Language and Hyperbole

Last night I had a dream in which a Hungarian person spoke to me in English and I gave a passionate litany, in Hungarian, about why I wanted to speak Hungarian instead. I remember the ending words: “és nagyon fontos számomra, hogy beszéljek magyarul amennyire csak lehetséges!” (“And it is very important to me to speak Hungarian as much as possible!”) My Hungarian has come a long way; I sense it when reading news, reading complex emails with no trouble, participating in conversations on an array of topics, handling a doctor’s appointment, being interviewed for my residence permit, and much more. Yet there is still a long way to go. For instance, the litany could have been a bit punchier, with more colloquialisms.

This is true for everyone. Even at advanced levels, people make mistakes or ignore nuances in foreign languages—that is, languages they didn’t grow up with. English is fairly forgiving of inaccuracy, since so many people from around the world speak English at different levels and in different ways. The language itself stretches to accommodate these levels. Hungarian is like the stone in the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s “Rozmowa z kamieniem.” To get in–to persuade people to speak Hungarian with you at all–you have to be inside the language already, to some degree. Mistakes tend to jar a Hungarian’s ear; Hungarian spoken by a foreigner is a rarity in the first place, except for a tourist’s köszönöm and jó napot. But I love this about Hungarian perfectionism; once you start taking part in it yourself, it’s like playing music; you want to hit the right note even more than others want to hear it.

With a language, you have to get used to going on and on, learning endlessly more and endlessly less, becoming more accurate and flexible in your expression yet still making mistakes, even basic ones, no matter how far you advance. Oh, this makes me think of Nabokov’s Pnin, which I long to reread.

“Information, please,” said Pnin. “Where stops four-o’clock bus to Cremona?”

“Right across the street,” briskly answered the employee without looking up.

“And where possible to leave baggage?”

“That bag? I’ll take care of it.”

And with the national informality that always nonplused Pnin, the young man shoved the bag into a corner of his nook.

“Quittance?” queried Pnin, Englishing the Russian for “receipt” (kvitantsiya).

“What’s that?”

“Number?” tried Pnin.

“You don’t need a number,” said the fellow, and resumed his writing.

Fluency does not come quickly; it goes beyond the highest levels at school. You can be advanced according to the tests but still far from fluent. People used to exaggerate my language knowledge, calling me fluent in Russian when I really was not. I never mastered the Russian verbs with their many prefixes, my vocabulary had gaps, and there were many colloquial expressions I never heard. But because few in the U.S. spoke Russian at all, even conversational proficiency came across as fluency. In graduate school, most of our courses were in English. Only one or two professors taught in Russian. We were allowed to write our essays in English (though I wrote some in Russian); our oral exams and dissertations were in English too, except for quotations.

In college, graduate school, and afterward, I had some opportunities to travel to Russia; I just didn’t take them. I had a strong desire to stay put for a while. For years, going abroad for a long time didn’t hold much appeal, since it had already been a big part of my childhood (we lived in the Netherlands for a year when I was ten, and in Moscow for a year when I was fourteen). It was only later that I wanted to live abroad again—here, where I am now.

Three years in, I am happily in the thick of it all, with heapingly much to do, projects galloping through the mind, kind people in my life, and all of this persisting and growing even during Covid. It’s amazing to me that there’s the book of poetry translations, the Orwell project, Folyosó, regular teaching, my synagogue role, and so much more, and the language all around me, taking form in my ears, in silence, in my dreams.

I took these pictures within the past week. The second one, as you may have guessed, is the view from my windows. I love that view and its many changes.

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.

On Loyalty and Its Dangers

Last night I checked the New York Times and saw that they were livestreaming the Congressional debate over the certification of the Electoral College results. I started watching and then realized that some students, particularly in my eleventh-grade American Civilization classes, might be interested, so I posted a link on Google Classroom. When I returned to the livestream, it was no longer going on; there was uproar in the hall and loud noises coming from outside. Lawmakers were huddling on the floor or hurrying out. Then sounds of crashing and yelling, rioters bursting into the room. It was probably the strangest event that I had watched live on TV or through streaming. A debate and then, suddenly, a broken debate.

