The Idea of Vacation

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First of all, welcome to Dominó (also known as Mézes), the new member of the household! I had been realizing for a few weeks that Sziszi needed a feline friend, and I knew that Mézes needed a home. The Mimóza Macskamentő Alapítvány, a cat rescue service, was taking care of him. I had to wait a couple of weeks for him to be medically cleared (he was being treated for giardia), but once the tests came back negative, I went to pick him up. As soon we arrived home and I opened the box, the two of them started playing. They have been playing and resting ever since.

That brings us to the subject of vacation. Without making grand cultural generalizations, I can say that I have seen different views of vacation in the U.S. and here. In the U.S., many people rate their vacations in terms of how productive they were. Even travels are supposed to be productive–you go to many places, see a lot, etc. (“I got a lot done” is what you might hear afterward, and what I have often said, or not.) Here in Hungary, by contrast, the people I know expect vacation to be restful. “Jó pihenést” (Have a good rest) is what we wish each other. Now, this is already oversimplified: many Americans relax during their time off, and many Hungarians use their vacations to get things done or to learn something new. But there’s a different view of what should happen.

It is hard to get rid of the sense that I am not being productive enough. This summer, so far, I have translated three poems (two from Hungarian and one from Lithuanian) and a story, written an essay for an incipient Hungarian-English literary journal, Krajcáros Igazság / The Penny Truth, written six of seven parts of a long poem, settled into–and set up–my new place, adopted two kittens, and gone on runs and bike rides. Also, I have dealt with numerous situations, entirely in Hungarian–an apparent problem with my washing machine (easily fixed), furniture orders and delivery, doctor’s appointments, a condominium association meeting, and much more. All in all, I would say that isn’t too bad. But sometimes I catch myself thinking that I should have done more.

On the other hand, there are Hungarians who would consider this far too work-like for a vacation. Why haven’t I gone to Lake Balaton? (I will, just not in the peak of summer, since I have to be careful in the sun.) Why haven’t I gone on more day trips, socialized more, etc.? I do look forward to a day trip or two, with the bike or maybe a bike/train combination. But it’s hard to explain that I enjoy working on my projects during vacation. Not only that, but it’s important for me; it’s the rare time when I have stretches of time. And it has felt very relaxed; I have done things without rush, and each morning has a leisurely beginning (with the NYT mini crossword puzzle, the Spelling Bee game, the Letter Boxed game, etc.).

So the differences really come down to the “shoulds”: people’s idea of what a vacation is supposed to be. In any culture, there is more than one “should” happening at once. Sometimes they even contradict each other. But you can feel the relative pull of one “should” or another. To some extent, “shoulds” are a nuisance and an impediment. Do what you want, for crying out loud! But they will always be there, even dimly, and sometimes they can do good.

So far, I have considered what people do during vacation. The other big question is “with whom.” In the U.S., at least among the people I know, it is considered normal to spend vacation alone. In fact, many relish the idea of having some time to themselves. In Hungary, it’s largely unheard of (and somewhat frowned upon). Some people understand how it’s possible to enjoy time alone, but overall this is accepted less than in the U.S.

On the other hand, in the U.S. there’s a great fear of having time alone to think. There’s an old belief, going back to Puritan times or farther, that too much thinking will get you in trouble. That in turn justifies productivity: if you keep yourself busy, you have less time for thinking, and that is a Good Thing. I haven’t encountered that fear of thinking in Hungary, at least not to the same extent. This may have something to do with my surroundings–I teach at a school full of thinkers–but I think it goes beyond that.

Vacations say a lot about a culture, but the teachings are complex. How people spend their free time–when it actually exists–is no trivial matter; to have a good vacation, you have to be a bit of a rebel–down with the shoulds!–and a bit of a traditionalist (some shoulds are worth having after all).

In any case, Gertrude Stein said it best in “A Light in the Moon“:

A LIGHT in the moon the only light is on Sunday. What was the sensible decision. The sensible decision was that notwithstanding many declarations and more music, not even withstanding the choice and a torch and a collection, notwithstanding the celebrating hat and a vacation and even more noise than cutting, notwithstanding Europe and Asia and being overbearing, not even notwithstanding an elephant and a strict occasion, not even withstanding more cultivation and some seasoning, not even with drowning and with the ocean being encircling, not even with more likeness and any cloud, not even with terrific sacrifice of pedestrianism and a special resolution, not even more likely to be pleasing. The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain.

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Exploring

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My neighborhood is known for the airplane museum, the large Marcipán confectionery, the little Marcipán, the Tisza river, and the Roman Catholic Szentélek templom (all pictured in a gallery below). That in itself allows for a lot of exploration. But that’s only the beginning.

