A Kind of Puzzle

I am almost always working on a story in my head; eventually it gets down on paper. Somewhere along the way, I run into the story’s puzzle. When it’s in its beginning stages, I know where it’s going, more or less, but don’t know what it’s about, until something clicks, a piece that fits right in the middle, or a little off to the side. One of these years, I will have a story collection out, even though publishers, I hear, avoid story collections like grilled dill pickles with chilled vanilla filling. It has been a long-term dream; years ago, I intrigued an agent slightly with my collection-in-progress The Dog Park, and Other Tales of a Wounded Ego. The title will be different, but the collection will come.

I was recently reading Tad Friend’s great, long piece in The New Yorker on Bill Hader, which mentions that Hader met with George Saunders and Tobias Wolff for dinner at one point. I had a flash of jealousy: why did he get to have dinner with them, two of my favorite story writers? Why did they get to have dinner with him, one of my favorite actors, screenwriters, comedians, interviewees, lovers of literature? (Here he is on SNL with one of his classic Keith Morrison impressions.) Why do celebrities float around in a world where they need only utter a wish, a dinner invitation, and it’s “Open Sesame”? Not that that’s really how it is. But then I felt better when I learned that Saunders and Wolff would be speaking over Zoom at the Bay Area Book Festival–about Russian literature, no less! (The event, “Writing, Reading, and Being All Too Gloriously Human: George Saunders with Tobias Wolff on the Storytelling Greats,” takes place today at 7 p.m.—so, 4 a.m. tomorrow my time.) I signed up and paid the registration fee, only to be informed that the event was only for people in the U.S., according to the terms of a contract. My registration fee was refunded, but the excitement was not. Oh well.

I had been thinking about parallels among three of my favorite stories: George Saunders’s “Winky,” to which I have returned again and again, Tobias Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” and Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat”; also, in a way, “Fat Phils Day” by Hubert Selby Jr. These stories all end with a swift motion into some kind of revenge, retribution, or release–except that in the case of “The Overcoat,” it’s a bit of an oddity, a coda in the form of a ghost story, which seems disconnected from the main story but also not. And in the case of “Winky,” the ending seems both a victory and a defeat at the same time: Yaniky’s victory over the cult nonsense he has been fed, a gut inability to carry it through, but also, in his mind at the time, a terrible failure, because he will never be able to liberate himself from plain old life. But what I find in common is not the message of these endings, nor even the particular quality, but the motion itself, the way it brings everything together.

A great thing about writing is that you don’t have to meet other writers in person. In fact, if I did, I probably woudn’t know what to say, or even want to say much. Just by virtue of reading and writing, you are part of that world, and your work will speak for itself, as theirs does to you. I’m not saying this to console myself. It’s true: I would feel awkward at a party with writers I admire, though I’d happily take their classes or attend their readings. The work is the thing I am drawn to, though once in a while in my life, the writer has also become a friend. Some of this is set up in advance, by others; we know only of work that we have access to. Some writers’ work never makes it into print, unless they self-publish; some gets published here and there, and some takes off. There’s both justice and injustice to it all; lots of good work gets published, lots of mediocre stuff does too, but somewhere along the way, sooner or later, writers and readers find each other.

Therefore reading is part of the puzzle. If there weren’t readers, there would be no reason to write in the first place, and so reading completes the act, or maybe just continues it, since the things worth reading are worth reading again and again. I don’t read nearly as much or as quickly as I would like–but the reading that does take place is a kind of participation in the work itself. Today the Orwell project begins; a few of my students and I will join Columbia Secondary School students on Zoom to discuss the first few chapters of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Over the next two weeks, we will read the entire novel together. And because this first joint class is happening in just a few hours, and I have some errands to run beforhand, I must leave off here.

I took these pictures yesterday.

Inside and Outside

With the online teaching, I spend most of the day inside, but try to get outside at some point to run an errand or take a walk. Today I might be able to go on a bike ride, if I get the essential things done in the morning. Some combination of inside and outside is important, but the mixture varies from person to person. In July 2012, my dear friend Cybèle Troyan walked and biked with her husband and daughters from Le Puy en Velay, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain (a distance of 1,500 kilometers); her husband, Bennett Voyles, wrote a book (which I highly recommend) about their pilgrimage. On another occasion, without their daughters, Cybèle and Ben walked from Berlin to Rome. Such a long walk is out of the question for me because of the sun exposure, but I admire it and the love of the outdoors that comes with it. There’s an indoor aspect to such a walk, too; you immerse yourself in the outdoors and are therefore inside it.

I have been thinking about the inside and outside in writing and other art; when and how to speak without reservation, and when and how to hold back. Or what the “inside” and “outside” even are. There is no absolute answer, but I have been influenced recently by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer’s The Wind: an Unruly Living (about which I wrote the other day) and Will Arbery’s play Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which I had the fortune of watching online.