There is little to say about it that hasn’t already been said; I watched for a couple more hours on ABC News; nothing seemed to happen but more and more chaos, Republican rebukes, a bizarre video from Trump, people scaling the walls of the Capitol. Finally the police and Secret Services managed to clear the rioters out of the building. In the morning I tuned in again to see that the certification process had resumed. Within an hour or two, it was complete, and Biden’s victory had been officially accepted by Congress. But the tumult isn’t over; for one thing, it has to be dealt with in many different ways, and for another, it could resume.

I don’t know whether any of my Civilization students tuned in–we meet just once a week–but if they did, right then, the sight must have been surreal: first democracy in action, then mobs.

Plato was right that democracy runs the risk or encouraging selfishness and self-satisfaction. But that is part of the reason why the Constitution was written so carefully, why so many procedures and checks and balances were set in place. The unwieldy structures and processes of U.S. representative democracy are supposed to prevent and restrain extremism of various kinds. What, then, has gone wrong?

This question has been discussed endlessly–but one word that kept coming up in the news interviews was “loyalty”: the idea that the rioters felt loyalty to Trump and were doing this largely out of loyalty, because he had incited them toward it. As someone mentioned, he himself classifies people terms of loyalty: who is loyal to him–that is, never criticizes him–and who is not.

A certain kind of loyalty can destroy a government, a relationship, an institution. It is the loyalty that usurps integrity and ethics, that goes on reckless attack, that gives up anything just to prove itself again and again. This loyalty comes with a thrill: of imagined belonging, acceptance, revenge. It is horrifying but not far away. Probably each of us has known a speck of it at some point in our lives, either in ourselves or in those close to us. The one who doesn’t dare say anything critical about so-and-so, because that would be unloyal.

No one teaches this in school, except through literature and history. There is a virtuous loyalty that has room for criticism. There’s a kind of patient, rugged loyalty that does not lose its mind. But there’s another kind that tries to rid itself of mind, because thinking seems like treason itself. This can happen on the right and on the left. It can happen outside of politics. It is only a fraction of what was happening yesterday in DC, of what has been happening in the U.S. and around the world. It falls far short of explaining everything. But for what it holds, it is worth bearing in mind. Its ruins have no end. The burdens of the mind are light compared to this.

I took the above photo yesterday afternoon from inside Szolnok’s Holocaust memorial. I did not intend any sort of connection between the Holocaust and what happened yesterday. They are profoundly different and should not be trivialized through comparison. But it occurs to me now that a dangerous kind of loyalty runs through both.

The Privacy and Publicity of Religion

Each religion, in its different ways, has both communal and private dimensions; its believers will have different proportions of the two tendencies. Some people take part in a religion primarily for the social aspects, some for the solitary. Judaism emphasizes the communal, but it is not only communal, just as some branches of Christianity, while placing great emphasis on solitude and privacy, do not live in these alone.

Degrees of privacy do not necessarily correspond with degrees of observance. A person can be highly private about religion but also highly observant, or highly private but barely observant at all. All of the combinations not only exist but are needed. In all the possible variety, the greatest danger comes from excessive certainty and self-pride, on both the believing and the nonbelieving ends. The variety helps to mitigate the certainty.

Do we know that God exists? We have no empirical proof of this; faith is different from knowledge. Do we know that sacred texts are true and divine? Again, we have no empirical proof. Yet we believe strongly, one way or another. Those on the opposite ends–those who say the Bible is perfect and divine, and those who say it’s a bunch of rubbish–will likely disparage each other. Those profane atheists who deny the True Way! Those wacky religious fundamentalists who don’t live in the actual world!

But all of us probably need people who are more observant (or believing), and people who are less so, than we ourselves are. (Not that it’s always a question of “more” or “less”–but this imperfect framework will do for now.) From those who are more observant, one can learn a great deal about centuries-old wisdom and practices; from those who are less so, flexibility and openness.

Once, in the U.S., I was in an awkward situation, in a Shavuot all-night study session. I was sitting next to someone who was at the synagogue for the first time, and new to Judaism. She was eager to start learning Hebrew and liturgy, and asked me if I could recommend any resources. I named a few, which she began to write down. Then I saw three rabbis looking intently at me.

It took me a few seconds to realize what was happening. It was a holiday; you aren’t supposed to write on certain holidays (including Shavuot and Shabbat), nor are you supposed to encourage it. They were looking at me because I was the one they knew. Then one of the rabbis approached the woman and gently asked her not to write.

