The Slowness in the Fastness

People often say that I am going all over the place, always traveling somewhere. That is only partly true; I go to Budapest often, and to other places sometimes, but also often need to go nowhere at all. The slow, still days are some of my favorites, the times when, even if I get nothing done, things start to take shape.

But motion and stillness can be found in each other. Last week I went to Zemplén for just one day (overnight); it was a quick trip, but also quiet and peaceful. The picture above shows the beloved Kisdiófa Panzió és Vendéglő, the bed-and-breakfast place where I stayed for the fifth time; here I was returning to it after my evening walk.

And sometimes when, on the surface, I am doing nothing or close to nothing, so much is happening, whether in the world around me or in my head, that it seems that a fast day is being funnelled through a slow seive, a kind of eternity hourglass.

This is true for everyone, I think; the way we describe time and speed are deceptive, since we only partly understand what they are. At one point in Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive (Eleven éjszaka in Hungarian), one of the characters, Doc, starts talking about how one day we will discover that there are time waves, just as there are light and sound waves. This sounds both silly and marvelously wise; there are things about time we don’t know. We often think of time as a construct, a way of measuring motion, velocity, acceleration. But what if it exists outside of our own conception of it, with its own properties? What if time could disintegrate over time? What if time could lose its directionality and duration?

These questions have been raised many times: in physics, poetry, music, and daydreaming. They are not frivolous; they point to the uncertainties surrounding time.

Does this have anything to do with paradoxes of fastness and slowness? Yes and no. What does it mean for a day to be fast or slow? Typically, if a lot happens within it, it is perceived as fast; if a little, then slow. But a day could have an inherent tempo, regardless of what we fill it with, regardless of the motions of the clocks or even the rotation of the planet. Or there could be levels and layers of time, dimensions within time. These possibilities are palpable somehow. Even over morning coffee, I get a shivering intuition that time tingles around us and is yet to be discovered.


At the end of the year, or at one of the various ends of the year, students seek out their teachers and sometimes exuberantly, sometimes shyly present them with a gift: chocolates, or a flower, or a gift certificate, or maybe a book. I have been given memorable things, including a Balaton bike trip, a volume of Radnóti, a chocolate bar, and more. But on Tuesday a student gave me a gift that she had made, a framed collage, set between glass panes, of lavender and special images that bring up memories of the past few years: of Shakespeare (and Bottom), Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, conversations, cello, singing “This Land Is Your Land,” and playing hangman sometimes in the last minutes of class (and the combination of all of these: serious, playful, whimsical). After wondering where to put it, I chose my desk at home—and if the desk gets too cluttered for it, then it’s time to declutter. It will be a good new habit.

There’s at least a slight risk in gift-giving. You don’t know whether the person will like it and accept it, but you go ahead and give it anyway, and in doing so, you give a little bit more than the gift itself, not only of yourself, but of something beyond yourself. The gift doesn’t have to be fancy. I remember a time when I spontaneously shared my orange with someone, and she later told me that that was her favorite of all the gifts I had given her, because it was unplanned.

Books are sometimes my least favorite gift to receive, because I never get around to reading them, and then I feel bad. But I love a book that I can treasure and read when I want. The Radnóti collections are like that. I think that’s how a book gift should be: something long-lasting, not a book of the moment. But it depends on the recipient too. There are people who will read anything you give them (even by the next day sometimes).

Gifts need a proper occasion and proportion. You can’t give too much to people, or they will start to feel indebted or suspicious, which undoes the very purpose of the gift. I remember when I was fourteen, living in Moscow, and invited a classmate to the Bolshoi theatre or ballet. I think it was the theatre. Afterwards, I told her I wanted to treat her to the evening. She said, “Mne neudobno” (“It’s uncomfortable for me.”) But being a stubborn teenager, I insisted. And so she later treated me to a show too: a performance of Mayakovsky’s Klop (Bedbug), which, while entirely unintelligible to me at the time, still leaves me with fun, fierce memories.

Receiving gifts gracefully is as important as the giving. And that takes some perception. In high school I gave a beautiful Escher kit to someone who wasn’t really a friend yet (she was one of the older sisters of one of my friends). Then I felt embarrassed; maybe she didn’t like it, or didn’t want it from me! So I tried to explain why I had given it to her, and she just said, “That’s perfectly understandable,” which meant she had received it in good spirit. (She was a person of few words, but she meant what she said.)

So yes, when it comes to giving gifts, there’s a tension between honoring the forms and breaking the rules. Both are needed. If you don’t honor the forms, your gifts might come across as eccentric, awkward, or at least inappropriate. But a gift inevitably breaks out of the forms too. It inherently breaks the rule of self-containment. (Is there a rule of self-containment? Yes, I think so: the idea that this is mine, that is yours, and we keep to ourselves unless there’s reason to do otherwise.)

Is it possible to live without breaking the rules at least slightly? No, because most of the rules (no matter how noble their purpose) call for at least a bit of rattling now and then. A gift rattles the universe gently.

I added a lot to this piece after posting it.