Last night I revised a sonnet I had written over three years ago; I realized that it was too enclosed and didn’t end with what it wanted to say. I changed just three lines of it, and there it was.

At other times obliqueness is not only necessary but truthful; the “direct” our “outward” truth will miss the point somehow. Instead, you need to wind around dimly in the dark.

David Brooks wrote a column titled “Nine Nonobvious Ways to Have Deeper Conversations.” While his advice seems reasonable, I find the formula irritating (some magic number, a list, and an assumption that people need this advice in the first place); moreover, I question the concept of “deep” conversations to begin with. There’s nothing inherently superior about discussing one’s private fears and hopes, or the meaning of life, nor is this necessarily deep. What I have learned over time, sometimes the hard way, is that both people have to want to take part in the conversation, whatever it is about. A sustained, voluntary conversation, even on a supposedly superficial topic, contains much more, and goes much farther, than a “deep” unwanted dialogue.

Back in the days when I used to communicate a lot by email (my emails now are occasional, not regular, except when related to work), I found it hard to sense the other person. Some of my correspondences were one-sided, but I would not realize this for a long time, and when I did, it was too late; in a few cases, the person had gotten deeply annoyed. Our current forms of communication run the opposite risk. They are too fragmented. I often can’t stand them. Sometimes people, out of the blue, will send me a link on Messenger without telling me what it is. I just ignore it, since it could contain a virus. But that’s the sort of thing that goes on.

What, then, if you are not having a conversation, but instead writing for readers, whoever they might be? Something similar still applies. You have to consider the person who might be reading. You don’t know who it is, but you have to uphold this person’s trust, by making the reading worthwhile, helping the reader where necessary, assuming intelligence (on both ends), and letting the work take shape between the two of you. It will always be between two.

The other night I took a walk and saw this tree against the sky. Both tree and sky bringing each other out, after dark. Inside and outside, surface and depth. If you go far enough, the outside becomes inside, as in Robert Frost’s “Come In.”

So no, I am not after “deep” conversations, since the sound of a car driving through puddles can surprise me with its depth, bringing back sounds of old rains, of days when I sat inside, watching the evening, watching my words stumble on the line of what they want to say.

I took these photos on two different walks last week.

When looking online for Frost’s “Come In,” I found David Sutton’s website and began reading his poems. An exciting discovery.

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

“It is not easy to become a person”

This isn’t a book about the wind; it’s wind about the book, whirling around the words, through the the spaces. It’s a book that brings you into the wind, the wind that messes up your plans and allows you to relate to others through “deep politeness.” It is The Wind: An Unruly Living by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer. When reading it, I had the sense of coming upon a secret treasure, a wisdom quietly waiting but also singing, speaking, bellowing. Taking different forms, circumventing.

I knew the author long ago, when I was a graduate student at Yale and he was an undergraduate. Some of our conversations have stayed with me over the years; one in particular had such an effect on my thinking and understanding that I have returned to it in my mind many times. But I have not seen or spoken with him for over twenty-five years.

The book is not a philosophical tract, though it draws on the Stoics and other philosophers, but an exploration in intertwining forms, like wind itself–ruminating exposition and questioning, journal, poetry, contrapuntal texts, tilted text, etymologies, a passage that you have to turn upside down to read. It is not a self-help book; it offers no steps to follow, no pat answers. It does not sell anything, and in that way it stands out. That is at its heart; the book tears up our notions of self-possession and throws them into the wind. Why do we insist that we possess ourselves? What damage does this insistence do?

But it moves in a direction, even with its twists and loops; by the end I understand something I had not understood before. Something comes together that I had been puzzling over for years. At the risk of a slight spoiler, I will say a little about it right now. The book explains that it is not only possible, but essential to be practical in a true relation with another. We often think of practicality as self-serving, as a way of getting what we want. But to be considerate of another (and the author points out the Latin root of “considerate,” sidus, sideris, which means “star, heavenly body”), one must be practical as a human being: one must have the practices of listening, speaking, circumventing; treating people as people, not as problems or obstacles.

The book is more optimistic than I am about community. Community often makes me wary, so often have been the times that I have felt stifled in it. The best communities, in my experience, are those that do something together, but where the others also let each other be. A community must have respect for solitude, and not many do.

So I do not “agree” with everything in the book, and on the one hand, that isn’t the point; it isn’t a position paper. On the other hand, the disagreement is exactly the point; and at the risk of another little spoiler, I will say that toward the end, the book talks about how disagreement is essential to relation. It gives the two people something to consider together, something to work through. This does not mean that they will come to an agreement; who knows? But at the very least, they will come to understand each other better.

