What Are Years?

I celebrate three New Years annually: the Jewish New Year, the academic new year, and the Gregorian New Year, which begins tomorrow. They are all different kinds of beginnings. This last one has both the least and the greatest effect on my sense of time: the least because it doesn’t really affect my life rhythm, except that it occurs during our winter break and heralds certain deadlines and beginnings, and the greatest because the it is recognized, marked, and fêted worldwide. I suppose birthdays are a kind of new year too, in which case I celebrate many more than three.

But in all cases, the “year” has to do with the motion of the earth around the sun (or vice versa, as it was perceived in ancient times). Seasons and growth cycles have been part of our conception of time since the earliest antiquity known to us.

New Year’s resolutions may be silly at times, but our sense of starting afresh is not. It’s physical, possible, and good. A person doesn’t even have to wait a year to do this. I often do it from one day to the next, or even during the course of a day. For instance, if I didn’t get nearly as much done as I had hoped, I start over, right then and there, and either get something done or not. Or I do enough of something that I know it will be easy to continue or finish the next day. Being able to “start over” can do, if not wonders, at least more than nothing. Or it can make the “nothing” worthwhile. At times it can simply mean getting a good night’s sleep.

But yes, this year stands out from other years, and the desire for a new start is a bit more urgent than usual, all around the world. Those spared by Covid itself have been hit by Covid fatigue and anxiety. The arts have taken a terrible hit. Travel, events, gatherings are up in the air.

But it’s still possible to read, write, listen to music, watch movies, laugh. So I leave off with just a few recommendations:

The Autumn 2020 issue of my students’ online journal, Folyosó:

Marcell Bajnai’s song “dühöngő” (released in July):

A live video of Dávid Szesztay and his band playing his song “Elindul” (maybe my favorite of his songs):

A brutally funny satirical piece by Dan Geddes, published 19 years ago in The Satirist: “In Memoriam: Dr. Claire Hoyt: ‘Shrink to the Stars’“;

Lara Allen’s art work Fried Liver Attack, whose description begins, “‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ These words, spoken by heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, are the tabula rasa for this work. This punch might be a beginning or an end. It’s supposed that we make art that is about something, or that reflects something, or interrogates something.”

Ishion Hutchinson’s magnificent poem “Little Music,” published in the January 2021 issue of Harper’s;

Martha Hollander’s quietly stunning poem “Friday Harbor,” published in Issue 12:3 of Literary Matters;

And, of course, Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” from which this post’s title comes. It is one of my favorite poems, and it brings back memories of John Hollander’s classes. Since it now appears in various places online, I will copy it below (from the Madison Public Library website). I read it aloud this evening, against a backdrop of rain; here is the recording.

A Happy New Year to all!

What Are Years?

Marianne Moore

        What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
        naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt—
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
        encourages others
        and in its defeat, stirs

        the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who 
        accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment, rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
        in its surrendering
        finds its continuing. 

        So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
        grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
        This is mortality,
        this is eternity.

Do Context, Intent, and Proportion Matter in Journalism?

Dan Levin’s article “A Racial Slur, a Viral Video, and a Reckoning” seems balanced and well presented but has a profound skew. It presents as normal the situation in which a young woman, Mimi Groves, is expelled from her college cheerleading team, and soon afterward withdraws from the college under pressure, because of a three-second Snapchat video containing the n-word that she sent a friend at age fifteen. According to the article’s framing of the story, Groves has been taught a necessary life lesson. Who was the teacher, in this case? A classmate who shared the video to make a point, and others who reacted in fury. The article treats the outcome as sad but normal (and possibly beneficial, in terms of the lessons learned). In this regard it lacks attention to context, intent, and proportion.

How did this all happen? Snapchat posts are not supposed to stay around long; that’s part of the platform’s point. This one got shared, though; a couple of years later, made its way to her classmate Jimmy Galligan, who saved it for an occasion when he could “get her where she would understand the severity of that word.” After she was admitted to her dream college, the University of Tennessee, and as the country throbbed with protests over the murder of George Floyd, Galligan shared the video online, where it was met with rage. At the university, there were demands to have her admission rescinded; some had even threatened violence. The team officially removed her. An admissions officer urged her to withdraw, and she finally did.

