The Pity of the Project

Spring break, which goes through Tuesday, has begun. When people ask me what I’m doing, and I reply that I am staying home because I have a lot of projects, they sometimes look at me with an expression of pity. But there’s nothing to pity here; I love having time to work on things without rush. I have some things to do: wrap up the Orwell project with a final report (for the grant), prepare a presentation on the same project, write an essay that I have promised for publication, catch up on grading, work on Folyosó (which has some exciting features and pieces in the upcoming issue), write a story that has been in my mind for a while, start putting together the Shakespeare video, and do a little something with music too. All that, and finish the book I am currently reading, and listen to music, and write a few blog pieces. Yes, and I have an appointment for my first Pfizer shot on Friday. That’s already a lot! But I do plan to take a day trip on the bike–maybe take the train to Tokaj and bike around from there, or maybe bike to Tiszafüred again and take the train back. The challenge lies in getting home by Covid-curfew (8 p.m.), but something can be done.

A few announcements, while I’m here:

My translation of Zsolt Bajnai’s story “Az eltűnt városháza” (“The Vanished City Hall”) will be published on the Asymptote Blog on Tuesday. That’s a great honor. (Update: here it is.) Speaking of that, the ALSCW event featuring Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai went splendidly, and we received many appreciative comments afterwards. Thanks again to Ernie Suarez, the Bajnais, and everyone who attended.

Today I had the joy of listening to Art of Flying’s “Song for Iris” on KKFI 90.1 FM, in Mark Manning’s Wednesday Midday Medley. I listened onwards too, for a little while, and look forward to listening again soon.

My “Listen Up” series on this blog has been taking off; the piece on Art of Flying left me with albums in my ear. It is so much fun to delve into favorite music. I haven’t decided yet what the next piece in the series will be, but before too long there will be one on Jacques Brel.

Also, I have started to read the poet János Pilinszky, thanks to references in Cz.K. Sebő’s and Platon Karataev’s music. One poem, “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight Labyrinth”), I recited and put together with a video I made, that same day, of snowfall on the Tisza. You can read Simon Géza’s gorgeous English translation (of this and some other Pilinszky poems) here. My pronunciation has some imperfections, but I decided not to try to fix this particular video. Let it be as is. The poem is what matters.

On the Pesach front, I co-led a virtual seder (at Szim Salom) and attended a virtual family seder. In addition, I have been eating matzah since Saturday, thanks to my friend Éva in Budapest, who sent me two boxes (more than enough for the week, but it’s really tasty, so I’ll just keep on eating it).

And spring is here.

Listen Up: Art of Flying

Photo: Doctor Foxglove. Make-Out Room, San Francisco, 2013.

I have been listening to Art of Flying for more than fifteen years. Their songs seem ancient and modern at once: as though plucked from the sky and rolled in our world. I listen to An Eye Full of Lamp (2000), their first full-length album, and have a hard time selecting particular songs from it, since they form a piece. Many are tightly and beautifully crafted, with attention to each instrument, each part; others are exploratory, a little like driving late at night and taking a different road from the usual, which takes you through forests and fields and stars and scares you just a little, though you want to be there. Listen to the whole album, and all of their albums, and you learn what it means to live in music, to make each note, sound, and word matter; to catch a song’s drift, that thing that makes us want to play it again and again.

At its core, Art of Flying is the duo of David Costanza and Anne Speroni. They have been playing music together for several decades, with other musicians coming and going for short, long, and recurring intervals: first as the Whitefronts (named after a local grocery store), then as Lords of Howling, and then, since the late 1990s, as Art of Flying, which has recorded nine full-length albums, if my count is correct, and several shorter releases. For years they recorded their albums in their own studio, the legendary Barn (in Questa, New Mexico); eventually they had to give up the Barn, but the music continues and changes. While delighted to be on the radio, to receive even brief messages from listeners, to play concerts around the world, they have never let publicity distract them from the music. A big record label might have pressured them to make their songs more packageable; they have no interest in that. They are here to make music the way they hear and imagine it. Their influences range from the Minutemen to Nick Drake; their songs are filled with surprises and treasures. Their listeners respond enthusiastically. The Italian magazine BLOW-UP has called them “the best-kept secret in American music of the new century”; the secret has been spilling slowly. They have been played over the years on independent radio stations such as WFMU and KALX, and received vigorous praise, such as in Lynne Robinson’s article in TaoStyle and J. Simpson’s in Divide and Conquer. Nonetheless, discovering their music is a private experience, since it is best done with full attention and a little stretch of time.

Let’s start with one of my favorites of all their songs, “Born to Follow,” from their 2005 album asifyouwerethesea.* It gives me the shivers, about sixteen years since I first heard it.

arise arise yr work is done
the fields are buried with the dead
how sweet it looks like no one won
some dreams awaken some dreams are dead

and under heaven the thunder rolls
its messages in shadows hid
don’t waste away yr wind
you were only born to follow.

It was hard to choose one song from this album; I also wanted to bring up the opening song, “What the Magpie Said,” as well as “Song for Coins Tossed,” “The Sailor’s Song,” “Song for Orion,” “Butterfly Song,” and, well, the whole album.

But I have to do this in some kind of sequence, so let’s go back to An Eye Full of Lamp and take a few minutes with “Island Song,” whose flugelhorn, played by David, and whose singing, by Anne, sound like they’re coming out of a late-night street in the memory of years ago. I want that horn to come back in the song with the same melody, and the first time it does, but then at the end it doesn’t, and I love that it doesn’t: “But all we wanted was to be together” leads not to the original melody, but to “fireflies and flame-throwers.”

Now let’s turn to Garden of Earthly Delights (2002), the first Art of Flying album I ever heard, thanks to my friend Cory, who sent me a copy, thinking it just might be up my alley. To say that I was blown away is apt here, since the second song is “Blow Away.” This album rolls from one gorgeous and evocative song into the next, from the words “& now yr great & mighty king has got no clothes / & neither does the queen” to the album’s closing lyrics, “& THOUGH I will die without yr kiss / there is more to love than this / in a garden of earthly delight.” Each song feels as if I had remembered it from years and years ago, although I had never heard them before the first listen. This is the album I have given away to people as a gift; this is the one I would still most likely give, along with Escort Mission and a couple of others.

The fifth song, “Tomorrow,” is about as perfect as a song can get in terms of poetry, tune, and harmonies, the alternation between words and “la, la, la,” and the sounds of guitar, piano, tuba, and trumpet. This is a song I could imagine in a classic songbook of some kind, to be sung by future generations.

I leaned my back against an oak
I thought it was a trusty tree
& first it bent & then it broke
my true love had forsaken me
my dream of peace could not come true
the wind had swept our hearts away
& so I sing this song to you
tomorrow blows us all away

Another favorite from this favorite album is “Goodbye Too Soon.” I love the slow dance of its rhythm, the evocation of lullaby, the joining of heartbreak and perspective.

