Mind over Memes (my new book title)

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The title of my forthcoming book has changed. The new (and final) title is Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies. Publication is scheduled for October 15, 2018; the book is now available for pre-ordering. On Wednesday, October 31, the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture will host my first book release event; in addition, I expect to have copies available  for signing at the 2018 ALSCW Conference in Nashville (November 1–4). It’s good that these events coincide with my fall break in Hungary; the timing, if exact, will be perfect.

I took this photo when biking to Tiszakécske on Sunday.

 

A Spectacular Birthday

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I never expected this birthday to be one of the most beautiful in my life.

First, a colleague gave me chocolate and wished me a happy birthday. Then in two successive lessons, I walked into my class to see “Happy Birthday” written on the board–the first time in Hungarian, and the second time in five languages. My eleventh-grade students gave me chocolate, wished me a happy birthday, sang “Happy Birthday,” and asked whether we could go out to the park and play hide-and-seek (“pacs-pacs”). I checked with a colleague and found out that it was fine, so we went.

 

Throughout the day, I received birthday wishes–from friends, relatives, colleagues, and others–and then, in the afternoon, I received flowers from Szim Salom in Budapest. I was moved and overwhelmed. It didn’t even end there.

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Around 3:30, a colleague came to my desk and said, “Let’s go.” She intended to take me to the boating club, so that I could see where it was. She had already arranged for me to meet with the manager tomorrow, so that I could learn about kayaking possibilities–but wanted to make sure I knew where to go. She drove me there, introduced me to the manager, and drove me back to school. A detour of kindness.

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I made it back to school just in time for a 4:00 English-language presentation by two colleagues. The day rolled by; I headed home around 5:30.

I have given only a quick summary–but thanks to everyone for this wonderful birthday! I hope to keep it with me for many years.

High-Rises and Chicken Farms

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Here in Szolnok, city and countryside exist side by side; you step out of one, and suddenly you’re in the other. You can see a high-rise in the distance beyond the chicken farm.

I think of how we all carry our juxtapositions, how none of us is just this or just that. It’s difficult to see ourselves and others in full; we think in pieces. Only a glimpse or intuition takes us to something bigger, and even that is only a piece. How good it is that people do not come to an end, that even a passing word holds more than anyone could guess.

 

I took this photo on Sunday.

“Chilling and Rhinocerosing”

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Yesterday we had a szombat munkanap, a “working Saturday” (one of six such days in Hungary in 2018), so I came in to school. In most of my classes, we reviewed for upcoming tests, but in a relaxed way. One class chose not to spend any more time on review; a student recommended “chilling and Rhinocerosing” (that is, reading Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, which we were on the brink of finishing). The others heartily agreed. So that is what we did.

This past week, Szolnok was filled with Earth Week activities; I have included a few photos below. There was also a symposium at our school, but I didn’t see it in action; that same afternoon I went to another school to take part in a jury for an English-language contest (which proved interesting and enjoyable).

I am about hop on the bike and see how far south I can ride along the Tisza in a few hours. Next weekend I plan to go biking up north (in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén, where I biked a year ago); this is a short prelude.

Update: I biked to Tiszakécske and back, for a total of 68 kilometers. Along the way I saw farm animals, birds (including storks), fields of yellow flowers (maybe canola), and towns with Tisza in their names. I stayed on Eurovelo 11; at times it had its own path, and at times it merged with the road. I could have biked on and on, but this was a good distance for today, given the other things I have to do.

The photo at the top of this piece is from my walk to school last Monday.

“Be that as may be….”

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If Aengus were here, he would be looking out at this sunrise. The sunrise itself brings him back in my mind; I think of him out on the balcony, peering through the opening, or indoors and behind the curtain, gazing through the glass door.

The blog is not a place for mourning–it forces words too much, unless I turn it into a picture-diary, which I don’t want to do either. So this will be short.

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Thank you to everyone who sent me kind words and thoughts. My sadness comes in spasms. I ask myself whether I could have done something, either in Aengus’s last minutes or earlier. The answer is “maybe.” There is no getting rid of it; it just hangs there.

I am grateful that he had such a good life and (as far as I know) did not go through prolonged pain. Also that I was there when he died; it would have been even more distressing–for me, and possibly for him too–to have it happen when I was away.

Minnaloushe is thrilled with her new dominion: chasing after invisible things, rolling over, purring. In Aengus’s last few days, they competed more fiercely than usual for attention; if I so much as stroked one on the head, the other would push forward for the same. I do not plan to have another cat, as long as I have Minnaloushe; she seems happier by herself, and there is no replacing Aengus anyway.

I do not know what Aengus saw through that beautiful eye of his–but sometimes it seems that all the things, sunrise and leaves and all, still keep some of his gaze.

