The Pity of the Project

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

A few announcements, while I’m here:

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

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

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

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

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

And spring is here.

ALSCW Zoom event, March 21: Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai (3 p.m. EDT, 8 p.m. CET)

Zsolt Bajnai’s photography opening at the Tisza Mozi on September 2, 2020.
From left to right on stage: Marcell Bajnai, Gábor Benő Pogány, Zsolt Bajnai.

I am excited to announce that on Sunday, March 21, at 3 p.m. EDT (8 p.m. CET), in a Zoom event hosted by the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), I will be interviewing the fiction writer, journalist, and blogger Zsolt Bajnai and his son, the songwriter, musician, and university student Marcell Bajnai. After the interview, the father will read several of his stories, and the son will play his own songs in between them. A Facebook event page has been set up. Please come and invite others! Here’s the Zoom information:

Ernest F Suarez is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.
https://cua.zoom.us/j/87577216462?pwd=cXNMaUhkOVRmUCs2K0pZcEJIdDQ3UT09
Meeting ID: 875 7721 6462
Passcode: 442761

The Bajnais are exceptional contributors to cultural life in Szolnok and Hungary. Zsolt’s wife, Judit Bajnai, is an editor and reporter for SzolnokTV, with a focus on culture. Her eye and ear for what is worth reporting, her interview questions, her way of engaging with the guests, and her speaking voice all contribute to making her programs enlightening and beautiful.

Judit Bajnai interviews the cellist Éva Nagyné Csontos and the actor Botond Barabás on SzolnokTV.

Kata Bajnai, Marcell’s sister, is a young playwright, actress, director, and university students. Her plays have won awards here in Szolnok and have been performed by the Varga Drama Club at venues around the city; I translated her darkly whimsical and satirical Farkasok (Wolves) with hopes that the Varga Drama Club could perform it at the Veszprém English-Language Drama Festival, but unfortunately Covid delayed those plans. Kata has a lot coming; I am eager to see what she does in the future.

Performance of Kata Bajnai’s Farkasok by the Varga Drama Club at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár, June 22, 2019.
Third from left: Kata Bajnai.

The family doesn’t end there; the grandparents come to the events full of love and pride (and kindness—they have welcomed me warmly, and we sat together at the performance below), and there are other relatives I haven’t met yet.

Now for our featured guests. When I first discovered Zsolt Bajnai’s blogSzolnok—an exploration of Szolnok’s history through postcards, photographs, maps, and other artifacts—I knew I had come upon a treasure. What can you learn from a postcard? Much more than I had considered before: you can figure out when the photo was taken, what its significance was, what buildings looked like at the time, what the postcard-writer was doing, and much more. I made a practice (which has since slowed, because of the demands on my time) of reading the blog every day, as this allowed me to practice Hungarian and learn about Szolnok, both at once. Mr. Bajnai also gives (or, until Covid, gave) lectures based on his blog; people crowd into rooms at community centers, libraries, and other places to hear him speak, share memories of the past, and ask questions. Soon after finding the blog, I came upon his first two collections of fiction and started reading them. When I read “Korrupcióterápia” (“Corruption Therapy”), I knew it had to be translated. The satire is dead-on and pertinent to us all; the story has a lively rhythm and musical feel, with motifs and phrases cycling and returning. I especially enjoy hearing Mr. Bajnai read it at events, because of this and the audience’s laughter. (My translation was published a little over a year ago in The Satirist; you can read it here.) His most recent collection, Az eltűnt városháza (“The Vanished City Hall”), came out last April. Just a few days after its release (this was during the first Covid lockdown), I received a phone call from Mr. Bajnai himself. He asked what my address was, and I thought he was going to mail me the book. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang, and there he was on his bike, with an autographed copy in hand! That not only made my day but opened up hours of enjoyable reading. The title story tells the incredible (and fortunately fictional and satirical) story of the disappearance of Szolnok’s beautiful city hall; the events are so close to reality that, after first reading the story on his blog, I had to bicycle past the city hall to make sure it was still there.