There is a humility throughout the albums: a knowledge that we do not live long, that greatness is not given to most of us, that we can lose anything at any time, and that it’s still possible, to find beauty, or maybe possible only when we know, somewhere down their in our souls, that we don’t possess it. We still try and hope to possess it in some way or another; that doesn’t go away, but we also know better, and learn better, and fail again. There are no pat realizations here; it’s difficult no matter how you go about it, and just when you start coming to terms with it, mortality socks you in the stomach. But music will be there, even then.

I had promised, in the piece about animals in songs, to bring up “The Jaguar Song” here (from their 2014 album I’m Already Crying), and I wouldn’t leave it out anyway. It starts out with a William Blake-like feeling:

the jaguar in his forrest bright,
a river made of tears,
tangled through the longest night
’til stars flew everywhere.

But then it moves into something else:

i watched them from the ferris-wheel
mesmerized by all the lights
the strange things we must see as real
as black & white

and then the chorus, full of sound and spirit, with that wonderful chromatic progression leading in:

they cannot steal our story
they cannot steal our love
they cannot steal the heavens dancing way up above
they say i don’t remember well…
i don’t need to
when i’m holding you

What is this jaguar? So many possibilities come to mind, but to me it is something like music itself, weaving its way through heartbreak, shedding stars as it goes, but taking something from you too, the way he “sets his eyes ablaze /
and licks the lips right off my face.” Both of these things are happening at once: something being taken away, something being untakable.

I will finish with “Hang Around the Water,” the first song from their most recent album, Escort Mission, a sonic masterpiece. (I brought up “Song for Iris” in another piece recently.) I don’t even know what to say except: listen to the album from start to finish, then repeat! Then maybe set it aside briefly, and return to it with the songs now familiar. No matter when it kicks in for you, each listen will bring something new.

Oh, no, I can’t finish this piece without mentioning “ThOUGH the LIGHT Seem SMALL,” on which I had the honor of playing cello (in the recording itself, at the Barn). I love the slightly archaic subjunctive (“seem” instead of “seems”), which by itself does so much for the song. I also love the rhythmic change, between verse and chorus, from a slow 4/4 to a 3/4 (or similar), and the change of texture that goes with this. And the lyrics, which begin:

When the bright unspoken light of Winter takes the world
Gathering each solitary day,
All the pages written you won’t need them anymore
Winter comes & Winds us all away
& Winds us all away!

I hope this piece has introduced a few people to the music of Art of Flying. I’ll just finish with a little story of meeting them for the first time. I think it was in the summer of 2005, just a few months after asifyouwerethesea came out. Or else 2006. I know I had heard that album many times before going there. They (and the wonderfully enthusiastic and talented Larry Yes) encouraged me to come out for SuanFest, and I was excited about doing so, but also nervous, since it isn’t easy to show up at an intimate music fest hosted by musicians you admire. But yes, I flew out Colorado, and then drove southward to Taos in a rental car. They were playing a show in a little club in Taos that evening, and I wanted badly to make it on time. I took a road that led me up steep hills and through pine forests, winding this way and that, and then the sky darkened, and torrents started coming down, the kind of torrents where you really can’t see through the window any more, and I was going along slowly, since there wasn’t even anywhere to stop, and wondering if I would get there at all, never mind on time. But then, as happens in those parts in the late afternoon, the rain suddenly cleared, the sun poured gold onto everything, and I continued on my way, driving through the gold, and got to Taos after sunset, and then to the club, and there they were, and I met them and relaxed into an evening, and then a full weekend, of glorious music. That first night, I stayed in someone’s friend’s house, on Blueberry Hill, which brought to mind Hannah Marcus’s song “Hairdresser in Taos“; at SuanFest itself I stayed outdoors in a tent, like most of the others.

Sixteen years have gone by since then. And their music has gone on and on, growing more and more beautiful, not only with the newer albums, but with the returns to the older ones. Thank you, Art of Flying, for all of this. Oh, and one more song (is it possible to finish, really?), “Butterfly Song” from asifyouwerethesea, with Sare Rane’s lovely and fitting video below.

wings like a butterfly
mouth full of june
I ignored all warnings & flew to the moon
the knife & the fork & the spoon were all there
we cut up the king & we braided the air

peace…where could you be?
held in a dream…more real to me
than all of these magic powers gone

And that’s the end of this beginning.

*For the main songs mentioned here, I embedded Bandcamp audio. If you like them, you can go to Bandcamp, listen to more, and purchase the songs or albums. Bandcamp lets you listen to the music for free, without advertisements; if you do decide to buy it, Bandcamp takes 15% and pays the rest to the musicians.

Also, while Art of Flying often put their album and song titles in lowercase, I usually capitalized them here, so that they would stand out visually.

This is the third piece in my “Listen Up” series; the first two were dedicated to Platon Karataev and Cz.K. Sebő, respectively. Each installment focuses on a particular artist or band whose music I love. Your comments are welcome.

Passover and Advice to Self

We’re heading into Shabbat and then Pesach (Passover), which, like Yom Kippur but in a very different way, asks for introspection. In particular, the question comes up year after year, in synagogue services and at seders, in relation to the Jews’ exodus from Egypt (Mitzrayim): What is your personal Mitzrayim? What is something from which you have been liberated, or wish to be liberated? Another aspect of Passover is the outward look, toward liberation needed in the world. I often felt uncomfortable discussing both questions: the first was too private, the second (sometimes) too formulaic and pat. But this year I have been thinking of something that applies to both inner and outer life.

If I were to give one piece of advice to my past (or even present) self, it would be this: “Don’t worry about what people think of you. Do worry–to the extent that worrying helps you–about how your actions affect others.”

First I have to clear up that point: Worrying can be helpful sometimes. It allows you to ruminate over something, which in turn may bring you some kind of clarity. Often, through the worrying, you figure out an internal or external response. Worrying gets destructive, though, when it’s frivolous or leads nowhere.

But so much of my worrying, throughout my life, has been about inconsequential things: a slightly awkward conversation; a moment when I was just a little more blunt than I expected to be, or a little less so; a vague feeling that something somewhere went wrong. Sometimes I have carried that worry for days or longer. Sometimes I have even worried about the worrying itself.

On the other hand, certain worries have been right on target: about hurting someone’s feelings, or neglecting some responsibility, or going too far with one idea or another. This doesn’t mean that the worrying was always needed, or needed indefinitely, but at least it drew attention to something important.