One of the things I love to do here in Hungary is explore–and whether I go across the country or around the block, there is something to find. The other day I crossed the large street and walked westward on Indóház, which turns into Horog. Immediately it stopped feeling like a city. I passed by this little hut and a few houses with yards. Dogs barking all over the place, birds of different sizes swooping around.

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The sun was setting, and the old water tower (a historical monument, no longer in use) rose up into the colors. (You can see it at the top of this post.)

Beside it was something like a train station–but when I looked into it later, I found that it was a train repair location. Some massive buildings next to train tracks.

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An entrance gate (that appears to be in use–it has an electronic monitor and a side office–had an old rusty sign that read, “Kerékpárral közlekedni csak a főbejárat teherforgalmi kapuján lehet!” (Bicycle riding allowed only at the main entrance of the freight gate!) This, apparently, was not that gate.

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The mosquitoes, like the wildflowers, were all over the place, so I headed back after a little while.

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As I passed by the little hut again, I saw a couple of trees full of fruits–ripe, purple, the size of cherries but with the look of plums.

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I looked and looked at them. Should I taste one? But of course! That’s what human nature is all about, after all: giving in to curiosity (although there are plenty of instances of humans shutting curiosity out). Besides, I doubted that they would be poisonous or that a voice would come booming from the sky. I picked one and ate it. Yes, it tasted exactly like a plum–and sweet and juicy too. Later I discovered that they were, or at least resembled, cherry plums (cseresznye szilva), native to Southeast Europe and Western Asia. They are darker (purpler) than the cherry plums I have seen online, though, so I am not sure.

So that’s it. Not bad for a stroll around the neighborhood. By the way, many others were out walking and biking in the area; it seems to be a well-loved road. There is still much more to find. But on bike next time, so as to outpace the mosquitoes.

Those Sixteen Measures

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It was in graduate school that I fell in love with Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Kniha smíchu a zapomnění). I read it again and again, and then later, over the years, returned to the book and my favorite passages in it. This (and everything leading up to it) is my favorite passage of all:

It is no wonder, then, that the variation form became the passion of the mature Beethoven, who (like Tamina and like me) knew all too well that there is nothing more unbearable than losing a person we have loved–those sixteen measures and the inner universe of their infinite possibilities.

The narrator is speaking of Beethoven’s Opus 111, the last of his piano sonatas. I listened to this piece over and over as a high school student, listened to again over the years, and am returning to it now. It breaks ground no matter where you are in your musical and life experience and how many times you have listened to it.

Loss takes its own form, direction, and time. The world tells you to set goals; you go around and around. The world tells you to move on; you don’t. But then you realize that the world isn’t telling you anything. You have to figure out for yourself what to make of it all and what to do.

The lingering and the circling have their own reasons. They don’t just repeat themselves haplessly. They have variations and digressions. Over time you start to see things in a new way, or at least you start to know what it was you were seeing.

We usually grieve more than one thing at once: along with a person, a part of ourselves, a part of the world, a way of life, a belief in something. A piece of existence falls away forever; with that piece, a person close to us, or someone important to us, and in that person, cavern after cavern, light after light. This is true even if the person does not die. A lost friendship, a breakup, a falling out can bring up this same grief.

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Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” comes to mind:

Spring and Fall

                         to a young child

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Marcell Bajnai’s new song “Dühöngő” (“Raging”) has something to do with all of this. It circles around and around a loss, but always in a different way, and the loss takes on different forms and meanings each time. It could be a loss of a person, a loss of faith, or a loss of something in the self, or all of these combined. The song’s refrain has several variations, one of which is this:

nem hibák, csak végzetek,
feltámadás után halni meg
ordító némaság,
hitetlen, dühöngő gyávaság

(Approximately: “Not mistakes, just destinies, to die after resurrection, roaring silence, faithless, raging cowardice.”)

 

The words play against the other words in the song; variation plays against variation. Images and possibilities intertwine with the melody. When I listen to it, I change a little bit.

Grief of this kind is not the most accepted emotion, or mixture of emotions, in the world, nor can it be laid out in flat prose. It requires art and is one of the reasons for art. This very blog post points to art again and again. Without art, we would be limited to the slogan, the goal, the game plan–all those things that urge certainty of action. Those are essential too. I would not have my new apartment without a series of actions and words. But those certainties are limited by the very language that expresses them. There, words serve a specific purpose and are no longer needed, except for the record, once the purpose is accomplished. I do not find myself rereading contracts and manuals, except to find specific information in them.

But art brings you back to find more–in the work, in yourself, in the world. Grief is a plunge into the hidden regions of life–lonely and frightening at first, but then surprising, then brilliant, then so much at once that you have to lay it out in time, in form, and pass through its infinite possibilities.