 

I took the photo at 6 a.m. today. The title of the post is a quotation from Robert Frost’s “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same.”

Aengus, 2011(?)–2018

This morning, when grading essays, I heard Aengus heaving loudly. I ran over, but he collapsed. A few seconds later, he died.

Over five years ago, on December 29, 2012, I adopted him from Sean Casey Animal Rescue in Brooklyn. He was feral; he had been hit and badly injured by a car, and for months he wouldn’t let anyone near him. One day he was so hungry and tired that he curled up in an outdoor flower pot; at that point they rescued him.

They had to force-feed him intravenously for months before the vet could treat him. His palate, right jaw, and right eye were smashed. Finally they gave him surgery–removing and stitching up the smashed eye, reconstructing the jaw and palate, and removing the broken teeth (leaving just two). He almost lost his other eye as well, since it had started getting infected. When I went to the center looking for a cat, I saw him in his cage; he looked scary at first, but when I put my hand inside, he nestled up to it and purred. Here is a photo of us on the day of his adoption:

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He was sweet, affectionate, playful, and seemingly dreamy (who knows his thoughts?). He loved to sleep next to me and purr, to gaze out the window, to bat his favorite toys (especially the plastic springs), and to taunt my other cat, Minnaloushe (who was the one taunting him in the beginning).

Because of his fractured jaw and missing teeth, he couldn’t chew his food well, so he sometimes threw it up or sneezed or coughed. His blood tests came out fine, though, and in all other ways he seemed healthy–leaping around, eating heartily, snuggling with me, and watching the outdoors for hours.

This morning, before I got up, he jumped up onto my pillow and purred for a long time. Later, when I was grading some papers, I heard a strange noise. Three loud gasps, and he fell down.

Two hours later, I took him to the hospital (as soon as it opened). The people in the waiting room were kind; one of them offered me a seat and helped with translation. Sitting there among the sweet dogs and cats, I had a chance to cry a little.

The vet said that it may have been a heart failure, a common cause of sudden death in cats. I left Aengus there, made arrangements to have his body taken away, and walked to school. I arrived just in time for my first class; it felt strange to switch right into vocabulary review, but I proceeded with the day.

He was a good sport about coming to Hungary with me–just a few meows, but otherwise calm and cheerful. Over the past few weeks he enjoyed the spring air and sounds out on the balcony. Even when indoors, he would sit for hours inside the curtain and look out. I don’t know what he saw–the balcony railing blocks a lot of the view–but whatever it was, it enthralled him. Here he is, looking in from the outside at night.

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Of all the pictures I have taken of Aengus, these three stand out: the one of his shadow, when he began to consider emerging from the den (in June 2013), the one of him on the couch in my last apartment in New York, and the one of him looking out the balcony door, just earlier this month.

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Goodbye, Aengus.

 

I added to this piece after posting it.

There’s No Such Thing as a “Thinker”

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People who call others “thinkers” may not mean it as a compliment; the term can suggest someone too intellectual and removed, too intense, no fun. Worse still if this “thinker” is a woman. Doubleplusunfun.

But come now, who isn’t a thinker? Everyone thinks, even those who live by the mantra “don’t think.” Most of us think in handfuls of ways; no one’s thought is just this or that, just analytical, just relational, just artistic, just mechanical, just oino-tragical, just pastoral-litotic. When you tell others what kind of thinkers they are, it’s as though you wanted to repair your stone wall, to secure your territory in the neighborhood. You, esteemed neighbor, have a theoretical mind. I am practical. (Or vice versa.) Stay away from me, you and your thinking, and I, now intact again, will thrive.

There is nothing scarier than recognizing that the egghead or electrician across the street may think like you at times–and even harbor a sense of humor. Your mental egg shudders at the idea (yes, idea!). Eggheads are supposed to be just eggheads; electricians, just electricians. If they dare be more than that, then who are you?

We know our own minds from the inside, and other people’s from the outside; that in itself breeds judgments. D. H. Lawrence is having none of it; his “Pomegranates” begins:

You tell me I am wrong.
Who are you, who is anybody to tell me I am wrong?
I am not wrong.

There is more than one way to read “You tell me I am wrong.” It could mean, “You tell me I am mistaken in my thoughts, statements, or actions.” Or else it could mean, “You tell me I myself am awry.” In the latter case, “I am not wrong” is much more than defense; it’s the basic assertion of the soul.

Here’s the etymology of “wrong” (courtesy of the beloved Online Etymology Dictionary, which I visit almost daily):

late Old English, “twisted, crooked, wry,” from Old Norse rangr, earlier *vrangr “crooked, wry, wrong,” from Proto-Germanic *wrang- (source also of Danish vrang “crooked, wrong,” Middle Dutch wranc, Dutch wrang “sour, bitter,” literally “that which distorts the mouth”), from *wrengh-, nasalized variant of *wergh- “to turn,” from PIE root *wer- (2) “to turn, bend.”