Levin’s article carefully and importantly explains why racial slurs are particularly painful and damaging at Heritage High School in Leesburg, Va., which Groves and Galligan attended. Leesburg was the site of a battle early in the Civil War, and slave auctions used to take place on the courthouse grounds. Now a wealthy suburb, it retains racist attitudes and habits. Many students of color have spoken of feeling unwelcome at its schools. According to a report, the use of racial slurs there, and of other racially demeaning language and practices, has fostered “a growing sense of despair.”

In detailing all of this, Levin shows great attention to context. He gives some context to the video as well, explaining that it was meant for one of Groves’s friends; that she made it when she was fifteen, after receiving her learner’s permit; that she was imitating rap songs; that she felt sorry about it and apologized to a classmate who saw it; and that she later spoke up in support of Black Lives Matter. But he does not acknowledge that this context differs distinctly from that of the other instances of racial slurs mentioned. First, it does not seem that she made the video at school. Second, it was for a friend. Third, she was celebrating an achievement. It was a happy moment in which she made a serious mistake. Levin affirms, through his discussion of the town’s history, that it matters not only which words we use, but how they are received, and how history affects their reception. But he does not apply this same principle to the discussion of Groves herself.

Now, let us look at intent. Levin treats Galligan’s intent as honorable. By giving him the last words in the article, he allows Galligan to emphasize that he was teaching a lesson. But somehow the article does not acknowledge that the video’s intent was likely benign, however misguided or impulsive. It quotes Groves saying that she was young and did not understand the import of the word, and that she was disgusted by her own action now. But how many young people of all races have used the word in what they thought was a harmless way, mimicking rap and slang? While the slangish, informal use of the word is still hurtful to many (particularly because of the casualness involved), it does not have the same intent as the cruel uses. And if intent matters in this article–as it clearly does–then it should matter across the board.

In addition, only recently has the slangy use been treated as a punishable crime. Nearly fourteen years ago, in 2007, there was a Daily Show sketch in which John Oliver and Larry Wilmore lampooned a proposed ban of the word. In my view, they went too far in their humiliation of the New York City councilman who had proposed the ban. But clearly the Daily Show found the idea of banning the word ridiculous, yet played, in the sketch, with the assumption that black people could say it and white people could not. What does this have to do with Mimi Groves’s case? The word was in the air, in music, informal conversation, comedy. People knew it was wrong to say, especially if you were white–but it was also part of the language of the street, hip-hop, and youth. Young people might say it, and often did, with no desire to harm.

Now we come to the principle of proportion, which Levin’s article all but dismisses. He quotes Groves’s mother as saying that her twelve years of college preparation were “vaporized.” The reader immediately senses the hyperbole here. No, we think to ourselves, her hard work has not been “vaporized”; she had a setback, but she’ll find her way. This sets us up to perceive Galligan’s words as the true message of the article.

For his role, Mr. Galligan said he had no regrets. “If I never posted that video, nothing would have ever happened,” he said. And because the internet never forgets, the clip will always be available to watch.

“I’m going to remind myself, you started something,” he said with satisfaction. “You taught someone a lesson.”

But stop a minute here. Is it right to take a classmate’s video–which was not meant for the public, and, from all appearances, not meant to hurt anyone–and hold onto it, save it for an opportune moment, and then post it precisely when you know it will hurt her? Is this a way to treat anyone? Yet the ultimate damage was not all Galligan’s doing. The article leaves many questions unasked. Who sent him the video in the first place? Who helped it go viral later? Who demanded that Groves’s admission be rescinded? Who threatened violence? And why did any of them think this was in order?

Some might respond: You think this is bad? Do you have any idea what black people have been subjected to for centuries and still endure day after day? Do you realize that black people have been killed for saying things that white people didn’t like, or for doing nothing at all besides being black? What’s a white girl’s change of college plans next to this?

That is true. The rage is real and justified. But from what I can glean, Mimi Groves did not deserve this rage. There have to be distinctions–because if there are not, if context, intent, and proportion don’t matter, then it’s a free-for-all war, where anyone’s life can be ruined at the drop of a syllable. Journalism exists, in part, to help us maintain perspective and sanity, by reporting clearly on the conflicts in our midst.