How do you sort out the important from the unimportant? That’s a project that never ends. But once it begins, it brings some relief. Some things really don’t matter. In particular: the awkward moments where no harm was done, just things did not feel perfect. Things don’t have to be perfect, and human beings are a bit awkward by nature. Nature itself is awkward, wriggling in and out of life.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover to those who celebrate them, and a happy weekend to all!

Why the Mass Killings in the U.S.?

Why the mass killings in the U.S.? The first and most obvious answer is that Americans (by which I mean citizens and residents of the U.S.) can obtain guns, including automatic rifles, far too easily. But there are other reasons. Gun control, though essential, won’t solve the problem, since people will find ways around the laws or use something other than guns. The killings have cultural and ideological sources, even though the killers come from widely different backgrounds. There is something particularly American about this.

First, to get this out of the way: some object to the use of the word “American” as an adjective for the U.S.A. I use it because it’s recognized and simple. Every country that I can think of has a one-word (or, at most, two-word) adjective: Russian, Soviet, Danish, Icelandic, Mexican, etc. Yes, it’s true that North America encompasses more than the U.S., and Central and South America are also America. Yet no other country has “America” as its short name, hence the chance of confusion is negligible.

Criminals do not exist or act in complete isolation; they come out of a history, a culture, an infinite set of attitudes and beliefs. Even mental illness cannot be separated from “normal” life. Besides the availability of guns, what conditions in the U.S. might give rise to mass shootings?

I discussed this with my twelfth-grade students yesterday, and several ideas came up. One was that many Americans feel special: entitled to something good in life, angry and wounded if they do not receive this, and convinced of their own right to avenge themselves and pursue their own “happiness,” as it were. The same cannot be said of Hungarians, who view life with a basic pessimism, who don’t think they are owed anything in particular, who believe that they will be lucky if they achieve a fraction of their goals, and who see the absolute importance of helping others and being helped. (There’s both good and bad in both attitudes, which have plenty of variations and exceptions; the point here is not to judge them but to consider where they lead.)

Another difference is that in the U.S., there’s a much greater value placed on being in the spotlight, having your fifteen minutes of fame (or more, if you can manage it). Appearing on the front page of the NYT–wow! Getting mentioned on TV–wow! The most interesting essay I have read on this subject is David Bromwich’s “How Publicity Makes People Real.” People will go to great lengths, even to the extremes of self-debasement, for a bit of media attention. In contrast, Hungarians tend to eschew the spotlight. This is changing, inevitably, with all of the influences of social media, but there’s a strong belief, with origins in the communist/socialist era and earlier, that you are better off if people aren’t paying much attention to you. Writers, artists, and others want their work to be known, like anywhere else, but children aren’t typically encouraged to “put themselves out there,” except in formal academic, artistic, and athletic competitions.

This Hungarian reticence is refreshing but also has its drawbacks. Whenever I teach Shakespeare, there are some students who play their roles brilliantly in class but absolutely refuse to take part in a public performance. I have had dreams of putting on a musical at Varga, but just persuading enough students to take part would consume an entire year. In contrast, at my former school in NYC, the annual musical might have a cast of a hundred students or more. A hundred students, singing and dancing together on stage and through the aisles. When I taught there, the challenge was the opposite: to encourage quiet thought, which exists here in spades. I love the thoughtfulness of Hungarian culture and feel at home in it–but also come across as exuberant and enthusiastic in comparison with most Hungarians. I think others would agree. So it’s a complex matter: what a culture does and doesn’t emphasize, and what it brings out of a person. Many of us have combinations of cultures in our lives and hearts.

Crime exists here in Hungary too, as does violence, but they’re both usually of a surreptitious, inconspicuous sort: muggings, domestic violence, theft. People aren’t trying to make a splash or get in the news. On the other hand, you can be fooled into thinking you are completely safe here, and you aren’t; you have to be careful and alert here, as anywhere.

So, if you put these three conditions together: availability of guns, sense of entitlement, and desire for attention, and consider them as particularly American, coming out of the country’s history, culture, and beliefs, you can see part of the source of so many mass killings. This doesn’t explain everything, or even close, since you can seek attention and believe in your own specialness without dreaming of killing anyone. In fact, you can hold these attitudes and lead a life of kindness and gentleness. (I’m special and you are too!)

But this is a start.

Song Series #12: Songs with Animals

For some reason I started thinking about songs with animal references, of which there must be millions, and put together a playlist of eleven. Animals have a special relationship to songs for all sorts of reasons: music and animals move in a similar way, according to a particular kind of knowing; animals fill literary language; many of us feel, at times, that an animal is in our soul; animals have song and rhythm; an animal view allows us to see ourselves from a new angle; animal sorrow can be the profoundest sorrow of the world; animals need no reasons at all. It’s no coincidence, then, that some of my favorite songs have animals in them, and that their roles in the songs are about as different as can be. I have many to choose from but will discuss songs by Cz.K. Sebő (of Platon Karataev fame), Art of Flying (the focus of my next “Listen Up” piece), Robyn Hitchcock, Belle and Sebastian, and Marcell Bajnai/Idea.

I have already talked about Cz.K. Sebő’s “Hart” (from his Junction EP) in my most recent “Listen Up” piece, and I don’t want to overdo it. But there is one point I wanted to mention, regarding the way the hart comes up. When you listen to the song, it sounds as though he is singing, “I was hart and I remember the stars,” but then the printed lyrics say, “I was like a hart, and I remember the stars.” The sung version is perfect to me. In spoken English we don’t usually say “I was cat,” or “I was bird”; if we say it at all, we say it with an article, e.g., “I was a cat.” But if you leave out the article, you are referring to the essence, the name. To say “I was hart” is unusual but poetically permissible (with a beautiful archaic sound); it means something like, “I was a hart in my essence.” It is one of my favorite moments in the song, because it brings up something that I understand but cannot explain. The second part of that sentence, too: “and I remember the stars”: how being hart becomes not only a memory, but a way of seeing the world, at least for a moment.

For the Art of Flying song, it’s difficult to choose between “Armadillo” and “The Jaguar Song.” I’ll choose the former (from their album An Eye Full of Lamp), because the latter will come up in the “Listen Up” piece. “Armadillo” is one of my favorite Art of Flying songs; haunting, mysterious, moving, and untranslatable. I don’t know what it means rationally, but in a different way I understand it well. I had the joy of playing it with Anne Speroni (one of the Art of Flying duo) when visiting in Taos for the music festival they held for many years. I accompanied her on cello for a few songs–something I would only have dreamed of. Being inside the song, part of its sound, comes back vividly when I think of it years later. I won’t type out the lyrics here (for fear of getting them wrong), except for the chorus, “this is where we didn’t go, following the armadillo.” I think the song has something to do with taking a different path from others in life, and reflecting on what that other way might have been, “following the armadillo.” But the song makes no direct statements about this; instead, it paints the difference through the music. The armadillo itself feels ominous: separated from the singer through time and habit, but a danger for anyone. Yet that’s just one way of hearing the song.