“I am not wrong”–that is, “my being is not bent”–this declaration opens up, over the course of the poem, into a rebuke and revelation. The speaker takes the reader to task:

Do you mean to tell me you will see no fissure?
Do you prefer to look on the plain side?”

The poem holds a paradox: on the one hand, the speaker is “not wrong”; on the other, he is broken. Yet the two ends come together; he alone dares to look at the fissure, in geography, in himself, in the “glittering, compact drops of dawn.”

So it is with “thinkers.” The people who call us this or that have no idea what they’re talking about. Yet self-knowledge must hold knowledge of the flaw.

In that light, and in a different mood from “Pomegranates,” a piece by Louis Phillips caught my eye and tickled my mind yesterday. “How to Recognize an Intellectual” plays with the reader from the outset:

PERSONS are frequently kept awake at night by questions they cannot answer. Can I pay the rent this month is one such question. Or, just where is Nicaragua? But one question that probably bothers men and women more than any other is: Am I an intellectual?

I won’t give the rest away–but through deft silliness he takes “thinkers” to task, from the inside, while poking fun at those who poke fun at them.

So, the next time I am called a “thinker,” I will reply, “And a good thing, too; if I weren’t one, could I possibly tie my shoes, choose a good tomato, or turn this assertion of yours into a question?”

 

I took the photo in Szolnok yesterday. More recently, I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

Revision and Spring

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I have wanted to say more about spring; I have been meaning to say something about revision. So why not do both at once? They have something to do with each other.

Revision is more than correction, rearrangement, and rewriting; it involves seeing your work in a new way. You understand what you want to keep and bring out and what you want to drop; you hear the rhythm, tone, and stumblings.

It is part of my daily life: I make final edits to the book,  return to old blog posts, and find the right word in a poem. Sometimes, long after I have written something, my mind replays a passage, as if to nag me, and I see the problem in it: a straightforward error, a missing logical step, a wrong word, or a redundancy. I go back, fix it, and move along in my puzzling. I never liked jigsaw puzzles much, but this kind of puzzling suits me well.

Spring, like revision, takes up and tosses your thinking. In this case it’s not the spring but your mind that you refigure. You come back to your pictures of sky, trees, and river.

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I took both photos in Szolnok last week.

What’s in a Country?

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One thing I have learned from living in various places is that no country can be pinned down or reduced. The Hungarian election results dismayed many, including me, but they do not sum up the times. There are many opinions, many layers of life; visible trends do not make up the whole. Yes, there’s reason to be vigilant, but neither the Prime Minister nor his party, Fidesz, represents everyone here.

Why, then, did so many people vote for Orbán? Some genuinely support his platform and believe his campaign promises. Some prefer him (or continuity, anyway) to the alternatives. Some don’t think much will improve, in general, no matter who gets elected. (Apathy can be a mighty force.) I don’t think many are surprised that he won. The greater disappointment, for those disappointed, is over the parliamentary win; it will be hard to oppose or even mitigate Fidesz’s legislative agenda.

How will this affect daily and institutional life? I do not know yet; for many, it’s a continuation of the familiar, but taken to new extremes. Orbán has promised elégtétel, something like “revenge” or “retaliation”) against his opponents, so there probably won’t be open dialogue among political leaders and constituents any time soon.

Will there be a rise in anti-Semitism? There’s probably more than one answer to that question. In many ways, Jewish life in Budapest seems to be thriving (there were some 130 people at the Szim Salom seder, for instance, and we are a small shul). On the other hand, one can see and feel the effects of the Shoah, the decades of Soviet rule, and the more recent right-wing attitudes. Many Jews keep their identity private; they don’t speak about it in the workplace or with people they don’t know well. Some people have even buried it for a generation or two; there are young people today discovering that they are Jewish. At the same time, many non-Jewish people are starting to learn about Judaism for the first time; from what I gather, it was for years an unbroachable subject. I don’t know what direction (or directions) things will take from here. The question is not about Hungary alone; around the world there are movements toward and away from understanding.

On this blog I don’t bring up everything I hear and see; for example, I don’t report individual or classroom conversations. I don’t think people would feel comfortable seeing their own words (even without their names, even in paraphrased form) on a blog. I do hear a range of political and other views, almost every day; in my experience so far, people are unafraid to speak openly and disagree with each other. I hope this openness continues.