Why “Liking” Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

I saw a wonderful play this evening: Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive, performed in Hungarian (Eleven éjszaka) by the Szkéné Színház, who came to Szolnok to perform it. It was funny, sad, somewhat absurd, and strangely relevant. Even though the plot is removed from my life in almost every possible way, it seemed to hit something I am going through right now, some kind of question I am wrestling with. I can say that I liked the play, but that’s really shorthand for something more. “Liking” is beside the point here.

I have written about this subject before: how “liking” isn’t as important as it is made out to be, how the things that affect us the most are not always the things we like, and so forth. Liking implies a smoothness of reaction, a lack of resistance, but some of the most interesting works, people, places we encounter are the ones that strike some kind of rebellion in us, or at least a vigil of sorts. There are unpleasant but profoundly intelligent and moral people; there are works that leave us somewhat uneasy, in the best of ways.

For years I didn’t like the songwriter Mark Eitzel or his erstwhile band, the American Music Club. People were dismayed when I told them this. “How could you not like Mark Eitzel?” they wailed. But I didn’t. The music sounded too glossy to my ear. I didn’t understand what it was about. Only now, years later, do I hear the brilliance of those songs. I will now walk through his repertoire slowly. I might come to love it. And I might still not like it.

Away from music and into personal relations: there are people I have respected, admired, loved, and not necessarily liked—people with serious faults, quirks, disagreeable aspects. I would not wish likeability on them in a million years. They are better as they are. God, they drive me crazy sometimes. But I am glad they exist.

Liking is somewhat lazy. That doesn’t deplete it of value. It’s good to have some people, some food, some things in your life that you just like without resistance. People you feel comfortable around, whose company you enjoy. Art, music, books that give you pleasure. Meals that make you smile after you have finished your chewing and swallowing. But pleasure doesn’t have the final word.

None of this is mutually exclusive. You can struggle with something, come to love it, and then, over time, take a liking to it too. Or in reverse order. But if you don’t like something, that doesn’t render it worthless. Your reckoning with it might be one of the most important battles of your life.

This question has many implications for education. Is it important for students to like what they study? Yes and no.

On the one hand, if they absolutely detest what they are learning, or are bored by it, then something is probably going wrong (in terms of curriculum, instruction, or study practices). On the other hand, if they judge the curriculum according to their liking of it, and if the school and teachers encourage such judging, then everyone is missing the point. School should not be pure torture or pure entertainment. It is a chance to come to know something that you didn’t know before. This can bring both exhilaration and discomfort. Let us honor the not-quite-liking.

I will be presenting on this topic (in particular, how it pertains to education) at the ALSCW Conference in October, in the seminar on “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture.”

Learning from Covering a Song

Covering a song you love is a way to go farther into it, to find out what it is about. For a while I have had a thought of covering Platon Karataev’s “Lombkoronaszint” (“Canopy Layer”) and a few ideas of how I would do it. About a week ago I set down the underlying track. Then yesterday I recorded the rest. The recording is far from perfect, but I learned a lot about the song while making it. Here it is (available only in this post; I am not turning it into a video or sharing it elsewhere).

When you first listen to “Lombkoronaszint,” it might seem very simple to play: a melody repeating over and over, a refrain that slowly takes over. But then when you try to play it, you find a hidden intricacy: the pattern varies, the syllables match differently with the beats of the measure. It takes intense concentration to get it right (and I still only got it right up to a point). As I worked on it, I was taken into a different level of the song, and I think that comes through.

The lyrics can be translated roughly as follows (I might edit or correct this later):

now the boat left behind
for the last one
floats entirely on its own,
look, we have crossed over,
the tired capillary
slowly pushes
my blood forth;
all the water
has reached the other shore.

you ask where god is?
on the canopy layer,
in a shivering child.

see, how magic hides in each setting forth,
the slow water sets you on your way,
let’s row back all over again.

you ask where god is?
on the canopy layer,
in an opening flower,
on the canopy layer,
you ask where god is?
on the canopy layer,
you ask where god is?

Here, below, is a beautiful live recording and video of Gergő and Sebő playing the song. And you can hear the album version here.

Update: I re-recorded the later part of the vocals and uploaded the new version here.

Festivals, Audiences, and Such

Fishing on Orfű, the one music festival I plan to attend this summer (along with its August coda, Kispál on Orfű), has people scrambling, even begging, for a place to stay, even a place to pitch a tent. I don’t know why this is. All the cabins and tent spots were sold out early on—I bought a ticket to the festival as soon as they went on sale, and already the huts and camping spaces were gone. The only place left was a camping area near the lake (which gets very hot during the day and can get soaked by rain at night, and where you don’t have a reserved spot but have to take your chances—and even this is sold out now). The hotels and bed-and-breakfast places are all filled; there’s even an online Facebook page for festival attendees looking for places, and as soon as anything comes up, it’s gone in seconds. With so many people looking for a place to stay, why aren’t there more options? I love Fishing, but people who come so far to hear the music should have a place to lie down. Those who buy a ticket to the full festival should be offered a camping spot, a cabin, or something else, even if they have to pay a little extra for it.