“Kol-make-nefesh bishgaga….”

Foster_Story_OTB_173_FleeingToTheCityOfRefuge Tomorrow, in Shabbat Torah service, we read Parashat Matot Mas’ei, which I always look forward to, particularly because of the cantillation of Numbers 35:5 (I discuss this verse in the fourth chapter of Mind over Memes). The verse has two trop symbols (and melodies), the yerach ben yomo and the karne parah, which occur nowhere else in the Torah. Beyond that, each of four instances of the phrase “alpayim baammah” (two thousand cubits) has a different trop melody, so that you hear glorious variety in the repetition. (You can listen to my recording of the verse here.) There have been many interpretations of this–but whatever its meanings, I love hearing and chanting it and am not alone in this. Last summer, this Shabbat (which fell in early August), I got to chant these verses at B’nai Jeshurun. A fellow leyner (chanter of Torah), Sharon Anstey, came up to me afterwards to talk about that very verse and trop, and she mentioned it later in a beautiful piece for the High Holidays.

But today my mind and ear is on a different part of the parsha. Verses 9 through 15 give instructions for the appointment of cities of refuge for all those manslayers who killed someone by accident (“kol-make-nefesh bishgaga”). The occurrence of this phrase in verse 15 stands out in a Torah reading, because it comes at the end of an aliya and therefore has the “sof aliya” melodic phrase and a deceleration. It rings in my ear like jubilation and warning: “kol-make-nefesh bishgaga.” The idea is that those who killed in error, or who may have killed in error, should have a place of refuge until they can be judged by the congregation. Without this, people would just be killing each other back and forth in revenge, and mistakes would be treated the same as intentional crimes. “Bishgaga” means not only “by mistake” but “unawares.” In Judaism, those who commit sins unawares are still responsible, but in a different way from those who commit them by intent. The distinction is of great importance; sins and mistakes are not all treated as equivalent.

One of the great problems of today’s culture of online accusation is its outrage over missteps, even unintended ones. People do not have a place of refuge; they do not get to wait for a fair trial. Reactivity is the norm. I don’t have a Twitter account; I am not at all attracted to what goes on there. But Twitter is not a separate sphere; tweets have now become part of everyday reality. They get quoted in the news. They might be brought up and used against someone years after the fact.

If there is one thing I wish for the world around me, it is discernment: distinguishing one situation from another, allowing enough time to assemble the facts, granting everyone fair judgment, and giving a refuge, even within ourselves, for mistakes and unclear situations. The internal city of refuge may be the most important of all: a solitude for sorting out thoughts and actions, a place to go in the mind.

 

Art credit: Fleeing to the City of Refuge (Numbers 35:11-28). From Charles Foster, The Story of the Bible, 1884.

 

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” has just been published online in Harper’s. It will also appear in the Letters section of the October issue. I consider the contents both urgent and enduring; I am honored to be one of the signers, along with many people I respect and admire (as well as people I disagree with on many issues and people whose work I don’t know).  Please read it carefully and share it widely.

I rarely sign group letters or petitions, but the letter strongly reflected my thoughts and observations, and I saw a need for a statement of this kind–against the recent climate of intolerance and in favor of “a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.”

It is difficult to single out one part of the letter as more important than the rest. But this deserves close attention: “We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”

The difference here lies between disagreeing with someone–even vociferously–and demanding that the person be fired, shamed, denied publication, etc.

The responses have been telling–an outpouring of support, some thoughtful criticism, and a number of ad hominem attacks. Jennifer Schuessler and Elizabeth A. Harris wrote an excellent article about the letter for The New York Times. There are many interesting comments, including this from James in San Diego:

It’s widely recognized that this “intolerant” way of thinking is somehow related to the type of speech that takes place on the internet, but the exact relationship remains mysterious, usually waved away with a passing reference to the dreaded Echo Chambers, which are actually just some lovely caves.

But it’s more related to the dominance of advertising on the internet. Before advertising was ubiquitous on the web, netizens were actually quite tolerant. And it’s also not really about “tolerance,” at least not in any causal way.

It’s more about the order of mental operations that advertising requires. Advertising requires you to set your judgments first, THEN absorb information. So articles’ headlines (basically small ads) need you to find the topic interesting, shocking, appalling, or heartwarming BEFORE you’ve read about it. If you wait until after learning the details of something to start forming a judgment about it, advertising has failed.

And the habit sticks. People now EXPECT to be able to draw conclusions about things before starting to understand them, and so they organize the data in a way that facilitates this, by highlighting and foregrounding “easy discriminator” elements, which might be rhetorical, contextual, or personal.

