The Grip of Nonchalance


In a beautifully concise 1956 review of Saul Bellow’s novella Seize the Day (a work I especially love, and about which I have written), Alfred Kazin writes,

Tommy finds himself prowling through a New York day searching for a place of support or rest. By the end of it, he has tossed away the last of his money on the market and is desperately frightened. Yet he gains an unexpected release when he is swept by the passing crowd into the funeral of a man he has never known — and, looking down at the dead man’s face, at last finds himself able to feel, to accept his own suffering. Thus, at last, he is able to confront that larger suffering which (as we can see only at the end of the story) has been the dead weight of existence pressing on him without any release or passion in him of understanding.

People often ask me how I could live in Hungary, a country whose leaders have taken a turn toward the far right. My replies–“not everyone supports Viktor Orbán and his party”; “there are other things going on here”; “people here are very kind”–seem inadequate. That isn’t quite it. In any country, you will find people who disagree with the prevailing ideology. You will find kind people too. No, there is something else. Through a series of events, a combination of circumstances, I found my way to just the right place. I don’t think I would be as happy living in Budapest, though I go there regularly for synagogue, which I love. The people I am getting to know, the the school where I teach, the place where I live (just a few steps away from the swan I photographed this morning) are more than dreams come true; they teach me about who they are, who I am, what matters in life, what questions lie open. I can take on these questions without embarrassment. The Hungarian language is now coming to me in spades, and I am still at the cusp of speaking. Much more lies ahead.

What I miss from the U.S. are my dear friends, my family (though any of them can tell you that I have an independent streak), my former school, and the Dallas Institute. But there’s something I don’t miss at all: the American pressure toward nonchalance, casualness, lightness, changing the subject when it gets too serious, cutting off people who seem too intense. Do not get me wrong: I love humor and do not like to wallow in gloom. But in the U.S. I have found a pressure to curb myself with every sentence, to watch carefully in case the other person thinks the conversation is getting too “heavy.” (I do not find this with my friends, which is part of the reason the friendships have lasted. But it has put a strain on some acquaintanceships throughout my life.)

In the U.S. I have been told, from a young age, that I am very intense and “intellectual,” yet I did not receive that comment from people in other countries. It was a particularly American descriptor. “Intense” and “intellectual” are not meant as compliments. It’s acceptable to be intense about politics–when you know exactly what you think and can express it with vehemence–but any kind of extensive searching threatens people, unless they happen to be drawn to that kind of thing. I found my home here and there–at the philosophy roundtables I led, in some of my classes, etc. But overall I learned to be wary of myself, to accept that my way of thinking and speaking would be too much for some people. There is a certain American ideal expressed in Edie Brickell and Kenny Withrow’s song “What I am,” “I’m not aware of too many things, I know what I know if you know what I mean….” I could not attain that ideal if I tried, and it does not interest me anyway.

The pressure to be light, to avoid taking things too seriously, does not exist in the same way in all cultures. Here I have found not only a release from it, but a welcome into serious thinking and conversation (which has plenty of wit and humor wrapped up in it). Intellect is not frowned upon; intensity (if that is even the right word) carries no shame. Granted, Hungary has its anti-intellectuals; just look at some of the politicians! In addition, the economic conditions are driving many thoughtful people to leave the country; this will change the culture (and not for the better). I do not see Hungary as anywhere near perfect; it has massive problems. But in this particular way, in the room people make for grappling, in the honor they give to literature, I am not only at home, but in the middle of a new way of living.