Levin’s article–like many New York Times articles recently–combines report, investigation, analysis, and (implicitly) opinion. That in itself poses no problem; there is room in journalism for analyses, “think-pieces,” and passionate investigative writing. But in its application of its own principles, it falls short–and in doing so, it normalizes a disproportionate punishment of a teenage girl.

Long ago I gave a fifth-grade student a disproportionate punishment. She had vanished at the start of a school performance in which she had the lead role. We were waiting and waiting, and she was nowhere to be found. As it turned out, she had gone off to help a student who wasn’t feeling well, and had not told anyone. After consultation with my colleagues, I gave the role to the understudy, to whom I also awarded the drama prize at the end of the year. I talked at length with the student who had lost the honor, but would not change my mind.

Over time I realized that my decision was flat-out wrong. Giving the role to the understudy–that was understandable in the moment. But the rest had no justification. I should have given the first girl the prize. If I had thought clearly about the proportions involved, I would have made a different decision. Overpunishment is one of the most awful mistakes a teacher can make. You carry it forever; you hope that the other person is doing well in life, but you know that you caused some pain along the way.

I have been on the other end too–for instance, being cut off permanently by someone on account of what seemed to me a misunderstanding. You can go for years asking yourself why, why, why? It takes a long time to realize that the action may have been disproportionate; that whatever its reasons, it was not entirely deserved; that reasons and deserts are two different things.

We now live in an era where crowd zeal stands in for discernment and justice. Where will the clarity come from? What role will journalists play?

Not Dibble-Dabbling

There’s a false assumption, particularly in U.S. culture, that if you aren’t famous, you’re a nobody: for example, if your writing isn’t widely known, you aren’t a writer at all, except maybe the kind who writes for satisfaction, empowerment, and the like. There’s a split perception at work: you’re a writer only if you’re famous, and you’re a writer if you call yourself one. Neither of these is true. To be a writer, you have to do it, continually, critically, searchingly, for dissatisfaction even more than satisfaction, for that thing that’s just beyond your words at a given time. This work may or may not result in publication and wide readership. Or something in between: it does, but over time.

If you are a writer (or artist, musician, actor, director, dancer), you know what this means, what it takes. You might focus on one kind of art within your art (for instance, novel-writing, or story-writing), or you may try different forms and directions. Sometimes you take a break or work on things in your mind. But the longer project is never finished, except for those who say, at some point, “I am done,” as some do. And therefore your life must make room for the presence or the absence.

I just finished the forty-eight translations for the manuscript that I will soon send to the publisher. Hooray! There’s still lots to do: manuscript preparation, careful proofreading and editing, reading aloud, rereading. But this is probably the largest project I have accomplished while also teaching. In the past, I left two different teaching positions, in 2009 and 2016, to write two books. Both were approximately two-year projects; they could have taken longer still. Because I left my jobs to write them (a teacher’s sabbatical was not available for this sort of thing, and a leave of absence could not have lasted that long), I gave up seniority within the school system. This time, though, I wanted to keep on teaching; it seemed a little more feasible, since the workday isn’t as draining here as it was for me there.

But it required steady work, not only week after week, but during vacation time too. This year, because of Covid, I had more time at home than usual during the breaks. In the summer, I was working on several projects at once; I didn’t know yet that these translations would be accepted for book publication. But the other writing and translating was essential too. This winter break, the stretches of time allowed me to finish the manuscript. Without this time, I wouldn’t be done until February or so. And it was a great stretch; I enjoyed the project to the bones, as did the cats, I think.

This reality gets lost in the Covid-talk. There are so many articles about how people should go off on their dream adventures, and get together with everyone they can think of, as soon as it’s safe to travel again–and close to nothing about having something to do, right now. That’s understandable, precisely because such work isn’t seen until it is made public. But its being unseen does not render it nonexistent.

