A Book in the Making

Almost a year ago, in October 2019, Gyula Jenei, Marianna Fekete, and I travelled to Dallas to give poetry readings and hold discussions for the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s annual Education Forum. I think back on those bright, brisk days: the events, with their lively discussions; the walks all around Dallas, the visit to the Terrell Academy in Fort Worth; and the many conversations and meetings. At a luncheon we met Will Evans, Executive Director and Publisher of Deep Vellum, who expressed interest in publishing a book of my translations of Gyula’s poems.

Yesterday the contracts were executed; the book, Always Different: Poems of Memory, by Gyula Jenei, translated by Diana Senechal, will be released sometime in 2021.

I have translated much poetry in my life, but this is the first large project that I have initiated. Others came to me through invitation; this one I sought out, and then later a publisher sought the fruits of it. It stands out in that way and in many others: it also brings together my life in Hungary and my long and rich relationship with the Dallas Institute. Beyond that, the poems are great, and people love them in English as well as in Hungarian. One of my favorites, “Scissors” (“Olló”) will be published in The Massachusetts Review, probably this spring, and most likely before the book comes out.

In retrospect, the timing of all of this seems perfect and improbable. If our trip to Dallas had been scheduled for the spring instead of the fall, the pandemic would have prevented it from happening. It not only worked out, but worked out as perfectly as a human thing can. Not only did nothing go wrong, but an abundance of things went right. And there we were together, talking about poetry, reading and hearing poetry.

The title of the Education Forum was “Poetry as Education.” This was not about pedagogy at all, though pedagogy came up here and there in the discussions. The event–like the Institute’s work in general–was based on the premise that good education requires attention to the essential subjects themselves. Poetry is not an afterthought or an extracurricular activity. It underlies each day.

Finishing the manuscript by the end of 2020 will take intense focus, but that is nothing new for me; I am used to meeting deadlines, and it can be done. I thrive on such focus; it counterbalances the multiplicity. This year is about as full for me as a year can get, but I would not give up any of it. With that in mind, I must run.

Both photos in this post are by James Edward, courtesy of The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. The full Flickr slideshow can be found here.

A Presumption of Goodwill

Biking along the glittering Tisza in the morning (on the embankment bikeway, which is more elevated than the dirt road shown in this picture), then passing through the Rose Park before locking up my bike outside the school, I start my day well. The Zagyva was beautiful too, but I like this slightly longer itinerary. When I lived by the Zagyva, it took just five minutes to get to school. Now it takes 10-15 minutes, and I enjoy every bit of it.

But the day starts well for other reasons too. I have been thinking a lot about the importance of a presumption of goodwill (in any educational setting, and in other areas of life). At Varga, on the whole (with exceptions and complications), this exists. People assume and support a basic good in each other. I see little if any defensiveness, little if any tendency to put others down. This does not mean that people have only positive things to say about each other. To the contrary: they criticize frequently. But the criticism is pointed, not generalized. That is, it refers to something specific that can be addressed.

In the U.S., there is a pervasive defensiveness that goes beyond any particular school or institution. If one person is praised, that means (to many) that the others are being put down. People suspect each other of not being everything they’re made out to be. Unraveling someone’s reputation is not only a pastime but an addiction. Finding that fault–and then dismissing the entire person because of the fault–takes so much time and focus that people often ignore the serious problems in their midst.

The problem manifests itself sometimes in political and racial controversies, but it derives from something even more pervasive. So when I read the story of the professor who was removed from his course for mentioning a Chinese filler word that happens to sound like a racial slur in English, I thought this was ridiculous (especially the administration’s decision) but didn’t see it as an outlier case. It doesn’t have to only with race. It has to do with the common hypervigilance, the practice of watching eagle-eyed for the slightest offense and then jumping on it.

Not everyone does this in the U.S., and the tendency isn’t absent from Hungary. It’s part of human nature, economic life, institutional life, and (especially) political life. But in my experience, teachers in the U.S. are much more on edge about the possibility of getting in trouble, saying the wrong thing, or being derided or dispataged. You want to gain enemies? Show that you are intelligent and dedicated. Someone will find a reason to tear that down.