I used to have trouble stating my disagreement with people. I would just stay quiet or nod, since the disagreement felt so disruptive. Over time, I have become more outspoken, but I still have trouble sometimes, in the moment, saying “I don’t see things that way.” I might just let the matter go, which also means, to a degree, letting the relationship go. Two people cannot know each other if they do not let themselves disagree.

And so, as the book reminds us, “it is not easy to become a person.” Things like disagreement can take a lifetime.

Having read The Wind once, I like to pick it up and open it anywhere and read. It is that kind of book; once you know it, you can play with the sequence. The writing is so clear and bold that something will rise up from any passage, something that didn’t before.

I will write to Jeremy one of these days, probably soon. But what a great conversation, right here, with and within this book.

Ride of Rides

If you count the detours, I probably biked 300 kilometers in all–from Szolnok to Sátoraljaújhely–between Monday and this morning. But that’s not what makes this trip stand out. Or rather, that’s only part of it.

It was a pastel-foggy morning when I set out from Szolnok on Monday. I turned back once, because I realized that, when removing the bike from the storage alcove in my building, I had somehow gotten grease on my sweatpants. I tried to clean them as much as possible and then set out again. On the outskirts of Szolnok, I veered onto a bike lane, and the tires hit a slippery spot. I went flying off of the bicycle and face down onto the ground. Some people walked up to ask if I was all right. A woman drove up and handed me a handful of tissues. But nothing was broken, and after taking a few minutes to collect myself, I headed onward.

The day was uneventful and lovely. I rode the long, familiar stretch through Nagykörű, Tiszasüly, and other towns, and saw many birds of prey circling above, as well as migrating (or semi-migrating) geese. The geese didn’t seem too sure of their direction yet, but they were flocking numerously and loudly.

So I came to Kisköre, found a bridge, and then saw the bike route sign pointing to a meadow. I rode on the dirt road, came to Tisza-tó (Lake Tisza) before long, and went clockwise around the lake to Tiszafüred. (There was a bridge at one point.) I have already mentioned the chess pieces and the swans. That, and biking by a lake on a grey fall day, made for a relaxing, if also long, first stretch of the trip. The guesthouse was a little outside of Tiszafüred, but I found it. The host greeted me with cheer and took me to my room, which was actually a little house behind the main house. I went to sleep promptly.

The second day looked a lot like the first at the outset. A long, quiet bike path; lots of birds, yellow leaves falling. Then, just before Tiszacsege, the bike path came to an end, and there was no sign indicating where bikers should go from there. It met with an L-shaped road: I thought I should go right, toward Tiszacsege, but it seems that was a mistake. I liked something about Tiszacsege, though, and regretted passing through it so quickly. I stopped to take a picture of the Roman Catholic church.

I continued on to the town of Polgár, which definitely had no bike route in sight. Someone saw me looking around and asked where I was trying to go. When I said Tokaj, he explained that I needed to get on route 35 and then turn right–and go on the bike path to Tiszadob, where I would need to take a ferry. Then, at the other end of the ferry ride, I would resume the bike journey. Tokaj was about 40 kilometers away.

But first of all, I took the wrong direction on 35; it took me a while to realize the mistake. I turned back, found the Tisza river and the bike path, biked to Tiszadob, and found the ferry stop, but everything looked deserted, and the gate was closed. A search on my phone revealed that the ferry wasn’t in operation. So I decided to resort to GPS. I chose the walking route, since there was no bike option–and Google Maps deftly directed me along dirt roads, which would have been fine, except for the abundant mud. Now the sun was setting, and I saw a shepherd just ahead with many sheep and a few goats. I wanted to take a picture of the sheep, and he welcomed me to do so. He asked where I was going; when I told him, he said, “Oh, it will get dark before you arrive.” But I told him I would be fine. He said I was doing a beautiful thing, taking a trip like this. And I went onward.

It did get dark. But the moonlight was spilling over the paths, and I thought I was almost there–and would have been almost there, had the dirt roads been suitable. But I ended up in so much mud that I decided to forsake the dirt roads altogether. I told Google Maps that I was driving. The road took a very long way around, but I reached Tokaj just a little before 8 (and the check-in at the guesthouse was until 8). Now I relied on the GPS for each step, went around and around, went up a little hill, turned back, and saw the Torkolat guesthouse right there in front of me. Not realizing yet that I had arrived, I called the owner, who, as it turned out, was standing several meters away. He jovially welcomed me in, and everything was fine.

In the morning I had breakfast there, at the guesthouse. The owner made me eggs and coffee and laid out an array of spreads. Then we started to talk. He was impressed with my Hungarian (which to me felt stumbling) and asked how I had learned it. When I told him, he told me that he had studied German and Russian. We began speaking in Russian–he told me about a trip he and his university classmates had made to Riga, Moscow, and Leningrad in 1978 or so (the same year I was there). He had saved a book of Russian expressions, which he considered a treasure, since it represented an era. He told me two Soviet Russian jokes.