And there is the nugget for the day. Do not assume that what you don’t see doesn’t exist. Maybe babies love the peek-a-boo game for the surprise involved: the discovery that the one you can’t see for a second or two is still there. I find that my cats play hide-and-seek; if they can’t see me, they come looking for me, and if I hide repeatedly, they will keep on playing along until I stop. They realize somehow that my not being in sight doesn’t mean I am gone; they just have to investigate a little. But as adults we forget this sometimes. We think, obtusely, that the only things that exist are the things we see (or, worse, the things seen by a crowd). Everyone makes this mistake; but the still greater mistake is to mistake this mistake for correctness.

And so, with minimal dibble-dabbling, this break has been fun so far. Not that dabbling is bad either. It has its place. I dabble as a bike rider, albeit one who takes long rides, and as a photographer. But there are things we don’t dabble at, and precisely because they aren’t dabbling, they need an unseen component, or a time away from the seen, a time to figure things out, practice them, and shape them into something.

I took the first and third pictures on a short bike ride and the second one when translating Gyula Jenei’s “Iskolaudvar” (Schoolyard).

Catching the Light

This is a quick post with pictures I took the other day in my neighborhood. The one above is of the Little Marcipán, closed until summer (the big Marcipán, a block away, remains open). The light in the windows was even more golden than it looks here.

Right across the street from the Little Marcipán: the airplane museum. I was on my way to go running along the Tisza, but stopped here and there to take more pictures, since the sunset was so lovely.

I love the picture above, because if you look in the left-hand corner, you will see the two dogs that were playing with this dog on the wall.

This was a favorite of the day. But not the only one.

This one (above) came close to being my favorite of all: the house with the scraggly trees in front and the sunset colors in the background. But my favorite was the one I took on my street, at the very end.

And that is all. Merry Christmas and Shabbat Shalom, to those who celebrate them, respectively, and to those who don’t but who enjoy a holiday wish all the same.

“I Still Love Christmas….”

Cultural differences surprise me over time. It seems that with all our international media, such differences are disappearing or blurring, but this is not so. At Christmastime especially, I notice the differences between the U.S. and Hungary–or, rather, coastal U.S. and Hungary. Many people I know in the U.S. (particularly in New York, Boston, and San Francisco) say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”; there’s a certain discomfort with saying “Merry Christmas,” since the addressee might be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or of another faith; or nonreligious, or otherwise non-Christmas-celebrating.

Yet this Christmas-nonmentioning custom seems fairly recent; I grew up with Christmas and Merry Christmas, albeit of a secular sort. We had a Christmas tree every year and decorated it with cookies shaped like birds. On Christmas morning my sister and I found presents under the tree. When we lived in the Netherlands, we celebrated Sinkerklaas. In high school I sang Christmas songs and sacred music. One of my favorite works was Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols; I still remember the sound of Louisa Burnham singing the solo of “Balulalow.” Looking back, I wonder what it was like for my Jewish classmates to sing Christmas songs year after year. I was barely aware of being Jewish myself, and had no idea, until later, that there could be a conflict. Today I don’t think there has to be one–it’s possible to celebrate or recognize Christmas, in some way, no matter who you are, or what your origins or beliefs–but I understand its sources.

But in the U.S., Christmas also means a lot of stress: rushing around for presents, worrying about what to buy and what you might or might not get, bearing with loud workplace parties and Secret Santa rituals, surviving tense family gatherings, etc. This remains unchanged even under the “Happy Holidays” banner. Many people understandably object to the way the holiday has been commercialized over the decades. Yet we also love the Christmas displays in storefronts and on the streets. Gaudy and ungreen as they may be, they still bring cheer and nostalgia. I have happy memories of going with friends to see the Macy’s displays–and why? because they are so pretty, because we enjoy the Christmas spirit and its electric manifestations.

That is one of myriad reasons why “I Still Love Christmas” by my friend Hannah Marcus is one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time. It’s so funny and sweet, with one zinger after another, and such beautiful performance; on top of that, it captures the ambivalence that so many of us feel: the uneasy love of Christmas, the quasi-guilty, defiant delight in its rituals. This, I think, is foreign to many Hungarians; here Christmas is celebrated (whether religiously or secularly) with no guilt or misgivings whatsoever, except by those who feel pressured into or constrained by it, who may be more numerous than I realize.

