Happy New Year

In a few hours I will be heading off to Budapest to co-lead the Erev Ros Hásáná service at Szim Salom. We have the unconventional tradition of reading Torah at the evening service, since we don’t hold a morning service for Rosh Hashanah (for Yom Kippur we do, but not this year, since we will be observing the holiday together with several congregations). So tonight I will also be leyning Genesis 21:1-21), a beloved and perplexing passage. (In another post I have explained, in very basic terms, what leyning is.) The High Holiday cantillation trop (melodic system) is especially beautiful, so this is one of the highlights for me.

The year is new for me in more ways than I can enumerate. I have so much happening this fall and so much to attend to in general. But my dear friend Joyce posted a quote the other day that set off some thoughts, so I will respond to it here.

“Forgiveness is not a matter of exonerating people who have hurt you. They may not deserve exoneration. Forgiveness means cleansing your soul of the bitterness of ‘what might have been,’ ‘what should have been,’ and ‘what didn’t have to happen.’ Someone has defined forgiveness as ‘giving up all hope of having had a better past.’ What’s past is past and there is little to be gained by dwelling on it. There are perhaps no sadder people then the men and women who have a grievance against the world because of something that happened years ago and have let that memory sour their view of life ever since.”

—Rabbi Harold S. Kushner

We often have it backwards. When we think we are waiting for forgiveness (or at least reconciliation, or acceptance, or kindness) from someone else, it is often we who are not forgiving them, not letting them take their own direction. In other words, forgiveness is primarily on us, not on the other people, and in some ways it’s also for us, not for them. Rabbi Kushner also points out, wisely, that forgiveness is not the same as exoneration. In some cases, you do not have to arrive at an acceptance of what they did. Still, you can go on with your life without having their actions hover over you forever.

I would add that in life we are given some people who understand us (up to a point), and others who do not, just as we understand some of the people in our lives, and others not. Being misunderstood and mistaken feels rotten, but it is simply going to happen. No one is understood by everyone, and no one understands anyone perfectly. Still, understanding of a certain kind does come.

I think again of Genesis 21:1-21. When Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar away, Abraham does not understand at first; the request upsets him deeply. But God tells Abraham to listen to her, because there is a larger plan. “‘Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to thee.”

This is strange to the modern ear, because the modern mind would be likely to judge Sarah for her jealousy (even though we’d be at least as jealous and upset in her shoes). It might not even be jealousy as much as a sense of disorder. Casting Hagar and her child out seems cruel, especially since it was Sarah who first suggested that Hagar bear Abraham a child. But in the world of this text, the cruel act will allow Isaac to be the head of a great people, and Ishmael too. Staying together in the same home, they would not accomplish this.

As remote as the story and text are from our time, they have truth today too. The losses in our lives seem harsh, but they also make it possible for us to create new things. I think back on times when I have been “cast out” by someone—not kicked out of a house, but told, essentially, “we need to go our own ways.” At the time, I was dismayed. But the wonderful things that followed could not have happened if we had not made such a break. That does not mean everyone has to break with everyone; it is much better, when possible, to uphold relationships over time, letting them deepen, and to tackle problems that arise. But some breaks (not necesarily romantic, but also in friendships, associations, etc.) open up a world.

That is all, because I have a lot to do before heading off to the train station. Happy New Year!

I made a few edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Go see “Heights and Depths” (Magasságok és mélységek) as soon as it comes your way!

If there’s justice in the world, and if such justice comes the way of Magasságok és mélységeg (Heights and Depths, directed by Sándor Csoma), it will be winning multiple awards at festivals this year. I have seen nothing like it. A tense, meditative film that goes to a difficult place and stays there for a long time… and through this, subtly and slowly, points a way toward hope. Without a trace of a cliché or false solution.

I went to see the film because Platon Karataev’s song “Létra” (to be released this week) is in it. This was not one of those situations where a song ends up in a “soundtrack,” coming through for a few moments and then fading away. Its placement is perfect and gives it full honor. Go see the film, and you will know the song when you hear it, even without having heard it before.

The film steps inside the mind of Hilda Sterczer (Emőke Pál), the wife of a famous mountaineer who dies in a descent from a Himalayan peak. As she tries to contend with her loss, the press and town gossips won’t leave her alone. We don’t always know what she’s imagining and what’s “real,” but we also know that the imagination is as real as anything for her and her six-year-old daughter, Gerda (played lovingly and brilliantly by Enikő Nagy). The question is how to live with its torments. There are no quick or pat answers. But slowly, hope and help come into view. I don’t want to say more.