I saw many wooden mechanical toys around the dining area. I asked him about them. He had made them himself. He had seen models on YouTube and had figured out how they worked and how to make them.

Soon afterward, I said goodbye and headed to the center of Tokaj. You can’t go wrong in Tokaj. Old, gracious buildings with colorful ivy spilling over them; hilly roads, hills up above, wine cellars everywhere. I got some wine for the neighbors taking care of my cats and some more for a special occasion. The wine cellar pictured below is at the Hímesudvar Pincészet (over 500 years old).

Now it was time to head up slowly toward Sárospatak, then Vajdácska. I had no worries about the route, since I had traveled it before. But I did want to try to find the Jewish cemetery in Olaszliszka. It took some doing–it has a big stone wall around it, so you can’t really see it–but I found it. I think it’s opened only on special occasions–for instance, when there’s a Hasidic pilgrimage there.

Sárospatak was bustling–lots of stores open, lots of people walking around. It seemed like a veritable metropolis. My appetite bristling again, I decided to have a late lunch at A Fekete Macska (The Black Cat). They are serious about their name. The place abounds with cats. I saw at least five in the terrace dining area. And I had a delicious lunch: vegetable soup followed by chicken with galuska (a kind of homemade pasta). Then headed to Vajdácska, crossing the Bodrog river.

But that lunch was in some ways a bad idea, since it took away from my dinner appetite, and I had been looking forward to the pizza so much. They make scrumptious pizza at the Kisdiófa Panzió és Vendéglő. But I did manage to eat almost all of it (a medium-sized margherita). And it was good to arrive at the final guesthouse of the trip, where I had been four times before. I spoke with the hosts, ate more than my fill, and went to sleep.

The next morning, after breakfast, I went down a side road to see a memorial to a little boy who died. I don’t know who he was or how he died, but last spring I had seen his memorial by the side of the road. There it was.

I then went to see the Vajdácska cemetery, which has a Jewish section, and afterwards the two churches on the hill (one Greek Hungarian Catholic, the other Protestant). The Jewish cemetery is located inside the Christian cemetery, in its own section but with no barriers. The gravestones are old and crumbling, but the grounds are well kept. It was moving to be there.

The two churches are what you can always see when approaching Vajdácska, even on a foggy day. I discovered today that if I stood on the grounds of the one, I could take a good picture of the other.

And now for the final destination before the train ride home: Sátoraljaújhely (shown in the photo at the top). I wanted to go to the Rongykutya bookstore at the very least, since I had never made it there when it was open. But along the way, on the edges of Sárospatak, I passed a woman on a walking path, and she began talking with me. We had a long conversation–and she wanted to convince me to move to Sárospatak. And yes, after Szolnok, Sárospatak would probably be my first choice of a place to live in Hungary. It’s an extraordinary town. Comenius lived and worked there from 1650 to 1654, and it has a renowned university, many historical landmarks, and a sweet and beautiful charm. But I love Szolnok, and I can visit Sárospatak at least once a year.

Sátoraljaújhely was sad to see. It has gone downhill economically since I last visited it in 2019. Or at least I didn’t notice the extent of the problems then. Store after store had gone out of business; the buildings were for sale. There were entire streets of emptied stores. But I got to the bookstore–an inviting place–and bought two books there, and also bought a sweater at a clothing store, since it was getting chilly.

The train ride home contained one of the biggest surprises of all. I first took a train to Szerencs, then transferred to a train that took me all the way to Szolnok–and stopped in Tokaj! I had not realized there was a direct train from Szolnok to Tokaj. Not only that, but the trip takes just over two hours. This means that I could take a day trip to Tokaj–and even to Sárospatak–on a weekend. It’s also by far the easiest way to get to Sárospatak, if I want to combine train and biking. In the past, when taking the train, I have always had to transfer, and the train ride itself took about four hours.

But I wouldn’t trade this bike trip for anything–and this whole description has been no more than a quick sketch. Arriving back in Szolnok was a thrill. And the cats were well cared for and glad that I was home.

Show Your Work—Or Not?

It has been a long time since I last dealt with sums of probabilities, so, when puzzling through the solution to the fourth problem in Frederick Mosteller’s Fifty Challenging Problems in Probability, I got temporarily stumped by this equation:

p + pq + pq2 + … = p(1 + q + pq2 + …)
= p / (1 – q) = p / p = 1.

I understood all the steps except for the middle one: how is it that
p(1+ q + pq2 + …) = p / (1 – q)?