It makes teaching a joy. When we returned from winter break, I introduced my students to Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” (The link points to a page with both the original text and István Jánosy’s Hungarian translation). Eleven different classes, from grades 9 through 12, read the poem with me; each discussion brought something different out of the poem. One student heard, in the final two lines “And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” a kind of insistence and self-persuasion, as though the speaker wanted to believe that sleep (and death) were still far away. Some students detected fear in the poem; the speaker could only stay in that dark wood for so long before it became too much. Some found meaning in the punctuation at the end: the difference between a comma and a period is greater than appears on the surface. Over the course of these discussions, I noticed something for the first time: throughout the poem, despite the tranquility of the scene, there is a slight disturbance of some kind, a disturbance so subtle that you might not notice it. At first, it is the disturbance of being on someone else’s property:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Next comes the horse’s disturbance, his sense that something is different, his shaking of the harness bells:

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

Finally, there is the disturbance of time: the speaker’s knowledge that this moment must come to an end, that he must go on to other things.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

What is it that unites these various disturbances, these various rattlings of the mind and wind? Could it be that they are necessary to the beauty? Could it be that without them, there would be no stopping by woods?


I took both pictures this morning. Also, I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Making Room for Alcibiades

Near the end of Aristophanes’ comedy Frogs (Βάτραχοι), after the poetry contest between Aeschylus and Euripides, Dionysus reveals his reason for coming down to Hades: to find a poet who will save the city. For the poetry itself, he chooses Aeschylus–but he is left unsure whom to bring back. To determine which of the two is better suited to the task he has in mind, he poses a few final questions, the first about Alcibiades (a prominent Athenian leader who went into exile after being charged with sacrilege. Aeschylus’s answers make more sense to him, and it is Aeschylus he chooses. Here is Matthew Dillon’s translation of the passage (courtesy of the Perseus Digital Library Project):

Bless you! Come, listen to this.
I came down here for a poet. For what purpose?
So that the city might be saved to stage its choruses.
So whichever of you will give the state some useful
advice, that’s the one I think I’ll take.
Now first, concerning Alcibiades, what opinion
does each of you have? For the city is in heavy labor.

What opinion does she have concerning him?

What opinion?
She longs for him, but hates him, and yet she wants him back.
But tell me what you two think about him.

I hate that citizen, who, to help his fatherland,
seems slow, but swift to do great harm,
of profit to himself, but useless to the state.

Well said, by Poseidon! What’s your opinion?

You should not rear a lion cub in the city,
[best not to rear a lion in the city,]
but if one is brought up, accommodate its ways.

Euripides regards Alcibiades with nothing but scorn, while Aeschylus suggests that the city is responsible for him, having reared him. That is, not only must the city make room for him, but it must also take responsibility for having done so until  now. To bring in a completely dissimilar quote from Le Petit Prince, “Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoisé” (You become forever responsible for what you have tamed.”

In choosing Aeschylus, Dionysus implicitly favors his reply as well. In my many conversations about  this play (at the Dallas Institute and elsewhere), we have considered how a city’s greatness may be measured, in part, by its treatment of the Alcibiadeses of the world: those formidable people with mixed qualities, who pose danger while also bringing gifts. Perhaps it takes a great city to give a home to such a person–or maybe it is that home, that room for difficulty, that defines the city’s greatness, or helps define it.

I think of this as I ask: is there room in the public imagination for people with mixtures of qualities? Do our cities, countries, institutions make room for them, take responsibility for them, treat them as their own? Or do such people get shoved aside, written off?

I have been thinking off and on, over the past year, about Lorin Stein’s December 2017 resignation from the editorship of The Paris Review–in response to allegations of sexual misconduct–and his apology. (Full disclosure: He is a distant acquaintance of mine; I have had several enjoyable, helpful, and interesting conversations with him in the past, at Yale and in New York City, but don’t think I have seen him since 2002 or so.)

I have no knowledge of the actual circumstances, beyond what has appeared in the news; I have no trouble perceiving him, though, as both a brilliant editor and a bit of a “scoundrel” (an epithet I borrow from Wesley Yang). I bring him up because to my knowledge no one–not Yang, nor Katie Roiphe, nor anyone else commenting on this matter–has made the explicit point that The Paris Review should also bear great responsibility for the situation, having hired him precisely for who he was, with full knowledge of his gifts and foibles. (Both Yang and Roiphe come close to saying this but have other emphases and points.) It seems that when the the journal’s board selected him as editor, they wanted his full personality; they wanted to revive some of the spirit of the George Plimpton era, the dazzling and sometimes outrageous parties, the sense that The Paris Review was not only a great literary journal, but the place to be.