The next one is Robyn Hitchcock’s “Lizard.” I am grateful to my friend Tara for introducing me to his music, years ago. This is from his debut solo album Black Snake Dîamond Röle (1981); he has released about 20 more full-length albums since then (in addition to EPs and compilations) and, most recently, has been giving streamed concerts with Emma Swift during the pandemic. This song has a wonderful eerie bass line and lyrics that mention the lizard in almost every other line. Brilliant rhymes, brilliant stretching of this idea across the verses of the song. I don’t think it needs any explanation.

You wear the lizard’s shoes
And afterwards you get confused
You wear the lizard’s coat
And afterwards you fail to float
You take the lizard’s path
But look who’s lying in the bath
You wear the lizard’s skin
No man can be a god and win at all
Ahh

One song that I wanted badly to bring up here but am going to put off is Kurt Vile’s “One Trick Ponies,” because it has so much character and fun. It doesn’t really refer to ponies, though; “one-trick pony” is a common expression. I will save it for the next installment of this song series. It has the classic line “cuz I’ve always had a soft spot for repetition,” and the next piece in this series will focus on repetition itself.

So, let’s go on to Belle and Sebastian’s “The Fox in the Snow,” from their album If You’re Feeling Sinister. It has been covered by Grandaddy and many others; many treasure it as an anthem of suffering. But there’s a joy to it; it has to do with survival, but also that chance at survival, the chance that can be taken at any moment.

Fox in the snow, where do you go
To find something you could eat?
‘Cause the word out on the street is you are starving
Don’t let yourself grow hungry now
Don’t let yourself grow cold
Fox in the snow

In the next verses, instead of a fox, or along with the fox, it becomes a girl, a boy, a kid, and then that kid becomes all of us, “second just to being born, second to dying too, what else would you do?” There’s also a slightly bitter, but matter-of-fact “When your legs look black and blue” and “It’s not as if they’re paying you.” And the song dances and dances and ends on a graceful slowness.

The final song for this piece is specially chosen for today, since this evening (3 p.m. EDT, 8 p.m. CET), at an ALSCW Zoom event, I will be interviewing both the songwriter, Marcell Bajnai, and his father, Zsolt Bajnai, and after the interview, Zsolt will read some of his stories, and Marcell will play his own songs between them. Do come! The Zoom information is here.

I have written about this song before and covered it on cello. Marcell Bajnai has performed it both solo and with his band Idea (formerly 1LIFE); it’s the eighth song on the band’s debut album, Nincsen Kérdés. The song proceeds through a series of metaphor-pairs, of possibilities: “I could be” a boat, “you could be” the river, then cloud and rain, then forest and bird, and then fool and king. The bird comes up just once, in this little part, but it’s one of my favorite parts, musically and lyrically:

lehetnék erdő, te meg
lehetnél a madár
bújj el bennem, és ígérem
itt senki nem talál

I could be a forest, and you
you could be the bird
hide in me, and I promise
no one will find [you] here

It’s so fleeting and fragile, you sense that that’s part of the meaning of the whole song: that being human means having a life full of imperfections and mistakes; the song captures something universal in a humble and beautiful way.

That concludes the twelfth installment of the song series. For the full series, go here. Stay tuned for the next “Listen Up” piece, which will appear in the next few weeks. And we hope to see you tonight (or at whatever time of day it will be for you)!

Treat It as a Draft

When, in mid-2000, I released my mostly home-recorded CD Fish Wigs Hats Rats, I was elated and eager for reactions. They were mixed: some enthusiastic reviews and comments, and some expressions of disappointment along the lines of “You played cello so beautifully in high school.” Putting it all together, I see the mistake I made: this should have been a draft of a more honed project. Oh, everyone can say this. It’s hard to know when to stop. But this album suffered primarily from two problems: technical clumsiness and the effect of laying too many tracks on top of the previous ones, adding stray noise each time. (That in turn came from singing and playing all the parts myself, except in Gourds, where Hannah Marcus plays drums and synthesizer, and recording all but three on my own, at home.) Also, I didn’t know how to sing yet: how to work within my range, how to give shape to the words and phrases, how to pour forth and hold back. This little album did have its strengths. I am proud of the lyrics and some of the musical composition. But the weaknesses strain the listening, even today.

For years, after the initial excitement, I couldn’t listen to it at all; I cringed to think of it. I don’t cringe any more. It’s something to learn from; I can take the lessons into my writing. When I finish something, I often can’t wait to put it out there, but usually there’s more to be done. Finished isn’t quite finished. I need to step back a little.

This isn’t true for everone. There are those who work so long at something, trying to get every last detail right, that they never finish it, or, if they do, it feels over-labored. A work has to be lively (by which I don’t mean peppy; there’s liveliness in slowness). But probably each of us has a tendency that both helps us and gets in our way, be it impatience, perfectionism, sloth, self-doubt, imagination, or something else. To make a work of art, you have to both follow and resist your own tendencies, in the right proportion. If I weren’t a little impatient and impulsive, this thing would never have come into being, and all and all, I’m glad it did.

“Too Much Giving” (which I co-wrote with Mahlah Byrd, who died in 1994) is my favorite, followed by the first song, “The Ear.” After that, the title song, which was inspired by a sign I saw outside a store in Petaluma, California, with exactly the words “Fish Wigs Hats Rats.” The song alludes to a story a friend told me about a dream he had had, as well as some things that I was going through at the time. I like the eerie mood of it, although God, I wish I had had the sense to bring the key up a bit higher and add some more melody to the vocals. After that, “Funny Funny Grief,” and after that, there’s no particular ranking. “Gourds” and “Marks” are busier than I would make them now, but were recorded, along with “Too Much Giving,” by Joe Goldring at his wonderful studio in San Francisco, and you can hear the difference in the sound.

But those are thoughts two decades after the fact. The real lesson, for me, is to wait just a little longer than I would like, to take just a little more time with projects before hurling them outward into the world. Usually the world can wait too.

The Spotify Trap (and a Way Out)

This isn’t exactly an anti-Spotify piece, though I dislike Spotify (and similar services) for all sorts of reasons: for the money it keeps for itself and for big record companies, for the pressure to subscribe to Premium (no, I won’t), for the emphasis on its own algorithms, for the irritating ads, and for the weird feeling that when I spend time there, I’m not listening to music as I would otherwise do, but instead curating a playlist that matters to no one. If there’s an online music service where I will gladly spend my time, it’s Bandcamp. Anyway, that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Rather, I want to look at how these giant algorithms have replaced the old traditions of listening to music together, introducing friends to new music, going to a record store and browsing, or getting a great suggestion from one of the staff. I miss those days but also have been thinking that we could recapture some of that in a new medium.