Last year, I pitched my tent where I wanted. At the Mini-Fishing, it wasn’t a problem; I think you were allowed to do just that. At the main Fishing, I didn’t know it wasn’t allowed, and there were people knocking (!) on my tent late that night to tell me that others had reserved that spot. (Fortunately those others hadn’t arrived yet, or else they took another open spot; since I was there only for the night, I packed up and left before dawn.) This time, I have a ticket to the open camping area near the lake. We’ll see how it goes.

And yet I can’t wait for Fishing. On the 29th, I will get to hear Cz.K. Sebő, Lázár Tesók, Felső Tízezer, and Sasa Lele; on the 30th, Felső Tízezer (on the water stage), Anna Szalai and Gergő Dorozsmai, and who knows who else; on July 1st, Noémi Barkóczi, Kaláka, Esti Kornél, and Platon Karataev, and on Saturday, Jazzékiel, Galaxisok, and maybe the tail end of Elefánt. That’s in addition to others I will stumble upon or find my way to. And then there will be the walks around the lake, late at night and early in the morning; the serendipitous experiences, and maybe bike rides too, if I bring the bike.

But I am starting to have mixed feelings about it (not Fishing in particular, but the whole concept). I think some musicians do too. For them, the festival season can be grueling: one festival, one show after another, big crowds (unless they are one of the lesser-known bands, in which case there might be just a few people listening), people surrounding you, tight schedules, no place to unwind, think, or work on the music itself. And never mind the politics of scheduling: who gets booked and who doesn’t, who gets to play which dates and which stages, and who gets invited and then dropped. I have read some stories, not about Fishing, but about other festivals. I imagine that up to a point, performing at the festivals is great fun and professionally important, and then it gets exhausting.

For an audience member, there’s the whole challenge of staying there, which is usually necessary, at least for one night, and can also be fun (for one night). On the other hand, there’s an inequality to it all; you travel hours to get there, you pay to be there, you rough it out in a tent, but you’re “just” an audience member, “just” a fan, interchangeable, disposable. No one really cares if you are there or not. Which is great, in a way; the anonymity is part of the thrill. Just being able to go listen to the music, without having to explain yourself. And if you want, you can leave, and no one will even notice. But the nobodyness is an illusion; the audience is as important as the performers and as worthy of regard. The inequality is partly false. I say “partly” because it is also circumstantially true; the performers are on stage for a reason. They have audiences for a reason.

The inequality is also exacerbated by money. The reason musicians have such a dense schedule in festival season is that they need to make as much money as possible, to give them a little bit of a financial buffer for the rest of the year. The reason festivals pack in more audience members than they can house is, again, money. So then the question becomes: is this worth the money?

With regard to Fishing on Orfű: yes and no. To hear the musicians, yes. To be in the hills, in the woods, by a lake, among other eager listeners, yes. But to travel more than five hours each way (four and a half hours from Szolnok to Pécs, and then the bus or bike ride), only to have to fend for a place to sleep, which might end up unsleepable in a big downpour (it tends to rain there, because of the microclimate), and to be there for four days—I wonder not only if it’s worth it, but if I want to be in that position any more. If I were going with friends, it would be another matter. With friends, you can laugh, figure out solutions, enjoy each other’s company. But the only people I know who go to Fishing have their own plans. I am past the age where many of my friends do this kind of thing; I don’t mind being different, and enjoy doing things alone, but something about this is starting to feel too much, not just physically, but otherwise: I’m getting a little bit ruffled up dignity-wise. So I think I will go just for one night, and then again in August. Or else find a way to stay in Pécs and commute back and forth from the festival, which also means missing a few shows. It will be good, it will be enough, and at home I can listen to the other musicians’ albums.

Update: An inexpensive, conveniently located Pécs hotel ended up being the best solution; it takes about 50 minutes to go by bus from Pécs to Orfű, and the return buses run until around 11:30 at night. I am probably going to camp at Orfű on the last night, so as not to have to rush out before the end of the Galaxisok show (and to be able to attend Jazzékiel as well). So, a bit of commuting, but otherwise three days of comfort and all the music I had been hoping to hear, and then one night under the skies.

Listen Up: Galaxisok

I have been looking forward to this post—the sixth in my Listen Up series—for a while, with some trepidation: What do I say about Galaxisok? Their music is serious fun, with catchy rhythms and melodies, subtle textures and chords, and some heartbreak and worries mixed in. The songs evoke pictures, films, states of mind, eras, stages of life; they tell stories, ponder dilemmas, and crack wry jokes. They sink into you, so that when you remember them, they are already classics for you. But what is the music like? Their own description (at least I think it’s theirs) offers more questions than answers. All I can do is bring up a few songs. But another problem with Galaxisok is that they have so many good songs, it’s hard to pick just a few. On the other hand, it’s hard to go wrong.