Then this morning it came to me: (1 – q)(1+ q + pq2 + …) = 1, since it is equal to (1+ q + pq2 + …) – (q + pq2 + …). So (1+ q + pq2 + …) = 1 / (1-q).

If all these intermediary steps had been laid out, this book would have been much thicker and less fun. Part of the intrigue (and insight) lies in figuring out how you get from one step to the next.

This week, in Civilization class, a student mentioned the American penchant for “showing your work” in mathematics. He related it to the overall overtness of American culture and said it worked against those who were good at doing in their heads. I found it rather tedious to “show my work” in high school, but since then the demands have only increased–no intermediary step is to be omitted. I can see the reason to do this once in a while, as an exercise, or as a way of uncovering an error, but as a general practice, it beats the elegance and succinctness out of mathematics. It also leaves you nothing to puzzle over.

Anyway, the fourth problem in the book is this: On the average, how many times must a die be thrown until one gets a 6? The answer is 6, but along the way I found out something interesting: A little over half of the time (about 51.7% of the time), one will get a 6 in 4 tries or less. One could confuse 4 with the average, but it is not the same thing. Since there is no limit to the potential number of trials, there might be a time when you toss the die 25 times before getting a 6.

I took this into Perl:

use strict;
use warnings;
use 5.010;
my $number = 0;
my @sequence;
my @tries;
my @half;
my $toss = 0;
my $total = 1000000;
my $average;
my $sum = 0;
my $totalunderfive;
for (my $i = 0; $i < $total; $i++) {
until ($toss == “6”) {
$toss = 1 + int rand(6);
push @sequence, “$toss”;
$number++;
}
if ($number < 5) {
push @half, $number;
}
push @tries, $number;
$number = 0;
$toss = 0;
}
foreach (@tries){
$sum += $_;
}
$average=$sum/$total;
print “$average is the average number of tosses that it took to get a 6.\n”;
$totalunderfive=scalar(@half);
my $percentunderfive=($totalunderfive/$total)*100;
print “$percentunderfive percent of the time, a 6 was obtained in 4 tries or less.\n”;

“Tossing the die” a million times in the Perl Online Editor, I got this result just now:

6.006929 is the average number of tosses that it took to get a 6.
51.7173 percent of the time, a 6 was obtained in 4 tries or less.

Algebraically, the chance of getting a 6 in 4 tries or less is (where p is the probability of getting a 6 on a given toss, and q is (1 – p), or the probability of not getting a 6 on a given toss):

p + pq + pq2 + pq3 = approximately .517744.

Generally, the greater the number of trials, the closer the result will come to this figure, but there will be some visible variation.

Anyway, I wouldn’t have bothered with any of this if the book had showed its work. The solutions themselves require a little bit of puzzling through, especially for someone out of practice with these things, but that’s part of why I remember this book from childhood and recently tracked down a copy. The book is 88 pages long, and there’s enough in there to keep me occupied (in the spare minutes around the edges of the day, and in its momentary breaks) for years and years.

A Book in the Making

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Sock Drawer

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

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

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

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

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

use POSIX;

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

So, you see, it works!

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

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

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

The Phrase “Growth Mindset” and Its Problems

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I have brought up growth mindset, skeptically, many times on this blog; in addition, I dedicated a chapter to it in my second book, Mind over Memes. My basic argument is that we both have and need a mixture of mindsets; while it can be damaging to believe that your abilities are absolutely fixed, there is no evidence that an unfettered belief in growth would benefit anyone. Beyond this, something about “growth mindset” bothers the ear. Conceptual problems aside, the phrase itself rings false.

My criticisms take nothing away from Carol Dweck’s and others’ research; they aren’t about the research. Nor do they disparage those who have been helped by the concept of growth mindset. Rather, I take up the matter from a linguistic and philosophical standpoint. Today I will focus on the linguistic.

I have already brought up the problem with each of the two words. Limitless growth is not always desirable; moreover, our attitudes about improvement may not constitute a “mindset.” Together, the two words ring with an importance that has not been earned. “Growth mindset” sounds like a life solution, an attitude that, once adopted, will open you up to happiness and success. As a result, anyone who questions “growth mindset” gets accused of negativity, even unhappiness. Unless you are a terrible, mean, frustrated person, how could you possibly criticize something that liberates people, that allows them to reach their true potential? If you oppose growth mindset in any way, aren’t you wishing stultification upon the world?

Dostoevsky’s Underground Man would have had a field day with this. But even a happy person, a person who does believe in certain kinds of improvement, can have serious qualms over “growth mindset” as a concept, without being mean or wishing anyone ill. Unfortunately, the very phrase “growth mindset” is constructed to imply otherwise. It’s like “cooperative learning” in that way. If you question or criticize anything about “cooperative learning,” you get written off as uncooperative.