Some of my best memories of Yale involved spending time with friends who introduced me to music I didn’t know, or music I knew but not as well as they did. I remember listening to Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen with Steve; to David Bowie with Ron; to the Pixies with Joe, to Kris Kristofferson with Geoff and his friends, to Leonard Cohen with Nico, and the list goes on. In San Francisco this continued, mostly with people with whom I played music, or whose music I loved. There was so much music around us, and all this music had influences going decades back and farther. And even later, in New York, I had a few friends with whom I could spend an afternoon listening to music: both my favorites and theirs. But this grew rarer and rarer. Today, while someone occasionally plays a song for me or vice versa, I can probably count on my left hand the people who will listen to something because I recommended it. And I’m terrible at listening to other people’s suggestions too. We’re all overloaded, at least in our minds. Also, there’s an illusion of self-sufficiency: we already know what we like, and we have an overabundance of it, so why take in anything else?

Some of this just has to do with getting older. When you’re past forty, never mind past fifty, you and your friends don’t spend time together in the same way as before, partly because that time isn’t there. People are busy raising kids, keeping up with demanding jobs, working on their projects. An afternoon with a friend, spent listening to albums, just isn’t in the picture most of the time.

But there are other forces at work too. I mentioned being overloaded. We have “stuff” coming at us all day long: emails, Facebook and other shares, ads and automated recommendations of various kinds. In addition, we have the illusion of an abundance at our fingertips: just go on YouTube, or Spotify, and listen to just about anything. Those services generate playlists through algorithms, so you get suggestion after suggestion of things you might like (based on the preferences of others who listen to “similar” music). But those algorithms lose eccentricity and idiosyncrasy; they are based on general tendencies, not individuals. There’s no passion in them. True, they may expose you to lots of music you like, that you would never have heard otherwise, but there’s no one saying, “I love this, you’ve got to hear it.” It just pops up on your screen.

In addition, the world has been divided into two classes: the “influencers,” whose opinion matters for some reason, and everyone else. People strive to be influencers, often to the detriment of the influences themselves. The focus is on the wrong thing.

So, as a result, we live in our enclosures, our headphones, with the illusion that we’re accessing the world, when we are actually cut off from it. That is, we can access music from around the world, but if someone says, “You’ve got to listen to this,” we often simply don’t, or listen with half an ear. This is not true for everyone or all the time, but the problem exists. It’s especially hard on musicians, because they spend months, maybe years, on a song or album, then “share” it online, and then receive silence, or near-silence. Maybe a few likes or short comments.

So, very well. It’s a crying shame. What can be done about it?

Some of the response has to come from individuals, both listeners and musicians. Just clear out room and time for listening to things, and have some of those things be friends’ personal recommendations. When Covid ends, have people over and ask them to bring favorite albums. If you are a musician, bring your work to people in a personal way. Platon Karataev is having a special record-listening party a month before their new album comes out, for those who contributed at least 10,000 HUF (about $33) to their album fundraising campaign and who selected this perk. (I contributed to the campaign but didn’t select the perk, since the party seems intended for people much younger than me, and I’d feel like a generational intruder. But I applaud the idea.)

Also, there could even be a new kind of online gathering: for instance, a Bandcamp feature where you could pay a modest fee to get together in a virtual listening room and play anything in the Bandcamp catalog. The same percentage of the money would go to the artists as with purchases. In the listening room, you could talk with each other and listen to music (though not at the same time), and the guests could see the information about each album or song. It would be like a cross between a radio show and a virtual meeting. It could be for select guests or for anyone who showed up. People could hold regular (say, monthly or weekly) listening events if they wished. They could be based mainly on one person’s selections, or everyone could bring something. Bandcamp does have private streaming, but that’s a little different; it’s where artists can stream an album (in advance of the release, say) for a group of listeners. Why not let listeners do this as well, for a fee?

As I was coming up with this brilliant notion, it occurred to me that it must already have occurred to someone. Yes, indeed: in 2011, Eliot Van Buskirk published an article in Wired about the new virtual listening rooms, which apparently were a hot new phenomenon. While most of the services mentioned are now defunct, Turntable.fm is reviving as of this month. It has a waitlist; to be considered for admission, you have to email them your favorite song. If they like it, they will let you in. It’s hard to learn much about it, because if you go to the website, all you get is a sign-in page.

But there was something I didn’t like in a Wikipedia description I read. These listening sessions come with audience votes; audience members click the “lame” or “awesome” button to indicate their reaction. Awful. You have to let a song sink in before reacting to it. People might click “lame” because they don’t understand where the song is going, or they might click “awesome” because it sounds catchy from the start. And having to choose between “lame” and “awesome” is not only limiting but lame. So I would prefer a service that required you to listen through a full session before responding. Then you could leave comments and reactions, not only immediately but later on.

So yes, someone has already thought of this, but there’s room for improvement, and I am thinking of pitching an idea to Bandcamp. If they wanted, they could contribute something unique to the virtual-musical-meeting genre. I probably won’t be able to get to it for another 8-10 days, because I have an event to plan, but get to it I will.

Update: Here’s an interesting article by Damon Krukowski, published in NPR Music, on some of the fundamental differences between Bandcamp and Spotify. Also, see Shira Ovide’s NYT interview with Ben Sisario.

The True Plague for Us

The other day, in my post “Are Hungarians Especially Sad?” I told about how a former student (from Varga, now at university) had asked me what I thought of a Quora comment that Hungarians are the saddest people in Europe. He also wrote (I am quoting this with his permission) that “the true plague for us is this permanent inability to feel contented, without envy and avarice.” In other words, in his view, life in Hungary is not so terrible, relative to life in general, nor is everyone bitter and depressed, but there are many young people who think they could have a better life elsewhere. This is the plague: the thought that other people, other countries have it better, and if I could just whisk myself over into their position, I would be fine.

A certain kind of discontent is necessary for life and for the things we want to do well. I am continually revising my writing, whether for sound, language, meaning, accuracy, or something else. Musicians play and play, even at the highest levels, to come closer to what they imagine and hear. Athletes train and train, and compete and compete. But in all those cases, you are working on something in yourself; you are the locus of improvement.

The dangerous kind of discontent occurs when we want something “over there”: something someone else has, something in another country, something belonging to a particular social group. Surely there are people we admire and would like to emulate—but when we aggressively try to get what they have, or resent them for having it, we make a mess of our lives.

Is this a particularly Hungarian tendency? I doubt it. But it may play out in a particular way in Hungary, especially among young people who tire of the government’s isolationist rhetoric and long to see the world. It’s easy, in that position, to imagine that life in the U.S., Denmark, the Netherlands would be not only more comfortable, but more exciting too, with more of an opening to the world, more opportunity, more of a future. And for some individuals, this might be somewhat true. But beyond that, it’s human error all over again.