The band members — Benedek Szabó, László Sallai, Ákos Günsberger, and Soma Bradák — have substantial and multifarious musical knowledge (and knowledge of other arts), unusual views of the world, and a knack for a good hook. They bring their own different perspectives and influences together into that undefinable entity that is Galaxisok. There’s something about that tuneful, beatful music, the surreal world-weariness, that not only pulls me to the albums and songs but suggests that there will be many more. The songwriter and lead singer, Benedek Szabó, who grew up in Baja (one of my favorite cities in Hungary), has more stories to tell, more moods to draw and paint, more questions to raise.

At the Müpa concert this coming Wednesday, they will be playing their favorite songs from across their repertoire. So let me bring up some of my own favorites here. I bet there will be a little overlap.

I have to begin with “Galaxisok,” which appears on the first Galaxisok LP, Kapuzárási Piknik, which is basically a Benedek Szabó solo album, with Péter Futó on keyboards on five of the songs. The album title’s literal translation is “Gate-closing picnic,” but it’s a play on “kapuzárási pánik,” “closing gate panic,” or Torschlusspanik in German: the psychological state of terror over getting older, and the behavior that accompanies such panic: trying to act like you’re younger, doing things that younger people do, going out with younger people, etc. The title song sings of a point in life where you wonder if you’ve already lived more than you will live, and other questions and worries that come with that. As for the picnic aspect, there are lots of ways to understand it; I will leave that to you!

The album was released on Szabó’s 26th birthday (March 14, 2013) and was heralded with a wonderful write-up in At this point Szabó was already well known as the lead singer and songwriter of the dream-punk band Zombie Girlfriend, whose songs are in English. Kapuzárási Piknik is Szabó’s first album in Hungarian. I have no idea whether the idea was already in place for a band named Galaxisok, but I suspect the song came first, and then the band was named after it. The music is strongly reminiscent of the legendary ensemble Kaláka, but the lyrics take a different direction.

Wait, but now I have to digress, because this Zombie Girlfriend song “Stories of You and Me” (recorded in 2011, a full eleven years ago) is so good. I don’t know who else is playing on this song, but later the lineup included László Sallai, Eszter Kádár (about whom I know nothing), and, on a few of the songs, Dávid Korándi (Felső Tízezer, Cappuccino Projekt).

And now for the “Galaxisok” song! I will translate it, since I think that will help things. I take a few liberties with the translation, to preserve the rhyme, the rhythm, and the couplets. With the syllables placed correctly, this translation could be sung to the melody.

nedves a szemed, száraz a szád
spirálkarokkal ölelnek át
a galaxisok, a kertben a fák
az ablakod alatt ringatják
a lombjaikat, de te nem szereted
se az égieket, se a földieket

viszket a bőröd, a kezed remeg
könnyűnek lenni a legnehezebb
két hete folyton fáj a fejed
az orrodban apró kis hajszálerek
kárörvendően pattannak el
nézed a véred és nem érdekel
wet are your eyes, dry is your mouth
the galaxies hug you and spin you about
with spiral arms, in the garden the trees
under your window rustle their leaves
but you have no love for those in the skies
or those on earth below your eyes

your skin is itchy, your hands trembling
being light is the heaviest thing
for two whole weeks your head has ached,
two capillaries within your nose break,
snapping for good, no chance of repair,
you look at your blood and don’t even care

This song has the mixture of lightness, world-jadedness, and slightly grotesque beauty that I hear in other Galaxisok songs. Its quasi-abstract anxiety seems to flow out of the preceding song, “Huszonöt” (“Twenty-five”), which is about being twenty-five and still not knowing what you want in life but finding it harder to do the youthful things; being too old to rebel and too young to acquiesce; not knowing if you have a place in life at all. “Huszonöt” has a slow, dark texture, with a hint of Bowie, I think.

Their second album, A legszebb éveink (Our Loveliest Years, 2015), now has László Sallai on bass and vocals (in addition to Szabó and Futó). It has beautiful piano, keyboards, organ, and other instruments. You can listen to it and love it without understanding a word. In the interest of time, I’ll just bring up the first song, “A teljesség felé” (Towards wholeness), whose lyrics contain the album title. Interestingly, the video features not only Szabó, but Ákos Günsberger and Soma Bradák, who were soon to form Galaxisok along with Szabó and Sallai. Or probably, by the time of the video, they already had. The song, which begins, “esküszöm, hogy nem fogok hányni” – mondtam a taxisnak az astorián” (“I swear I’m not going to vomit,” I told the taxi driver at Astoria) has to do with solitude, feeling ill-adjusted to life, yet realizing that these are our loveliest years, years of getting up, going to work, getting drunk, lying down, and getting up again.

Their next album, their masterpiece Focipályákon sétálsz át éjszaka (You Walk Across the Football Field at Night, 2017), is the first album with the full band (at the time known as Szabó Benedek és a Galaxisok, later Galaxisok). If you like this kind of music and listen to this album enough, it could easily become one of your favorite albums in the world. It has become one of mine. Brooding, rocking nocturnal songs, with titles like “Boldoggá akarlak tenni (de nem tudom, hogy kell)” (I Want to Make You Happy but Don’t Know How,” “Húsvéti reggeli a Sátánnal” (Easter Breakfast with Satan), etc. “Éjfél” (Midnight), my favorite song on the album, has Domokos Lázár (of Esti Kornél and Lázár tesók) on “angel vocals.” But I am going to talk about another favorite, “Innen El” (Away from Here), because of its brilliant simplicity.