In the moment, I was mortified, but I realized that the rabbis were not trying to embarrass either of us. They simply needed to maintain the expected practices in shul, for everyone’s sake. After that incident, I came to realize that this prohibition against writing on specific holidays is upheld by Orthodox and Conservative synagogues but not necessarily by Reform. In addition, I saw that even within Conservatism, individuals differ widely in their practices. Once in a while, on Shabbat, one person might give another a phone number, or an email address, and the other person would step outside, or at least out of the sight of others, to write it down. Some write on Shabbat and other holidays, but not when others are looking. Is this hypocrisy? Not necessarily; it can be seen simply as respect.

But then you have those who wouldn’t even consider writing on a holiday, and, on the other end, those who think it’s absurd not to write if you wish to do so. There’s a distinction, moreover, between private and public practice: there are those who justify writing in private, but not in public.

Why does Jewish rabbinic law prohibit writing on holidays? The reason is that writing constitutes a type of creation, which is a form of work. Torah explicitly and repeatedly prohibits work on Shabbat and specific other holidays; rabbinic tradition interprets writing as work. Creation is work in that it brings something into existence that was not there before. The holidays cannot allow for work; they are meant for worship and rest. This has profound meaning and challenge at once. It takes tremendous discipline, but it opens up into beauty. Honoring this in its fullness can be a lifelong project and more: the project of generation upon generation.

On the other hand, there are reasons to question this prohibition. In the case above, where a newcomer has come to the shul, it feels awkward to say, “Yes, I can give you resources, but you shouldn’t write them down.” Or: “If you come back next Shabbat, I’ll give you a list I have prepared in advance.” There are many other times when writing might be not only reasonable, but helpful. I was surprised, at my (European Progressive) shul here in Hungary, so see people taking notes during Shabbat study sessions. At a basic level, it makes sense; if you are studying something, don’t you want to try to remember it? And yes, some people remember better when they just listen (I am one of those), but others are greatly helped by being able to underline, jot down words, and so on.

Back to the question of stepping out of view to give someone a phone number: Doesn’t this obscure the situation? If people are actually writing, shouldn’t they do so openly, so that those who do write know they aren’t alone? Maybe it’s time for a reassessment of writing, especially in the internet era, and during Covid, when it’s a way for people not only to keep in touch, but to lay out their thoughts, to come to terms (or not) with the world.

On the other hand, the public and private questions are truly separate. What you do in public (at shul, for instance) must take into account the expectations and rules of that particular public or community. What you do in private has to do with your own conscience and standards. This is why the private aspect of religion is so important; it allows you to follow what you truly believe, while also participating in a larger whole.

My own beliefs are ambivalent. On the one hand, I see reasons, both sacred and practical, to refrain from writing, and from numerous other activities, at specified times. In our incessantly active world, where we’re expected to be doing, doing, doing, a sacred time for stopping can bring profound restoration. The fact that Judaism explicitly builds and protects this time is cause for awe. On the other hand, I am uneasy with the taboo and its effects: the guilt, the shame. Some of my best writing happens when I have a stretch of time before me, not when I am caught up in the rush of the week. For the first forty-nine years of my life, Shabbat wasn’t even a concept for me. Since my shul-going days began, I have sometimes written on Shabbat, when the ideas were there and I didn’t think they could wait; when I had a pressing deadline; when I wanted or needed to contact someone; or when I had so much teaching preparation to do (preparing lessons, commenting on students’ writing) that refraining would have put undue pressure on Sundays, leading to exhaustion at the start of the teaching week. That said, when I had left Columbia Secondary School to write my second book, I deliberately structured my writing week so that Shabbat could be dedicated to shul, reading, and relaxing. I loved that rhythm–and had plenty of time for writing, since the weekdays were devoted to it.

I do not think God, if there is one, would condemn me for writing on Shabbat or any other time, unless I were writing mean and vile things. Yet I also believe that the day of rest is an infinite gift that asks something of us not in return, but in response. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath comes to my memory again and again.

Back to the beginning: the public and the private, the greater and lesser degrees of observance, all offer something, for the simple reason that no one has the complete answer, not for others or for oneself. I brought in the example of writing because it affects us all and because it illustrates how perspectives and practices can differ, even among people together in a room. People inevitably judge each other to an extent; this results naturally from setting standards for oneself. But judgments can come with questions. In a world overfilled with certainties and dogma (just as it is overfilled with activity), perhaps the questions should come first: and first among these, the ones we ask inside the soul.

I made a few minor edits to this piece, in several stages, after posting it.