Some would attribute this to the American tendency to think in terms of a “zero-sum game.” If one person is doing well, that means I can’t be doing well at the same time. But I think it also comes from celebrity culture and its double urges to prop someone up and tear the same person down. Lester Bangs wrote memorably about this (in relation to music):

The fact is that Lou [Reed], like all heroes, is there for the beating up. They wouldn’t be heroes if they were infallible, in fact they wouldn’t be heroes if they weren’t miserable wretched dogs, the pariahs of the earth, besides which the only reason to build up an idol is to tear it down again, just like anything else. A hero is a goddam stupid thing to have in the first place and a general block to anything you might wanta accomplish on your own. Plus part of the whole exhilaration of admiring someone for their artistic accomplishments is resenting ’em ’cause they never live up to your expectations. Plus which they all love the abuse, they’re worse than academics, so the only thing left to do is go whole hog nihilistic and tear everyone you ever respected to shreds. Fuck em!

This sounds over the top, but it captures a truth about American life. In many ways the idols do seem to be there for the beating up, and it’s a cherished ritual.

But you need a presumption of goodwill in order to do your work. That doesn’t mean being told you’re wonderful all the time. It just means having your basic integrity recognized and assumed, unless there’s a serious reason to question it.

There is much more to say on this topic. Another time.

“In a problem, the great thing is the challenge….”

In childhood I was given a book on probability, a subject that fascinated me. It had a series of intriguing problems, with humorous illustrations scattered throughout, and detailed solutions at the end. I loved the book, opened it up many times, but did not get far in it. I remember poring over the first few problems and browsing through the others. Then, after a series of moves and life changes, the book got misplaced.

Years later, I remembered it and wanted to find it, but I couldn’t remember the title or author. I asked people, searched in bookstores, searched online, and racked my memory, all to no avail. Then one day I read an interview with a dear friend of the family, George Cobb, who died last spring and whom I had not seen in many years. He mentioned using Frederick Mosteller’s Fifty Challenging Problems in Probability with Solutions (1965) in a probability course that he taught. Something told me that this might be the book; I looked it up, and sure enough, it was. He must have given me a copy as a gift. I ordered a Dover paperback (the original book was hardcover); it arrived the other day.

I opened it up and read the preface, which I probably hadn’t read before, since in childhood I didn’t bother much with prefaces, preferring instead to get right into the matter. It brought back a dim and beloved world. Mosteller writes:

Much of what I have learned, as well as much of my intellectual enjoyment, has come through problem solving. Through the years, I’ve found it more and more difficult to tell when I was working and when playing, for it has so often turned out that what I have learned playing with problems has been useful in my serious work.

In a problem, the great thing is the challenge. A problem can be challenging for many reasons: because the subject matter is intriguing, because the answer defies unsophisticated intuition, because of its difficulty, because of a clever intuition, or even because of the simplicity or beauty of the answer.

I turned to the first problem, which I now remembered clearly.

1. The Sock Drawer

A drawer contains red socks and black socks. When two socks are drawn at random, the probability that both are red is 1/2. (a) How small can the number of socks in the drawer be? (b) How small if the number of black socks is even?

The first part I figured out just by experimenting in my mind. The total number of possibilities for choices of two socks would be (t)(t-1), where t is the total number of socks. I would need r(r-1), the total number of possibilities for choosing two red socks, to be 1/2(t)(t-1). If the total number of socks were 4, and the number of red socks 3, this would work out.

The second part is much trickier–and the solution in the book involves setting up an inequality, using it to express the relation of r to b, and then trying out increasing even values of b until one of them works.

Last night I started thinking of a different solution, which I would execute with Perl. My underlying principle was this: if I could have Perl generate two tables, one of which held particular values for the total number of socks (t, t-1, t(t-1), and t’s even/odd value) and the other for the total number of red socks, and if I could write a program that iterated through the tables until it found a match where t(t-1) was twice r(r-1), then I could narrow down the list to those where t and r had the same even/odd value, which would make b even (since b = t-r). I worked on that for quite a while but couldn’t get Perl to do the iterations that I had in mind.

Then, when biking to the supermarket for last-minute groceries for dinner, I had a different idea.

use POSIX;

for ($redtotal = 1; $redtotal <= 1000000; $redtotal++) {
$redsocks[$redtotal][0] = $redtotal;
$redsocks[$redtotal][1] = $redsocks[$redtotal][0] – 1;
$redsocks[$redtotal][2] = $redsocks[$redtotal][0] * $redsocks[$redtotal][1];
$redsocks[$redtotal][3] = 0;
if ($redsocks[$redtotal-1][3] == 0) {
$redsocks[$redtotal][3] = 1;
}
else {
$redsocks[$redtotal][3] = 0
}
$redsocks[$redtotal][4] = 2 * $redsocks[$redtotal][2];
$product = $redsocks[$redtotal][4];
$square = sqrt($product);
$roundup = ceil($square);
$rounddown = floor($square);
if ($roundup != $rounddown) {
if (($roundup * $rounddown) == ($product)) {
if ((($roundup % 2) + ($redtotal % 2)) != 1) {
print (“$roundup”, ” total socks, “, “$redtotal”, ” red socks\n”);
}
}
}
}

The POSIX call just brings in some extra functions. The whole program consists of a “for” loop that iterates through values of $redtotal, the total number of red socks. First it established the elements of the array @redsocks. Then it assigns a few more variables.