First of all, it involves “comparing your insides to other people’s outsides” (as a wise person said to me long ago). New York looks like an incredible, bustling city bursting with talent and all walks of life. And that it is. But if you live there, as I did for fifteen years, you don’t necessarily want to take it in. The work days and commutes are long, and at the end of it all you might want to go home and listen to music in your room. That is, if you have a place that’s quiet enough for that. When I was living in Brooklyn, there were block parties in my neighborhood that boomed so loud that my chair and desk shook. And so many people in NYC live in cramped, crowded spaces and still have to pay exorbitant rent. Don’t get me wrong: the city lives up to its reputation. But living there is different from seeing it from afar.

Second, when you covet something to extremes (when you go beyond mild envy toward action), you start to become ugly inside. You think of others not in terms of who they are, but in terms of what they have. You find ways to put them down in your mind, to level them with you or even bring them below you. I see more of this in the U.S. than in Hungary, but maybe that just comes with familiarity. I imagine it happens all over the world.

But back to the original quote from my former student: if this kind of envy or dissatisfaction is “the true plague,” then it goes beyond the individual. It spreads from person to person; it becomes a worldview. That’s the worst aspect of it; by indulging in that kind of discontent, you affect others too. You show them, through your attitude and actions, that simple joys in life are to be scorned, that the only valid happiness is “over there,” wherever “there” may be. People start believing that they are unworthy if they don’t have a house, or make a certain amount of money, or have a beautiful boyfriend or girlfriend, or look lovely and skinny themselves.

I believe that this is universal but multifarious; different cultures exhibit it in different ways. Many Hungarians I have met attach importance to material attainments. Some do not, but overall it seems to be assumed that you’re doing well if you have a house and car. (This exists in the U.S. too, but there are many countertendencies.) On the other hand, people here are not enraptured, generally, with hype and fame; quality comes first. In the U.S., hype is a way of life. Kids learn to promote themselves before they learn to make something worth promoting.

How do you go about combating this plague? First, see it for what it is, in yourself and others, and then turn the attention to things that matter: doing things well, treating others decently, contributing something to the world. But this requires a lot of strength and vigilance. It’s not for nothing that at least five of the Ten Commandments (the number depends on how you interpret them) forbid envy or its consequences; envy is all around us and can tear a person, a relationship, a society apart.

Sometimes happiness does exist “over there.” Sometimes it does make sense to move to another city, country, apartment, or whatever the case may be. It isn’t all delusion, which makes the matter more complicated. But the delusion is always close at hand, and oh so tempting because of the shortcuts it dangles before us: not only shortcuts to wealth or success, but an exit from ourselves and those around us.

Art credit: James Ward, Ignorance, Envy and Jealousy (oil on canvas, 1837).

Listen Up: Cz.K. Sebő

Cz.K. Sebő (Czakó-Kuraly Sebestyén). Photo credit: hvg.hu.

When was the last time you discovered new music and couldn’t stop listening to it? One piece, one song after another draws you in; you play your favorites over and over, and then find another, and wait, what, another! Another song goes straight to some part of you that had been sleeping or sloppy until now. An experience that you know to the bones but also have never known before. You want the whole world to know about this, you want to take these songs and hold them up to the light somehow. Except that they can only speak for themselves. Words about music are a little bit like helmets worn as gloves. Still, you have to give it a try. The first piece in my “Listen Up” series was dedicated to the Hungarian band Platon Karataev; the second one, right now, to one of their founding members, Czakó-Kuraly Sebestyén (solo name: Cz.K. Sebő), who has released four EPs since 2014, as well as some singles, and is now recording his first full-length album.

If you are drawn to music in this vein—music along the general, disparate lines of R.E.M., Pavement, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, The Velvet Underground, Johnny Cash, Elliott Smith, The Smiths, the Breeders, Damien Jurado, Sonny Smith, Granfaloon Bus, Grandaddy, Red House Painters, Nick Drake, Art of Flying, Kid Dakota, Rufus Wainwright, Hannah Marcus, or other folk or indie rock with a special relationship between lyrics and music, a disciplined dreaminess of word and sound, a well-tuned soulfulness—then Cz.K. Sebő’s songs will likely hit home. And even if you listen to a different kind of music entirely, you will find something beautiful here.

I plan to introduce just five of his songs, four of which are in English, and one, his most recent recording, in Hungarian. To hear more, you can go to Bandcamp and YouTube. I recommend listening to the entire albums; in each one, the songs form something together, and it’s hard to leave out any of them.

Cz.K. Sebő is about 27 years old. When I first fell in love with this general kind of music and started listening to it all the time, when I first played (clumsily) in a band, he wasn’t born yet. His songs evoke music that has long been part of my life (sometimes filling it, sometimes just being there with me), yet there’s something “sajátos” (particular, individual) about them; the best way to understand this is to jump right in. So, after all these preludes, let’s go.

The first one will be “Out of Pressure” from his second (2015) EP The masked undressed. I love its combination of dreariness and soaring. Like many of the songs, it steals up on you. Also, the lyrics (in American English) are both natural and unusual: the song seems at home in the language and outside it at the same time.

It begins,

Out of pressure Sunday morning
Feeling nothing but this soaring
I’m alone here in this gray room
With a thought of a beer, but drinking coffee.

The way the voice soars on “gray room” gives you the whole picture: there is a kind of bleakness mixed with glorious solitude. It isn’t unhappy.

I’ll skip the next verse so as not to overanalyze this and to get to the chorus, which to me holds the brilliance.

Another morning after a boring night with you
Why are you falling into the see of society
I’m here singing, sit down and hear me,
What I seek is harmony
I’m here singing, sit down and hear me,
What I seek is harmony

The words are so simple, but when they culminate in “What I seek is harmony,” they give infinite meaning to “seek” and “harmony.” The seeking is that longing and striving and working and waiting, all of those things together and more, and “harmony” here is so much more than a few notes that sound pleasant together. It’s something you pursue and yearn for all your life long. The second “seeeeeeek” brings the whole song together. And as the word is elongated, the chord progression continues beneath it, so that without realizing it, you have been brought back to the beginning.

The second one is “Disguise,” from the same EP and from an even earlier release, Fugitive Feelings (2014). (There’s a passionate Platon Karataev version too, on the Atoms album, but I love this early version even more.) In an interview somewhere, he named it as his favorite of his solo songs, though I don’t know whether that’s still true. I can see why it was, or is, his favorite. It’s sometimes my favorite too. I will just let it speak for itself.