In the meantime, this is the most beautiful spring I have seen in years. Biking home from school, I see trees in bloom, people rowing, people fishing, dogs running around, and a whole spate of greenery. At school, much is going on; my students, colleagues, and I are starting to plan for a Shakespeare event at the end of May. Last week, thanks to a colleague’s planning, we had a wonderful event at a local Russian restaurant, where one of the chefs taught us how to make a Russian salad. One of my eleventh-grade classes is reading Ionesco’s Rhinoceros; we are sure to have some interesting discussions. Across the seas, the fifth issue of CONTRARIWISE should be out in a few weeks.

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How do you put all that together: the beauty, the good things, the disappointments, the danger? You try to hold it all, but how? I think the answer, or part of it, lies in resisting false summaries and reductions. That’s in large part what my book is about–and, to an extent, my life. I am far from perfect at it–but rather than strive for perfection, I work for better judgment within the imperfection. Summaries are essential to good reasoning; it would be a mistake (and an impossibility) to give them up entirely. Still, they can be kept in perspective and held in doubt. If we treat our words and conclusions like testimony, if we ask ourselves, “Is this the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” the answer will usually be “No.”

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I took all three pictures in Szolnok: the first one at school, the second when crossing the Zagyva, and the third at the Russian event organized by my colleague Judit. The sign in the first picture means roughly “Caution: Danger of Falling/Crumbling Objects.” Speaking of the book, it is now available for pre-ordering; the projected publication date is October 15. I hope to have copies available for signing at the ALSCW Conference in November and possibly at an earlier event as well. I will post details on my website.

Literary Journals and the Folly of the “Good Fit”

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One of the essays in my forthcoming book pummels the notion of a “good fit.” We hear about the “good fit” everywhere–in colleges, workplaces, and everyday life–and are pressed, day by day, to seek it out. Employers routinely assess candidates for “fit” (either informally or through personality tests) and consider or reject them accordingly. College applicants can take a number of quizzes designed to help them find their “perfect fit.”

Taken in moderation, the idea of a “good fit” makes some sense; few of us want to put ourselves in settings where we would be miserable. But the quest for a “good fit” has turned feverish; people seek it out as though it were their obligation and right. In all this fervor, the benefits of a slight mismatch get forgotten.

I won’t repeat the points I make in the essay–but will instead consider the “good fit” from an angle that occurred to me just now: the literary journal (and publication more generally).

Literary journals’ submission guidelines routinely advise writers to familiarize themselves with the journal in advance, so that they can determine whether their work is appropriate for it. Often the editors simply mean that writers should not waste their time submitting junk. For instance, a poem like the following (which I made up just now) should not be sent to the Paris Review, Missouri Review, Shenandoah, or other high-caliber journal:

After eating a bowl of cherries,
I found myself getting wary.
What will happen to all those pits?
Into the dustbin–and that’s it?
Or will I plant them in the ground
to bear more cherries sweet and sound?
As with the pits, so with my life:
Let me compost my juicy strife.

Besides being trite, the poem has bad rhyming, rhythm, and diction; even in its quaintness it doesn’t work.

Besides trying to weed out bad work, the editors also seek writing that they particularly like or that suits the journal’s nature. Here we come to the messy subject of the “good fit.” On the one hand, it would be silly to submit a research article to a journal that publishes only fiction except for the occasional nonfictional narrative. If a journal specializes in heartwarming stories about animals, it probably will not consider a drama in verse about construction workers. A new translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon will probably not get published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Those extreme considerations aside, I hope that writers and editors alike will consider the slight misfit: the “purple thread” (an Epictetus reference) that, by not belonging, makes the journal memorable and beautiful.  Yes, journals reflect not only editorial tastes, but editorial tradition; yes, a journal is more than an assemblage of unrelated pieces. Something–whether quality, topic,  tone, style, whim, or a combination of these–holds the pieces together. Even so, the whole point of writing for an audience is to offer something new. A perfect fit would not be worth reading.

Blatant novelty isn’t the point. A piece that’s entirely new misses something; it’s an impossibility anyway. There’s a sense of ancientness in some of the most daring works. Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” would be nothing without the cathedrals of “those olden days”–yet it takes those cathedrals to a startling place.

Originality turns into matter; you feel it physically. As you’re reading, something catches your mind and emotions; once you’ve finished, this thing chases you around–or maybe goes away and then returns years later.

So with all the pressure to find a “good fit” in publication–and all the anxiety over getting published in the first place–I hope that writers and editors will dare their misfits onto us.

 

I took the photo here in Szolnok last week. By the way, here’s my first “Hunglish” joke: What do you call someone who eats her last piece of cheese, then bikes around the corner and disappears from view? Answer: Out of sajt. (The “s” is pronounced “sh,” and the “aj” more like “oy” than like “igh,” so it doesn’t quite work–but I think it would get a few good groans on the right occasion.)