Thanks Upon Thanks

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In just a few minutes, I will board a plane to New York–so this is a quick post filled with thanks. I am grateful to the Dallas Institute, its Summer Institute, the Cowan Center, and everyone in and involved with them. The literary works, music, discussions, lectures, films, conversations, laughter, delicious meals, and overall spirit made this one of the most glorious summers yet. I learned from my colleagues, the participating teachers, the staff, the works we read, the songs we sang, and more. Thanks to Marcell Bajnai and all of 1LIFE for the song “Maradok ember,” which brought so much to our last two days here. I played it twice: first during my faculty remarks (the opening remarks before the main lecture) on Thursday, and then at the closing ceremony on Friday. Both times, people sang along in the chorus; the second time, there was a standing ovation! Here are two photos courtesy of the Dallas Institute (if you click on them, you can see them on Flickr and browse the other photos as well); here, also, is a short video taken at the closing ceremony by Leo Vaughns Jr. MEd.

Thanks to Dallas Strings, the wonderful place up in Allen where I rented the cello and purchased some sheet music for future playing (including cello pieces by Liszt and Farkas).

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Thanks to Congregation Shearith Israel, the synagogue I have attended every summer when in Dallas, which has become a “shul away from shul” for me. I got to leyn (chant) Torah again–from one of my favorite parshiot, Balak (about which I hope to say something later). It was good to be there again—in the shul, community, liturgy, teachings, and text.

And thanks to the extraordinarily generous person who lets me stay in her apartment, summer after summer. This has made my Summer Institutes not only possible but fruitful, since there, in the quiet of her place, I could read, write, gather my thoughts, and sleep.

One more thanks: to Tom McLaughlin, who made one of these beautiful pieces for each of the faculty members, using pyrography and a branch from a nearby felled tree—and gave each of us a lovely antique book too. And to everyone who gave their works and thoughts.

I am leaving some things out, but that’s the nature of it, full and unfinished. From here into the air.

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Who Are the Real Influencers?

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I have been hearing a lot about “influencers,” people who have managed to build a gargantuan social media following and thereby exert power in real life: as politicians, pundits, CEOs, “unboxing” video creators, and so on. Some claim that influencers are the way of the future. That must be partly true. But deliberate influence has its limits; some of the greatest influence is unintended, or at least not an end in itself. It comes from a quality of a person or thing.

Who has influenced me the most over my lifetime? Do I even know? Surely my family, friends, teachers, classmates, colleagues, students, and various mentors, but also the books I read (some modern, some hundreds or thousands of years old), the music I listen to, the places I have lived and visited, the languages I learn, the faith I practice or not, the things that happen in a day. But there’s still more: memories long forgotten, strangers who have crossed my path, mistakes I have made, angles of the light. When we speak of our influences, we usually refer to things and people we admire, but influence goes far beyond that, far beyond what we can name. Also, influence has a complex chemistry. It doesn’t always take effect right away, and even when it does, it may or may not be visible. Sometimes it inspires its opposite, or something at a skew from it.

So it is important to distinguish the “influencers” from the full range of influences in our lives. Yes, the influencer economy is part of reality. Not all of it is terrible; it offers a certain democracy, as people can gain an audience through their own efforts, with minimal equipment and funds. Also, if they’re influencing others for the sake of something worthwhile, they deserve some respect. But one can influence others profoundly without being an influencer, and vice versa.

Should influencing be a primary goal? It certainly has a place among other goals. Everyone wants to reach and affect others, and affecting them can mean influencing them. But as a primary goal it lacks something; who am I, that I should want to influence you? Even in teaching, influence happens as a result of other things: interesting lessons and subject matter, a quality of conversation, and so on. There would be something vain, for instance, about hoping all my students will go into my field or adopt my perspective. Influence, if it happens, will take its own form.

As for popularity and outward success, they have some meaning but do not deserve complete trust. Large outward success can ruin private and internal life and can quickly disappear; some brilliant work is done in obscurity. A lot takes place in between the extremes. The influencers will do what they do, but over the long run, the ones who do good work, learn from others, speak bravely, and treat others kindly will leave traces without even trying.

P.S. See the sharp and enlightening Lex maniac entry on the term “influencer.”

A Few Thoughts on Immigration

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On this blog, I rarely write on political issues (in the usual sense of the phrase). As soon as I start to say something, I start to see more sides, realize how little I know, and delete or postpone the post. I am usually somewhere on the liberal side of moderate (or vice versa). There are issues where my views are clear-cut: for instance, I support same-sex marriage (and marriage generally, while also acknowledging the possibility of an unmarried life); international cultural exchange; the arts in schools, public institutions, and beyond; and religious freedom, including the freedom to have no religion at all (though I am wary of religious extremism). But elsewhere I see many complexities and would rather take time to think things through. So this is a reluctant and imperfect attempt at saying something.

I am dismayed at the Trump administration’s actions and attitudes toward immigrants: its decision to hold children in detention camps, its upcoming raid (scheduled for today) on undocumented immigrants, and its attitudes of indifference and scorn toward the immigrants themselves. Not everyone in his administration shares Trump’s views; I respect Kevin McAleenan, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, for speaking up on various occasions. I imagine that many others in the field are doing their best. But the overall policy needs an overhaul.

