent in Vietnam during the war. Nearly all the characters are based on people I knew, many of them killed by the Vietnamese Communists. Most of the incidents described are drawn from real events or an amalgam of happenings. Even now, more than forty-seven years after the war’s end, I still hurt. And I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Just as we humans tend to take our hands for granted, ignoring how competent they make us, as noted in a recent post, we also tend to give no credit to our five senses—sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste—and how able they make us. Yet they are the way that we observe and communicate with the world we live in.
I can’t speak for others, but I can report on myself that, of all the senses, I am most consciously aware of sight. I pay close attention to what I see. Hearing gets almost as much consideration, especially since I am a trained musician. Taste gets the least notice. That’s partly because I limit what I eat to keep my weight down, partly because taste has the least effect of all the senses on my vocation, writing.
Because I write fiction, the senses get more play in my prose that they would in, say, a journalist’s. Sight and hearing appear the most, but some of the most effective use of the senses in my stories comes from the sense of smell. Odors, aromas, and stenches all have strong emotional connections.
Touch and taste appear infrequently in my writing. Touch is, of course, important in love scenes, but I write few of those. I write even less often about eating, so taste is all but ignored.
In writing stories, what’s important is what happens, not how the characters use their senses to observe and act. But that just makes fiction like real life: our attention is on what happens, not how we become aware of it.
The Supreme Court has just begun its 2021 session. Among the cases it will be hearing is one brought by gun owners against a New York law that requires a person who wants to carry a gun outside the home to get a special license, issued at the discretion of local authorities, after showing that there is “proper cause,” or need for carrying the gun. Meanwhile, gun deaths in the U.S. continue to soar. Some statistics: There were 39,707 deaths from firearms in the U.S. in 2019. So far this year, 2021, the total of gun violence deaths is already 33,918, according to the Gun Violence Archive. We’re killing a hundred people a day by gunfire. We’ve had 535 mass shootings and 22 mass murders. The number of children eleven and under killed by gunfire thus far in 2021 is 236.
Over the years, I’ve posted here several times protesting laws that allow civilians (i.e., non-military and not police) to own firearms. In the U.S., we have more guns than people—120.5 guns for every 100 people. Not counting the military and police, we have more guns per person than any other nation in the world. Little wonder our death rate from firearms is among the highest in the world.
The only way to reduce the number of gun deaths is by reducing the number of firearms in the hands of the people. That would mean new laws restricting gun ownership. Many Americans would object. They would point out that we are a gun culture, going back to the days of the American revolution against the U.K. We are a nation of hunters, they argue.
My answer: far better to change the culture than to allow the slaughter of 40,000 people a year. If the Supreme Court has a conscience—recent evidence suggests that it does not—it will work to do away with laws that encourage gun ownership.
Supreme Court: we’re watching to see what you will do to restore your sullied reputation.
I continue to be shocked and astonished by Republican tactics designed to bring about the collapse of our government and a monetary crisis which will do irreparable harm to our country. Donald Trump and his Republican supporters refuse to lift a finger to help out the Democrats struggling to avoid a shutdown and financial collapse.
I am forced to ask all over again: who could possibly support Trump and his base in their attempts to undo American democracy and move toward fascism? Who are the Republicans and what do they stand for?
I have no choice but to conclude that, in 2021, the Republicans are those who want to establish an oligarchy in which the well-to-do control the middle and lower classes who are then forced to work for the good of the wealthy. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “Between January 1 and July 14, 2021, at least 18 states enacted 30 laws that restrict access to the vote. These laws make mail voting and early voting more difficult, impose harsher voter ID requirements, and make faulty voter purges more likely, among other things. More than 400 bills with provisions that restrict voting access have been introduced in 49 states in the 2021 legislative sessions.”
These actions are invariably started and led by Republicans. Only by restricting the vote can the Republicans maintain their hold on power. Democrats outnumber Republicans by a healthy margin. Unencumbered voting would lead to an immediate Democratic takeover of government power.
So I must appeal again to Americans everywhere to vote. Despite all the roadblocks Republicans have succeeded in throwing in the way, we must vote and vote decisively to stop Trump’s march toward fascist tyranny.