Marcell Bajnai was my student in 2018–2019, the year when his band 1LIFE (now Idea) released their first album, Nincsen kérdés (There Is No Question). I remember when the album came out; one of my colleagues told me about it and even procured an autographed copy for me. The first listen called for many more. One tuneful, energetic, thoughtful song after another; the three band members together fill the air with sound but also know how to texture the songs so that you can hear everything. I was amazed and moved by the song “Maradok ember” (translatable as “I remain human,” “I will remain a person,” and similar variations), to the point of covering it on cello. I listened (and listen) to the band many times: on CD, at concerts, and online. In addition to being the band’s lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter, Marcell—currently a student of Hungarian at the Faculty of Arts of the Eötvös Loránd University, where he studies literature and linguistics—has been writing songs for years and has begun a solo project. The songs move people of many ages; they show young wisdom, courage, and a love of working with words and music together. The songs truly play, even in sadness; they take up a theme and turn it in different directions. One of my recent favorites is “dühöngő” (“raging”), which you can hear below.

People often talk about the importance of contributing to a community, but the Bajnais bring meaning and life to this concept. I could go on, but you will get to hear Zsolt and Marcell yourselves, if you attend on the 21st. I am happy and grateful that during this new lockdown—except for grocery stores and private health care, all stores and services are closed until March 22—we can come together for an interview, stories, and music. Please do join us.

Photo credits: Szolnoki Koncertek (photo of Zsolt Bajnai’s photography opening at the Tisza Mozi), Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (photo of the curtain call of Kata Bajnai’s Farkasok).

Update: The event went wonderfully; thanks to everyone who came, and thanks for the many enthusiastic comments we received afterward! Also, on a related subject, my translation of Zsolt Bajnai’s story “Az eltűnt városháza” (“The Vanished City Hall”) will be published on the Asymptote Blog on April 6!

Légszomj (diary-poems by Gyula Jenei, art by György Verebes)

Légszomj (Shortness of Breath), a pandemic diary of verse by Gyula Jenei and graphics by György Verebes, came out in mid-December, but since I was finishing up the manuscript of poetry translations and reading a couple of other books,it took me a little while to begin reading. When I did, it took me in with its humor, deadpan truth, terse comments on human nature and death, and details and places, many of them familiar to me. I loved it and read it in a few sittings, looking up only a few words in the dictionary. The art is dreamy (in a nightmarish sort of way) and dancelike.

Two thoughts come to mind. First, while this book is topical and timely to some extent, I believe it will outlive the pandemic, assuming the latter fades away. It’s about what we are going through now, but it is full of grim, matter-of-fact, resilient humor. It doesn’t leave the mind easily, and I am confident that it will continue to be pulled out of the bookshelf over the years. Along these lines, I think someone, or many people, should translate it into other languages. Not in a rush, but in good time, with care.

The first entry, “Day 1 / March 11” begins, “azon nevettek a feleségével, meséli ismerősöm, / hogy tegnap este a bevásárlóközpontban / miképp óvatoskodtak az emberek.” (“My acqaintance tells me that he and his wife laughed / over how, last night at the mall, / the people were so cautious around each other.”) The acquaintance goes on to describe how, if one person blew his nose, the faces of those around him would purse up; the mouths would get narrow. And the narrator laughs too, imagining these people, and imagining himself too; and then, at the end of the poem, the three of them (acquaintance, acquaintance’s wife, narrator) are laughing with self-abandon, to the point where they no longer know who is imagining whom, just that “lepkeként verdes bennünk / a szorongás” (“anxiety is beating inside us / in the manner of a moth”).

The fifth entry, “Day 6 / March 16,” describes a faculty meeting that I also attended. I remember exactly the scene described; a few people in the room were coughing, and you could sense others looking nervously around. In the poem, someone starts to say, “we will begin our next meeting with….” and the narrator whispers to his neighbor, “standing in a moment of silence,” and then, in the poem, compares this to the moment at a burial when the priest calls on the people to pray for our brother who will be next to go, and then he (the narrator) wonders who they will stand in memory of at the next meeting; and what if he is the one?

I have a few favorite poems in the book, including the two above; “Day 27 / April 6,” a winding reflection on how power and vulnerability change people, but not down to the essence; how humans remain more or less the same, and the vulnerable are not more virtuous than the powerful; and “Day 31 / April 10,” about the profusion of videos of quarantine poetry readings on the internet, and how the narrator really doesn’t enjoy them, doesn’t enjoy readings in person either, except for a few, and how he makes a video himself at the library’s request, after quite a bit of trial and error. But the last and longest entry, that of November 2, is my favorite of all, I think, with its allusion to Sophocles’s “Ode To Man” (in Antigone) and its commentary on Covid vogues:

az elején sokan mondogatták, divat volt mondogatni:
a járvány után nemcsak más,
de jobb lesz a világ.
emberibb.
mintha lehetne mérni a jóságot mérlegen vagy centivel.
pedig a görögöktől is tudhatjuk, az ember nem jó,
csak csodálatos.
más fordításban: a sok szörnyű csodafajzat között
a legszörnyebb.