The acting, the cinematography, the directing, the pacing, and the music are all phenomenal.

The film does not rush out of the agony of loss, or melodramatize it, or frame it in some comprehensible way. Loss is madness itself. You don’t even know if it happened, let alone why. You keep thinking you’re wrong and the person will come back. Or you shut off all hope prematurely. Or you do both at once (which makes no sense from the outside, but still plays itself out).

What do you do, then? The film takes you inside the bewilderment while also showing you rooms shimmering with light, a forest soft with color, roads and windows, snow and mountain peaks, the innards of a freezer, a tent in a downpour, beautiful and suffering faces.

What do you do, indeed? The film has no direct answers, but one character shows such patient, humble wisdom that I wished I could talk to her myself. Speak, the film says, at least. But it says a lot more.

An October of Octobers Ahead

October is my favorite month and has been for decades. It has the foliage, the songs, the jumbled sounds. Bells clanging. A coat wrapped around the body. An urge to walk uphill. To dance against the wayward wind, thrilling in strength. Mourning a little.

But this will be an October of Octobers. First, this school year has started off especially well. I am starting my sixth year at Varga, but it feels in a way like a new arrival. The students are thoughtful, funny, very bright. I have a lot planned. Normally, under these circumstances, I would not want to be absent for eight school days in a row. If someone were trying to send me off to some special program, I’d say, no, no, I have too much to do here. But this October is different.

As I mentioned before, eight adults and a baby are traveling together to the U.S. for the ALSCW Conference and two Platon Karataev duo concerts (the Platon Karataev duo is in our traveling group). The basic details and any important updates can be found here. Still, such details do not come close to summing up what this has been and will be. We have been planning this for six months straight, almost every day, but all the planning in the world doesn’t tell you what it will be like.

There will be New Haven in autumn: for me, memories upon memories, and for them (and me too), something rather new. There will be the conference itself, full of interesting things, and within it, my double-session “Setting Poetry to Music” seminar, which is turning out even richer than I expected. (See the lineup at the bottom of this post.) Then the Platon Karatev duo concerts: at Cafe Nine in New Haven (on Sunday, October 23), then at Arlene’s Grocery in NYC (on Monday, October 24).

Still another exceptional event has presented itself. The duo will be recording on October 24 (during the day) at Leesta Vall Sound Recordings in Brooklyn. You can order your own personalized 7″ lathe cut vinyl song. But hurry—it’s almost sold out!

Here’s the seminar lineup. You can read the full conference program here.


Setting Poetry to Music: Session 1 (Friday, October 21, 10:30-12:30 a.m.)

Gergely Balla, Independent Musician/Songwriter, “It Cannot Answer: A Platon Karataev Song Inspired by the Oeuvre of Sándor Csoóri”

Claudia Gary, Independent Writer/Artist, “Song as Conversation”

Emily Grace, Catholic University of America, “A Study of the Interpretive Potential of Two Settings of John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart'”

Todd Hearon, Phillips Exeter Academy, “‘Caliban in After-Life’: Reimagining Shakespeare’s Monster in Words and Music”

Kata Heller, Eötvös Loránd University, “Rap as a New Type of Poetry? A Discussion of the Genre within the Scope of Holi’s ‘Roadmovie’ (‘Sírok és nevetek’)”

Anna Maria Hong, Mount Holyoke College, “H & G: From Novella to Opera”

Csenger Kertai, Independent Writer, “Kaláka’s Musical Interpretation of Attila József’s ‘Tudod, hogy nincs bocsánat’ (‘Mercy Denied Forever’)”

Alyse O’Hara, University of Connecticut,“Performing on the Theme of Consent in Sir Walter Ralegh’s ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’”

Setting Poetry to Music: Session 2 (Saturday, October 22, 1:45-3:45 p.m.)