A week ago, in a New York Times article, Alina Tugend wrote about making a mistake, long ago, in a New York Times column. After that mistake, she found herself wondering why people berate themselves so much for mistakes; later she wrote a book on the subject. One of her major sources of insight and inspiration was Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and the accompanying research, which she summarized in the present article. The next part of the article described an interview with Dweck during the pandemic. Could growth mindset help people through the Covid crisis? Dweck replied with laudable caution, but Tugend offered reasons for optimism. She concluded the article by reflecting on the process of writing it. It had not been easy:

This article, the one you are reading, proved to be a mini-Mount Everest for me. Somehow I couldn’t get it right. My editor offered some helpful comments, but a second try also fell flat. My first thought was “Oh forget it — this just won’t work.” The second thought was an internal wry smile and an acknowledgment that I wasn’t demonstrating much of a growth mind-set. Back to the computer.

Now, scrapping a piece isn’t necessarily a sign of “fixed mindset,” but I’ll leave that aside for now. The point is that this article was more of a personal reflection than anything else. The comments varied widely–some enthusiastic, some critical or skeptical, but I didn’t see anything nasty. No putdowns, no ad hominem remarks. All in all, they were remarkably civil and thoughtful. Then I saw this:

Alina,
Thank you for the article and persevering through the challenges of putting it together. No quick and easy answers in psychology, and mindset only gives us a small part of the big picture, but a useful part. Try not to give these comments too much time, lots of stone throwing unhappy people reading the Times these days. Stay in the light.

I see the commenter’s point about not giving the comments too much time. But what was with those “stone throwing unhappy people”? If people had been hurling insults at her, or even at the article, that remark would have made sense. But if objecting to some aspect of “growth mindset” is tantamount to “stone throwing” or “unhappiness,” then there’s something manipulative about the phrase itself. It automatically casts aspersions on those who sidestep its temple.

Many fads and cults depend on phrases like this, phrases that sound so good on the surface that only a cruel, miserable person could question them. This does not mean that the researchers themselves have sought to create any kind of cult or fad–in fact, they have resisted this, from what I can tell–but the phrase lends itself to that kind of thinking. There are the Good and Enlightened who believe in Growth Mindset, even if their own growth mindset isn’t perfect. Then there are the Bad and Deluded who have reservations of one kind or another. The one group walks in the light, the other in confusion and brambles.

The Underground Man’s words (I decided to quote him after all) hit the mark. This is from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Part I, Chapter 10:

You believe in a palace of crystal that can never be destroyed—a palace at which one will not be able to put out one’s tongue or make a long nose on the sly. And perhaps that is just why I am afraid of this edifice, that it is of crystal and can never be destroyed and that one cannot put one’s tongue out at it even on the sly.

You see, if it were not a palace, but a hen-house, I might creep into it to avoid getting wet, and yet I would not call the hen-house a palace out of gratitude to it for keeping me dry. You laugh and say that in such circumstances a hen-house is as good as a mansion. Yes, I answer, if one had to live simply to keep out of the rain.

Exactly! The problem with “growth mindset” as a phrase is that “one will not be able to put out one’s tongue or make a long nose on the sly.” That, and it is more of a hen-house than a palace. It can help with certain things, up to a point, but it is not the answer to all of life, nor is anyone obligated to pursue its perfect, complete manifestation. In fact, there’s reason to think that that would be hell.

The organization MindsetWorks continues to promote the notion that everyone should be on a “journey” to more growth mindset.

Our mindsets exist on a continuum from fixed to growth, and although we’d like to always have a growth mindset, the reality is that we can only be on a journey to a growth mindset. The goal is to recognize fixed mindset elements in ourselves and then reflect on feedback and strategies for how to improve.

This is the “crystal palace” through and through; MindsetWorks not only puts growth mindset forth as an ideal but also leaves no room for the possibility that someone might “be on a journey” to a different destination. No, we are all supposed to examine ourselves for any remaining elements of “fixed mindset” and remove them, one by one, until we all embody perfect growth and eat each other up.

What would I offer instead of “growth mindset”? Well, I see no need for a catchy phrase at all. Instead, adopt a working principle that humans are capable of improvement and learning. Bring that principle into teaching, employment, and other areas of life–show it through your own attitudes and practices–and remember that it does not encompass the truth about a person, a subject, or the world.

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

This and That

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A beautiful, long vacation is coming to a close. I don’t remember when I last had such a stretch of time. It was a long time ago.

