On Audienceship

IMG_6416

Of the ways of taking part in the arts and in intellectual life, audienceship deserves far more recognition than it receives. In the classroom I continually emphasize the importance of the audience member, the one who is there to listen and watch, to love, to hate, to adore, to doubt, to remember. As audience, you are not obligated to like what you see and hear, but by taking it in, by bringing yourself to it, you give life to the performance. Yet few people describe audienceship as “creative” or even as worthy of mention.

A curious New York Times article (“Forget a Fast Car. Creativity is the New Midlife Crisis Cure” by Laura M. Holson) discusses creativity as the “cure” for “midlife crisis.” People at midlife restore meaning to their lives by taking up the paintbrush, joining creative groups, and so forth. The article seems to presume that midlife crisis is universal; that midlife marks the beginning of retirement; that a midlife crisis, when it happens, takes the same form for all; and that creativity can be pursued in the first place. I took up these assumptions in a comment–but then, after reading another comment, thought about how the article didn’t once mention or hint at audienceship. Supposedly “being creative” means taking tap dance classes, singing on stage, making collages, doing, doing, doing–but not sitting in an auditorium and taking in a performance.

But if one defines creativity as the act, process, or potential of bringing something into being that did not exist before, then audienceship has everything to do with it. Moreover, audienceship brings honor, respect, and income to existing artists, many of whom have been working at their art for years.

The commenter (“SB”) argued that the industry of dabbling–the industry that encourages people to be “creative”–resembles (or even forms part of) the industry that pushes older artists out. It is ever on the lookout either for the hot new thing or for those willing to pay for a sense that they, too, can create. I would add that this industry (or its corrupt manifestation) thrives on hypocrisy. It sends out a double message: that everyone can be an artist, and that someone removed from us, some invisible force of the market, will decide who is worthy.

Audienceship casts both of those messages into question. Yes, many actors and musicians attend concerts and plays (when they can), but by attending a performance, you acknowledge that you could not have been in it (or at least are not in it). You get to receive it instead. What a treat! And by being there in the audience, you are calling it worthy (whatever you happen to think of it). You have made time for it in your life and room for it in your mind.

Concert-going and play-going can become pretentious, if you go to earn social status. Some people must have attended Hamilton primarily to say that they had seen it. But the great thing about audienceship is that you don’t have to justify it to anyone. Except at TED and other exclusive events, you don’t have to apply to attend; all you have to do is present your ticket, and you can take your seat. You might go out of curiosity, or because you are fond of the piece or play, or because you want to see a particular performer, or because something about the description drew you in. By the time you walk out, your reasons may already have changed.

I love attending performances alone. When alone, I don’t have to talk about the performance right away (or at all), I don’t have to talk during intermission, and I can enjoy the privacy of the work. Music and theater (and dance and other arts) are at once communal and private; they reach many people at once but bring each of us out of our usual thoughts into something else, something unknown to anyone else.

People are sometimes embarrassed to love a performance–or not to love it as much as others do. What a shame! By loving it, by not loving it, you have given something to it, as long as you were there with it, not removed through your own cynicism or prefabricated praise.

I do not see midlife as a time for seeking something new to do. I have plenty to do as it is–responsibilities and commitments that I care about. But I dream of auditoriums, of those few hours face to face with someone’s invisible work, now wrapping into form. If I were to regret something far later on in life–besides various human mistakes–it would be my failure to be there, in one of those numbered seats, when the curtain rose and fell.

 

I took the photo here in Dallas last week. Also, I made a few revisions to this piece after posting it.

The Positivity Pushers

IMG_6399

In her New York Times article “The Power of Positive People,” Tara Parker-Pope tells us that we should surround ourselves with positive people, for the sake of our happiness and health. Her article brought a slew of objections–including a comment from me and one from my friend Jenny Golub.

I would not want to cut my slightly grumpy friends from my life–or to be cut off when going through a difficult time or speaking critically of something. “Positivity” is a vague term, but for some people it means “never complaining” or even “never criticizing.” The Iliad–and most of humanity–would be off limits for someone who sought only positive voices and views. Krasznahorkai and Bellow, Gogol and O’Connor would be off the charts.