Lara Allen, Independent Artist, “And All Round Me Spirits: Invoking Harry Partch”

Fruzsina Balogh,Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, and Panna Kocsis,Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design,  “Music and Poetry in the Language of Contemporary Hungarian Visual Art”

Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, Independent Musician/Songwriter, “Accompaniment or Song: Two Musical Approaches to János Pilinszky”

Piotr Gwiazda, University of Pittsburgh, “Listening to Grzegorz Wróblewski on YouTube”

Mary Maxwell, Independent Scholar, “Setting Sulpicia’s Songs”

Jennifer Davis Michael, Sewanee: The University of the South, and Nathan Davis, The New School College of Performing Arts, “Bell of Silence”

Kimberly Soby, University of Connecticut, “Examining Word Painting in the Vocal Works of Earl Kim”

Iris Zheng, Independent Scholar, “Composition as Criticism and Creation” 


Art credit: Leonid Afremov, October Park.

You never know what’s going on in a person…

How well do we know others’ motives, or even our own? Zsolt Bajnai’s play A Hagyaték (“the legacy,” “the inheritance”), which I saw last night in a moving production by the Híd Színház, directed by József Rigó, raises this question (implicitly) within the opening minutes. We find out that the wife, Erzsébet, has invited a woman over for dinner, without informing her husband beforehand. Does she know that something happened between this woman and her husband twenty years ago? And if so, why has she chosen to invite her over? The play starts at a high pitch of intensity and builds from there. I won’t give any spoilers; all I’ll say is that it kept surprising me while also coming together in a unity. A beautiful progression, a passionate performance (by Erzsébet Déri, Sándor Ulviczki, and Anna Kertmari), and an affecting whole. I’m going back tonight (for the last performance, at least for now; it was a three-night run, and I missed the first one).

The Híd Színház (Bridge Theatre), directed by József Rigó, is a terrific amateur theatrical company of senior citizens. When they performed as the witches of Macbeth at the Shakespeare Festival last spring, I was taken by their verve and fearlessness. When I am a bit older, I would love to audition for a role.

The audience was seated in a semicircle around them, close to the action. You could feel so much happening, not only on the stage, but behind the scenes too, whenever a character walked off or the phone rang. Once in a while, an actor forgot a line, but the stage assistant (Éva Márki) instantly gave a prompt, and things moved seamlessly from there. Somehow that added to the full effect; I was reminded that these were real people.

But yes, back to the subject of this post: we do not fully know why people do what they do and what is going on with them.

At least once a week, even to this day, I get asked why I came to Hungary. I tell the simplest version of the story: that I visited Istanbul for two weeks as a guest teacher, then came to Hungary for the first time and bicycled around in Zemplén. And that my great-grandfather was a Hungarian Jew, and that during this visit I went to the village where he and his large family had lived before coming to the U.S.

All of that is true, but it’s only a fraction of why I came. There were other reasons, and reasons I wasn’t even aware of. Something about the Hungarian ways of life (multiple ways) resonated with me, as did the language. Not because of some mystical connection with my roots (which are multiple and multifarious) but perhaps (partly) because of the combination of cultural richness and modesty, the quiet wit that I felt around me. Not only that; from early on, I saw that I had reasons for being here: teaching, translating, absorbing the language, going to performances, going on long bike rides, leading Szim Salom services. Reasons came into being, in other words.

Last night I understood almost every word of the play. There were a few words here and there that I didn’t know, but I understood the dialogue and action from moment to moment. It was thrilling.

I may seem snobbish or antisocial when I turn down or ignore social occasions with Americans here in Hungary. But my reasons and motives have nothing to do with snobbery or antisocialness. I have American friends in the U.S. and stay in touch with them. I am planning a big trip to the U.S. in October. I love my country and know that I will never be a Hungarian in the full sense. But I never would have reached the point of understanding last night’s play if I hadn’t immersed myself in Hungarian day after day. I do not want to live in an English-speaking bubble (as many foreigners here do). The moment you start speaking English, people assume you can’t speak Hungarian, and everything is lost. The Hungarian I know at this point, still far from true fluency, was hard earned, and I am not about to give it up.

The other part is that I don’t usually like socializing for socializing’s sake. Getting together with friends, yes. But when it comes to meeting new people, I prefer to do this through the things that interest me. (And it happens continually.) Sometimes I disappoint people because they would like me to look up such-and-such an American in Budapest, maybe a friend of theirs. But why on earth should I? I have a full life and busy schedule, and if I met someone new, it would be just that, a meeting, probably not to be continued. Felesleges. (Unnecessary.) If I were lonely, isolated, or bored, that would be a different story. But no. If anything, I need a little more downtime, where I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything.