Yesterday I finished reading Sándor Márai’s novel Kassai őrjárat (Košice Patrol) in Hungarian. It’s the second novel I have read in Hungarian; the first was Krisztián Grecsó’s Vera, which took much longer. Kassai őrjárat, Márai’s meditation on his return to Košice a few weeks after the German invasion of Paris in 1940 (and a few months before Hungary joined the Axis powers), is both beautiful and perplexing, both prophetic and off the mark. It is clear that at this time he did not know what Germany was doing; he believed, or his narrator believed, that if writers and other artists lived up to their responsibility, and if European nations could both work together and retain their individual identity, Europe might enter a new and glorious phase. He saw the writers of his generation shrinking away from their importance; he saw pseudo-writers, concerned mostly with fame and career, filling the gap. He saw the decline of the book from a sacred object to a saleable item. But he did not see what was coming–or, probably, much of what was going on right then and there–in the war.

But even with the blind spots, it is an absorbing, moving book. Maybe the blind spots made it even more so. None of us sees everything that is going on at a particular time. At best, one of us might offer new information, perspectives, or synthesis. But anything any of us observes or reports is incomplete. The imagination fills in the rest, for better, for worse, or for a mixture.

Besides reading, writing, and translating, I have gone on many bike rides and evening runs. When I moved to Hungary in October 2017 (almost three years ago), I looked forward to getting on the bike and going wherever I wanted–on a long or short trip, on bike paths, regular roads, or other routes. In this I have not been disappointed. Today I biked out to Millér and then followed a dirt road for a long time. It was my first time on that particular dirt road.

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Another beautiful part of this summer has had to do with Shabbat. My own synagogue, Szim Salom, has been online throughout the pandemic; members have been taking turns leading services, and only twice a month have the rabbi and I led. But these occasions have been sweet and strong, even with all the technical difficulties. And I have attended B’nai Jeshurun and Shearith Israel online services as well. The time difference makes that a bit strange but no less lovely; on Friday I tuned in to B’nai Jeshurun at midnight (6 p.m. in NYC).

My Hungarian is still far from fluent (in the true sense of the word), but it made some leaps this summer. I think back to a year ago; the progress has been substantial. At that time, I understood a lot but could express myself only slowly and haltingly, with limited vocabulary. Now, in more and more situations, I can express myself and respond to others without hesitation.

The summer has also been filled with music; I listen to a lot at home and went to two concerts: one by two members of Platon Karataev, and the other, last Friday, by Marcell Bajnai. This Saturday evening I intend to go hear Marcell’s band Idea (formerly 1LIFE) in Budapest.

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There is much more to say about the summer and other things, more than I can bring up right now, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dominó and Sziszi, who have brought so much to these days. See them below. And now the season is turning, and I look forward to returning to school and picking up the tempo a bit.

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Respect for What Is Other and Different

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Since the killing of George Floyd by police officers–just one of a long line of incidents of police violence against black people–the public has come to recognize the need for profound changes. Not only the Black Lives Matter protests, but countless formal and informal discussions have taken up the topic around the clock. Yet within the drive for racial justice, an injustice is taking hold. People are being shamed, canceled, driven out of their jobs–for saying the wrong thing, saying the right thing but not strongly enough, or saying the right thing, strongly enough, but not coupling it with immediate and acceptable action. Such shaming hurts not only the individuals involved (including the shamers, who bring out the worst in themselves), not only democracy, language, and human dignity (a handful already), but even the protests. There will be no real progress against racism in America if people cannot participate with integrity, if they cannot speak their minds, doubts, and feelings, if they cannot hear others out. Instead there will be heartbreak as the movement fails not only the larger public, but its own participants and supporters.

On June 6, Mayor Jacob Frey was booed out of a protest rally in Minneapolis because he stated–upon being questioned repeatedly–that he did not support the full abolition of the police. You can watch the exchange here.

Another video suggests that many members of the crowd were not booing him but rather letting him pass through. If this is accurate, the booing does not represent the whole, but still drowns out everything else.

For the sake of what? Mayor Frey had already said that systemic change was needed. The woman with the microphone pressed him further by asking him repeatedly whether he supported defunding the police. What does that even mean? The Minneapolis City Council has since vowed to dismantle the police force, but no one knows what the end result will look like. In other words, a mayor was driven out of a rally–which he had come out to support–for the sake of something unknown.

The ganging up on perceived enemies has affected not only politics, but medicine, poetry, theater, art, science, sports, and other spheres. It is not exclusive to the left. Health workers and officials have been pushed out of their jobs and subjected to harassment and death threats by groups protesting coronavirus protection measures–groups that regard the coronavirus as a hoax perpetrated by Jews, for instance. According to The New York Times, Dr. Amy Acton, the state health director of Ohio, dealt with “anti-Semitic attacks and demonstrations by armed protesters on her front lawn,”. While widely different in political orientation and aim, groups from the right and left punish those who do not meet their demands exactly. Whether Trump sets an example here or follows an existing trend, he displays a similar tendency in his tweets to all the world.