I won’t bring up “Light as the Breeze” here (from his EP The Fox, the Thirst and the Breeze), since I mentioned it in a recent blog post, and there’s so much to mention. Along with “Hart,” it might be my favorite of them all. I’ll just say that it changed my outlook on life and on music, slightly but strongly. Songs don’t teach us how to live, but they give us inklings of something. Those inklings can’t be translated directly into life, but they become part of it, something we carry with us. “Light as the Breeze” is a song that I carry with me, even without an audio device; I hear it in my head at various times in the day.

I will go on to “Hart,” from his 2017 EP Junction. I originally included “Sham Melancholy” instead, and it’s a tough call, since I love both songs. But I realized that “Hart” is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard, and I can’t leave it out. It carries you slowly from the contemplative beginning to the expansive, night-filled middle to the quiet end, all of this in three minutes and three seconds. It builds without your knowing it, in a short time; it starts with simple strumming, then the chords and single notes catch your attention, and then the voice comes in slower, with its own rhythm that rises and rises and then sweeps the guitar along with it. There’s so much motion now, everything is moving, but it’s motion in stillness, a falling and sitting, a wounded but joyous arrival. And then the stillness takes over.

Look at me now my friend, I’m on the ground and sitting
Look at me now my friend
Look at me now my friend

Now I’m falling, but I’m sitting here arrived
In the same time I found the road I was searching for so long

Many of these songs have to do with solitude, which is part of why I am drawn to them. Another favorite, in a different mood, which absolutely has to be included here, is “Chamomile.” It’s the most humorous of his songs that I know so far. It has subtle self-mockery and mockery of the world, but without cynicism. The guitar sound and rhythm is so understated and catchy; it takes you in right away, but grows on you too. The storyline seems somewhat as follows: The narrator has been working on songs, just finished one, and now it’s time to rest, but his apartment (or his mind?) is filled with people. So he tries to join the strange, dreamlike party for a little bit, but realizes he would rather be by himself. This song will be on his full-length album.

Not only do I relate to the story, but I enjoy the melodic phrase that elongates specific words, “written,” “season,” “name here,” “solo.” It’s as though they were set in musical italics, but more than italics. And this gives the song a kind of wryness, an amusement with the whole situation, an affable antisociability. The song’s structure allows you to anticipate favorite moments, such as “fingers / linger,” “festival season,” the break (the “Oh my mind, oh my mind, oh my mind is on fire” part) and the ending. In general, his endings are superb. And the video is brilliantly done, with all sorts of subtle details, capturing, as he said in an interview, “that state where a person doesn’t know if they are awake or asleep.”

And now we arrive at the last of the songs that I am including here, “kétezerhúsz” (2020), the video of which appeared just last Friday. The song is (perhaps) about this Covid era that we have been living in for a year now; the video was shot at Coney Island, which he visited in winter. In an interview with KERET Blog, he said,

Sok lassú dalomra mondom, hogy boldog, de nem tagadom, ez egy szomorú dal. Körülbelül a mögöttünk álló egy évről szól. A szorongásokról, bizonytalanságról. Viszont van itt egyszer egy trükk: ezt a dalt 2019 végén írtam, amikor még nem a Covidtól féltem, hanem inkább a klímapánik jeleit éreztem magamon. Nagyon érdekes, hogy mégis mennyire megtalálta saját magát ez a dal 2020-ban, számomra mindig ezt a mögöttünk álló (- és sajnos most is aktuális) időszakot fogja felidézni.

Rough translation: I say of many of my slow songs that they are happy, but I don’t deny it: this is a sad song. It speaks of the approximate year behind us. Of the anxiety, uncertainty. Yet there’s also a catch here: I wrote this song at the end of 2019, when I wasn’t yet afraid of Covid, but rather feeling symptoms of climate panic. It is very interesting to what degree this song found itself in 2020; for me it will always evoke this time that we have been through (and which unfortunately is still going on).

What’s interesting is that this song steps into a slightly different musical zone; with the lyrics in Hungarian, the music reminds me of music I have heard here: for instance, Gábor Presser’s “Te majd kézenfogsz.” It proceeds gently through the sadness, verse by verse. I won’t translate it all here, since that would just distort it. But here’s one of my favorite verses:

Ha panaszkodni akarsz,
akkor légyszi menj el
Nekem már betelt a füzetem ezzel
mégsem lettem könnyebb.

(If you want to complain,
do me a favor and leave
My notebook is already filled up with this
and I didn’t get any lighter.)

And then, not obviously in the song, but in the author’s commentary, there’s a bit of humor, three verses later:

Talán boldog is vagyok
Ez a keserűség éltet
Keserű nélkül nincs is édes,
Mint só nélkül sincs étel
((a szerző itt megkérdőjelezi improvizációs készségeit))

(Maybe I’m happy too
This bitterness vitalizes me
Without the bitter, nothing is sweet,
As without salt, there is no food
((here the author questions his improvisational skills)))

That last line is Cz.K. Sebő’s comment on what he just wrote. Yes, the analogy just before it seems slightly off. But it also works beautifully: “éltet” (vitalizes) off-rhymes with “édes” (sweet) and “étel” (food); there’s also an alliteration between “keserű” (bitter) and “só” (salt). And the parallel syntax makes this all come together, even if we aren’t sure at the end whether it entirely makes sense. But it does, it does! If you think about it, salt can be compared to bitter taste, and food to life; and the larger meaning comes through. Yet it does so as an afterthought, an improvisation, a grappling for some kind of meaning. The uncertainty leads into the very end, “I wait for tomorrow”:

Várom a holnapot
Várom a holnapot
Várom a holnapot

which could sound hopeful, but which seems like sleep, waiting, and a long stretch of uncertainty.

And the Coney Island footage, so slow and peaceful, so beautiful, but also sad, because of the desolation, the soapy sea. It brings up my own memories of Coney Island, of the time I rode the Cyclone (with whom? I don’t even remember).

Well, I think that’s a start, and that’s all it can be at this point; I have only recently begun listening to this music and look forward to much more. There’s much more that I could have said about these songs. But that’s the way it is with music, and with this music in particular. Thanks to everyone who helped to bring it out to the world.

P.S. A few updates and afterthoughts:

Cz.K. Sebő is pronounced “cé ká sebő” (very roughly, if this were French, “tsé ka chèbeu,” with an elongated “eu”). As for his full name, you can hear his Platon Karataev bandmate Gergő Balla introduce him at the beginning of this interview. In Hungarian, the surname is said or written first, then the given name; Sebestyén (Sebő for short) is his given name. You can hear many more of Sebő’s songs on Bandcamp and in this fantastic performance at A38 Hajó.

For three of the songs mentioned here, I embedded Bandcamp audio. If you like them, you can go to Bandcamp, listen to more, and possibly purchase the songs or albums.