This weekend, the little bit of rest led to a beautiful result, beyond the conquering of exhaustion. There was an annual large trash collection—you could put your unwanted furniture and other large items out on the curbside, and it would be taken away early the next morning. It was actually quite a ritual. Some people were out in their vans or on foot, scouring the neighborhoods for usable items. A family took two chairs that I brought out on Friday afternoon; I was happy to see them go to use. But yes, I got rid of three chairs, one of which was broken, and the other two unsightly and a source of clutter. With that, I saw that I could rearrange the furniture in my bedroom. With just a few minutes of shuffling, it became a sweet, cozy room (it had been a little unwieldy before). I almost took out the cat tree that was in there, the older of two. It is a bit ragged from all the scratching that it has endured. But when I carried it into the hallway, Dominó started crying. I brought it back. Now the cats love the room as much as I do.

And so yes, even in intervals of rest, there’s more going on than we know. In the minds of cats too.

Top photo by István Csabai. For more of his photos of A Hagyaték, go here.

Bottom photo by me.

Downtime

For a long time I had been looking forward to tonight’s Platon Karataev concert (opening for Vad Fruttik) in Budapest Park. I had planned to go just for Platon, then head over to Pontoon to hear Henri Gonzo if there was time. But when I started trying to figure out how to do it, things got more complicated, since I am leading a Szim Salom service tomorrow morning in Budapest. First I thought I’d go to the concerts, come back to Szolnok, then go to Budapest again in the morning. Then it seemed to make more sense to stay overnight at a hotel. I found something affordable and made a reservation. But then I realized that to pull this off, I’d have to rush to the train station after school, take the train to Budapest, check into the hotel, make my way out to Budapest Park (barely in time for the show), attend the Platon concert, zip out in a cab to Pontoon, listen to Henri Gonzo, go back to the hotel, wake up the next morning, go to Bálint Ház to lead the service, and return to Szolnok around 5 p.m. on Saturday. The more tired I got over the course of the week, the less this prospect appealed to me. I then returned to the idea of going to Budapest twice, but that seemed even more hectic; in the meantime, my body had started clamoring for a quiet evening. So I decided to stay home from the concerts, get a good night’s sleep, and go to Budapest tomorrow morning.

There are times when you have to do that. I know, it’s the very point of Shabbat. For me, Shabbat does not preclude Friday night concerts, train rides to Budapest, or anything like that. But tonight an evening of rest at home seemed not only wise but imperative. The week has been thick with teaching and ALSCW conference preparations. Rosh Hashanah is around the corner. The trip to the U.S. is a month away. So much has gone into it, we are all excited about it, and I want to be rested when it happens.

So not only is it good to stay home tonight, but maybe a little more rest overall is in order. Shabbat Shalom.

The “megoldás”

One of the things I most love about Hungarian everyday culture is the concept of the megoldás (solution). When a problem comes up, people don’t fly into hysterics. They don’t typically look for someone to blame. Instead, they (and I) say, “megoldjuk” (“we’ll figure it out, we’ll solve it”). The solutions tend to be reasonable. This isn’t always the case, of course; there are problems in the country that have been waiting for a megoldás for a long time, and not everyone is megoldás-inclined, to put it mildly. But I think of the megoldás as a true cultural characteristic of Hungary. It comes up in my life almost every day.

It has come up at school, at government offices (with regards to paperwork), on public transportation, in conversation with just about everyone, in the plans for the October trip (many times). Some complexity or obstacle arises, but there’s a way through or around it. Hungarians are often perceived (by themselves and others) as pessimistic, not without reason, but they also show a kind of optimism combined with wit when pursuing practical solutions in matters large and small.

I don’t mean that U.S. Americans lack practicality—not at all! But I do see a greater tendency toward making a scene, taking things personally, blaming others, suing others. I participate in this too, often unwittingly (I have never sued anyone); there are times when I get ruffled instead of putting my brain to work. Or times when I panic that something will go wrong, when in fact there’s no reason why it should.

An example: In my first year at Varga, on my birthday, my students suggested we go out to the rose garden across the street. I agreed, and we went. While we were outside, a student discovered an injured pigeon. She knows how to take care of animals, so she decided to take the bird home. She ran off to a nearby store and came back with a cardboard box and some newspaper for filler so that it would be comfortable.