What should happen instead? The U.S. should welcome immigrants while setting necessary limits. There should be a clear immigration policy. Those seeking entry should be given information on their options and rights. Children should not be separated from parents; no one should have to spend days, weeks, or months in a detention center. There should still be a distinction between legal and illegal immigration, but the U.S. should give legal status to as many people as possible and treat everyone with dignity and clarity.

For any of this to happen, the U.S. must stop condoning or ignoring its underground labor market. Millions of people–with legal and illegal status–work unofficially under dismal conditions, for wages far below the legal minimum: domestic workers, construction workers, agricultural workers, salon workers, sex workers, and others. Slave labor, or something close to it, still runs rampant. Illegal businesses should be treated, to varying degrees, as criminal operations; the owners should be tried in court, and the workers should be given other options.

Immigrants, too, have responsibilities and commitments: to learn about the country in which they seek to live, to learn its primary language, to learn and follow its laws, and to contribute to its economic and civic life. Many immigrants take up the learning with vigor. But it comes with a sacrifice; every immigrant must decide how much to retain of the former culture and language. Immigrants should have a chance to choose among several levels of commitment, each with its corresponding privileges. There should be a path, through several stages, to citizenship.

For various reasons, the U.S. has about 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. The overwhelming majority has been in the country for a decade or longer. This is due partly to the underground economy, partly to the bureaucratic difficulty of keeping up with each individual (many of whom have overstayed their visas), and partly to the U.S.’s reluctance to grant immigration amnesty. I support some kind of amnesty, though I recognize the difficulty of agreeing on a specific plan.

In general, immigrants have enriched the U.S. over time and continue to do so in new ways. They bring their experiences, languages, cultures, dedication, desire to work, desire for freedom, and love of the new land. Not all immigrants are benevolent–some belong to gangs, drug rings, extremist groups, etc.–but this is separate from the issue of immigration overall. The U.S. should crack down on destructive activity of this kind without equating it with immigrants.

Any policy involves and arises from difficult decisions. The New York Times Editorial Board writes (in a trenchant opinion essay), “Whichever Democrat ends up challenging Mr. Trump for the presidency would be right to call for fundamental change from the cruelties of the current administration. But as long as America wants to have secure borders, immigration will present painful trade-offs for any president. Some people will get in, others will be kept out, still others will be compelled to leave. Any meaningful effort to reform the country’s degrading approach to migrants will fall apart if it pretends a president can simply ignore such choices. ”

Questions of immigration matter to me for many reasons: my ancestors came to the U.S. in an era of relative openness and welcome; I live and work in Hungary (and hope to stay for a long time); most of my students in the U.S. were immigrants or children of immigrants; and I believe that people should be able to seek work, asylum, or freedom outside their country of origin. In addition, I recognize that many people today are driven by desperation at home: extreme violence, poverty, catastrophe. We should recognize the severity of these problems.

An immigration policy can be clear, humane, generous, feasible, and strong. This is no easy feat, but it is worth every bit of doubt and sweat.

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

Nyílik a szem (The eye opens)

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This morning, on the way to the Dallas Institute, I was listening to 1LIFE’s song “Kopog a szív” and getting caught up in the phrase “nyílik a szem” (“the eye opens”). The song lands on it, by surprise, and repeats it, and returns to it, and stays there; the song is about a lot of things, but part of it is about suddenly seeing what is going on. To me, its montage of images tells a story, or two; different listeners will hear different stories in it.

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It fit well (though unintentionally) with today’s discussions of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and yesterday’s of Aeschylus’s Eumenides, both having to do with the opening of the eyes (as tragedy generally does). When things (like a song and a play) come together without planning, they set off many thoughts. I was thinking all day about having the eyes opened and what this can mean in different forms and places: in the plays we are reading, in this song, and beyond. When your eyes are opened to yourself, whether in tragedy or in song, there are two sides to it: you realize what you have done, and you realize who you are. Also, this opening of the eyes can’t be taken back. It can be terrible or joyful, but it’s there for good.

It isn’t just an intellectual consideration; I think of vivid moments in my life when my eyes were opened in some way, through a meeting with another person, through accident, through loss, through poetry, through learning, through mistakes.

The song opened up to me slowly over the past months; I enjoyed its melody and rhythm from the start but needed some time to grasp the lyrics, since I am still far from fluent in Hungarian. I remember hearing it in concert (at Európa-nap, I think) and suddenly understanding “nyílik a szem.” The rest came from there. It is now one of my favorite 1LIFE songs. (I have previously commented here on “Maradok ember” and “Kapcsolj ki!“)

Here is a video of the song, which contains the lyrics; and below it, my tentative translation. I took a few liberties and may have made some outright mistakes. It is a start; I will make corrections and improvements over time. “Szem” can be taken in a singular or plural sense. I first translated it as “eyes” (“the eyes open”) but later my eye opened and I changed my mind. “Eye” in English can also have a general or plural meaning, and all the other images in the chorus are singular (or archetypal).  “Nyílik a szem” could also be translated as “the eye is opened,” but that suggests that it has already happened, whereas here it seems to be happening right in the moment. “The eye opens” does not fit the rhythm of the song, even in translation–but it is more vivid and direct than the alternatives I considered. So I will leave it as is.