If this was in fact their goal, was it flawed? In my view, yes. I distrust glamorous social “scenes” that form around music, literature, and other arts, precisely because they distract from the art itself (and sometimes even crowd it out). Here I am not referring to genuine friendships, but to the superficial relations at parties and other gatherings. I remember going to hear bands in San Francisco and not being able to hear the music because people standing in front of me were talking loudly throughout the show. That is the main problem with a scene: it often takes on its own life, which has more to do with “who is who,” “who is with whom,” and “here I am” than with anything else.

But here’s the thing: given that The Paris Review chose Stein, given that they recognized early on what he would bring to the journal, they owe him a little more than a revision of their workplace policies and the listing of past editors on their masthead. I am not sure what would be fitting–a statement of responsibility? a tribute to his work? a private apology?–nor am I sure that it hasn’t happened. But nothing I have read on this subject suggests that anything of the sort has taken place.

Should he not have stepped down? I have no way of knowing. It may have been the simplest, cleanest, and most helpful course of action under the circumstances. But even now that he is no longer the editor, The Paris Review can make room for him, as a city can make room for Alcibiades. I don’t mean this in a cute way. I have questioned this analogy and decided to keep it; it is not perfect, but it has some truth. Besides, it allows me to bring up Frogs, a play I love for its silliness and satire, its playfulness and pain. Also, my point goes beyond Stein and The Paris Review; it has to do with cities, large and small, literal and figurative, and the way they treat their own lions.

Image credit: Wood engraving by John Austen. From a 1937 limited edition of Aristophanes’ Frogs, translated from the Greek by William J. Hickie. Courtesy of

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

Morning, Noon, Evening


This is short, because of everything else going on this week–but for now, here are three pictures from today: the first taken at 7:51 a.m. (on the way to school), the second at 12:18 p.m. (on the way to the post office), and the third at 5:33 p.m. (on the way home).


Later this month, I will have more to say–but at times there is something to be said for having less.


What Is a Good Day?


A day that begins like this (from my bike ride to school along the Zagyva) already has enough going for it–but in addition, classes were lively, I had lunch at one point, and then, in the evening, I accepted a colleague’s invitation to a Bach and Mozart concert performed by the Szolnok Symphony Orchestra–conducted by Izaki Maszahiro–and the brilliant Russian violinist Anna Savkina. So I have no trouble calling this a good day.

But like this photo, days come with layers of light. There have been many “good” days, and I am not sure, in the end, what makes a day good, if not the thought about it at some point. There’s something to be said for saying, “This was good.” “Good” does not mean perfect or peppy; when I call something good, I mean that I miss it and carry it, both at once.

The Role of Sadness


People in Hungary often comment that I seem very positive. That may be true, but I also carry sadness. The two do not contradict each other. Maybe I tend to keep the sadness to myself, but I don’t run from it; I don’t see it as wrong or defective. Often it helps me see things clearly. There would be a problem if I were stuck in sadness (or in happiness, for that matter), or vacillated abruptly between the two. But that is not how it is. They live side by side.

Sadness comes from the knowledge that things often do not last, and that we ourselves are the ones, at times, who bring them to an end. An angry person blames others for this condition (what is there to be angry about, except that something has been taken away, be it a sandwich or a bit of dignity?), but a sad person does not. (Granted, one can be angry and sad at once, just as one can be happy and sad at once.) Sadness does not pinpoint the blame–or maybe it recognizes a distribution. Most of the time, when things go wrong, it is not one person’s doing alone, but the work of several, or many, or even of generations and longer history. That does not mean there’s no blame at all–often there is–but rarely can it be limited absolutely to one person, time, or place. Anger is necessary; it sharpens perception and shapes justice. It helps us speak. But it has less room, less possibility, than sadness.

Sadness cannot be absolute, or it congeals into depression, a belief that loss is all there is. Sadness and depression have different lives, different meanings. I do not believe in total loss. Something survives, sometimes things we don’t see. Sometimes a painful episode leads a person in roundabout ways to new joy. Also, lives are not contained; we affect others in ways we do not know. I remember Hermann Hesse’s story Knulp, where Knulp, walking in a snowstorm, talks to God about how little he has accomplished, and near the end of this long dialogue, just before Knulp stops and lies down, God says, “Look … I wanted you the way you are and no different. You were a wanderer in my name and wherever you went you brought the settled folk a little homesickness for freedom. In my name, you did silly things and people scoffed at you; I myself was scoffed at in you and loved in you. You are my child and my brother and a part of me. There is nothing you have enjoyed and suffered that I have not enjoyed and suffered with you.” I first read this at age twelve; why has it stayed with me all this time?


I took the photo last weekend in Budapest; a friend showed me some lesser-known beautiful buildings, including this.

P.S. This piece seems to have prompted one or two “Are you OK?” inquiries from well-meaning people. If I could not acknowledge sadness, if I insisted that life was only and always great, then people would have cause to worry! Until then (and I hope that day never comes), I am grateful for the human range.


Thoughts and Updates


I have many ideas for blog posts but have not had much time at home, or even in Szolnok for that matter; I have gone to Budapest three times in the past week alone and will be going again on Friday (for a Hanukkah celebration and Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday night, followed by a Shabbat service on Saturday.) We have also had three Saturday working days this fall and have one more to go. So any free time–for writing, friends, duties, biking, thinking, sleeping–has been sparse and precious.

Speaking of writing, two of my most recent essays have been published, one (“Reclaiming Liberty“) in the New England Journal of Higher Education, and the other (“Choosing a College: The Virtues of a Good Misfit“) in Inside Higher Ed. As for the book, here are a few more pictures (thanks to Fruzsi) from the reading at Massolit Books in Budapest on November 18:

People are asking me where they can get a copy in Szolnok; they can do so at the Szkítia-Avantgard könyvesbolt és antikvárium, Baross utca 24. You can’t miss it if you’re on Baross utca and looking out for this (on the northern side of the street):


As for a Szolnok book event, there will probably be one in January; I will give details when I have them. (The planning is underway.)

Readers in the U.S. may be wondering what I have to say about Viktor Orbán’s takeover of Hungarian media–as discussed and rebuked in a recent New York Times editorial. At this point there is little I could say without directly repeating others’ points, and I don’t like doing that. First, I keep confidentiality, and second, I like to speak from knowledge and thought, not from a need to say something. The situation is worrisome, not only in itself but because it increases the divide between those who can read news in other languages–or can read between the lines–and those who take government propaganda (and other propaganda) as truth.

But in my daily life I see and hear courage, intelligence, imagination, reflection, sharpness, soul, and wit; slowly I start to understand some of the tensions and sadnesses in Hungary.

Take, for instance, the Saturday working day (which I have criticized before). Few people actually like them, from what I can tell, yet few will say so publicly. For one thing, many like the long weekends that they get in return. Also, if you object to the Saturday working day, you risk being dismissed as a complainer or troublemaker. There’s a widespread assumption that the best way to stop things from getting worse is to put up with them. (This doesn’t apply to everything; I have heard robust complaints about various matters.) People will say, “Well, we do get the long weekends, so it isn’t so bad,” or “Most people prefer to have the long weekends, so this is just the way it is going to be.” But here and there, some people do raise objections; a colleague recently shared an article about how unfair this is on schoolchildren.

My complaint about the Saturday working days (which my school has tried to make as light and bearable as possible) is that they intrude on personal time–and, for even minimally observant Jews, on a sacred day. It seems that the government takes some ownership of people’s private lives. Even though these days “pay back” for extra days on long weekends, the tradeoff is not equal. A shortened weekend–and especially four in a single autumn–means less time at your own disposal, less time for serious things outside of work. Here I am both willing and able to speak up without just repeating what others have said. But the point will be slightly moot (or muted) next year, since we will have two Saturday working days that affect teachers and students. (The third is on August 10, during our summer vacation.) This year, there were six, and they all fell during the school year.

In any case, within this crowded schedule, it has been a rich time. And now I must run.


I made some edits and corrections to this piece after posting it.


Lights Together and Alone


Last night, Hanukkah began.

Since this holiday commemorates a historical event with no clear heroes (were the Maccabees the virtuous ones? Or were they, as some suggest, religious zealots who used violence to bring other Jews to their way of life?), many seek a modern, general, attractive meaning in it: something about endurance, light in darkness, and the presence of miracles in everyday things. The historical event serves as the ancient background but is usually not the main focus.

Lighting my hanukkiah here in Szolnok for the second year (you can see the wax from last year), or rather, after lighting the shamash and first candle and after getting some sleep, I thought about another possible meaning.

The historical event, much oversimplified here (and tellable in various ways), is this: In the second century BCE, in the time of Antiochus IV, there was an ongoing conflict between the Hellenized Jews of Judea, who had assimilated into Greek culture,  and the Maccabees, who resisted such assimilation. When Antiochus took over the temple and erected a statue of Zeus there–he also ordered pigs to be sacrificed there and forbade circumcision–the Maccabees revolted and succeeded (at least in part). When rededicating the temple, they sought pure oil to light the menorah, but found only one flask, enough for one day (the rest of the oil had been contaminated). But this one flask, according to legend, ended up lasting eight days. From this miracle arose the festival of lights.

Am I on the side of the Maccabees? The Hellenized Jews? Neither? It is difficult to know, since the events and their contexts are so far away. But I do know that I am part assimilated, part not, in Jewish terms and in general. There is a part of me that does not fit in and never has, a part that fits in with some things and not with others, and a part that participates in the world, learns from others, and does as others do. In my Jewish life specifically, I am both traditional and not; I have a strong Jewish identity and practice, but it is not identical to anyone else’s, nor do I follow all traditional rules.

I can’t take sides inside myself–both the “not fitting” and the participation are essential to me–but on this holiday I can light the candles in honor of both: of that thing that burns and persists in a person, regardless of all dampers, all censure, and of this holiday that millions around the world have celebrated over the centuries, even with different meanings and understandings. And so, Happy Festival of Lights!

The Varga Katalin Gimnázium Ball


Last year, after the school’s annual tablóbál (where, after a procession and ribbon pinning ceremony, the seniors perform ballroom and modern dances for their peers, teachers, and families), I wrote about a meaning of performance. This year again, on Saturday night, I was so happy for my students, even more than last year, since I have been teaching them longer. The ball celebrates their transition; it is a way for them to dance gracefully together, to be solemn and serious with a few moments of silliness mixed in, and to be with all of us, not at the end of the year, when everyone is saying goodbye, but before.


I wish we had something like this in the U.S. (maybe we do, but I don’t know about it). Schools typically have senior proms–to which parents and teachers are not invited, except as chaperones, and for which students must find a date or else “go stag.” There’s no guidance; you’re left on your own to figure out whom to invite (or by whom to hope to be invited), what to wear, how to dance, and so on. It’s a lot of pressure, unless you deliberately take a different approach to the whole thing. Proms may have changed over the years; from what I gather, some students now go just for fun, to be part of the occasion. But it would be even better if there were something to celebrate, something to perform, some way of being with the whole school.