The guitar melody reminds me of other songs by other musicians, the vocal melody of other Galaxisok songs, yet this song stands out with its contemplative tempo, the sparseness of its syllables, its filmlike feel. It is at once a pop song and as far as you can get from a pop song. The lyrics are too sad and cryptic for pop, the arrangement too sparse, the pace too slow; that is precisely the song’s beauty. I love the drum/bass syncopation, the chords just before the chorus, and the slow ascending scale in the break. The song has to do with the dream of taking someone away from here but realizing that that would only be a trap, because the person would have to start all over again with a half-alien. In the song, distance exists not only in space, but in the mind, and in both cases, there is no way to go away; the faraway place exists in the imagination only. The chorus goes (I took slight liberties with the translation, to convey the cadences),

Én már csak képzeletben viszlek innen el.
Csak akkor figyellek, ha senki nem figyel.
Messziről nézni úgyis sokkal biztosabb,
mindig távolról voltam boldogabb.
I whisk you away from here only in my mind.
I watch you only when the world pays you no mind.
Gazing from far away is trustier by far,
I have always been happier from afar.

This album deserves attention to every song. But let’s go on to their 2018 album, Lehet, hogy rólad álmodtam (I might have dreamt about you), and in particular to the second song, “Láthatatlan lovak” (Invisible Horses), which I am pretty sure Szabó played in his solo concert in 2021. This song is important to the Galaxisok repertoire, not only because of the role that a dream plays in it (dreams and half-dreams figure largely in their songs overall) but because of the musical details. Here’s a wonderful video of Szabó commenting on the song and playing parts of it on piano.

This time, for the sake of space (this is already the second-to-last song that I will bring up in this post), I will just give a prose translation of the lyrics. You can listen to the song and read the original lyrics at the link below.

Prose translation, without the verse breaks that exist in the original:

In my dream it was summer again. In the mid-nineties, beside our old house, we wandered in the woods, you and I. Invisible horses were neighing in the garden, in the sky thousands of planes moved in a special pattern. We were waiting for piano class, but it’s also possible it was over. One of my friends’ brother found an old video. It was made on a residential block — lush trees and a playground, it’s evening, but still light. I know you lived there long ago. And you’re really in the picture, your semi-long hair is blurred. We don’t know each other yet, but you look happy from here. I was standing in the water in a suit, throwing frogs ashore. I got lost around our house when we headed back. In my dream it was summer again. We went up to the castle, but it was higher than I thought. For hours we were walking down.

And now I have to do the unthinkable and choose just one song from their most recent two albums, both released in 2020, Cím nélküli ötödik lemez (Untitled Fifth Album) and Történetek mások életéből (Stories from the Lives of Others). I have brought up a couple of songs from the latter on this blog, so I am going to cheat and choose a song on neither of the albums: their most recent single, “Ez a nyár” (This Summer). It has a punk feel, a mood of anger and anxiety, a rich sound, a terrific video (filmed in their practice space), and a particular chord that I love (at “egyhamar”). “Ohh, ez a nyár más mint a többi, ohh, ez a nyár nem múlik el egyhamar….” (Ohh, this summer is different from the others, ohh, this summer isn’t ending any time soon….). You can read more about it in Hungarian on the KERET blog.

Before wrapping up, I should mention Szabó and Sallai’s tradition of releasing a two-song Christmas EP together, with a song by each. There are three of these (from 2018, 2019, and 2020), as far as I know. There are also demos, live recordings, and other rarities. This is just a brief introduction to Galaxisok, but I hope someone will come upon this piece, listen to a few of the songs, and then go listen to more. I am lucky that the music is so close by, not just here in my room, but at concerts that I can attend. May this be the case for years and years.

The next Listen Up piece will be devoted to Sonny Smith / Sonny & the Sunsets, whose music I have listened to for over two decades. I hear some kind of affinity between them and Galaxisok. I keep dreaming that one day they will play a show together, in San Francisco, Budapest, or both. Who knows; it might happen. But whether or not it does, they will be neighbors in this series.

Photo credit: A still from the official video of Galaxisok at Fishing on Orfű, 2019. See also this wonderful video of them on the water stage at Fishing on Orfű in 2021.

I made a few small edits to this piece after posting it.

For more pieces in the Listen Up series, go here.

Update: The Müpa concert was so good that I forgot to pick up my backpack at the coat check afterwards! Playing and speaking about their own favorites, they gave us a thrilling long concert that included a few songs mentioned here and many others too—some of them already beloved in my ears, others still on my periphery. I can’t wait to go back to the albums this weekend (and will also go back to the Müpa for my bag).

Are you done for the day?