Like me, but in different words, many of the commenters reject the premise that people can be classified as “positive” or “negative” and that the “positive” people are more valuable. In addition, they question the business of boosting one’s personal happiness without pause or perspective. “Moreover,” Jenny writes, “there is hard work to be done and genuine suffering to alleviate. Let’s just do the work—together—and stop worrying about that illusory, elusive, untrustworthy concept called ‘happiness.'”

That last point deserves an entire book. The “pursuit of happiness” has many meanings, but when it becomes a mandate and a fad, when people are told to do X, Y, and Z to become happier, then happiness loses whatever good it might have.

The current positivity movement–at least as described in the article–makes little room for suffering and self-questioning. Parker-Pope approvingly cites the work of the Blue Zone Team, which offers to help people assess and shape their social networks. For instance, the Team offers a tool for rating your current friends:

The Blue Zone team has created a quiz to help people assess the positive impact of their own social network. The quiz asks questions about your friends and the state of their health, how much they drink, eat and exercise, as well as their outlook. The goal of the quiz is not to dump your less healthy friends, but to identify the people in your life who score the highest and to spend more time with them.

Such a quiz promotes at least four ills: rating one’s friends in the first place (not to mention rating them against each other), rating them according to others’ criteria, treating the ratings as truth, and treating friends as subservient to one’s own agenda.

Parker-Pope and others might respond that they are not encouraging people to rate each other numerically–or to dump anyone in particular–but rather to take social inventory and act upon it. Well, if inventory is the point here, isn’t one better off examining how one is treating others? People are not obligated to be friends–some friendships take hold and others do not, for a panoply of reasons–but probably everyone has shied away from someone’s suffering. Probably everyone has, at some point, belittled someone who did not deserve to be belittled, ignored someone’s kind gestures, held grudges without good reason, or just not bothered to find out who someone was.

The point of such “inventory” need not be to heap guilt upon guilt or embark on a big project of forced amends, but to question one’s ways of regarding and treating others and to make a few genuine shifts.

Moreover, there is something to be said for grim jokes and rotund tears. When there is too much pressure to be happy, to speak in ever-cheery terms, you find yourself sneaking to the library to read Chekhov or Chesterton–whose works deserve much more than a peek or two on the sly. Why not begin more richly?

Yes, some people can drag others down with their attitudes and outlooks–but this isn’t a question of “negativity.” Such a drag can come from excessive self-assurance, in which the positivity pushers participate. It can also come from a bad or outworn habit in the friendship itself. The solution (if there is one) is not to surround oneself with “positive” people but to treat others frankly and kindly, acknowledge the unknown in them, and seek a fitting form of association with them. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes not; both ease and difficulty have a place in friendship, even in acquaintanceship, even in strangerhood.

Not for its lessons here, but for its gorgeousness and illumination, I recommend William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, which I can’t wait to read again.

 

I took the photo of Pollux at the Dallas Institute on Monday. Also, I added to this piece (several times) after posting it.

Myth as a Form of Question

IMG_6392

Serving, for the eighth consecutive summer, on the faculty of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers (this summer’s  texts include the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Moby-Dick, Theogony, Popol Vuh, Book of the Hopi, Mwindo, Monkey, and more), I think about our many discussions of myth over the years. Myth is no easy matter. People often define it as “something that isn’t true” or “something that people used to believe but no longer do”–or even “something that people use to explain the world around them”–but myth goes beyond the wearable and worn. It allows for common yet solitary understandings; we come together over myth yet experience it in privacy. To gather the good of myth, one must approach it in a strong and questioning spirit.

“Myth is a term of many turnings,” writes Louise Cowan in her essay “Myth in the Modern World.” The word “myth” is often used in a derogatory, dismissive sense–yet others have found that “myth does indeed represent a mode of truth, that it codifies and preserves moral and spiritual values, that, in fact, a civilization without myth fosters a way of life not fully human.”