Now, I don’t meant that the Varga Katalin Ball is without pressure. There’s pressure to buy the right outfit, learn the dances, and participate in the ceremony with everyone looking on. It can be intimidating; some might feel miserable throughout. But no one is left out and no one disparaged; everyone gets to take part. Ninth-graders handle the ushering and coat-check; eleventh-graders introduce the acts. The evening begins with the procession and pinning ceremony, where the class teacher of each senior class leads the students, hand in hand, out to the hall, and where the headmaster gives a speech. That sets the tone; then come the ballroom dances and splashes of humor.




If I were leading a high school, I would be sure to institute something like this, to which everyone was invited, and for which all the seniors would prepare. After years and years, people might start to gripe, “Why do we do this?” But instead of retorting, “It’s our tradition,” I would say, “It is our celebration of growing up–and of childhood too.”


On Being Different


It can sound pretentious to talk about being “different,” but for me it has been a fact of life as long as I can remember, from my early childhood onward. Not only have I felt different from others, but others have told me again and again that I was. What is the nature of this difference? Living at a different level of intensity from other people, thinking differently–but all of this reuses the word “different” and fails to clarify the matter. I could give a better explanation, but it would take a long time.

As far as difference itself is concerned, I don’t believe that humanity can be divided cleanly or absolutely into “ordinary” people and “exceptional” people. Everyone has a difference of some sort; some go to great lengths to hide their own. Some differences are larger or more visible than others, but that does not make the slighter ones disappear. You can see them sometimes the way you would see trees through a fog.

Nor is difference all that matters; life requires a combination of difference and sameness. It’s important to find resemblances with others; otherwise there would be no meeting point, no understanding. These differences and samenesses (or similarities, or sense of similarity), are at their best when genuine. Finding your voice, hitting your stride has to do, in part, with not trying to be different, nor trying to be like others, but instead hearing and following what is there, cutting out the excess, the strain, the inessentials.

Life is not always as full of opportunity as the success hawkers would have us believe. There are limits to our time, money, energy, strength, perspective, and ability. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in “Self-Reliance,” each of us is given things to perceive that others do not perceive in the same way.

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preëstablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.

To “testify of that particular ray”–that might not seem like much, but it is everything, or rather almost half. The other part involves listening to others. And then there is still room for duties, sleep, meals, questions, and play. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” someone might say. “You’re speaking as someone without children. For a parent, everything revolves around the child. Parents have no time to think about–” But isn’t it part of a parent’s role, a parent’s gift: to see the child in a way no one else can, while also learning more every day about who this person is?

I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.

A Book Talk in Budapest and More


This picture is from an evening bike ride along the Zagyva river–a ride I take almost every day, at different times of day, but do not take for granted. I have been here for over a year now, and I still look forward to the rides–the tumbling through fog, the low-hanging birches, the sounds of breeze and bricks.

I have been thinking about Robert Frost’s poem “Birches,” which I brought to some of my classes last week. It has been translated into Hungarian by Ernő Hárs and Illés Fehér (and maybe others). On a first reading, I prefer Hárs’s for its rhythm and Fehér’s (sometimes) for its accuracy–but I need to take more time with them, over time.

Tomorrow evening I will give my first book reading in Hungary–actually, my first book event outside the U.S.–at Massolit Books in Budapest. I look forward to seeing how it turns out. The book has been meeting with good response so far: thoughtful reviews in Quartz (by Ephrat Livni), Publishers Weekly, and Amazon (by Dana Mackenzie), and a few comments from individuals (one reader called it a “treasure chest of words”). There are some dismissive reactions too (on Goodreads), but I don’t consider them reviews, since they say nothing about the book. Reviews, even negative ones, require perception. A true reviewer does not tell people what to think, but instead points out things to see and hear. The reviewer’s final assessment, while important, relies on those observations. Like a bike ride along the Zagyva, like a book talk in Budapest, a perceptive review is not to be taken for granted. I see all of these as gifts, but from where, and to whom? Those questions have no perfect answer.


I added to this piece and revised it in places after posting it.