It was the most beautiful birthday gift: to see a student take care of an injured bird. But I panicked (silently) that we would get in trouble later for bringing the bird in the school. (In fact no one complained at all when she brought the bird inside; I think the receptionists offered to keep it with them until the end of the day.) When I later posted pictures from our little excursion, students asked me why I hadn’t included a picture of Hajni and the pigeon. Getting in trouble, getting blamed had been on my mind.

The imaginary voice roared, “You should know better than to bring a bird into the school! It’s unsanitary, and someone will complain, and the school will get cited!” (The voice would not roar about any real danger posed by the pigeon, but rather, once again, about “getting in trouble.”)

Now, let me not be silly about this. It is possible to get in trouble in Hungary too, and if that happens, the consequences are stiff. No one wants a run-in with the police. But in everyday relations, people (often) first seek to resolve the problem rather than point the finger. There are exceptions and complications, but the “megoldás” generally prevails.

The fear of “getting in trouble” can demean and demoralize a person. Instead of devising an umbrella strong enough for hail, or figuring out that it’s not going to hail in the first place, you cower, waiting for the ice stones to tumble down upon you (as you are sure they will do), or scream at whoever you think is bringing them down. I am not sure where the fear comes from (as a cultural phenomenon in the U.S.). It’s peculiarly profound.

It might come from some kind of murky, rumbling pressure to outshine others, to appear successful. When the desired success does not take place or falls short, this same murky force looks for someone to blame. That may be part of it. Another part may be a tendency to think in extremes: if things aren’t going wonderfully, then they’re going terribly. If they are going terribly, then once again, there is someone to blame. Still another part has to do with a cultural tendency toward upheavals. You can never trust that things will just proceed calmly. As soon as you get used to a situation, it will collapse, not because of its own defects, but because someone wanted to destroy it all along.

Hungary has its own murky pressures, but they are of a different kind. People keep many of their opinions (political, etc.) to themselves (and family and close friends), not trusting that they can speak up without consequence. There are plenty of outspoken people, particularly among the young and in particular contexts (workplaces, online debates, political protests), but on the whole, Hungarians stay rather quiet in comparison to U.S. Americans. At first I loved Hungarian quietness and soft-spokenness, and I still do. But it has many layers, not all of which are happy. I miss the American ecstasy of opinion (which has its own pain).

You live in a country for five years, and it slowly, slowly starts to open up to you and in you. That is no surprise. The greater surprise is that your native country does, too.

I made a few small additions to this piece after posting it.

Too Busy for Balaton Biking?

When I do something like go biking in the Lake Balaton area at the beginning of the school year (and a little over a month before a big trip to the U.S.), I can imagine people saying, “Biking at this time of year? You can’t be very busy.” Well, no, I am extremely busy right now, but I make time for this and am glad. Besides, I see no reason to prove that I’m busy. Being busy isn’t always good; some projects, some aspects of life require slowness. So anyway, heck, I went.

In August I had gone on a shorter bike trip around Tihany (a historic village and peninsular district at Balaton). It left me wanting to come back. So when I saw the announcement for an all-day trip, I signed up. I thought things would be somewhat hectic work-wise, but not extremely so. As it turned out, the trip came during several crunches (deadlines, rushes, requests). But oh well! I had paid for the bike tour already! Nothing to be done! (And my advice: When in a crunch, take a bike trip. You come back with energy and perspective and can roll through the things you need to get done. Or at least that was the case this time.)

Getting out to Balaton from Szolnok isn’t all that easy. You have to go to Budapest and then transfer. Doing this early in the morning wouldn’t have gotten me to the starting point on time. So I stayed in Budapest on Friday night. In the evening, I led a service at Szim Salom, then went to my hotel. Around 6 a.m. I headed out to the Déli train station, then caught the train around 7.

It took a little over two hours to reach Balatonfüred. From there I walked to the bike tour’s starting point. It turned out to be a big tour, broken into several groups (by ability level). These bike tours are run in Hungarian and generally draw Hungarians, which is great. No English-speaking nonsense. (I’m kidding—I love the English language—but it is important to me to be speaking Hungarian in my free time.)

When I arrived, Felső Tízezer’s “Semmi pánik 2” was playing over the loudspeaker (maybe from the radio or a Spotify playlist)! I signed in, found my group, met the leader, and waited for things to get organized. After a few announcements and photo shoots, we took off.

