Running, Radio, and Rest

A busy summer vacation filled with translation, travel, and concerts has come to an end, though the translation and concerts continue. We have a faculty meeting tomorrow morning and will then be officially back on board, though the week is fairly light for some of us. The following week, September 1, is when classes start. I am assuming that nothing will prevent me from going to Fishing on Orfű this Thursday, though that could change. I’m going only for a night, since I have to be back before Friday evening to lead an online Szim Salom service. I will arrive at the festival in time to pitch my tent and then hear the Platon Karataev acoustic duo (Gergő and Sebő) play on the water stage. Then I will find my way to the Fonó Borfalu to hear Dávid Szesztay; I will probably stay there to hear Szeder (for the first time), and then walk around and explore. But to do this, it won’t be possible to bring the bike, unfortunately; it turns out that there are no available bike spaces on the trains from Budapest to Pécs. Instead, I will take the train to Pécs (from Szolnok, via Budapest, without a bike), then take a public bus from Pécs to Orfű. That will also allow me to get back home earlier on Friday.

I am looking forward to the school year; I have lots of plans for my classes, and this year, if we are lucky, we (the public library and the school) will actually be able to hold a Shakespeare festival.

But on to the subjects of this post: running, radio, and rest.

Running is my favorite form of exercise after bicycling, when I am relatively in shape. Recently I have been running a mile almost every day, which isn’t much compared to what I used to do at my peak (five miles twice a week or so), but still an improvement over the recent years. I think I could work back up to five miles, but I have to do it carefully. Anyway, running takes off the excess energy, elongates the body, and just feels great. So much for that.

Now, radio. For most of my life, I wasn’t much of a radio listener. It wasn’t on at home when I was growing up, and while my first encounters with radio were enchanting (I still remember the songs that played the day that I stayed home with a fever and listened), I usually couldn’t take that endless stream of Top 40 hits. Only later did I become aware of independent radio, and even then, I preferred to choose what to listen to. But over time, I came to realize how great a well-run radio show can be. If it’s a good show, it introduces you to music you will want to hear again, maybe music you would never have encountered on your own. The DJ not only knows a lot of music and has an enormous repertoire to select from, but also enjoys selecting and commenting on things.

It takes some dedication to listen to the radio. I don’t work with music in the background—I have to focus on the music, if it’s on—so I pick one radio show a week and stay for the whole thing if possible. Most recently, this show has been WFMU’s Continental Subway, with DJ David Dichelle. It’s a fantastic show. He plays music from all around the world, and knows how to pronounce the names and titles. In the third hour, the “Random Road,” he focuses on one country in particular, a surprise location (because he never tells us in advance). Last Thursday it was Bhutan. The music was dreamy. You can go listen to it in the archives if you are curious.

One of the real gifts of the internet is that it allows people to listen to a radio show from around the world and to type comments. So there are regulars from many different places, and short text conversations take place. Also, David welcomes us to write with suggestions. He is very interested in Hungarian bands, and has played some of my suggestions already: the Pandóra Projekt, Felső Tízezer, and the Sebő-együttes, as well as some Hungarian music that was new to me. It is really fun to have my suggestion played, and even more fun to hear music I don’t already know, and kinds of music I don’t usually listen to. I otherwise like to listen to my favorites over and over again, so this is a good contrast.

That leads to the last topic: rest. It is a good thing. But it has many dimensions. Rest isn’t just the absence of work, or the increase of sleep. It also has to do with the redirection of thought. We have many things that we are used to thinking about; turning the attention somewhere else, even for a little while, can be greatly restorative. That’s part of what happens at the end of Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” (one of my favorite stories in the world). The encounter with the baker shocks the bereaved couple out of their train of thought. There is something restful and luminous about the ending.

All of these are luxuries—running, radio, and rest—but luxuries that can be found and built, to some degree, with minimal money. They do take money, but not a lot. That is one thing I love about living in Hungary, where I moved almost four years ago: it is possible to build so much out of a simple life. I don’t have much money at all; my total financial assets, beyond my apartment, would probably get me through one year in the U.S. (if I were careful), and my teaching job pays me the equivalent of thirteen thousand dollars a year, more or less. But not only is it possible to live on very little here, but there’s so much to learn, create, and support. It’s hard to convey this to others, but it’s true: some material possessions are important, but not many. All depends on what one wants to do with them. For me, the apartment, the bike, the books, the musical instruments, the laptop are quite enough, not only in themselves, but in the projects they make possible. So, back to translating for a while.

Time, Time, Time

Getting older (and older and older) is a strange thing; when you’re young, you don’t necessarily know that you’re young (I didn’t, in my twenties and thirties), and then later you see that twenty years went by, just like that, and now you don’t feel old, but for most facts and purposes, and in the eyes of the world, you are. That doesn’t get in the way of much, at least not until the body and mind start to break down, but you know now that you have limited time to work with. That said, a lot can happen during these years: for most of my life I have lived with urgency, but now I do better things with it than before.

But four years go by in what feels like a few months. Four years ago today, and in the two preceding days, I decided to come to Szolnok to teach. I first learned about the opportunity on August 4, 2017—and wrote immediately to Mary Rose, the director of the Central European Teaching Program. In the few days that followed, I looked into it and made up my mind to do it. (I was pretty sure of it that very day, but it was definite, at least in my mind, by August 6.) I had no idea of all the things that would happen over these four years: the teaching, translating, writing, bike rides, music, friendship. What happy years these have been—and they seem like the beginning of much more.

Even twenty years don’t seem so long. Twenty years ago (not exactly, but more or less) I recorded my EP O Octopus at the wonderful analog studio Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. I didn’t release it, because I still had so many CDs from my earlier (homemade) release that I didn’t want to end up with even more boxes. Twenty years later, I think it was actually pretty good; I have uploaded it to YouTube and Bandcamp. All the pressure is off; I don’t have to promote it, but people can listen to it if they like.