She goes on to say that myth does not impose “rigid uniformity” but rather “supports and enhances diversity and endows ordinary acts with purpose and grace.” That is, when people come together over a common belief, form, or expression, they can find their own relation to it, precisely because it calls for contemplation and integrity. I recommend reading the full essay; I have barely touched on it here.

Myth  can go wrong when contorted to serve a specific agenda or when mistaken for literal truth or falsehood. It can be understood only through imagination; even then, it requires skepticism along with trust. Maybe the trust consists, simply, in taking time with the myth and resisting the urge (from within or without) to dismiss it offhand.

In his commentary on Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again,” Roger Cohen shows how Hughes “punctures the myth” of America yet resists tearing it apart. He comments, toward the end, “Hughes, at the last, does not descend into despair. His, as Dan Rather has observed, is ‘a rallying cry for inclusion.’ The poem leads to an oath to an unrealized idea, battered but alive, not to blackness against whiteness, or whiteness against blackness.”

In my own reading, the poem gives the myth its full life. By casting the myth in doubt, by declaring, in parentheses, “(America never was America to me),” by pounding out the despair–

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

–and then, after all that, reaffirming America, Hughes exalts the myth, not as illusion but as dimension, as time layered on time, resolution on heartbreak.

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

The future collapses into the present, through the word “oath,” which implies freedom to act. If he, the speaker of the poem, can declare, “America will be!” then America already exists, through his act of promising. (If he can promise America, then the promise has in some way been fulfilled.) The myth comes to life through the protest and questions, through the patience with possible meanings.

In that sense, myth demands more than full mind; it “asks a little of us here” (Frost), as we wrestle with what is and what is not.

Recharging

image1
When you are “on the road” (for me a figurative expression right now, since on this trip I have not travelled more than a few blocks at a time down any particular road, except on the train, perhaps, or in the cab from the airport), you have to find times and places to recharge–not yourself, though that too, but your devices. Having your phone run out can lead to problems, since now, more than at other times, people may need to reach you and vice versa. So I am in the lobby of the Central Park West Hostel (slightly grungy but quiet, safe, and convenient), charging both the phone and the laptop and thinking about the past few days.

I will tell the sequence backward: yesterday evening, a walk through Fort Tryon Park (above), after going downtown to pick up glasses I had left in Queens the day before. Before that, I had an eye exam for new glasses (which should arrive in the mail in Dallas in 7-10 days); before that, a lovely meeting with a friend. Before that, one of several trips to the storage space in Inwood, and before that, a night of reasonable sleep.

Monday was just as packed (and even muggier): dinner and a long conversation with a friend in Washington Heights/Inwood; before that, a sweet afternoon with friends in Jackson Heights, Queens; before that, a visit to Columbia Secondary School, my former and beloved school; before that, Morning Minyan at B’nai Jeshurun, where I had the joy of reading Torah, davening with BJ, and seeing people. Before that, my first night at the hostel, and before that, arrival in NYC after a long flight (with a frantic stopover, or rather, dash-with-every-bone-and-muscle-in-you-over, in Rome, since I had to sprint from one terminal to another to make my connection on time. (I didn’t really have to, as it turned out; after I arrived and took my seat, the airplane waited about twenty minutes for a few others with tight connections.)

“Humid” is not the word for the past few days. It was like being wrapped from head to toe in a scarf of perpetual steam. At least it was a scarf–porous, that is–and not plate armor. I was grateful for every shower, every air conditioner and fan, every glass of water–and glad that, within the weather, I was able to go to Morning Minyan; go to various parts of the city; see people; talk with them, without rush, over omelettes, cherries, Bangladeshi Chinese food, salmon, wine, etc.;  and get ready for the trip to Dallas. Now that the recharging is complete (or close enough), I will head on my way.

88E128E5-9B2D-4CFA-9B19-44276DA6F400.jpeg

I took the first photo in Fort Tryon Park and the second outside Inwood Hill Park.

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

“But this poor microscopic item now!”

IMG_6368
I recommend to everyone–not just to a recent commenter–Robert Frost’s poem “A Considerable Speck,” which begins:

A speck that would have been beneath my sight
On any but a paper sheet so white
Set off across what I had written there.
And I had idly poised my pen in air
To stop it with a period of ink
When something strange about it made me think,
This was no dust speck by my breathing blown,
But unmistakably a living mite
With inclinations it could call its own.

The poem continues onward–I would quote it but for copyright worries–and then ends (I’m pushing my luck even with this):

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind where I meet with it in any guise.
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

Oh, but read it in full. The middle is fantastic. “But this poor microscopic item now!” He could have said “creature,” but “item” makes you think; who ever says “poor item”? Isn’t “item” beyond the usual line of empathy, and isn’t that part of the point?

Also, in observing the mite’s “mind,” Frost rejects the silly proposition that the “item” might be recoiling at the content of the words on the page. No such thing:

It seemed too tiny to have room for feet
Yet must have had a set of them complete
To express how much it didn’t want to die.

The mite is concerned with life and death–what else?–and runs, and pauses, and falters, and surrenders. Observing it, Frost thinks, too, in pauses and asides, which, though not fueled by terror, perhaps also have something to do with life and death (and wit).

But enough! I must be off.

 

Civility Is Not Passé

IMG_6208

As I leave behind the school year–we had our last day today, with a faculty meeting and luncheon–I feel some melancholy. It has been a lovely week: I helped administer oral examinations, took part in the diploma ceremony, went out for coffee with two colleagues, cleaned the surface of my desk (at school), took a bike ride, ate lots of sour cherries, and began preparing my Dallas lectures on Homer, Dante, and Melville.

But this week alone I ran into several writings and speeches claiming that civility does not bring about change, that heckling is necessary, and that if we are reverting to tribalism, well, we have always been tribal, whether we admitted it or not.

Such pieces imply that anyone calling for civility either lacks understanding or clings to power and privilege. Supposedly “civility” is the code for keeping things just as they are. I reject this proposition. Civility does not have to take the form of stiff politeness or euphemism. You can be strong, stubborn, outspoken, clear, and civil. To be civil is to recognize the limits of your knowledge, to listen to others even if you disagree with them, to build what you have in common, and to seek right action regarding your differences. In addition, it involves learning about the world so that you can speak and hear wisely. Above all, civility makes room for discernment. It allows you just enough time and pause to distinguish one situation from another.

Civility takes years of study and experience; it does not confine itself to social codes but instead allows for idiosyncrasy and exception. It is not fixed or perfect; it requires continual trial and error, introspection, observation.

Sometimes civility must be broken. Sometimes a protest needs full vehemence. But even then, one can keep civility close by. It will come in handy when things get out of hand.

Dismiss civility, and the whole purpose of protest comes apart. Why protest  at all, if not for the sake of a better life?  What life is there, if people cannot see or hear each other or themselves, if they cannot admit to being wrong? No, the modern air is full of shouting, shaming,  name-calling, disparaging, dismissing, and such–and there may be reason for them here and there–but such trends do not have the upper hand, the best plan, or the last say.

I took the photo in Szolnok a few weeks ago.

Wildflowers and Winds

IMG_6347

Above: wildflowers along the Zagyva. Below: the wind in the reeds in Besenyszög, where I rode the bike today. That was probably the last not-so-short bike ride until August.

And lily pads in Besenyszög.

IMG_6355

Yes, and a sunflower field, on the way home. Look at those clouds.

IMG_6364

And to top it all off, a bird I heard early this morning.

“I’ll deal with it upon my return”

IMG_6320

The recent days have been flying. I wandered around the Tiszavirág Fesztivál, went to Budapest for shul, began preparing my Dallas lectures (on Homer, Dante, and Melville), and sat on the panel of faculty administering the graduating seniors’ oral exams.

With my trip to the U.S. only four days away, I couldn’t help thinking of the Roches and their song “The Troubles” (“We’re going away to Ireland soon….”).