And I still love Christmas, with misgivings that are culturally untranslatable. “You can’t take that from me, no siree….” I would have a tree this year, except that the cats would definitely pounce on it and bring it down. So my tree this year is double: a lovely illuminated wreath-hanging that a friend gave me yesterday, and a dried floral wreath given to me by another friend a few weeks ago, just before Hanukkah.

Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate, enjoy, or “still love” it, and Happy Holidays and Seasons Greetings to all.

I took the top photo outside the Szolnok Airplane Museum and the bottom photo at home.

Looking Ahead

During this delightfully restful and productive holiday break–in which I have been finishing the translation manuscript, writing stories, rereading Jeremy Bendik-Keymer’s The Wind, reading Samuel Beckett’s trilogy for the first time, watching some films, working on the 1984 project and Folyosó, and going running–I have still had time to think ahead a little. As many of you know, I am in the process of applying for permanent residency here in Hungary. At present I must renew my residency permit every year; a permanent residency permit is up for renewal every five years (a simple procedure, once you have it). A lot went into the application; I am just waiting for a couple of documents from the U.S. If permanent residency is granted, then my plan will be to teach for ten more years and then retire. That’s neither early nor late; it’s normal retirement age, and it seems just right to me. Retirement won’t be the end of my work, just a shift in priorities. I will write, teach individual courses, translate, give readings, and more. And before then, I look forward to a full decade of teaching (and projects too).

Upon retirement, I will be eligible for U.S. social security, which I can receive here. In the U.S., the monthly checks would cover only a fraction of my living costs, but here they should be enough to live on. So then I can spend my time on projects, and tutor, if I wish, for extra income. Travel to the U.S. and elsewhere won’t be difficult, assuming normal travel has resumed by then.

Nothing can be known with precision in advance; all sorts of things can come up unexpectedly, situations can mutate, and plans can fall through. But this overall plan appeals to me and makes lots of sense. It’s also fair to everyone involved; I am not taking anything unfairly from either the U.S. or Hungary, but instead reaping earned benefits and continuing to give what I can. I won’t be eligible for a Hungarian pension here, but I won’t need it. My health care, on the other hand, will be covered.

Three years here went by in an instant. Ten years is just three of those instants and a little more. If I were to become a homeroom teacher (osztályfőnök) in a year or two, I would have time to see two cohorts through from ninth grade to graduation. That is a dream of mine, and well within reach. The osztályfőnök not only sees the students all the way through, but participates in all their ceremonies, helps them with difficulties, oversees their grades, holds meetings with the parents at the beginning and end of each year, and more. For the second consecutive year now, I am a “pótosztályfőnök” (“vice homeroom teacher”), which allows me to see how it works. I am almost ready to take something like this on; I just need a bit more familiarity with the procedural language, so that I can communicate all necessary information to parents. So, another year or two, and it will be time, if the opportunity arises.

Three years ago, we had a concert in the Református Templom here in Szolnok; a group of teachers, directed by music teacher Andrea Barnané Bende, sang “Hymne à la nuit“; I was given the solo, which I loved singing, though I had a slight cold. It was a beautiful welcome into the life of the school; little did I know how much more would be coming, and how much after that would still stretch ahead.

A Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and peaceful, healthy winter!

Stores, Coffee, and Socks

Those who scoff at capitalism might forget the joy of walking into a little store–like the Arabica Kávézó here in Szolnok, which offers not only coffee and cookies, but books (including Zsolt Bajnai’s Visszaköszönés), tote bags with cats and dogs on them, lovely jewelry, and other things that catch the eye. This is the kind of store that, in the world of Orwell’s 1984, could get a person in trouble with the Thought Police. I went there today because I saw interesting things through the window. I walked out with a necklace and bracelet, a cat tote bag, and information on where to find coffee filters. I had just bought an American-style coffee maker (for three years I have been drinking instant coffee at home), but could not find any filters. Speaking to me rapidly (I can now understand people when they do this in Hungarian), the woman behind the counter explained exactly where the filters were in the Co-op grocery store next door. I went there and, sure enough, there they were. The taste of homemade coffee is thrilling.

With so many restrictions on our lives, with so many institutions closed down at least temporarily, with so many events converted into Zoom sessions, it’s cheering to walk by stores that are lit up and open.