What Are Years?

I celebrate three New Years annually: the Jewish New Year, the academic new year, and the Gregorian New Year, which begins tomorrow. They are all different kinds of beginnings. This last one has both the least and the greatest effect on my sense of time: the least because it doesn’t really affect my life rhythm, except that it occurs during our winter break and heralds certain deadlines and beginnings, and the greatest because the it is recognized, marked, and fêted worldwide. I suppose birthdays are a kind of new year too, in which case I celebrate many more than three.

But in all cases, the “year” has to do with the motion of the earth around the sun (or vice versa, as it was perceived in ancient times). Seasons and growth cycles have been part of our conception of time since the earliest antiquity known to us.

New Year’s resolutions may be silly at times, but our sense of starting afresh is not. It’s physical, possible, and good. A person doesn’t even have to wait a year to do this. I often do it from one day to the next, or even during the course of a day. For instance, if I didn’t get nearly as much done as I had hoped, I start over, right then and there, and either get something done or not. Or I do enough of something that I know it will be easy to continue or finish the next day. Being able to “start over” can do, if not wonders, at least more than nothing. Or it can make the “nothing” worthwhile. At times it can simply mean getting a good night’s sleep.

But yes, this year stands out from other years, and the desire for a new start is a bit more urgent than usual, all around the world. Those spared by Covid itself have been hit by Covid fatigue and anxiety. The arts have taken a terrible hit. Travel, events, gatherings are up in the air.

But it’s still possible to read, write, listen to music, watch movies, laugh. So I leave off with just a few recommendations:

The Autumn 2020 issue of my students’ online journal, Folyosó:

Marcell Bajnai’s song “dühöngő” (released in July):

A live video of Dávid Szesztay and his band playing his song “Elindul” (maybe my favorite of his songs):

A brutally funny satirical piece by Dan Geddes, published 19 years ago in The Satirist: “In Memoriam: Dr. Claire Hoyt: ‘Shrink to the Stars’“;

Lara Allen’s art work Fried Liver Attack, whose description begins, “‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ These words, spoken by heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, are the tabula rasa for this work. This punch might be a beginning or an end. It’s supposed that we make art that is about something, or that reflects something, or interrogates something.”

Ishion Hutchinson’s magnificent poem “Little Music,” published in the January 2021 issue of Harper’s;

Martha Hollander’s quietly stunning poem “Friday Harbor,” published in Issue 12:3 of Literary Matters;

And, of course, Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” from which this post’s title comes. It is one of my favorite poems, and it brings back memories of John Hollander’s classes. Since it now appears in various places online, I will copy it below (from the Madison Public Library website). I read it aloud this evening, against a backdrop of rain; here is the recording.

A Happy New Year to all!

What Are Years?

Marianne Moore

        What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
        naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt—
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
        encourages others
        and in its defeat, stirs

        the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who 
        accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment, rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
        in its surrendering
        finds its continuing. 

        So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
        grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
        This is mortality,
        this is eternity.

Do Context, Intent, and Proportion Matter in Journalism?

Dan Levin’s article “A Racial Slur, a Viral Video, and a Reckoning” seems balanced and well presented but has a profound skew. It presents as normal the situation in which a young woman, Mimi Groves, is expelled from her college cheerleading team, and soon afterward withdraws from the college under pressure, because of a three-second Snapchat video containing the n-word that she sent a friend at age fifteen. According to the article’s framing of the story, Groves has been taught a necessary life lesson. Who was the teacher, in this case? A classmate who shared the video to make a point, and others who reacted in fury. The article treats the outcome as sad but normal (and possibly beneficial, in terms of the lessons learned). In this regard it lacks attention to context, intent, and proportion.

How did this all happen? Snapchat posts are not supposed to stay around long; that’s part of the platform’s point. This one got shared, though; a couple of years later, made its way to her classmate Jimmy Galligan, who saved it for an occasion when he could “get her where she would understand the severity of that word.” After she was admitted to her dream college, the University of Tennessee, and as the country throbbed with protests over the murder of George Floyd, Galligan shared the video online, where it was met with rage. At the university, there were demands to have her admission rescinded; some had even threatened violence. The team officially removed her. An admissions officer urged her to withdraw, and she finally did.