I first heard them live in the spring of 1982, at Toad’s Place in New Haven, at the insistence of a friend. He especially loved Maggie Roche, the one with the contralto voice. Maggie died in February 2017. Here’s a beautiful photo memorial of her with her song “Quitting Time” (a Roche favorite of mine):

It is strange to be on the brink of visiting my own country, which has been turning into something unrecognizable, though I suspect I’ll recognize it anyway. (Which is the return–the trip there or back? And what is going on over there?) Yet just as here, I see more than one tendency at once. Trump’s decision to separate detained immigrant parents from their children–and to place the children in detention centers around the U.S.–drew such strong rebuke that he had to backtrack. Not only that, but individuals and organizations are persisting in their protest and seeking ways to help the children and families. I have barely begun–I signed two petitions and made a small donation to the Florence Project–but have received a wealth of information on how to do more.

I have also read good critique of how Americans speak to each other (or not): not only how Democrats speak to Republicans and vice versa, but how people overall handle difference and discontent. After Maxine Waters called on people to harass and heckle Trump administration officials (telling them that “they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere”), many objected to her call (while others applauded her).

A few days before Waters’s speech, one of my friends and colleagues had already written a terrific post arguing that when we write others off, in political and other contexts, we harm them, ourselves, and the structures our lives. I won’t quote the piece here–I don’t think it is intended for public broadcast at this point–but I hope to return to it in the future.

Frank Bruni argues that public shaming, while viscerally satisfying, fails miserably as a strategy. “It’s possible that public shaming will have no effect on voters’ feelings and decisions, which are largely baked in by now,” he writes. “But it’s also possible that public shaming intensifies an ambient ugliness that sours more Trump skeptics than Trump adherents, who clearly made peace with ugliness a while back. And those adherents, nursing a ludicrous sense of persecution, could turn out in greater numbers this November as a result.”

I would go even further. If any of us cannot treat a human being decently–whoever that person might be–then all our protest comes to nothing. Treating a person decently does not mean kowtowing or conceding. You can disagree fervently with someone, make that disagreement known, and still retain respect. Take that respect away, and you may not find it again; it falls out of language, out of the general way of thinking. People feel more and more justified in putting others down, writing them off, describing them as “toxic,” and hiding in their own rarified views and groups.

But we have not disappeared down the toxic tunnel. Many people have been calling for greater respect in speech, whether for strategic, ethical, or existential reasons. Respect is not a formality or embellishment; it requires perceiving and listening to another person. It also requires speaking up; you show no respect if you hide what you think and want. When our own president does not set an example of respect–when he tears respect apart day after day–there is all the more reason to repair and uphold it.

“Respect” seems insufficient as a word–too pat, too easy, overused–until one looks at its root. It derives from the Latin respectus, “the act of looking back at someone”; thus it carries the connotation of thinking again, not jumping to conclusions, not presuming to know who another is. In that sense, it is indeed the right word, or one of many. I am encouraged by the renewed respect for respect itself.

I took the photo at the Tiszavirág Fesztivál. The title of the post is a quote from the Roches’ “The Troubles.” Suzzy Roche would often say it near the beginning of the song, in performances but not on the album.

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

The Bounty of Self-Doubt

IMG_6291

I depend on self-doubt for survival and prosperity. I don’t refer here to existential doubt, which does me little good, except as a starting point. (As a starting point, it has bounty of its own.) I mean the kind where I question my words and actions.

For survival, this allows me to recognize where I am going wrong and make corrections. For prosperity, it allows me to consider possibilities, to look further into questions, to find more in a person, book, or other entity than I have seen before.

The other day a baby kitten came meowing up to me, right outside my apartment building. Then he ran up to someone else who was buzzing one of the apartments. He seemed to know the building and to want to be let in–but his scrawniness and ticks suggested that he lived outdoors.

I had a thought of adopting him. I brought him upstairs, gave him water (which he drank avidly), and let him relax in Minnaloushe’s crate. After a while, I brought him out.

IMG_6289

Minnaloushe seemed relaxed at first, but then she let out a long hiss. I remembered that something similar had happened five and a half years ago when I adopted Aengus. It took Minnaloushe a little while to understand what was going on, but when she did, she wasn’t happy. I held the little kitten on my lap, and he purred and purred; Minnaloushe gazed off into the abstract distance, thinking, “here we go again.” (I have no idea what she was thinking.)