And even those stores you never visit–the ones that you pass by, thinking, “One of these days I’ll step inside,” these too bring something to your life. Stores have to make money, but that’s not all they do. They give something to a town or city. You come to know a place by them, in part.

Hungary has its share of chain stores (which also serve their purpose), but I love the little shops and cafés here; it is fun to discover them, get to know them, visit them over time. That’s part of living in a city, I think: learning to support the businesses properly. Because otherwise one day they could be gone.

Oh, yes, my title mentioned socks. That’s because I was thinking of Pablo Neruda’s “Oda a los calcetines.” Here it is, in Spanish and English, for your enjoyment. True, Neruda was passionately communist–which seems, on the surface, to contradict what I have been saying here. But such are the contradictions of life, and they weave together into a truth.

Instead of “Growth Mindset,” Good Tinkering

I have written numerous posts–and a chapter of a book–on problems with the concept of “growth mindset” and the phrase itself.* But I keep tinkering with the idea, because there seems to be something more to say. Until now, my objections have come down to this: Growth mindset proponents either say or imply that everyone should strive for more growth mindset, no matter how much they already have. Yet it is possible, even likely, that people benefit from a mixture of mindsets, from a sense of possibility and limitation. Also, the phrase sounds overly grandiose, like a polka-dotted umbrella stretching over the world; it claims to encompass more than it does.

I still hold to the above. But I realized something else while listening to Bill Hader’s Q&A with students and program host Tova Laiter at the New York Film Academy’s Los Angeles campus. Throughout the discussion, he keeps returning to the point that no matter where you are in your creative life and career, you fail and fail again. You learn to figure out what’s going wrong and how it could be better. That becomes your primary way of thinking: puzzling things out, looking at possibilities, following your instincts but also listening to others and recognizing when something isn’t working. Trying again. Knowing when you have hit upon what you were looking for. There’s no way to simplify this; it’s contradictory and complex, because you have to let yourself be both right and wrong. You have to listen to yourself but not only to yourself. You have to try all sorts of things that don’t work out at all. Failures do not end.

In the entire hour, he did not once say “growth mindset,” nor have I heard him say it in any other interviews. I admire his work, especially on SNL (eight seasons), in the HBO series Barry, and in the film The Skeleton Twins, and I enjoy hearing him speak about it. He answers questions courteously and thoughtfully, in his own words, without catchphrases. I am sure he has heard the phrase “growth mindset,” but from what I have heard so far, he hasn’t used it. Why not? I have no way of knowing, but I think he’s saying something slightly different.

The point is not to have a “growth mindset,” or even to strive for one. The point is to tinker with stuff and to tinker well. For fun and for results. Try this, try that, and listen closely. Be alert to what you are doing; catch whatever seems slightly off. But also catch whatever is good. Develop a better and better ear and eye for this.

No one does this across the board. We have a few things in our lives that we tinker continually with, and other things we leave alone. I mean “tinker” in the best possible sense: to fiddle, experiment, play with something in order to get it right. There’s tinkering that leads nowhere or that is done haphazardly, with no clear intention. But once you have a grasp of what you are doing, you start tinkering better. It doesn’t always have to be productive; sometimes you do it playfully, to see what happens.

I don’t assume that Bill Hader agrees with me here. For all I know, he might be a “growth mindset” fan. But he seems more concerned with the work itself, and the possibilities within it, than with a “mindset” of any kind. Yes, this does require certain attitudes and assumptions. You don’t tinker at all if you expect your work to be perfect as soon as it comes out of you. Tinkering requires that you see imperfections. But after that, what really matters is the practice of it, the daily immersion in the work and the questions it brings up.

In the NYFA discussion, he returns several times to the importance of focus–and how you can create focus yourself, just through the way you look at your work. A couple of students ask him how he manages to wear different hats in Barry and elsewhere–as writer, director, and actor–and he responds that he focuses on the story. That way, all his different roles come together, and the focus isn’t on him and all the different things he has to do.

Someone like Bill Hader must have to turn down hundreds of projects and possibilities, not just within film and television, but outside. Why not take up a musical instrument? Learn how to repair a car? Go on a speaking tour? Accept this or that interview request? Please, please? The phrase “I can’t” permits not only survival, but dedication to the projects at hand. Sure, stretching yourself into new areas could represent “growth,” but if you aren’t beholden to a concept of growth mindset, you get to decide what and what not to take on.