Levin’s article carefully and importantly explains why racial slurs are particularly painful and damaging at Heritage High School in Leesburg, Va., which Groves and Galligan attended. Leesburg was the site of a battle early in the Civil War, and slave auctions used to take place on the courthouse grounds. Now a wealthy suburb, it retains racist attitudes and habits. Many students of color have spoken of feeling unwelcome at its schools. According to a report, the use of racial slurs there, and of other racially demeaning language and practices, has fostered “a growing sense of despair.”

In detailing all of this, Levin shows great attention to context. He gives some context to the video as well, explaining that it was meant for one of Groves’s friends; that she made it when she was fifteen, after receiving her learner’s permit; that she was imitating rap songs; that she felt sorry about it and apologized to a classmate who saw it; and that she later spoke up in support of Black Lives Matter. But he does not acknowledge that this context differs distinctly from that of the other instances of racial slurs mentioned. First, it does not seem that she made the video at school. Second, it was for a friend. Third, she was celebrating an achievement. It was a happy moment in which she made a serious mistake. Levin affirms, through his discussion of the town’s history, that it matters not only which words we use, but how they are received, and how history affects their reception. But he does not apply this same principle to the discussion of Groves herself.

Now, let us look at intent. Levin treats Galligan’s intent as honorable. By giving him the last words in the article, he allows Galligan to emphasize that he was teaching a lesson. But somehow the article does not acknowledge that the video’s intent was likely benign, however misguided or impulsive. It quotes Groves saying that she was young and did not understand the import of the word, and that she was disgusted by her own action now. But how many young people of all races have used the word in what they thought was a harmless way, mimicking rap and slang? While the slangish, informal use of the word is still hurtful to many (particularly because of the casualness involved), it does not have the same intent as the cruel uses. And if intent matters in this article–as it clearly does–then it should matter across the board.

In addition, only recently has the slangy use been treated as a punishable crime. Nearly fourteen years ago, in 2007, there was a Daily Show sketch in which John Oliver and Larry Wilmore lampooned a proposed ban of the word. In my view, they went too far in their humiliation of the New York City councilman who had proposed the ban. But clearly the Daily Show found the idea of banning the word ridiculous, yet played, in the sketch, with the assumption that black people could say it and white people could not. What does this have to do with Mimi Groves’s case? The word was in the air, in music, informal conversation, comedy. People knew it was wrong to say, especially if you were white–but it was also part of the language of the street, hip-hop, and youth. Young people might say it, and often did, with no desire to harm.

Now we come to the principle of proportion, which Levin’s article all but dismisses. He quotes Groves’s mother as saying that her twelve years of college preparation were “vaporized.” The reader immediately senses the hyperbole here. No, we think to ourselves, her hard work has not been “vaporized”; she had a setback, but she’ll find her way. This sets us up to perceive Galligan’s words as the true message of the article.

For his role, Mr. Galligan said he had no regrets. “If I never posted that video, nothing would have ever happened,” he said. And because the internet never forgets, the clip will always be available to watch.

“I’m going to remind myself, you started something,” he said with satisfaction. “You taught someone a lesson.”

But stop a minute here. Is it right to take a classmate’s video–which was not meant for the public, and, from all appearances, not meant to hurt anyone–and hold onto it, save it for an opportune moment, and then post it precisely when you know it will hurt her? Is this a way to treat anyone? Yet the ultimate damage was not all Galligan’s doing. The article leaves many questions unasked. Who sent him the video in the first place? Who helped it go viral later? Who demanded that Groves’s admission be rescinded? Who threatened violence? And why did any of them think this was in order?

Some might respond: You think this is bad? Do you have any idea what black people have been subjected to for centuries and still endure day after day? Do you realize that black people have been killed for saying things that white people didn’t like, or for doing nothing at all besides being black? What’s a white girl’s change of college plans next to this?

That is true. The rage is real and justified. But from what I can glean, Mimi Groves did not deserve this rage. There have to be distinctions–because if there are not, if context, intent, and proportion don’t matter, then it’s a free-for-all war, where anyone’s life can be ruined at the drop of a syllable. Journalism exists, in part, to help us maintain perspective and sanity, by reporting clearly on the conflicts in our midst.

Levin’s article–like many New York Times articles recently–combines report, investigation, analysis, and (implicitly) opinion. That in itself poses no problem; there is room in journalism for analyses, “think-pieces,” and passionate investigative writing. But in its application of its own principles, it falls short–and in doing so, it normalizes a disproportionate punishment of a teenage girl.