Back to the left, or a segment of it. A letter to the Poetry Foundation–presented by thirty individuals, most of them Poetry Foundation Fellows, and signed by over 1,800 individuals–demanded that the Foundation replace its president, take specific action to eradicate racism and other discrimination, acknowledge the harm it has committed already, move toward redistributing its funds, and more. All signatories pledged not to work with the Poetry Foundation until the demands had been met “to a substantial degree.” The president, Henry Bienen, has already stepped down. The letter came in response to the organization’s antiracism statement, issued on June 3, which was not deemed strong enough:

The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine stand in solidarity with the Black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism.

As an organization we recognize that there is much work to be done, and we are committed to engaging in this work to eradicate institutional racism. We acknowledge that real change takes time and dedication, and we are committed to making this a priority.

We believe in the strength and power of poetry to uplift in times of despair, and to empower and amplify the voices of this time, this moment.

The Guggenheim Museum and other museums, theaters all over the country, and other institutions are being told to espouse certain values, statements, and actions or face consequences. Those who delay in doing so are named on lists; those who comply are often suspected of not meaning it. A public Google spreadsheet, titled “Theaters Not Speaking Out” and open for anyone to edit, lists 486 theaters as of this writing. According to the Los Angeles Times:

More disturbing than the slowness to speak out, [Marie] Cisco said, was the language of the statements themselves, many of which fell back on pledges of support without acknowledgement of the historical diversity problem in theater or commitments to take concrete steps to support black artists.

As theaters posted statements to social media and emailed them to their supporters and the press, Cisco and her crowd-sourced contributors recorded when each company’s message went public, whether it cited Black Lives Matter specifically and whether the institution had donated to the cause or pledged “actionable commitments,” among other criteria.

Beyond the arts, countless corporations are churning out antiracism statements–and it is no surprise that some of them ring hollow. In a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” environment, many probably figure that they can mitigate their damnation somewhat with a consultant-crafted mission statement.

I think back on the words of O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain.” As the tactics of shaming and demanding become a way of life, so does the damage. The tactics hurt much more than the targeted individuals and institutions.

First of all, they hurt democracy. If, to be treated as an acceptable human being or institution, one must adopt a prescribed line and course of action, then there can be no exchange of views. Without an exchange of views, there is no democracy. We have already seen this, in different form, with Trump’s long series of purges. Democracy depends on a plurality of opinions–an opportunity to discuss, deliberate, and decide. It also depends on a mixture of priorities. Social justice–as usually conceived–is not the only kind of justice worth fighting for, nor can it stand alone.  To be viable, it must consider and combine with other justices, including justice within an individual, justice between two, and public justice.

Second, these tactics hurt language. If those making the demands reject all criticism and challenges, they lose a chance to exercise imagination and logic. In a bizarre Rolling Stone article, EJ Dickson argues that Olivia Benson, a police officer in the TV show Law and Order, (that’s right, a fictional character) should be canceled because she appears as a good cop and could therefore confuse viewers about the true nature of the police force. What, should Marge Gunderson be canceled too for her smarts and tough charm? Should fictional characters from other professions–teachers, mayors, doctors, priests–be nixed as well, while we’re at it? And what price will the mind pay for this? How can anyone “reimagine” the police, for instance, if we are not supposed to imagine in the first place? (Not to mention that literature would disappear.)

Third, these tactics hurt human dignity–the presence, in each person, of something that goes beyond measure, beyond others’ knowledge. If people are so sure of their assessments of others, so quick to name enemies of the cause, then anyone, at any moment, can be flattened to enemy status; not only that, but the flattening will become a way of life and thought. The “I-Thou” relation as described by Martin Buber and referenced in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” becomes a thing of the past, a relic in an antique shop.

Fourth, these tactics hurt the Black Lives Matter protests themselves–not only over the longer term, but now. To accomplish something durable, protesters must be willing to work and speak with a range of people, including those who disagree with them on some points, express ideas differently, or have different priorities. Through such work, the protest efforts can grow and strengthen over time. But just within the coming months, the protesters’ conduct will influence the outcome of the election in swing states. Setting a principled example, showing regard for others, the protesters can help the country overcome Trump (along with his effects and affects) and move toward a saner and kinder world.

The alternative–the extreme self-righteousness, the thronged castigation of dissenters–will dishonor the protests, harm decent people, and destroy the very things worth fighting for.

Painting: Marc Chagall, The Revolution (1937). “I think the Revolution could be a great thing if it retained its respect for what is other and different,” Chagall had written in My Life (1923).

Correction: The Minneapolis rally mentioned here took place on June 6, not June 7.

Update: See “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published online in Harper’s on July 7. It will also appear in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue.