“What’s There to Do in Szolnok?”

So I have been asked. The question puzzles me; aren’t there things to do regardless of place? I don’t remember being anywhere and thinking, “there’s nothing to do here.” That said, Szolnok has many interesting places: a theatre, an art cinema (neither of which I have visited yet), and much more. Last week alone, thanks to the invitations of colleagues, I attended a professional basketball game (lots of fun—and Szolnok won!), visited the beer museum, and sat in the cockpit of a a MiG-21UM, a Soviet-made jet-propelled fighter plane. Here’s proof of each:

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The brilliant Kendrick Perry (Szolnok team) has the ball. He was a joy to watch. The whole team played fantastically (and their opponents gave them a good challenge).

imageHere’s the outside of the Sörárium, the beer museum. The inside is cavernous and engaging, with a historical exhibition, a zestful video presentation, a game room, a restaurant, and long echoing halls.

And here’s a photo of one of my favorite displays at the Szolnoki Repülőmúzeum (the Aviation Museum). I would have included the photo of me in the cockpit of the fighter jet, but it’s too Dr. Strangelove-like for my comfort. This one shows a replica of a plane built in 1911, I believe.

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I have shown (and learned) just a fraction of the things to do in Szolnok (besides biking and other frequent topics of this blog). But I must go now; it is Monday morning, and I have much to do!

Three Sentences

IMG_4513I will get to the three sentences in a minute. Today, around noon, I went biking along the Tisza; all the photos and the video in this piece are from the ride. There’s a long promenade that runs along the river all across town and beyond; I started exploring the path beyond but turned around when I saw an animal that looked from a short distance like a wolf. He stopped and stared; at one point he seemed ready to charge in my direction, but then, when I started to turn around, he slunk away. I figured I wouldn’t push the matter.

People were out biking, running, and thoughtfully walking; it was like Riverside Park, but with about one-hundredth of the crowd. There were solitary walkers, couples, and families; people with dogs, people fishing, and ducks paddling along with the current, which seemed to sweep them along.

Exactly at noon, when the church bells were ringing, I happened to be biking over the Tisza, on the Tiszavirág híd (the Mayfly Bridge). I decided to make a short video. You can see the old synagogue (now a gallery) ahead; you can hear the bells and the clattering of bike on planks. The biking seems a little wobbly because I was holding the phone up at the same time. Because of the angle, it also seems that I’m about to run into the people walking my way, but this was not so.

When I came to the Zagyva, I saw someone fishing right there, at the corner where the two rivers meet. If you look closely (and zoom in), you can see him too.

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But that’s not what this piece is about. I brought in this long preface so that I could include and explain the photos. Here are a few more, all taken on this ride.

So, on Friday, right after school, I went to Budapest for Shabbat; I stayed until Saturday late afternoon. I had prepared to leyn (chant) Torah on Saturday morning; in addition, the rabbi had asked me to give a little D’var Torah (teaching) on the relationship between the trope and the meaning of this Shabbat’s text. For the sake of simplicity and time, I limited myself to just a few remarks, which I did not write down. In addition, I decided at the last minute to say the first sentences of my D’var in Hungarian, so I prepared and memorized them.

I do not want to describe the service—that is not for the blog—but I’ll give those three sentences, since they mark an important moment in my life here. This was not only my first D’var Torah ever (except for a few short remarks at Morning Minyan in NYC), but my first time trying to say something in Hungarian beyond greetings and basic questions.

A Biblia legtöbb versje két részre osztható. (Most of the verses in the Bible can be divided into two parts.)

I saw people nodding; my Hungarian was intelligible! This is nothing to take for granted; if I had gotten one of the vowels or consonants wrong, the whole meaning might have been lost. I continued:

A trop “etnachta” osztja őket. Ez a két rész gyakran tükrözi egymást. (The etnachta trope divides them. These two parts often reflect each other.)*

From there I went on to discuss, in English and Hebrew, the word “anochi” (“I”) in Genesis 25:22 and 25:30: its  prominence in the etnachta position, and the contrast between the two occurrences (one is spoken by Rebecca, the other by Esau, with different tone and implications, and different conclusions of the verses). People jumped in; it turned into a stimulating discussion in three languages, with translations going every which way.

Now, I am not sure that my Hungarian was completely correct; in particular, I suspect that my use of the word tükrözi (“mirror,” “reflect”) was somewhat off. But the meanings came through as we talked.

I am nowhere near being able to form such sentences spontaneously—but this was a true beginning. Things will build from here.

*P.S. In retrospect, I see that I should have said, “The trope etnachta signals their division” (possibly A tropus “etnachta” jelzi megosztottságukat), not “The trope etnachta divides them”; such precision comes with language and time. (Also, it seems that the word for “trope” is tropus—but trop may be clearer in this context.)

 

Books and Leaves

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My book—the one I have been writing over the past fifteen months—has been accepted for publication by Rowman & Littlefield! The final manuscript is due March 1; the book should appear in late 2018 or so. I will give updates as they come.

Each of the book’s twelve essays examines an overused or misused word or phrase; it plays with language while commenting on culture. The working title is still Take Away the Takeaway; the final title will be different.

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The teaching is going well; I look forward to each day. I am learning students’ names faster than I expected, though not as fast as I would like. I know the names of the students in two of my eleventh-grade and one of my ninth-grade sections; that leaves five sections where I need to learn some names. (I teach eight sections in grades 9-12; two I see just once a week, two twice a week, and the others four or five times.)

The November bike rides have been glorious. The pictures above are from Alcsisziget, I think. I followed an arrow to Üdülőtelep but ended up in Alcsisziget (or maybe biked through both towns). In the second picture, if you look carefully through the branches, you can see a fisherman in a boat. Here’s another view of the water:

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Back in town, I visited the Szolnok Gallery, which was once Szolnok’s synagogue. I was alone in the museum, except for the office manager, who sold me a ticket and cracked the first joke I have yet understood in Hungarian. It was simple; he told me the price of the ticket, “háromszáz” (300), and then added, with a chuckle, “Nem euro, hanem forint” (Not Euros, but Forints.) I thanked him, climbed the spiral staircase, and walked around slowly. I don’t think I have ever been alone in a museum before. I took time with the art and the building and the silence of it all.

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Speaking of synagogues, I have begun leyning at Sim Shalom in Budapest, which has services every other Shabbat (and many other events in between). It seems that I will read Torah at each Saturday service (or as many as possible) and will eventually teach others to do the same. Each Saturday Shabbat service is followed by a shiur (Torah teaching and discussion) over Kiddush lunch; I love the focus and gathering.

I can’t end this without mentioning Aengus and Minnaloushe. They have been wonderful sports. They have started enjoying the porch, though shyly; they like going out late at night, when it’s all quiet except for the birds and leaves. Here they are: Aengus behind the curtain, Minnaloushe on the dresser, and the two of them considering the world.

It is late here (after 11:00 p.m.), and I have much to do tomorrow. So that will be all.

That Iron String

sitting in cafe 2I am writing this in my favorite Szolnok cafe, Cafe Frei, which has a warm, quiet atmosphere and an internet connection. The picture’s a bit grainy, but it captures the feel of  the place. Tomorrow the teaching begins; I have put together an outline of my lessons for the week and have begun assembling the details in my mind. There’s a set curriculum for the English classes–but room to plan the lessons, add some activities, decide on the emphasis, and more, as long as the students learn the substantial material in the books. For Civilization (American and British), there are informal textbooks too, but much room for additions. I think this is just the right combination of structure and flexibility.

I will begin with introductions and a short class discussion about education itself. Then I will bring up the CONTRARIWISE International Contest; then we will go right into the lessons.

It’s the first time, in all my teaching (except for my year teaching first-year Russian as a graduate student at Yale and my summers at the Dallas Institute) that I have worked from a preestablished curriculum. In my first three years of public school teaching, there was no curriculum for my subject (ESL);  in the fourth year, the school had a curriculum, but I was teaching a subject (literature through theater) that didn’t completely fall within it. At Columbia Secondary School, I created, taught, and oversaw the philosophy sequence for grades 9-11. So there was a curriculum, but not at the outset.

Yet although I usually didn’t have a curriculum at the outset, I advocated for one and set about to create it, not just for that year, but for the longer term. I define curriculum as a general outline of the topics, works, ideas, and skills that will be taught, as well as the key assignments. It does not have to be granular, if the teacher knows the material well. In language instruction, though, it probably should lay out the details, as long as it retains some flexibility. So much goes into teaching and learning a language that you can’t teach well from a general outline unless you have years of experience. You can teach something from an outline, but you’ll probably omit or shortchange many important topics and exercises.

That said, my “ex nihilo” or “quasi ex nihilo” beginnings will come in handy here too. Teaching in an unfamiliar country is no trifle; it takes a willingness to rearrange and recast the elements a bit, not only the external ones, but the internal ones too. For example, in American Civilization I plan to introduce students to Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” (in the context of the unit on the American frontier). Although Emerson was not a frontiersman in a physical sense, he expresses an intellectual frontier that has delighted and troubled me for years and that my former students have remembered again and again. I delight in its vigor, imagination, and boldness; I am troubled by its seeming rejection of predecessors, tradition, and external wisdom. Either way, Emerson’s writing makes a mark; students and teachers come back to it over the years. The ambivalence and memorability can congeal into a few questions for a class discussion.

“Trust thyself,” Emerson writes; “every heart vibrates to that iron string.” He continues:

Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

How can writing arouse such a strong Yes and No at the same time? How can words so self-sure and resounding be simultaneously right and wrong? Also, does he make a single point, or several contradicting ones? To accept the place that “providence” has found for you, you must be alert to “the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.” You cannot be entirely removed. The trustworthiness comes from both introspection and alertness, and from language, which connects one person to another.

I do not want to give too many of my own thoughts here, since there are discussions in store. “That iron string” is part of anything important I have done. Still, I have often had to stop to make sure it was in tune, and in tuning it, I had to listen to outside and inside sounds, not only from the present, but from combinations of times.

I end with a photo I took of the Tiszavirág híd, the Mayfly Bridge, which crosses the Tisza in Szolnok. It seems appropriate for the crossing into teaching (and for iron strings too).

bridge over tisza

 

Beauty to Make You Cry Your Heart Out

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I start with sadness and distant grief over the lives lost and wounded in the terrorist attack in New York City. I think of the Argentine men in the middle of a joyous 30-year high school reunion, in a city of their dreams, their lives suddenly taken or permanently injured. My grief is distant because I don’t know them, but distant things have their own reality, not always blurred or dim.

We sometimes get alerted to beautiful actions (reunion plans, acts of generosity, etc.) only when they are cut short; we do not know much of what exists around us, especially the good. Maybe certain kinds of beauty and goodness (not identical, but overlapping and intersecting) escape our notice because they seem ordinary. A reunion of high school classmates? A trip to New York City? Nothing there to call our attention until we see the spirit and heart that went into the planning. Granted, their trip would have been their own business, not a public matter, if it hadn’t been ruined; there would have been no reason for anyone but their family and friends (and possibly a few strangers) to know about it. But even when we know about such things, we may fail to see them.

Szolnok has its own history of grief, spread over many centuries. It isn’t known as the most beautiful of cities, but explore just a little, and you find beauty to make you cry your heart out. Here are just a few photos from the past two days, some taken on foot, others on bike. My internet connection will be slow for a while (probably until December), but if I get to a cafe today, I’ll add a few explanations and descriptions. The photo at the top (which I took on bike) is of swans in the Zagyva and a man walking along the bank. There was a dog too, but he didn’t make it into this photo. I think the slow upload (which took over an hour in all) brought me closer to these photos; I didn’t want to leave any of them out. I will welcome a faster connection, for many practical reasons, but I find something good in the slowness.

P.S. A trip to the bookstore this afternoon yielded some lovely leaves, including Hungarian translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets and The Tempest.

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I made a few changes to this piece after posting it (and added the P.S.).

On Human Harm and “Isms”

poet-robert-frost-in-affable-portrait-axe-slung-over-shoulder
Yesterday a friend reminded me of Robert Frost’s “The Wood-Pile,” which contains these lines:

A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather—
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.

 

I have been thinking about the recent string of accusations, outings, confessions, public shamings, around sexual harassment, not a trivial matter. I am in no position to judge others’ situations. In the overall movement, I see both good and harm: good in the increased awareness of the problems, and harm in the lumping together of profoundly disparate situations, the reduction of human relations to “isms.”

Two thoughts come to mind. First, people harm each other in all sorts of ways. Not all can be interpreted as sexism, racism, or any other “ism.” People judge others unfairly, act on these judgments, cut people off, write people off, say unkind things about others, and overall treat their own perspective as correct and righteous. Sometimes this takes the form of a recognizable social injustice (e.g., racism, sexism, classism); sometimes it does not. To address human injustice, one must look beyond the “isms” into a basic cruelty, callousness, or carelessness, which starts with the failure to see another as a person. (I don’t mean that one should ignore the “isms”–but the “isms” are not enough.)

Second–a more difficult point–often the people who hurt us do not mean to do so. That doesn’t excuse their actions, but it requires imagination of us, imagination to see that perhaps there was something more going on, something not to take personally. As in Frost’s poem (which has subtlety upon subtlety and will not be reduced), “one flight out sideways” would be enough to change a view.

This point could easily be misread; I am not condoning any kind of human harm or suggesting that all kinds are alike. Nor am I disparaging calls for justice. I suggest only that in some cases we can expand our understanding and perception of the possible. This takes imagination; we do not know what another person means, wants, or thinks. Our knowledge is incomplete at best. To exercise imagination is to see ourselves more fully; each of us, has hurt someone without wanting to do harm–or even consciously wanting and trying to do good. This isn’t just a matter of “good intentions” gone wrong but of our limited knowledge and vision. Seeing our own unintended wrongs, we can conceive of goodwill in others, and vice versa.

I’ll go even farther: We can do harm when trying our darndest to do good. I think of the sweet little song “Too Much Giving” that I co-wrote with Mahlah Byrd, who died in 1994. Sometimes the very effort can overwhelm and upset others; it can come across as a demand or grand show. Generosity requires a certain lightness. There must be a spirit of forgetting, looking away, continuing into the day.

Frost brings up the bird as a kind of “by the way”–and that “by the way” becomes the subject of the poem, as he marvels that someone could have left the wood-pile behind. Frost’s “by the ways” are full of wit and sadness; it’s in those pauses and deflections that the reader gets to see and hear–not fully, not permanently, but with a short gift of clarity.

 

Image credit: Photo of Robert Frost, courtesy of the blog A Bright, Unequivocal Eye.

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

On Confluences

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The photo (not taken by me) shows the Zagyva flowing into the Tisza in Szolnok. As it happens, my flat will be near the bank of the Zagyva, so I will get to know this river well.

There’s strength in knowing one’s rivers: where they come from and where they go, what towns lie on them, what fish live in them, and what their histories are. A river starts on a mountain or in a body of water; it ends in another waterway (sea, river, or lake) or breaks into two or more. No river comes from nowhere; like humans, they all have their origins and endings. (In other ways, they are quite unlike humans, or they put humans to the test; thus the godly but mortal Achilles could not outrace the river Scamander and needed the help of the gods.)

The Zagyva begins near Salgótarján in Nógrád county (a place I hope to visit) and flows south-southeast, ending in Szolnok, where it joins with the Tisza. The Tisza begins near Rakhiv, Ukraine, and courses southwest and then south, ultimately flowing into the Danube near Novi Slankamen, Serbia. The Danube, the second-longest river in Europe (after the Volga), starts out in Donaueschingen, in the Black Forest of Germany, and passes through or along ten countries before emptying into the Black Sea. In Hungary, it flows south, but its overall path is east-southeastward. Here is a river map of Hungary.

This is probably my last blog post in New York City (for a long time, anyway). This afternoon I return the modem; that means my only internet access (until Dallas and then Hungary) will be by phone. I will not blog by phone; I have tried it before and don’t enjoy it. I’ll wait until that little tributary flows into the larger stream of laptop with Wifi connection.

On Monday I led a philosophy roundtable on the subject of human dignity. It marks the end of my leadership of the series, which began in 2012. I hope that others will continue it. I think about the association with Columbia Secondary School and the surprising forms it took; when I began working there, I had no idea that I would be teaching philosophy, starting a roundtable tradition, and helping my students found a journal. Even less did I know about the collegial relations I would build and the things I would learn from others.

But humans are not rivers. In saying this, I’m being partly silly but also serious. A river does not decide its course, moment by moment; to some extent, humans do. Rivers do not react emotionally to events; yes, they respond to forces, but only in accordance with physical laws. That’s why Psalm 114 has such awe and surprise:

מַה-לְּךָ הַיָּם, כִּי תָנוּס; הַיַּרְדֵּן, תִּסֹּב לְאָחוֹר.

“What is with you, sea, that you flee? And you, Jordan, that you turn backward?”

Still, it’s tempting to see a soul in a river: a light soul, a brooding soul, a pained soul, a soul filled with laughter and light and sometimes litter. It’s likewise tempting to think of life as water in motion, water filled with fish of many colors, water that passes through fields and towns and lives, water that breaks and comes together. It’s good to give in to this temptation at times. There are songs in it.

To what extent humans have free will, to what extent they exist and act beyond physical laws, I don’t know; it seems an unanswerable question. But our meetings and partings seem as unpredictable–and as catalytic–as anything in our lives. Who knows who will be around the corner; who knows what junctions lie ahead; who knows how they will shape and influence us. In this light, on a good day, even losses are bearable. Even they leave something with us. We gather up our many streams (sort of like a river, but not really) and take them into the new place, whose real rivers meet with the imagination and then break away again. In my new home, I will get my feet and soul wet.

I leave off with Franz Schubert’s “Auf dem Wasser zu singen,” performed by Elly Ameling and Irwin Gage. (Speaking of confluence, see Benjamin Ivry’s article about Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92.)

 

Image: “The Zagyva meets the Tisza River in Szolnok” (courtesy of Wikipedia).

I changed two words in this piece after posting it. One of my upcoming pieces will be about revision.

The Gift of Criticism

norman-rockwell1A few years ago I edited a student’s piece on Machiavelli; I had recruited it at the last minute for my students’ philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE and found that it needed clearer wording in places. When I presented him with the edits, he said that he accepted some but not all of them: that in a few places he was trying to say something else. We sat down to discuss this. In telling me what he meant, he found the right wording; by the end of our meeting, he had revised the piece to his satisfaction. This happened because he was open to the suggestions but strong enough to make his own decisions. Also, I saw past the particulars of my edits; I wanted to help him find his words, not replace them with mine.

This memory returns as I ponder two recent articles about Amy Cuddy and the power pose: Susan Dominus’s New York Times piece and Daniel Engber’s response in Slate. I find Engber’s article much clearer and more to the point–but he also has the benefit of hindsight, critique, and revision. Dominus may well follow up with some afterthoughts. She tackled a complex and heated topic and (from what I can see) did her best to present it fairly. Yet the article fails to distinguish adequately between personal attack and criticism. I posted a comment, which I am developing a little further here. This piece is not about Cuddy; it’s about criticism itself. (Regarding the power pose study, there are numerous recent comments–from many perspectives–in the article’s comment section and on Andrew Gelman’s blog.)

Here’s the key difference, as I see it, between criticism and personal attack: criticism gives you something concrete to consider, something about the issue at hand, be it your work, your actions, or even your personality. Its aim is to point out areas for improvement. It is not always correct or kind; sometimes critics can be vehement and unsympathetic, and sometimes they make mistakes or show biases. But if it is about the thing itself, if it analyzes strengths and weaknesses in a coherent way, it counts as criticism. By its nature it points toward improvement. It is not necessarily negative; it can recognize strengths and excellence.

Personal attack does not give you a chance to improve. Maybe it comes in the form of vague and veiled hints. Maybe it’s incoherent. Maybe it focuses on your personal life instead of the issue at hand. Maybe it gets said behind your back, without your knowledge. Or maybe it’s about something so fundamental to you that it’s unfair to expect you to change. In any case, when it comes to helpful content, there is no “there” there, at least no “there” that invites you in.

In that light, criticism is a gift, even when the delivery is not ideal. It offers working material. But our culture is not well attuned to criticism; we’re taught to hear the “yay” or “nay,” the “up” or “down,” not the subtler responses. For criticism to achieve its purpose, several conditions must exist.

First, institutions would have to make generous room for error, reexamination, and correction. Universities, schools, scientific organizations, publications should not only acknowledge error openly but treat it as part of intellectual life, not cause for shame or demotion.

Second, the person giving the criticism should do so as frankly and humbly as possible: laying the critique on the table without claiming superiority. There’s some disagreement over whether this should happen in private or public, by in person or online. As I see it, a published work can be criticized anywhere–online or offline, in public or private–but an unpublished work or private act should receive more discreet treatment. Published books get reviewed publicly, after all; there’s no suggestion that a reviewer should contact the author privately before saying something in the New York Review of Books. But if I send someone an unpublished manuscript for comment, I expect this person to reply to me alone (or me and my editor) and not to the world.

Third, the person receiving the criticism should learn to hear it and separate it from the emotion it may stir up. Even thoughtful, carefully worded criticism can be hard to hear. It takes some strength to sort out the upset feelings from the actual content of the words. It takes even more to decide which parts of the criticism to take, which to reject, and which to continue considering. Some criticism incites us to reconsider everything we have done; some draws attention to small (but important) details. To hear and use criticism well is to open oneself to profound improvement.

Just before the final manuscript of Republic of Noise was due, someone who read the manuscript offered me some far-ranging suggestions. I saw her points but didn’t want to apply them rashly, in a rush. To decide whether, how, and where to apply them, I would need much more time than I had. I decided to keep them in mind for the future. I am glad of this decision; the book was the way I wanted it, but her suggestions helped me with subsequent writing.

Why do I say that our culture isn’t set up well for criticism? We aren’t taught how to handle it. As a beginning teacher, I remember being told (at numerous “professional development” sessions) not to use red pen, since it could make a student feel bad; not to write on students’ work, but to use Post-its instead; and to limit the comments to two commendations and two general suggestions for improvement. While some of the gist is good (one should avoid overwhelming students or treat one’s own appraisal as the last word), it assumes students’ extreme fragility in the face of concrete, detailed suggestions. The more we treat criticism as devastating, the more fragile we make ourselves (both the critics and the recipients).

Hearing criticism–actually perceiving and considering its meaning–deserves continual practice. It requires immersion in the subject itself; you can’t practice criticism without practicing the thing criticized. It isn’t always fun, but it can lead to exhilaration: you see, on your own terms, a way of doing things better.

 

Image: Norman Rockwell, Jo and Her Publishor (this title may or may not be correct; I have also seen it as Jo and Her Publisher and Jo and Her Editor). This is one of his several illustrations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In Chapter 14, Jo publishes two of her stories in a newspaper.

I made a few revisions and additions to this piece after posting it.

No Ordinary Hat Rack

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Moving to another country is not simple, externally or internally. I have been excited and full of thoughts, but sometimes a wave of sadness hits me. That’s to be expected; any big life change, even a joyous one, probably comes with some sadness. I was paddling atop one of those waves when the doorbell rang; upon opening the door, I found a big box waiting. I knew what it was, but when I cut through the tape, pulled back the cardboard, and saw the gleaming green hat rack, my sadness skedaddled, landing me on dry ground. I spent a few minutes turning the rack in the light.

Over the past year I have written a few pieces about my great-granduncle Charles Fischer (the oldest brother of my great-grandfather), his company (the Chas. Fischer Spring Co.), and his inventions. Three people wrote to me in response:

1. Robert Charles Fischer, Charles Fischer’s grandson, with whom I have now met several times in person, to my joy;

2. A person inquiring about the drum magazine (manufactured by the Chas. Fischer Spring Co.) for the Thompson Submachine Gun, which was used in World War II;

3. A person in Ontario (a couple, rather) who owned a hat rack manufactured by the Chas. Fischer Spring Co. and wanted to know whether I would like to have it. Of course I said yes; I was thrilled. Here it is! I’m bringing it with me to Hungary.

Look at this lovely thing. Each hat rests atop a spring, to which a cord is attached. You can mount the rack high up in the closet or hallway and then just pull the cord of the hat you want. The stamp (which is faint) says PATENT APPL’D FOR / THE CHAS FISHER SPRING CO / BRROKLYN, NY. I couldn’t find the patent for this particular rack, but there’s a 1926 patent for an altogether different one. I don’t know which one came first.

It’s easy to take hat racks for granted–I’ve never even had one before–but they help you not only save space  but preserve the hats themselves. Putting them on a stand is much better than heaping them together on a shelf. The hat rack brings to mind a time when clothes were durable and people took good care of them. (That practice hasn’t entirely vanished, but it takes more determination.) Taking care of your clothes allowed you to survive on little money; you didn’t often have to buy new things.

Charles Fischer came to the U.S. from Hungary in 1890, at age 14, with his parents and seven siblings. From what I gather, they had lived in both Budapest and Györke (now Ďurkov, Slovakia). In the U.S., they started out at 346 East 3rd Street in Manhattan; then they moved elsewhere (Brooklyn, other parts of Manhattan, and Queens). Charles began working as a toolmaker before specializing in springs and founding his own company. It seems that he never went to school here; he began working right away. Yet the patent specifications are written in clear and elegant prose; the logic is clearly his, and the words probably are too. Someone may have edited his spelling and grammar, but the descriptions and explanations must have been his own.

I will write more about his inventions in future posts and essays; for now, I am delighting in the rack–not only the rack, but the thoughtfulness of the people who sent it to me. I can’t wait to mount it in Szolnok and put my hats on it. I will take good care of them all.

 

I added a detail to this piece after posting it.

The Not-So-Brief Soul of Wit

chasing the last laughI have not yet read the book pictured to the left (Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour by Richard Zacks). I learned about it yesterday, early in the morning, when looking lackadaisically into humor and wit. Although I had resolved to buy no more books before leaving for Hungary–no more!–I broke down and ordered this one, because it looks too good to pass up. I didn’t know that Twain was a stand-up comedian or that he went on a world tour–or maybe once upon a time I knew this, “But, being over-full of self-affairs, / My mind did lose it.” (I did know that he was friends with Tesla, but that’s a separate matter.)

Yesterday I was thinking not about comedy in particular but about what makes some people uproariously and endearingly funny. Comedy and funniness are not identical; comedy is not always funny, nor do funny things necessarily constitute comedy. Funniness has many sources: it can come from setting up and breaking logical, semantic, and conversational expectations; taking an idea to an absurd conclusion; bringing a particular rhythm, tone, and timing into your speech; performing an exquisite imitation; and more. Today I will look at one ever-gurgling spring of funniness: the ability to exult in your foibles.

We all have foibles of one kind or another; many of us struggle with them daily. A comedian takes them and makes the most of them. Human fallibility attains splendor while retaining its clumsiness and silliness.

For example, some of us can be a pest at times. I am generally patient and unfazed by things–but when I really want to get something done, and it depends on other people, I will bug them until the thing is accomplished, whatever it may be. Sometimes I feel guilty about this; I type and untype an email, hover over the “send” button, delete the whole mess, start over, and repeat the process several times until I end up just sending the thing. It’s always polite–I don’t “flame” people–but still I may feel like a pest.

So when I listen to James Veitch give one of his talks about replying to spammers, I see that he’s taking this quality–being a pest, or feeling like one–and lifting it to its pinnacle. If you are going to be a pest, whom better to pester than those who are aggressively pestering the world: spammers with spurious business proposals? Veitch managed to get one of them so annoyed that he or she (the spammer) finally replied, “PLEASE STOP EMAILING US.” Now, in daily life, with people I know or even with strangers, I wouldn’t want this to happen–I’d be sad and remorseful if it did–but with a spammer, it seems beautifully fitting.

My one objection to his talk is that, in keeping with the TED worldview, he tells his audience, “do do this at home.” He qualifies this by saying they should use fake email addresses, but still, that’s bad advice. He can do this because he has a flair for it. Others could get themselves into trouble. It wouldn’t be the same. The TED illusion–that everyone can do this, whatever “this”  may be–detracts a little from his act. The best way to share in humor and wit is to laugh along, to recognize oneself in it, while also letting it belong to someone else.  Most of us know the feeling of trying to retell someone else’s joke: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but either way, it’s not the same. Funniness is like a soap bubble. Its air is internal.

Another foible (if one can call it that) is awkwardness. Many of us know the feeling of being a little out of sorts and out of place in a setting–not quite saying the right thing, or saying too much, or not saying enough. Some comedians–such as Ismo Leikola–take their own awkwardness and turn it into a glowing orb. Many performers transcend their awkwardness, but certain comedians actually preserve and exalt it. You see Leikola stuttering and puttering around, flapping his arms, and having a grand old time.

On a different level, and in a different way, this foible-lifting is part of what I love in László Krasznahorkai’s prose. He takes you dancing in the characters’ vanities and exaggerations. When reading The Melancholy of Resistance, I burst out laughing many times; when reading Mrs. Eszter’s funeral oration at the end, I laughed myself to tears. The laughter came from the recognition of mind–not the brooding reminiscence of Philip Roth’s characters, but something inflated, clumsy, profound, absurd, and wondrous.

To make the most of foibles, comedians, humorists, and writers perceive kairos (in the ancient Greek sense of the word, not the Christian sense): the opportune moment, which comes again and again in life. Foibles are not always fun or funny, but each one has its spectacular hour or series of hours. That takes us into comedy itself. If comedy turns a potentially threatening, destructive, or even catastrophic situation into something life-affirming (or, at worst, darkly persistent), then, by playing out a foible at just the right moment, by being both flawed and exquisite at once, one can launch a round-the-world comedy tour, not like Mark Twain, but in and along an unrepeatable way.

 

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