Long ago I gave a fifth-grade student a disproportionate punishment. She had vanished at the start of a school performance in which she had the lead role. We were waiting and waiting, and she was nowhere to be found. As it turned out, she had gone off to help a student who wasn’t feeling well, and had not told anyone. After consultation with my colleagues, I gave the role to the understudy, to whom I also awarded the drama prize at the end of the year. I talked at length with the student who had lost the honor, but would not change my mind.

Over time I realized that my decision was flat-out wrong. Giving the role to the understudy–that was understandable in the moment. But the rest had no justification. I should have given the first girl the prize. If I had thought clearly about the proportions involved, I would have made a different decision. Overpunishment is one of the most awful mistakes a teacher can make. You carry it forever; you hope that the other person is doing well in life, but you know that you caused some pain along the way.

I have been on the other end too–for instance, being cut off permanently by someone on account of what seemed to me a misunderstanding. You can go for years asking yourself why, why, why? It takes a long time to realize that the action may have been disproportionate; that whatever its reasons, it was not entirely deserved; that reasons and deserts are two different things.

We now live in an era where crowd zeal stands in for discernment and justice. Where will the clarity come from? What role will journalists play?

“I Still Love Christmas….”

Cultural differences surprise me over time. It seems that with all our international media, such differences are disappearing or blurring, but this is not so. At Christmastime especially, I notice the differences between the U.S. and Hungary–or, rather, coastal U.S. and Hungary. Many people I know in the U.S. (particularly in New York, Boston, and San Francisco) say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”; there’s a certain discomfort with saying “Merry Christmas,” since the addressee might be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or of another faith; or nonreligious, or otherwise non-Christmas-celebrating.

Yet this Christmas-nonmentioning custom seems fairly recent; I grew up with Christmas and Merry Christmas, albeit of a secular sort. We had a Christmas tree every year and decorated it with cookies shaped like birds. On Christmas morning my sister and I found presents under the tree. When we lived in the Netherlands, we celebrated Sinkerklaas. In high school I sang Christmas songs and sacred music. One of my favorite works was Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols; I still remember the sound of Louisa Burnham singing the solo of “Balulalow.” Looking back, I wonder what it was like for my Jewish classmates to sing Christmas songs year after year. I was barely aware of being Jewish myself, and had no idea, until later, that there could be a conflict. Today I don’t think there has to be one–it’s possible to celebrate or recognize Christmas, in some way, no matter who you are, or what your origins or beliefs–but I understand its sources.

But in the U.S., Christmas also means a lot of stress: rushing around for presents, worrying about what to buy and what you might or might not get, bearing with loud workplace parties and Secret Santa rituals, surviving tense family gatherings, etc. This remains unchanged even under the “Happy Holidays” banner. Many people understandably object to the way the holiday has been commercialized over the decades. Yet we also love the Christmas displays in storefronts and on the streets. Gaudy and ungreen as they may be, they still bring cheer and nostalgia. I have happy memories of going with friends to see the Macy’s displays–and why? because they are so pretty, because we enjoy the Christmas spirit and its electric manifestations.

That is one of myriad reasons why “I Still Love Christmas” by my friend Hannah Marcus is one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time. It’s so funny and sweet, with one zinger after another, and such beautiful performance; on top of that, it captures the ambivalence that so many of us feel: the uneasy love of Christmas, the quasi-guilty, defiant delight in its rituals. This, I think, is foreign to many Hungarians; here Christmas is celebrated (whether religiously or secularly) with no guilt or misgivings whatsoever, except by those who feel pressured into or constrained by it, who may be more numerous than I realize.

And I still love Christmas, with misgivings that are culturally untranslatable. “You can’t take that from me, no siree….” I would have a tree this year, except that the cats would definitely pounce on it and bring it down. So my tree this year is double: a lovely illuminated wreath-hanging that a friend gave me yesterday, and a dried floral wreath given to me by another friend a few weeks ago, just before Hanukkah.

Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate, enjoy, or “still love” it, and Happy Holidays and Seasons Greetings to all.

I took the top photo outside the Szolnok Airplane Museum and the bottom photo at home.

Looking Ahead

During this delightfully restful and productive holiday break–in which I have been finishing the translation manuscript, writing stories, rereading Jeremy Bendik-Keymer’s The Wind, reading Samuel Beckett’s trilogy for the first time, watching some films, working on the 1984 project and Folyosó, and going running–I have still had time to think ahead a little. As many of you know, I am in the process of applying for permanent residency here in Hungary. At present I must renew my residency permit every year; a permanent residency permit is up for renewal every five years (a simple procedure, once you have it). A lot went into the application; I am just waiting for a couple of documents from the U.S. If permanent residency is granted, then my plan will be to teach for ten more years and then retire. That’s neither early nor late; it’s normal retirement age, and it seems just right to me. Retirement won’t be the end of my work, just a shift in priorities. I will write, teach individual courses, translate, give readings, and more. And before then, I look forward to a full decade of teaching (and projects too).

Upon retirement, I will be eligible for U.S. social security, which I can receive here. In the U.S., the monthly checks would cover only a fraction of my living costs, but here they should be enough to live on. So then I can spend my time on projects, and tutor, if I wish, for extra income. Travel to the U.S. and elsewhere won’t be difficult, assuming normal travel has resumed by then.

Nothing can be known with precision in advance; all sorts of things can come up unexpectedly, situations can mutate, and plans can fall through. But this overall plan appeals to me and makes lots of sense. It’s also fair to everyone involved; I am not taking anything unfairly from either the U.S. or Hungary, but instead reaping earned benefits and continuing to give what I can. I won’t be eligible for a Hungarian pension here, but I won’t need it. My health care, on the other hand, will be covered.

Three years here went by in an instant. Ten years is just three of those instants and a little more. If I were to become a homeroom teacher (osztályfőnök) in a year or two, I would have time to see two cohorts through from ninth grade to graduation. That is a dream of mine, and well within reach. The osztályfőnök not only sees the students all the way through, but participates in all their ceremonies, helps them with difficulties, oversees their grades, holds meetings with the parents at the beginning and end of each year, and more. For the second consecutive year now, I am a “pótosztályfőnök” (“vice homeroom teacher”), which allows me to see how it works. I am almost ready to take something like this on; I just need a bit more familiarity with the procedural language, so that I can communicate all necessary information to parents. So, another year or two, and it will be time, if the opportunity arises.

Three years ago, we had a concert in the Református Templom here in Szolnok; a group of teachers, directed by music teacher Andrea Barnané Bende, sang “Hymne à la nuit“; I was given the solo, which I loved singing, though I had a slight cold. It was a beautiful welcome into the life of the school; little did I know how much more would be coming, and how much after that would still stretch ahead.

A Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and peaceful, healthy winter!

Stores, Coffee, and Socks

Those who scoff at capitalism might forget the joy of walking into a little store–like the Arabica Kávézó here in Szolnok, which offers not only coffee and cookies, but books (including Zsolt Bajnai’s Visszaköszönés), tote bags with cats and dogs on them, lovely jewelry, and other things that catch the eye. This is the kind of store that, in the world of Orwell’s 1984, could get a person in trouble with the Thought Police. I went there today because I saw interesting things through the window. I walked out with a necklace and bracelet, a cat tote bag, and information on where to find coffee filters. I had just bought an American-style coffee maker (for three years I have been drinking instant coffee at home), but could not find any filters. Speaking to me rapidly (I can now understand people when they do this in Hungarian), the woman behind the counter explained exactly where the filters were in the Co-op grocery store next door. I went there and, sure enough, there they were. The taste of homemade coffee is thrilling.

With so many restrictions on our lives, with so many institutions closed down at least temporarily, with so many events converted into Zoom sessions, it’s cheering to walk by stores that are lit up and open.

And even those stores you never visit–the ones that you pass by, thinking, “One of these days I’ll step inside,” these too bring something to your life. Stores have to make money, but that’s not all they do. They give something to a town or city. You come to know a place by them, in part.

Hungary has its share of chain stores (which also serve their purpose), but I love the little shops and cafés here; it is fun to discover them, get to know them, visit them over time. That’s part of living in a city, I think: learning to support the businesses properly. Because otherwise one day they could be gone.

Oh, yes, my title mentioned socks. That’s because I was thinking of Pablo Neruda’s “Oda a los calcetines.” Here it is, in Spanish and English, for your enjoyment. True, Neruda was passionately communist–which seems, on the surface, to contradict what I have been saying here. But such are the contradictions of life, and they weave together into a truth.

Instead of “Growth Mindset,” Good Tinkering

I have written numerous posts–and a chapter of a book–on problems with the concept of “growth mindset” and the phrase itself.* But I keep tinkering with the idea, because there seems to be something more to say. Until now, my objections have come down to this: Growth mindset proponents either say or imply that everyone should strive for more growth mindset, no matter how much they already have. Yet it is possible, even likely, that people benefit from a mixture of mindsets, from a sense of possibility and limitation. Also, the phrase sounds overly grandiose, like a polka-dotted umbrella stretching over the world; it claims to encompass more than it does.

I still hold to the above. But I realized something else while listening to Bill Hader’s Q&A with students and program host Tova Laiter at the New York Film Academy’s Los Angeles campus. Throughout the discussion, he keeps returning to the point that no matter where you are in your creative life and career, you fail and fail again. You learn to figure out what’s going wrong and how it could be better. That becomes your primary way of thinking: puzzling things out, looking at possibilities, following your instincts but also listening to others and recognizing when something isn’t working. Trying again. Knowing when you have hit upon what you were looking for. There’s no way to simplify this; it’s contradictory and complex, because you have to let yourself be both right and wrong. You have to listen to yourself but not only to yourself. You have to try all sorts of things that don’t work out at all. Failures do not end.

In the entire hour, he did not once say “growth mindset,” nor have I heard him say it in any other interviews. I admire his work, especially on SNL (eight seasons), in the HBO series Barry, and in the film The Skeleton Twins, and I enjoy hearing him speak about it. He answers questions courteously and thoughtfully, in his own words, without catchphrases. I am sure he has heard the phrase “growth mindset,” but from what I have heard so far, he hasn’t used it. Why not? I have no way of knowing, but I think he’s saying something slightly different.

The point is not to have a “growth mindset,” or even to strive for one. The point is to tinker with stuff and to tinker well. For fun and for results. Try this, try that, and listen closely. Be alert to what you are doing; catch whatever seems slightly off. But also catch whatever is good. Develop a better and better ear and eye for this.

No one does this across the board. We have a few things in our lives that we tinker continually with, and other things we leave alone. I mean “tinker” in the best possible sense: to fiddle, experiment, play with something in order to get it right. There’s tinkering that leads nowhere or that is done haphazardly, with no clear intention. But once you have a grasp of what you are doing, you start tinkering better. It doesn’t always have to be productive; sometimes you do it playfully, to see what happens.

I don’t assume that Bill Hader agrees with me here. For all I know, he might be a “growth mindset” fan. But he seems more concerned with the work itself, and the possibilities within it, than with a “mindset” of any kind. Yes, this does require certain attitudes and assumptions. You don’t tinker at all if you expect your work to be perfect as soon as it comes out of you. Tinkering requires that you see imperfections. But after that, what really matters is the practice of it, the daily immersion in the work and the questions it brings up.

In the NYFA discussion, he returns several times to the importance of focus–and how you can create focus yourself, just through the way you look at your work. A couple of students ask him how he manages to wear different hats in Barry and elsewhere–as writer, director, and actor–and he responds that he focuses on the story. That way, all his different roles come together, and the focus isn’t on him and all the different things he has to do.

Someone like Bill Hader must have to turn down hundreds of projects and possibilities, not just within film and television, but outside. Why not take up a musical instrument? Learn how to repair a car? Go on a speaking tour? Accept this or that interview request? Please, please? The phrase “I can’t” permits not only survival, but dedication to the projects at hand. Sure, stretching yourself into new areas could represent “growth,” but if you aren’t beholden to a concept of growth mindset, you get to decide what and what not to take on.

That must be one of the most difficult parts of a career like his. Even I, who am nowhere near famous, get requests that I have to turn down, but he must get them all the time. He has some people to filter them, but of those invitations and proposals that do get through to him, he probably takes on only a small fraction. Why? Because infinite availability will kill you. People will not respect your limits.

And there it is. To work on something serious, you also need limits, things you can’t or won’t do, things you say no to, implicitly or out loud. This becomes your den. There, in the warm light, you get down to work.

*Growth mindset, according to Carol Dweck, consists in the belief that one’s “talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others).” Growth mindset proponents routinely oppose growth mindset (good) to fixed mindset (bad). They acknowledge that people have a mixture of mindsets (in which case, is it even a “mindset?”) but ignore the possibility that such a mixture might be necessary.

The photo at the top is courtesy of HBO via a wonderful article in Vanity Fair (Sonya Saraiya, “Barry Is Still Killer in Season 2,” March 29, 2019).