over the housetops, the sky
in the lonely streets, the wind
see our brain does not converse
gut and feeling, what goes with them?

infinity is in our cells
fear resides in our bones
suddenly a stroke of luck
makes our fingers interlock

winter comes, summer goes
it would come but can’t find its way
on goes the light, click of machine
the ice melts, but the heart knocks,
the heart knocks, the heart knocks

this is all that our eyes see
from the sky a cloud cries onto us
the truth has no clothes
our empty room is overcrowded

winter comes, summer goes
it would come but can’t find its way
on goes the light, click of machine
the ice melts, but the heart knocks,
the heart knocks, it stands in the door,
it waits for the key, the lock gives way,
quiet in the room, order on the shelf,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens

winter comes, summer goes
it would come but can’t find its way
on goes the light, click of machine
the ice melts, but the heart knocks,
the heart knocks, it stands in the door,
it waits for the key, the lock gives way,
quiet in the room, order on the shelf,
the eyes opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens

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I took all three photos today. The first and third are of the Dallas Institute; the second, of the dashboard of my rental car. The video was made by Zsombor Papp; the song “Kopog a szív” is by 1LIFE, and its lyrics are by Marcell Bajnai.

I made a few additions and an important correction to this piece after posting it: “kopog a szív” means “the heart knocks,” not “the heart beats.”This correction is important because first of all, it’s accurate; second, it’s a fresher image than “the heart beats”; and third, it goes with the door, lock, and everything else. It affects everything. Also, I commented a little more on “nyílik a szem” (which I first translated as “the eyes open” but then changed to “the eye opens”).

Friendship and Place

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The past few days have reminded me how friendship and place go together. I associate friends with certain places; when we meet in those places, old memories get layered with the new; when we meet in a new place, it can bring something out of the friendship. I will not talk here about the conversations I had with various friends; that is not for reporting on the blog. There must be something that a person can keep offline. But I will say a little about the places, in reverse chronological order.

Yesterday afternoon I arrived in Dallas, and that evening I went with my dear colleagues and friends to Gloria’s, the Salvadoran, Tex-Mex, and Mexican restaurant that we have visited so many times. I did not take pictures, but the conversation and meal are fresh in my mind.

On Tuesday evening, a friend and I met at the New Leaf restaurant in Fort Tryon Park (in the Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC). Both of us had been there before, but not together. She lives right by the park; so did I, in the two years before I moved to Hungary. The photo at the top is of the park as I walked through it after dinner.

On my way to dinner, I walked through the long subway tunnel at 190th Street.

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Earlier in the day, I went with another friend to the New York Public Library. (Both he and the friend I first mentioned were also my colleagues at Columbia Secondary School.) We had gotten together there before, but this occasion was different; his wife, who works at the library, arranged for us to see the Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens special collections; this included the copy of Alice in Wonderland that Carroll dedicated and presented to Alice Liddell, as well as the copy of A Christmas Carol, replete with handwritten cuts and edits, that Dickens used for his public readings. After that, we got to see the very first handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, in the hand of Thomas Jefferson. It was difficult to take a good picture of it; here is one of my attempts.

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Before and after the Declaration of Independence, we went to the children’s reading room, where his two children were playing, and saw the original Winnie the Pooh toys.

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That morning I met with a friend in Edgar’s Café, which has become our traditional meeting place. It is named after Edgar Allan Poe; its original location was on Edgar Allan Poe Street between West End Avenue and Broadway. It was there, right on or near that street, that Poe lived from March 1844 to August 1845; it was supposedly there that he wrote “The Raven.” I didn’t take any pictures, but here’s one I took in February, when I came to NYC for two days to give a book reading and had breakfast with the same friend. (Neither of us appears in the photo.)

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The previous evening, I met with a friend in a gorgeous apartment on Washington Square Park (it belongs to one of her family members, who was away). We had never met there before; it ended up hosting a good, long conversation. I took no pictures indoors, but here’s one of a street corner nearby. The arched windows of the tall building across the street were glittering in the sun, but the picture doesn’t catch that.

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On the way there, I passed by the Stonewall National Monument. It was the day after the Pride Parade, so it was quiet (but still full of visitors). I missed the parade on Sunday–well, I could have caught the end of it, probably, but was too tired and jet-lagged to realize this. The quiet walk was good, in any case.

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Each of these places was beautiful, and just right for each of the meetings with friends–but I think it’s partly because I was alert to them. Living in Szolnok has made me more aware of places and their relation to people. I think of the rivers, the school, the library, the places where the banketts were held, the Tiszavirág Fesztivál grounds, the Tiszavirág bridge, the café where I met weekly this year with Böbi and Tündi, the many streets I got to know by bike, the buildings whose history I am slowly beginning to learn. A person not only becomes part of a place, but gives something through it, so that the place becomes a messenger, but the opposite of Hermes and Iris, since it needs no wings but rather does its work by standing still.