We had a great leader and a spirited group. Before my first Balaton bike tour, I didn’t think I liked biking in groups. I love biking alone because of the reflection and quiet that this allows. But one advantage of the group is that you get to experience it together, traverse terrains you never would have known of, and learn from a pro. We went up and down steep dirt-rock paths. We flew through fields. We cycled through many a lovely, old, hilly town. Saw vineyards, cows, horses, rolling hills, the lake in the distance. All day long. There were refreshment stops along the way where we could have a (delicious) snack. At the end, we had dinner and wine-tasting at a restaurant.

The trip had another wonderful aspect, which I was only vaguely aware of in advance: its theme was the 2022 coming-of-age movie Együtt kezdtük (We started out together), which was set and filmed in the Balaton area; one of the main actors, Toma Hrisztof, was in our group. As it started to dawn on me what was going on—the teenager in our group, Gábor, adores the film and had all sorts of questions for Toma throughout the day, and we visited some of the actual shooting sites—I was actually glad that I hadn’t realized in advance, because it was such a nice surprise. Toma is kind and thoughtful—he took interest in the rest of us and asked me lots of questions about how I learned Hungarian, what brought me to Hungary, etc.

And I just looked and saw that the film will be playing at the Tisza Mozi here in Szolnok beginning this Thursday, so I got a ticket! How exciting: to see the film after visiting some of the filming sites and spending the day with one of the actors and with others who showed so much excitement about the film.

The bike trip ended on a happy note. A delicious beef stew, tasty local wine for dinner. Lots of conversation. Then a few of us took off to catch the earlier train (at about 6 p.m.) and talked along the way. I had originally planned to take the later train, which would have gotten me back to Balatonfüred by 9, but this seemed like a good ending point. The panzió where I was staying had a reception office that was open only until 8. The owner had agreed to give me the key later, but it seemed simpler to check in on time. Then I could relax and maybe leave earlier in the morning than I had planned. I had a lot waiting for me when I came back.

That is how it worked out. I checked in at the lovely Aqua Panzió (where I hope to return) around 7. My room had a little balcony with a view of Tihany, so I relaxed out there for a while, then planned my return trip to Szolnok. It turned out that if I left Balatonfüred at 4:50 a.m. and didn’t miss either of the two transfers, I could get back to Szolnok before 9, which would allow me to reassure and feed the cats and then catch up with a translation. In the morning I woke up very early, dozed off again, and woke up at 4:30. I got up, scrambled, got out the door by 4:40, walked briskly to the train station, and caught the train just barely. Everything went well with the train transfers and the plans; I finished the translation and will soon be going to a klezmer concert at the Szolnok Gallery (formerly one of Szolnok’s synagogues). Then I will still have the whole evening to get ready for tomorrow.

This is probably my last Balaton bike trip of 2022, because so much is happening in the next two months, and then the weather will get cold. But boy was it great.

I will sign off with a video of birds on, around, and above Lake Balaton.

Is “Being” Happy (or Sad or Anything Else) a Misconception?

How often has someone or other said, “I want to be happy” or “I want you to be happy”? But what if there were no such thing? What if, instead, what we call “being happy” were really a state of awareness of a happiness that is always there? What if all emotions existed eternally (or at least beyond any measurement that we are capable of), inside and outside of us, and, instead of “having” them or “being” them, we simply heard them with varying clarity at different times in our lives? This is not an original idea; I think of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha listening to the river. I think of Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” But it is an idea that perhaps has been forgotten or brushed aside.

It would help explain why people are capable of feeling multiple and contradictory emotions. It’s possible to feel happiness and sadness, anger and forgiveness, fear and calm—and maybe all of these are always there, just fading in and out of prominence in our minds. Yes, we do something with them. We choose whether to entertain them, whether and how to act on them. But in some sense they exist beyond us; they are not ours, though our responses are.

This is a short post, but the thoughts continue. I have a lot happening at once: the wonderful start of the school year, the upcoming trip in October, and even right now, this weekend, a few events in tight succession. So this is all for now.