That must be one of the most difficult parts of a career like his. Even I, who am nowhere near famous, get requests that I have to turn down, but he must get them all the time. He has some people to filter them, but of those invitations and proposals that do get through to him, he probably takes on only a small fraction. Why? Because infinite availability will kill you. People will not respect your limits.

And there it is. To work on something serious, you also need limits, things you can’t or won’t do, things you say no to, implicitly or out loud. This becomes your den. There, in the warm light, you get down to work.

*Growth mindset, according to Carol Dweck, consists in the belief that one’s “talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others).” Growth mindset proponents routinely oppose growth mindset (good) to fixed mindset (bad). They acknowledge that people have a mixture of mindsets (in which case, is it even a “mindset?”) but ignore the possibility that such a mixture might be necessary.

The photo at the top is courtesy of HBO via a wonderful article in Vanity Fair (Sonya Saraiya, “Barry Is Still Killer in Season 2,” March 29, 2019).

The Push and Pull of Literary Journals

In my experience, literary journals, especially in the U.S. can tend toward either of two extremes: discouraging people from submitting work, or sending enthusiastic daily reminders to do so.

The first tendency I can understand, up to a point. A journal knows what it wants; the editors have little time and don’t want to spend hours scrolling through submissions that they know they will reject. But some seem gratuitously offputting. Not long ago, I came upon this mission statement:

[Journal X] has a very clear mission: to be inclusive, to denounce bigotry of all kinds, and to stand up to those who abuse and persecute. We have a zero-tolerance policy regarding racism, trans/homophobia, misogyny, and violence for the sake of violence. If we receive work from an abusive person, we will decline it, as is our right to do. If we are alerted that we have published a piece by an abuser, we will unpublish it, as is our right to do.

Denouncing bigotry is the journal’s prerogative; journals have the freedom to set their own standards and criteria. What bothers me is the statement, “If we are alerted that we have published a piece by an abuser, we will unpublish it, as is our right to do.” They make no room for uncertainty; they say unambiguously, “we will unpublish it” (italics added). What if the “alert” is false, distorted, or vicious? This statement appears to value hearsay over (a) the contents of the submitted work and (b) the editors’ own judgment.

Let there be journals of many kinds; let the editors set their rules and choose pieces that they love. But writers, too, have standards to set and choices to make. I want editors who are willing to stand up for what they print, who won’t unpublish a piece just because of something they heard about the author.

At the other end of things, we find journals that remind you daily, maybe more than once a day, to enter their contests. As the days and hours count down, you get more and more reminders. Why? Do they really want your work? Do they think you have a chance of winning? Probably not. I can see several possible reasons for this approach: they want to discover some unknown gems; they make (badly needed) money from the contests; they want to spread the word about the journal, and they know that some people, including some of their favorite writers, just forget and need to be reminded. But most people receiving these emails are not really being sought out. If they submit, their work just adds to the size of the electronic pile.

Advice abounds about how to submit to journals and get your work published. Much of it makes sense; some of it just distracts. Submissions should never take precedence over the writing itself. (On a related subject, listen to this interview with the poet Teresa Miller.) Yes, if you want to be published, you do have to send out your work; granted, some approaches will work better than others. But if you are working on a story, and on a single day you get three reminders to submit to a particular contest, that does not mean you should submit the story before it’s done. Take the necessary time with it; otherwise you are just wasting your submission and incurring unnecessary rejection. Take years, if you need years. (But try not to take years; it’s good to have some momentum.)

And by all means, avoid journals whose mission statements sound a little off. Trust the ear over hearsay.

Image courtesy of Stack. This post does not refer, directly or indirectly, to any of the journals in the picture.

Facebook, the Indifference Factory

Facebook is in mild trouble. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission and more than forty states have accused it of illegally squashing competition; Chris Hughes, one of Facebook’s founders, argues in a scathing opinion piece that it should be broken up. Facebook has been faulted not only for eliminating competition, but for intruding on users’ privacy and spreading fake news, some of which is intended to incite violence. (This should give “growth mindset” cheerleaders at least some pause.)