In informal translation:

in the beginning many people kept saying, it was in vogue to say:
after the pandemic, the world will be
not just different, but better.
more humane.
as though you could measure goodness on a scale or with a ruler.
but we can know from the greeks that a human is not good,
just wondrous.
in a different translation: among the many terrible wonders
the most terrible.

The art is integral to this volume; the figures–humans, lungs, gestures?–can be seen breathing, imagining, playing, huddling, extending an oversized hand, lying down. Look closely, and the relations between the pictures and the poems start to come through. One can read and enjoy the book in many ways: in sequence or not, quickly or slowly, silently or out loud, with or without a mask. But however read, it will provoke recognition of one kind or another.

A Colorful February

The days have been muddy and rainy, not as in the photo above (which I took a week ago), but still beautiful in an indoor way. The Orwell project—in which my students in Class 10.C joined Professor Attridge’s tenth-grade class at Columbia Secondary School for a series of joint online discussions of 1984—went so well that we decided to have an online gathering, which took place yesterday evening and was great fun.

Then this morning I had the honor of announcing the results of Folyosó’s first international contest. The decision was extremely difficult, because the ten finalists were so good. There were five of us on the jury: my colleagues Judit Kéri, Edit Göröcs, Anikó Bánhegyesi, Nándor Szűcs, and myself. The winners are as follows:

  • Grand Prize: Bernadett Sági (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), Virtual or Reality
  • First Place: Deniz Pala (Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie, Istanbul), Stronger Links
  • Second Place: Gergely Sülye (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), In an Arm’s Reach, and Kázmér Kaposvári (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), Salvation or the End
  • Third Place: Defne Lal Koçer (Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie, Istanbul), Life Consists of Choices, and Lilla Kassai (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), Bringing Dragons to Life
  • Honorable Mention: Lili Forgács (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), The Language-Capsule; Ahmet Yavuz Kaya (Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie, Istanbul), Muter3000; Eszter Aletta Hevesi (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), The Portal; and Alexandra Klaudia Süveges (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), Camping with a Little Bit of Magic.

All of these pieces, along with many others, will be published in the Winter 2020-2021 issue of Folyosó, which appears on Monday.

That has to be all for now; much more is coming soon. I’ll just add that even in the rain, things can be colorful, outside as well as in.

Done and Not Done

With writing, you get used to not being done. You have deadlines and stages, and you work toward them, making your text as perfect as possible, but you know there will be more. Still, I am proud that my translation of Gyula Jenei’s poetry collection Mindig más (Always Different) are now a complete manuscript, which I have reviewed carefully and will send to the publisher, Deep Vellum, tomorrow. The book should appear within the next year; if all goes well, it might even come out in late 2021. This has been a project of more than two years; over those two years, my Hungarian has taken shape, my familiarity with the poems has deepened, and Marianna, Gyula, and I have had many conversations about the book. Their help was tremendous; they reviewed each of my translations, of all forty-eight poems, sometimes in several stages, and sent me comments; generally the corrections and suggestions were few but essential. A particular event turned these translations toward a book: our visit in October 2019 to the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, where we were the featured guests of the Cowan Center’s Education Forum, and where we met Will Evans, the publisher of Deep Vellum.

So the manuscript is done, but that’s not the end; the publisher may request or make edits, and there may be several stages of review. Still, the book is much closer than it was, and I think people will love the poems in English, as many have so far. Five have been published in Literary Matters; another one will appear soon in The Massachusetts Review.

The picture above appeared in a May 2019 post, “A Perfect Imperfection“; I took it at a local cafe, near school, where I used to go to work on the translations (on Wednesdays, when I had a substantial break during the day). It was usually quiet there, so I could sink into the poems with no distractions. The following year, my schedule changed, so the work was relegated to evenings and weekends (and picked up pace, too). This fall was the real crunch; I translated two poems per week, and then even more at the end. But it also grew slower and more leisurely, since the basic translating had grown easier and I could focus on details.

A book is not a book until it is, so there’s still a ways to go. But existence comes in degrees, and in that respect, the book’s has gotten warmer.

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. (Update: The Bay Area Book Festival kindly sent me the link to the video they made of the talk, so I will be able to hear it after all.)

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.

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

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

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

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

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

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

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

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

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

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

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

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

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

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

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

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

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