This is one of the questions I have the most difficulty answering, because no matter what I say, I feel like I’m lying. If I have come home from school and am not going back until tomorrow, then, yes, in others’ eyes, I am done for the day. But at home I am involved in a different sort of work, some of it related to school (grading, planning, etc.), some of it not. Writing and translating are work for me insofar as they are not hobbies. I may or may not get paid for them, but I don’t define work in terms of the presence or absence of pay. Work is something I have to do, either because it helps me survive or because it’s part of what I live for.

So, if I say, yes, I’m done with work, I’m lying, because the work day for me has still a long ways to go. But if I say, no, I still have more work, people get confused. I try to get around all of this by saying I have lots of “projects.” But yesterday some friends pointed out to me that this concept of “projects” is very new in Hungary and that I seem unusually project-oriented. I think I call them projects to convey that yes, I have a lot to do, I don’t have gobs of free time. The friends who pointed this out understand that way of living. They have lots of projects too, though they might call them something else (in Hungarian, “program” or “terv”).

In short, my work day is not done; it rarely is! But as for the details, never mind.

What do you miss about the U.S.?

I get asked this question from time to time. People are surprised that I don’t miss the U.S. more. Well, I do miss it, sometimes a lot, but life here has been good to me, and it keeps getting better, even with ups and downs.

Well, first of all I miss people. I don’t want to go into that, because it would feel bad to mention some and leave out others. But yes, family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, former students, former clients, people whose work I love and admire, people I run into on the street, people I have never met but sense around me. This, however, could be true anywhere. There are people I miss in Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkey, the Netherlands, France, Argentina, and elsewhere. People I have known for years, and people I have met only briefly.

Then come the places. San Francisco, Tucson, Taos, Dallas, Chicago, Nashville (where I have been just twice), Philadelphia, Ithaca, New York, New Haven, and then many places in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine. The coast of Maine with its jagged rocks and snails. That, and the long stretches in between these places, the long road trips I used to take. Driving along the Salmon River in Idaho. Visiting a friend in Montana.

Then the works. Of literature, music, art, theater, architecture, and more. Not only the famous and long-resonating works, not only Whitman, Faulkner, O’Connor, Morrison, Dylan, the gold of many colors, but the burgeoning projects, the college singing groups, the open mic poets (even the unbearable ones), the newly-formed bands, the scribbled notebooks.

Then the ideas. The idea that it is not only permissible, but even good to criticize your government. (Granted, this can be taken to ridiculous and dangerous extremes, but the principle is dear to me.) The idea (also taken to extremes) that if you want to do something, and have enough determination and smarts, you can pull it off. The raw enthusiasm of the American character. The belief in freedom, even though we have not always honored it by a long shot and don’t fully know what it is.

Then the institutions, form the elegant universities, libraries, concert halls to the hole-in-the wall clubs, shoestring-budget theaters, independent film houses, ephemeral literary journals.

The comedy groups. Improv. SNL. Really good standup. The whimsy, the daring of comedy. The knowledge, contained in every comedian (just ask them who their favorite bands are) that life serves up generous portions of sadness.

Then the religions. The vast variety within each religion. The plethora of synagogues, for instance, ranging in terms of observance, emphasis, atmosphere, congregants. I don’t know that any other country has or could have a synagogue like B’nai Jeshurun, with such an combination of halachic seriousness, responsiveness to the world, and music.

Then the sounds of everyday life. The whisk of the A train in Manhattan as it speeds from 59th to 125th Street. The crunch of bicycle wheels heading up a San Francisco hill on a rainy day. Someone playing an accordion in the Mission. Coffee brewing in the kitchen early in the morning. The sound of waves, the sound of a stream running over rocks. The movement of animals in the woods. The long, droning cry of rush-hour traffic. The many languages, many tones of voice on the street, arguing, joking, questioning, proclaiming.

Then the personal lives, with all their triumphs and troubles. Because how could any of this have existed, except for the troubles? Troubles that wake you up and show you a bit of the way. Not the crippling troubles—there’s nothing redeeming about them—but the ones that jolt you momentarily out of your dream.

Then the broken dream. Because the darndest thing is, the Great American Dream has failed everyone at some point. “Things have a way of turning out so badly,” says Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. But for some reason, even after the losses and deaths, people get up and start dreaming all over again. Maybe a little differently, but radiantly. And that is one of the things I miss but also brought with me here.

I think of the end of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” one of the most beautiful poems of all time:

And again death, death, death, death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.

Which I do not forget,
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,
That he sang to me in the moonlight on Paumanok’s gray beach,
With the thousand responsive songs at random,
My own songs awaked from that hour,
And with them the key, the word up from the waves,
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside,)
The sea whisper’d me.

I took the photo in Fort Tryon Park in May 2017.

Update: I added a paragraph to this piece after posting it. Also, see Veronika Kisfalvi’s comment.

Getting What You Want

In (U.S.) American life, the concept of happiness has been tragically confused with “getting what you want.” No one knows exactly what Thomas Jefferson meant by “pursuit of happiness,” but insofar as he was drawing on John Locke, he understood that happiness is a complex matter, not reducible to the satisfaction of ambitions, wishes, or desires. These might deceive us, after all, and what we want for ourselves at a given moment might not be good for others (or even ourselves, for that matter). So the pursuit of happiness involves restraint and reflection.