When I started this “Listen Up” series, I hadn’t listened to “Hart” yet, but I realized later that the words “listen up” are in the lyrics of the song. So let the series title be in honor of “Hart.” The next piece in this series will feature Art of Flying.

I made various revisions to this piece after posting it, most recently on March 28; and made a tiny correction (adding the accent to the “ú” in “kétezerhúsz”) on April 5.

Are Hungarians Especially Sad?

Yesterday evening a former student wrote to me to wish me a happy Women’s Day and to ask what I thought of a certain Mariana Hernández’s comment on Quora that Hungary is the saddest country in Europe. “I can say I have never seen such bitter, depressed people as the Hungarians,” writes Ms. Hernández, who has been living in Hungary for eight years. She goes on to explain that she loves Hungarians and considers them open-minded, peace-loving, freedom-loving. They just have an extremely pessimistic outlook (in her opinion), don’t believe dreams can come true, and rarely smile.

No, this is not my experience. First of all, I would avoid any sweeping generalizations. I know Hungarians who are generally cheerful, Hungarians who are generally gloomy, and many whose mood and outlook fluctuate. That said, Hungarians do tend to be less optimistic on the surface than many U.S. Americans I know, but they also work toward what they want to do. If that isn’t optimistic, I don’t know what is. There’s a sense that life is difficult but that if you’re alert, clever, and persistent, you can find solutions to problems, and learn things while you’re at it. Also, here people are generally more open about their problems than in the U.S. (where such disclosures can come across as “too much information”). Maybe all of us have sadness, but some cultures show it more than others.

I have a hard time measuring happiness and sadness anyway, because they have so much to do with each other. They are intermeshed. I think of the stanza from W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939“):

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

Or a haunting poem by Endre Ady that I read recently, “A sorsom ellopója” (“Thief of My Destiny”), which begins:

Ki az én sorsomat ellopta,
Láttam,
Nipponban vagy Amerikában,
Nem emlékszem:
Álmomban láttam.

The one who stole my destiny,
I saw,
In Nippon or America,
I don’t remember:
In my dream I saw him.

I wouldn’t say that these poems bring happiness, but they do bring a kind of joy, since they give form to something hidden in us. Form is one of the biggest longings, one of the biggest fears, in a human life; we don’t want imposed forms, outworn forms, forms that fit us badly, but we want form in a deeper sense.

There are certainly Hungarians who believe that the current forms in the country are rotten: that the economy, government, and infrastructure have been overtaken by human greed, and that nothing better can possibly come, since human nature will not improve. But there are others who focus on doing their best with whatever they have and showing kindness to those around them. And having a good laugh here and there. The humor here is wonderful.

Just an example of basic goodwill: last week I went to see my general practitioner for the first time, so that he could enter my information in their system and then let me know when it’s my turn for a vaccination. The doctor’s office is on my street (the address is officially on Indóház, but the entrance is actually on Vörösmarty utca). I waited in the waiting room for just 15 minutes or so, and then I could go in. He and two assistants were in the office; the phones were constantly ringing, and he cheerfully handled the appointment while he or one of the two women took the calls (people calling anxiously with questions about the vaccines). It seemed hectic to me, but they were handling it all so skillfully and calmly, just taking the work as it came along. Doctors don’t get paid much in Hungary, and only the fanciest places have actual receptionists in the waiting area. But they admitted me cheerfully and charged me nothing.

Or another: last week I got an official letter in the mail, written in intimidating bureaucratic language (which I now understand, though I sometimes have to read it slowly), which informed me that I had to appear at the government office to apply for an address card and personal ID (which are required now that I have a permanent residence card), and that I had to bring certain documents, including a birth certificate with official translation. I despaired at this momentarily, because I had sent the official translation to Debrecen when applying for the residence permit, and had not received it back. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would need it again.

Then, just when I was about to go to the translation office, I received word of the new lockdown. All services and stores, except for the essential ones, were to be closed for two weeks. So I raced to the translation office and explained the situation. The OFFI worker looked me up and saw that the translation was still in the system; all I needed was to order an official copy, which she could have ready by Monday. I asked whether the office would be open, and she said she wasn’t sure, but she’d call me on Monday morning, and if I couldn’t come in, she’d mail it to me. “Megoldjuk” (“we’ll solve it”), she said. And indeed: she called me on Monday and said I could come pick it up.

This kind of thing has happened many times, at school as well. There’s a willingness to solve problems, as well as an eagerness to do good even on a small scale. How many times a colleague has left a bag of fruit tea, or a piece of chocolate, on my desk? How many thoughtful gestures have I received? There has to be some kind of optimism in this. But it’s just not the “pumped-up, rah-rah” kind.

This week I brough George Saunders’s story “Winky”—one of my favorite stories in the world—to my twelfth-grade students. Reading it with Hungarians was very interesting (and moving) because of what they understood. They didn’t all grasp the first part, at the Seminar led by Tom Rodgers. They understood that it was a kind of success workshop, and a few figured out that Tom Rodgers was a con man, but the situation itself wasn’t familiar to them. The self-improvement craze hasn’t reached the same extremes here. But the parts they understood profoundly had to do with Neil Yaniky and his somewhat dimwitted but kindhearted sister, Winky. They understood Yaniky’s error: his belief that if he got rid of his sister, if he just told her to leave, he could succeed at last. And they understood how deluded this was.

Despite all my qualms about spoilers, I have to quote the ending of “Winky” to explain what I mean. At the Seminar, Yaniky has been convinced that Winky is the one who has been standing in his way, (“crapping in his oatmeal,” to paraphrase Tom Rodgers), and that now is the time for him to win. He gets all geared up for his great moment. In the meantime Winky is happily getting ready for her brother to come home, walking around with a sock over her shoulder and a piece of molding under her arm. And when he gets home, he just can’t do it.

… and as he pushed by her into the tea-smelling house the years ahead stretched out bleak and joyless in his imagination and his chest went suddenly dense with rage.

“Neil-Neil,” she said. “Is something wrong?”

And he wanted to smack her, insult her, say something to wake her up, but only kept moving toward his room, calling her terrible names under his breath.

He isn’t happier, he hasn’t had some rosy realization that family is what really matters in the world, but we are the ones left relieved. As a student said, “They have a history together.” Something in him can’t go against that. Maybe it’s cowardice, maybe it’s weakness, but whatever it is, it keeps him from doing that awful thing, and my students knew that it would have been awful, sending Winky out into a world she had no idea how to face.

Human nature is no better in one country than in another. But in my experience, Hungarians know that there’s something to be said for being among others and treating them well, even with imperfections and limitations (on all sides). Like Yaniky, Hungarians may mutter terrible names under their breath, but they (or many of them) reject the ultimate selfishness. And if that isn’t hopeful, I don’t know what is.

  • “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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