Basically, we are trying to find out whether, for any particular r, 2r(r-1) can be expressed as the product of two consecutive integers, t(t-1). To find this t and t-1, take the square root of $product, and, if it is not an even integer, identify the integers immediately above and below it ($roundup and $rounddown). Then test them out by multiplying them with each other. If they equal $product, then you have a match. In that case, add the even/odd values of $roundup and $redtotal. If the sum does not equal 1, then they are either both even or both odd, in which case b will be even. Those are the matches that will be printed out.

Now have the program print out all the matches as specified above. For the purposes of the problem, we only need the lowest value (15 red socks, 21 socks in total), but it’s fun to see what happens after that. Here are the results (where $redtotal goes up to one million):

21 total socks, 15 red socks
697 total socks, 493 red socks
23661 total socks, 16731 red socks
803761 total socks, 568345 red socks


You can test them out by multiplying each number of total socks by the number one less than that, doing the same for the red socks, and then verifying that your second result is one-half of your first one. Let’s do this for the highest number here.

803,761 x 803,760 = 646,030,941,360
568,345 x 568,344 = 323,015,470,680

323,015,470,680 x 2 = 646,030,941,360

So, you see, it works!

There are probably ways to make the script more elegant. Instead of nesting the ifs, I could have used a series of ands, but I couldn’t get that to work correctly. I haven’t used Perl in years, so I’m a little rusty with the syntax. I was proud to be able to get this working.

The book was written long before Perl and more sophisticated programming languages came into use, long before it became possible to program from home. But the problems do just what they did before. They incite you to think, play, tinker, and solve. And this book is not only rejoining my collection but opening up to me in a new way after all these years.

If you try out this code, be sure to change the minus sign (in line 5) to a plain hyphen and the quotes near the end to plain quotes.

A Favorite Picture

This picture–which I took this morning at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium–is one of my favorites that I have taken at school so far. This nook next to the first-floor hallway is where students work quietly, talk with each other, or meet with teachers. I have had many meetings and conversations here.

We are living with lots of uncertainty regarding the pandemic, but I am thrilled with the year so far. I have many new students, as well as students whom I have taught continuously since arriving at Varga in November 2017. It is great to be back after last spring’s online stint and the stretch of summer.

I have four projects this year that require a lot of attention: the online literary journal Folyosó, the Shakespeare festival (a joint project of Varga and the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár), the Orwell project, and (if it takes place) the drama festival in Veszprém. That is on top of teaching 23 lessons a week to 13/14 different groups of students (13 if you consider 12.C English and 12.C Civilization the same group, 14 if you consider them different). So it will be busy, but I look forward to all of it and to the projects outside of work–translating, writing, music, events, and synagogue.

The day and its schedule calls, so that is all for now.

A Double Honor

IMG_3193

At today’s opening ceremony for the school year at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, I had one of the greatest honors of my life. I received two prizes: the “pedagógus emlékplakett” (pedagogical memorial plaque) and the Teacher’s Oscar in the language category. The recipients of both awards are determined annually by votes: the first by the faculty, the second by the students. What a great affirmation and encouragement this is. I treasure these awards and everything that they mean. Thank you!

IMG_3186

Many others received awards today (teachers, two students who graduated last year, and the president of the parent association)–but if I try to list them, I will probably leave someone out inadvertently. Once the names are published, I will include the link here–and if I can’t find it, I will ask for the full list at school. Congratulations to all.

There is so much to look forward to this year. I think of the projects underway–two drama projects, Folyosó, an Orwell project–and the collaboration with different colleagues. I don’t know how things will play out with the coronavirus this year–we have a protocol in place, but things can change–but no matter what happens, we will find ways to do interesting things and help students accomplish their goals. Even though wearing a mask in the classroom will be uncomfortable, I am glad that we can have classes in person. We can use the masks on our faces the way Demosthenes, according to legend, used stones in his mouth: as a challenge to speak more clearly. Or as a challenge to stay silent–who knows? We will see. At least we don’t have to wear masks over our eyes.