Over time, this idea of restraint has ceded to the dogma of “going for it,” “living your dream,” and so forth, so that people often feel ashamed if they are not hell-bent on attaining that fantasy in their head. What’s wrong with you? Do you have fixed mindset or something? Why aren’t you going after your goal with everything you’ve got and more? And I suspect that there’s at least a small element of this in mass shootings. The murderer gets an idea in his head and then starts to believe that he has to carry it out, that not doing so would be a colossal failure, a life not worth living. I don’t mean that this explains the mass shootings, only that it might contribute to a much more complex explanation.

Locke wrote in his 1690 “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” “God Almighty himself is under the necessity of being happy; and the more any intelligent being is so, the nearer is its approach to infinite perfection and happiness. That in this state of ignorance we short-sighted creatures might not mistake true felicity, we are endowed with a power to suspend any particular desire, and keep it from determining the will, and engaging us in action.” Then, a little later, under the heading “The necessity of pursuing happiness, the foundation of liberty”:  “As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty.” In other words, pursuing happiness involves suspending our desires until we have examined them closely and determined whether they will bring us to true happiness. This is an ancient concept; it can be found in the Bible, in Plato, in the writings of the Greek and Roman Stoics, and elsewhere. But only after living in Hungary for four and a half years did I see the extent to which it is missing from areas of American life.

In the U.S., if you want to do or accomplish something, you throw yourself into it with full spirit and often a certain recklessness. You believe that your dreams will come true if you let nothing stand in the way of them. Some people go about this more prudently than others, but almost everyone believes in the pursuit of goals (more than they believe in reflection upon these goals and upon the means of pursuit). In my case, this often meant that I threw money into a project, just to make it possible. I didn’t worry about whether money was coming back to me (and it usually wasn’t). That was the primary reason why my literary journal, Sí Señor, folded (and why so many other literary journals do the same): my desire to see it in existence overrode my practicality. After four issues, each of which cost a couple thousand dollars to produce, I couldn’t afford it any more. I don’t regret the journal, or even the money I spent on it; if I had been more cautious, it might not have happened at all. Still, it reflected a belief that if you want something, you go for it, no holds barred. You do whatever it takes.

In Hungary, people are markedly more cautious and hesitant—especially with money, but with other matters too. They will generally wait before making a big purchase or investment; they want to make sure they have the best deal possible and are really going to make use of it. They are likewise circumspect with dreams and plans, unsure whether they will really pan out and whether they will be worth the effort. There are exceptions and complications to this, but the tendency comes through strongly. At the extremes, it is no better than the American goal-pursuit. If you don’t take risks, you miss all kinds of opportunities; you don’t let yourself even think of projects that seem beyond your reach. Still, I have learned from Hungarian caution.

There are many questions to consider, with respect to any plan or dream: how practical and attainable it is, whether it benefits us and others, whether it can be sustained, whether something lasting will come out of it, whether there are any risks or dangers involved, and so forth. Some of this is unknowable, but at least it’s worth asking. That doesn’t mean that a plan should be abandoned if it fails to satisfy the criteria. Sometimes the riskier projects and endeavors bring great rewards, not necessarily material ones. But the questions can help us avoid needless failure and waste. Not only that, but this kind of reflective mediation will help with the steps along the way.

This applies even to areas like friendship. When do you ask your friend for something, and when not? When do you disclose something, and when not? There isn’t just one right answer. It’s a fallacy that true friends are “always there for you” or privy to “your deepest secrets.” It isn’t true that if you hold back from revealing or asking for something, you are shortchanging yourself. Friendship can have depth even without constant presence or absolute openness. People are allowed to have their own preoccupations, their own privacies.

In general, there’s good reason to relieve oneself of crushing ultimatums: “Either I accomplish X, or I’m a total failure”; “either you accept everything about me and are there when I need you, or you aren’t a friend at all.” There’s no happiness, or even pursuit of it, in these choices. The world does not and should not bend to any one person’s will.

A kind of exuberant, dreamy ambition, combined with practicality, industry, moral sense, and regard for others, would be, if not “the best way,” at least a rich disposition. How do you cultivate this? Through daily life, introspection, projects, education—and often through not getting what you want.

Art credit: Goshawk by Alan M. Hunt.

Update: A comment from Michelle Sowey: Hi Diana, thanks for continuing your ever-thoughtful blog. Your third-last paragraph reminded me of another Kundera passage, from Testaments Betrayed, which expresses an even stronger and more uncompromising version of the idea: “…since childhood I had heard it said that a friend is the person with whom you share your secrets and who even has the right, in the name of friendship, to insist on knowing them. For my Icelander, friendship is something else: it is standing guard at the door behind which your friend keeps his private life hidden; it is being the person who never opens that door; who allows no one else to open it.”