Above and beyond all of this, Facebook is a factory of indifference. Its newsfeed, likes, and “friends” put pressure on you to read stuff you don’t really care about, “like” things you might actually love or might not care for much at all (the range of emojis doesn’t do much here), and put up with dizzying interruptions, so that you lose track of whatever it was you originally came to read. It socializes and publicizes friendships; even plans for get-togethers end up in comments on posts, for everyone to see. You have some control over privacy, but often it isn’t worth the bother to go through the steps to exert it.

To care about things in life, you need privacy, and you need levels. You don’t share everything with everyone; you don’t share everything right away. Conversations are individual and selective, not for public display except for special cases, such as interviews. You need time to respond to things, without pressure to give an instant reaction. Facebook pushes against all of this. What Orwell says in Nineteen Eighty-Four about the loss of tragedy applies here. There can be no tragedy (or great joy, or anything important) when there is no privacy. I don’t just mean the privacy of data (which is what people usually bring up), but also the privacy of personal life, thoughts, and reactions.

A heart-sinking pettiness takes over; you have to be a little rude to shake it off. I often feel like a spoil-sport. I post photos that I take here in Szolnok and elsewhere, post links to my blog and other things, and forward links from other people. But I rarely get involved in Facebook discussions and games. When invited to “like” pages, I rarely do, unless I really want to see the updates. I get messages from strangers and near-strangers that I leave unanswered, often because they contain attachments that I don’t want to click, or because I just don’t want to chat.

Facebook is all about activity, constant activity. There’s a recurring chain letter that goes, more or less, “I get discouraged by the superficiality that I find here. Most people on Facebook don’t read each other’s posts; they just skim them, like them, and move on. So I am going to conduct an experiment. I want to find out, for my own peace of mind, who actually cares enough to read this post to the end. If you do read it, please leave a one-word comment below, then copy this post and repost it verbatim on your own timeline. The word should have something to do with your relationship with me. Do not leave a comment without reposting, since that would ruin the experiment.” This kind of post tricks people into thinking that they have to prove their sincerity and readership by reposting. In reposting, they are not saying anything of their own; they are just duplicating someone else’s words, without saying so outright. The message comes down to an ultimatum; if you’re genuine, and you really read my posts, you can prove it by following these steps; if you don’t follow these steps, I may deduce that you don’t read them and don’t really care about me.

A subtler version is “Post 10 photos of books that have had an impact on your life, with no explanation” (or something similar with films, songs, etc.) Each time you post one, you are supposed to nominate someone to start a list. Now, granted, sometimes these can be interesting (and fun too), but if I were nominated, I wouldn’t do it–simply because I don’t want to be pressured to list things and to nominate ten more people. Now, some may say that this has nothing to do with Facebook, but rather with users and the various games they come up with. But these games happen to benefit Facebook by escalating activity. I suspect that some of them originated with Facebook staff and that they accompany hundreds of other ways of manipulating people into depending more on the platform.

There’s a flattening of communication–a pressure to treat everyone dimly as your friend, to play games you don’t want to play, and to let go of thoughts and posts within seconds. The worst part of it is that if you really do take something seriously (or humorously), you are reduced to the same gestures you’d give anything else–a “like,” a “love,” maybe a brief comment.

This does not reflect on Facebook users as people. There are people on Facebook whom I truly like and love, whose posts I enjoy (even chain-letter posts), and whose greetings I know are genuine. The pain lies in having to mix all of this up with so much stuff. Advertisements, updates, posts, comments that I didn’t ask for and have to sludge through anyway. Reading a book, reading anything that doesn’t blink and convulse and broadcast its popularity and split into vanishing bits, has become a revelation and relief.

Facebook needs to be broken up–not just because it is a massive, ever-growing monopoly, not just because it exerts undue influence on people’s sense of reality, but because it mass-manufactures indifference, dresses it up in cheery forms, and tricks people into embracing it (a paradoxical metaphor). No one has to speak, feel, or think this way.

I took the photo yesterday. It has nothing to do with the post, but with a bit of a stretch, one could connect it somehow.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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