IMG_6205

I didn’t want to put Minnaloushe through this again–especially now, when I am about to leave for the U.S. for a month. It wouldn’t be fair to her or to the cat-sitter to introduce her to a kitten in my absence. Also, the kitty would need a medical exam first;  he might well be sick.

So I brought him back outside. A woman sitting out on the bench told me that he was known to people here–that he had a sibling, and that he was safe near the building. He retreated into the shade of a plant; I comforted myself with the thought that I had brought him back home.

But later I began questioning myself. Couldn’t I have brought him to the vet–to give him shots, have his ticks removed, etc.? Granted, I leave in ten days–but I could explain that to the vet, and we could figure out the best plan. So I will keep an eye out for him; if I see him again, that is what I will do.

In none of this, even the questioning, do I feel that I “did the right thing”; instead, the questioning pulled me out of self-satisfaction. Rarely is it possible to do the right thing completely. Imperfections come up everywhere. Nor is doubt always constructive; you can doubt your way into a tizzy, like the Underground Man. But doubt combined with searching can result in a reasonably good idea, at least something worth trying out.

How does this differ from “growth mindset,” a concept I criticize? I find that the division between growth and fixed mindsets oversimplifies reality. Even in questioning myself here, I stayed within limits. There are courses of action I didn’t consider, even afterward. That isn’t because I am deficient in “growth mindset”; rather, some options were outside of reasonable range for me, and others held no appeal. In much of we do, we combine limit and possibility; the combination allows us to bring actions to completion while still thinking beyond them.

I hope this kitty fares well, and I hope to see him again so that I can take him to the vet.

 

I took the first photo at the farmers’ market in Szolnok and the second photo at home. The third photo (of Minnaloushe) is from a week ago; it doesn’t quite convey the “here we go again” look, but it comes close.

Dances and Departures

IMG_6215

On Sunday the rabbi and I went to the glorious Dancing on the Square, performed by the Budapest Festival Orchestra–with special guests on cymbalom and violin–and schoolchildren, Roma and non-Roma, from all over Hungary. The seating area outside Saint Stephen’s Basilica was packed; the performance filled the air with good things, from music to tolerance to joy. There will be an online broadcast tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. Central European Summer time (12:30 p.m. EST); it will be available over the following two days.

I decided, close to the last minute,  to spend the night in Budpest (at the wonderful Baross Hotel) and then, in the morning, take a day trip to Subotica, Serbia. It all worked out–a long day, but worthwhile down to the second.

Staying at the Baross (where I stayed last September,  during my preparatory visit to Hungary) allowed me to ride the glass elevator.

The train ride to Subotica took four hours; about 30 minutes were spent at the border, where “border police” boarded to check passports. I had to show my residence permit as well (because it was clear that I had been in Hungary for a while); once I showed it, the officers had no more questions.

Subotica is unlike any border city I have visited before. Not only are street signs in several languages (Serbia, Croatian, Hungarian, English), but you sense the old presence of Serbian and Hungarian cultures. Bunjevci were once a majority here. In many ways Subotica looks like a Hungarian city–but the Secessionist (Art Nouveau) architecture is especially prominent and colorful. Overall the city showed crumbling elegance: shady parks, towering churches, long terraces of cafes and shops, a famous theater, and some falling apart here and there.

 

 

I wanted to see the synagogue (which reopened in March, after a detailed restoration); having no map, I walked around in circles for a couple of hours before overhearing a couple heading to the tourist information office. I walked along with them, benefited from their sense of direction (they found the office), and received a map. From here I found the way.

IMG_6260

The synagogue, designed in the 1890s and built in 1902, is one of the great Art Nouveau monuments of Subotica. Outside, the Holocaust memorial reads, in five languages, “In memory of 4000 Jewish citizens with whom we lived and built Subotica. They perished in the fascist death camps during the World War II. — Citizens of Subotica, July 10, 1994.”

IMG_6272

After this, I headed back to the train station; the trip home took seven hours, since it involved going back to Budapest and heading from there, on a different train, to Szolnok. In the later part of the trip, the wind and mist rolled through the windows; the train grew emptier, and I thought back slowly on the day.