The Pixies in Budapest

After buying a good ticket (up on a terrace, with an excellent view) about a year in advance, I almost didn’t go to the concert last night. I was tired and in the mood for rest and reflection. But come on, now: this was the Pixies, playing in Budapest for the very first time in their thirty-six years of existence. I was introduced to their music in late 1991. It changed my idea of what a song could be. There was no one like them, and they influenced huge swaths of what came afterward. Their lyrics: morbid, funny, endearing, bizarre, full of curious stories and verbal twists; their music, driving and dreamy, screaming and whispering, fast and slow, sometimes all of this in a single song. All four band members brought a lot to it: a special drum sound, a screeching, wailing, minimalist guitar, Black Francis’s (the lead singer’s) utter conviction in his own words, and Kim Deal… well, I think most Pixies fans have been at least slightly in love with her down-home brilliance. I never got to see them live before last night, but I listened to their albums over and over and saw the Breeders (the band Kim founded) many times, and even contributed lyrics to their song “Head to Toe.” Back to the Pixies: Black Francis broke up the band in 1993. They reunited in 2003; Deal left the band in 2013.

So yes, this was to be my first Pixies concert, more than thirty years after first hearing them. I got out the door and onto my bike and zipped off to the train station. Getting to Budapest Park from Szolnok is a bit of a challenge when you’re in a hurry. I took the train to the Keleti station, took the M4 metro from there to Kálvin tér, switched from there to the M3, which I took out to Népliget, and walked from there (20-30 minutes) to Budapest Park. Fortunately they started about ten minutes after the announced time. I had missed the opening band, but no matter. The Pixies took the stage and plunged right in with “Gouge Away.” It gave me a strange thrill to be hearing them after so many years, among thousands of cheering, dancing fans. The terrace was less crowded than the ground level, and the people around me were having a great time. Many of them knew the lyrics.

I knew all the songs from their albums through Trompe le Monde (1991) and none of their later songs. The earlier songs included (in no particular order) “Caribou,” “Ed Is Dead,” “Bone Machine,” “Break My Body,” “Gigantic,” “Where Is My Mind,” “Velouria,” “UMass,” “Planet of Sound,” “Subbacultcha,” “Debaser,” “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” “Here Comes Your Man,” and “Hey.” Actually, I’m not entirely sure that they played “Hey”; my memory might have interpolated it. There’s some catching up to be done, though not an awful lot (it has been quipped that the Pixies have become a Pixies cover band—slightly true, but not really justified, as they are still releasing new albums). I love their “new” bassist, Paz Lechantin, who first joined them as a touring bassist and became a permanent member of the band in 2016. She’s a tremendous musician, and it’s clear that she honors the legacy of Kim Deal while bringing herself to the songs.

I remember trying (here and there) to introduce people in Kyrgyzstan to the Pixies back in 1993. One couple, who became friends with me, took a liking to the songs; I remember walking with them late at night in downtown Bishkek, drinking warm champagne, and talking about all sorts of things. They were joyous that such music existed.

That is what the Pixies left with me, both thirty years ago and last night: the music itself, the knowledge that it is possible, and the many different times and places of listening, and friendships formed through that. And along with it, who knows what else. I listen to different music today, I think of music differently today, but something has carried on from that era, and something has been let go.

Note: Officially the band is “Pixies,” not “The Pixies.” But everyone I know says “the Pixies,” including top-level Pixies connoisseurs. In the context of a sentence, “Pixies” without the “the” sounds strange.

Talking About Solitude Today, Tonight

Solitude is difficult to talk about. I wrote a book about it (Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture) but knew all along that only certain levels of it can go into words. But I have been invited to talk about it—or rather, about the book—on LinkedIn Live. The event will begin at 2:30 p.m. New York time, 8:30 p.m. in Hungary. Keil Dumsch and Matt Barnes will be conversing with me, and the audience will probably participate too. The focus will be on the overemphasis in U.S. schools on small-group work, which severely limits what can be taught, learned, pondered, and created. I am not at all opposed to group work. I use it often in my teaching (it can be good for language practice, for instance, and for activities and projects that inherently involve small groups). But it does not suit all lessons or topics, nor should it replace listening, focused discussion, and quiet thought.

I look forward to the discussion and am honored that Keil and Matt like my book so much. I reread parts of it the other day and was surprised by its freshness (for me) even ten years after its publication. I would write it somewhat differently today, but that’s to be expected.

If you are on LinkedIn, come to the discussion! All you have to do is follow the event link.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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