Thoughts on “Fázom, ha nézel” by capsule boy (Cz.K. Sebő)

First, listen to the song. Watch the video, if you like, or leave that for later and listen with your eyes closed (or open). Listen a few times. If you read Hungarian, read the KERET Blog interview with the song’s author, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly. Then, if you like, come back and read these comments.

There’s no doubt that I like the song, but even now, after listening to it about ten times (in addition to a few times at concerts), there’s something more important to me than liking. Liking implies some kind of comfort, but this song gives me an exhilarating discomfort, but not just discomfort: many things over the course of its two and a half minutes. It is a love song and a happy song, but as Sebő says in the interview, it’s possible to come to it from different angles; the title line itself can suggest different meanings. He describes the song as a bridge between the classic (folk) Cz.K. Sebő and the capsule boy electronic subproject. I hear some of the songs on How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain? as bridges too (and the album as a whole), but maybe they go elsewhere. In any case, it is a bridge to spend some time on. It’s the song’s angles that make it so beautiful, I think.

The melody is not his own; he does not know the origin. He was shopping online for guitars and came across a video in which a boy was trying out a guitar and strumming a melody (which was similar to this one, if not the same). He loved it and tried to find out what it was, but no one knew. It took a long time to find the right lyrics for the song; they took shape along with his life. They can be translated, very roughly, as follows. (This translation is meant only as a bare approximation of the meaning; it doesn’t convey the rhythms, the sound repetitions, the nuances of the words, not to mention the silences and ellipses.)

Fázom, ha nézel,
mert a testem nélkül nézel
Szeretlek, mert nem hagysz bennem űrt

Szólok, mert látlak,
de nem a két szememmel látlak.
Végtelen, ami bennünk elterül

Mindenhol látlak,
de sohasem magyarázlak.
Szeretlek, mert nem hagysz egyedül

Szólok, hogy érzek,
Már a testem nélkül élek
Mint prizmafény, egymásban szétesünk.
I freeze if you look (at me),
because you look without my body.
I love you because you don’t leave a void in me

I speak because I see you,
but without my eyes I see you.
Endless the thing unfolding inside us.

Everywhere I see you,
but never do I explain you.
I love you because you don’t leave me all alone.

I say how I feel,
I’m now living without my body.
Like prism light, we fall apart in each other.

The melody catches the ear right away and has a way of playing over and over in the mind. It has a syncopated rhythm and an overall descent, then partial ascent; it hits every note in the C major scale except for the fourth, the F. After a pared-down keyboard introduction, it repeats many times, with changes in sound, counterpoint, texture; and with lyrics that take you from freezing into motion (unfurling, disintegrating) and from there into an infinity of light and color.

I hear the song, in a way, as a counterpoint to one of my favorite passages in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

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

This song, though, is not about the loss of a loved one, but about that person’s presence, with the inner universe right there.

The music does so much in a simple, short space, swelling up and thinning down, with lingering, bending keyboard sounds that change texture; acoustic guitar; something almost xylophone-like; a few layers of vocals; a passage that sounds a little like a baroque organ piece and gives way to a folk tone, and something like wind or sea at the end. All of this naturally, intuitively, the sounds not adding on to the song but turning and forming at its center.

And then the video—it’s a little hard for me to watch, because right now I just want to listen to the song. But its colors, images, and storyline draw me in anyway; the moment with the empty hangers (pictured at the top) is strangely moving. My students have been reading The Great Gatsby with me, and we spent a long time on the following passage:

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.”

There’s a loneliness to that full closet, in Gatsby’s case (and maybe here too). In this video, though, as the young man gets dressed, putting on layer after layer, the closet empties. Everything he has been storing up, he is now taking into the world, to a particular person (and then takes off most of his layers again before ringing the doorbell). The song has nothing to do with Gatsby, but the contrast between the two states still brings something up. That empty closet with the bare hangers makes me cry with joy.

I think a song can take you to a new place in life, all by itself; that has happened to me with several of Sebő’s songs, including “Light as the Breeze,” “Hart,” “Felzizeg,” and this one. I don’t know exactly what that place is, but that’s what I mean about discomfort. Any good song gets me to hear life in a slightly new way, but this is very new, in ways that are hard to explain but wonderful.

I think I’ll end here. Congratulations to Cz.K. Sebő/capsule boy and to everyone who helped with or created the recording, video, and cover art: Bence Csontos, Ábel Zwickl, Ákos Székely, Sámuel Tompa Lukács, Fruzsina Balogh, and anyone I might have missed. I am looking forward to the capsule boy LP, which will come out at the end of the year.

Image credits: The picture at the top is a still from the video (by Ákos Székely and Sámuel Tompa Lukács.). The picture at the bottom is the cover art by Fruzsina Balogh.

I made a few edits to this piece (including the song translation) in several stages after posting it.

Update: Michelle Sowey commented on Facebook: “This reminds me of another cryptic love song with an infinitely repeating melodic loop and endlessly changing textures: Oração, by ‘A Banda Mais Bonita da Cidade’: (P.S. I love that passage from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, too.)

  • “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

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  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)



    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 April 2022, Deep Vellum published 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.


    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.


    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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