But ads rarely lead to new heights, and the way of thinking they inspire militates against intellectual growth or ascent to the unknown.

I don’t know whether James is right about the influence of advertising culture–I would say that the trend toward rushed opinions comes from several sources, including a few education trends–but many of his observations ring true. There’s now an expectation that we form opinions before actually learning about an issue. The contexts range from satisfaction surveys to dating to political discussion.

In addition, opinions have become like badges. Display the right ones, and you’re fine, until someone calls you out as fake; display the wrong ones, and you’re an elitist fearfully clinging to a dwindling demesne, or simply a terrible person. Don’t display any at all, and you’re defective at best.

I hope the letter will bring some needed questioning and challenge into the air. It is already beginning to do so.

I added considerably to this piece after posting it.

Listen Up: Platon Karataev

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Photo by Tamás Lékó / Phenom’enon.

One of the most exciting things about music–any style–is the feeling, when you listen to something exceptional, that you must both take time with it alone and bring it to others. When you tell someone, “You have got to hear this!” you mean, “The music will not stay secret–and even if it is well known already, it will become even more so, right now.” Even if you’re just one of thousands of listeners, or hundreds of thousands, you have to do your part.

Many songs, many compositions have had this effect on me, but now it is the Hungarian band Platon Karataev. I was introduced to their music indirectly, through online recommendations of Marcell Bajnai, the guitarist, lead singer, and songwriter of Idea. At first I was intrigued by their name (after the peasant in Tolstoy’s War and Peace whom Pierre Bezukhov comes to know in prison, and whose attitude toward life inspires his own transformation). Then, once I started listening, I kept returning, and then something took hold. They have elements of The Smiths, Elliott Smith, Radiohead, and Grandaddy (especially The Sophtware Slump), but their style is their own, with unabashed intellect and feeling and gorgeous sound. Their new album, Atoms (released just last month), whirls both inward and outward. According to the band’s own description, “This album is about searching for our innermost selves, and also about questioning everything. The title, ‘Atoms’, refers to the idea that just like us, each song on this album is an individual shivering atom on its own.”

They usually sing in English. Usually I prefer to hear Hungarian bands sing in Hungarian–not only for my own immersion in the language, but because English has become the language of streamlining and mass access. Many songwriters write in English in hopes of reaching a wider audience. While that’s understandable, it’s a loss to the Hungarian language (and sometimes to English too). But when Platon Karataev sings in English, it’s different, because they bring something unique to the language. Take, for instance, some of the lyrics from “Aphelion” (one of my favorites on the new album):

I’m a paraphrase
Of silence as I’m floating over nameless days
With sanguine eyes
And blue lips I lie on God’s chest I’m paralyzed

If there’s such a thing
A spiral of nothing
Well, it pulls me down

 

Hearing this for the first time on the radio, you might think they’re singing “Ophelia” instead of “Aphelion.” That would work, too; the whole song could easily be sung to Ophelia by Hamlet. But it’s “Aphelion,” the outermost point in a planet’s orbit–that is, when it is farthest from the sun. The song takes you into private and cosmic pain. (By the way, Earth’s 2020 aphelion was yesterday. )

Another of my favorites–and so brief that I have to play it over and over again–is “Ex Nihilo,” the first song of Atoms. It starts out with the chorus, “Ex nihilo nihil fit,” which catches the ear because of the rhythm of the syllables and the way the end becomes the beginning. This is one of those songs that you would want both in a philosophy or physics class and on a desert road trip. But not for background music, ever.

 

I know why I love these songs and the others on Atoms. They have everything: sound, hooks, lyrics, character, guts–and together they form an album. But it’s harder for me to explain what’s great about “Elevator,” for instance.

 

On the surface, the lyrics sound ordinary:

You can call it anything, but that was love
When we were happy just because we shared the blanket.
You can call it what you want
You can call it anything, but that was love.
That was pure Love.

But if you listen carefully to the rhythm, the lilting of “You can call it,” you find that the genius is right there–taking simple words and setting them to time and tune in an absolutely memorable way. That, and the “elevator” part, which takes you by surprise, and the way the song progresses–the tight, surprising structure and the a cappella ending. All together, “Elevator” has what many songwriters long for: the feeling that every second belongs and must be heard and sung along to, again and again.

And that’s what songs are, isn’t it? These short musical stretches of time that you want to repeat and sing along with, because, like the character Platon Karataev in War and Peace, they bring something inside you to life.

You can find Platon Karataev’s albums and songs on their website, as well as on Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, and elsewhere. Photo credit: Tamás Lékó; photo originally published in Phenom’enon.

This is the first post in a new series called Listen Up (different from the Song Series), in which I will write about things worth listening to.