Getting older is sometimes easy, sometimes difficult. The easy part is that I have grown stronger over time, with a much clearer sense of what I am doing in the world, and a basic joy in it. The difficult part is that I wish I had at least some of this a few decades ago. I had a terrible lack of confidence—not intellectually, but in other areas of my life, from simple interactions to musical endeavors. Now the confidence has grown, but years have gone by.

This happens to everyone to some degree, but I think my lack of confidence was a bit more than the usual. To others who suffer from that, I can only say: confidence comes from something other than self-affirmation or external praise. It comes from some willingness to be one of billions of people, doing your best and knowing it won’t be perfect: knowing that despite our illusions and fantasies, everyone is filled with imperfections, no one has the answers, and it’s on each of us to do what we can with what we have. But those are rational words, and confidence comes from something else, from daily walking and building. Could it have come to me sooner? Maybe, if I had known what it was.

Not that a person has to be overtly or inwardly confident all the time; there are times of self-doubt, self-criticism, wavering, guilt, regret, shyness. But you don’t have to condemn yourself for these things. That’s really what confidence is about: letting all these things have their place, without mistaking them for the whole. Taking life’s different textures.

I think of the end of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I have quoted here before:

Her teaching had a reflex action upon herself, insomuch that she thought she could perceive no great personal difference between being respected in the nether parts of Casterbridge and glorified at the uppermost end of the social world. Her position was, indeed, to a marked degree one that, in the common phrase, afforded much to be thankful for. That she was not demonstratively thankful was no fault of hers. Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transmit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who had deserved much more. And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquility had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.

Publications, Honors, and Things

Sometimes I forget that this has been a prolific time. But it has been, and there’s a lot more coming this year and next, I hope. Along these lines, a few updates:

I have the honor of being invited to speak as a guest lecturer on October 26, 2021, in The MacMillan Institute’s online Poetry series. The other sessions are led by Frederick Turner (July 27), Sarah Cortez (August 31), and Dana Gioia (September 28). These sessions are open to the public (with registration in advance); the fee for each session is $10. I will be reciting and speaking about my poetry, the poetry of others, and a translation or two.

My translation of Gyula Jenei’s “Scissors” was published in the Summer 2021 issue (Volume 62, Issue 2) of The Massachusetts Review; this particular issue is devoted to poetry, and it’s beautiful! You can order a copy here.

My essay “Plessy v. Ferguson and the Dissenting Opinion in the Classroom” will be published by Literary Imagination in the fall and is already available online (to those who have access). This is part of a special issue, which you can order with a subscription to Literary Imagination (which includes membership in the ALSCW). I think it will also be available later as a single issue.

And now for a few reminders:

Gyula Jenei’s collection Always Different: Poems of Memory, in my English translation, will be published by Deep Vellum in February 2022—not so far away any more! You can pre-order a copy.

My poem “Apology in Seven Tongues” was published by The Satirist in June. Read it all the way through, if you do read it; it’s saying something different from what it might seem to be saying at first. A reader wrote, “That’s really good. It takes seven unapologetic verses to get to the bottom of the event.” Another reader wrote, “F***ing gorgeous. Loved it.” And another: “Well, that is brilliant.”

My story “Immemorial” and my essay “I Signed to Protest the Blurring” are published in the wonderful inaugural issue of The Penny Truth / Krajcáros Igazság, Budapest’s Bilingual Literary Magazine. You can pick up a copy in Budapest or order one from Booksellers (just call them up).

A long, long heads-up: If all works out, in the spring of 2022 I will be hosting an online ALSCW event devoted to the Hungarian poet János Pilinszky and featuring two guests: the poet Csenger Kertai and the songwriter and musician Cz.K. Sebő (Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly). I will interview them about Pilinszky, and then they will perform, from their own work, pieces that relate to Pilinszky in some way.

And speaking of Cz.K. Sebő, I learned a lot from recording a cello cover of his song “Out of Pressure” (from his 2015 EP The masked undressed). On July 29 I re-recorded the vocals; you can find the new video here. The Hungarian word for “cover” (in this context) is “feldolgozás,” which also means “working up,” “converting.” I think of musical covers as translations of a sort. If they sound just like the original, that can be impressive, but uninteresting. For me, the interesting part of covering someone’s music is seeing what it turns into, which reveals something about what it already is.

Speaking of musical covers, I have wonderful memories of covering Marcell Bajnai’s (and his band 1LIFE’s/Idea’s) song “Maradok Ember” on cello at Varga and at the Summer Institute in Dallas two years ago. And I have started working on a musical rendition of a Sándor Weöres sonnet.

Speaking of music, I put my unreleased 2001 EP O Octopus on Bandcamp and YouTube. Soon I expect to have it on Spotify as well.

And two new translation projects are underway: of poems by Csenger Kertai and stories by Sándor Jászberényi. More about these in good time!

With all of that, I am glad to have a few more weeks of summer break but am also looking forward to the new school year. There are so many things I want to do with my classes. I hope that we will have classes in person all year long, but no matter what happens, there will be a lot to do.

“Why didn’t they just tell me that?”

I remember one day in high school—I was sixteen or seventeen—when I was discussing Oscar Wilde with an English teacher. Wilde had been one of my favorite authors since childhood; from the age of eight or nine, I had begun reading and even memorizing his plays and stories. An adult in the family had hinted to me that Wilde had gotten in trouble with the law because of his personal life, but I didn’t know what that meant. I mentioned this to my teacher, who said, “Wilde was homosexual.”

“Oh,” I said. “Why didn’t they just tell me that?” The question remained unanswered.

I got to college, where for the first time in my life I met people who were coming out as gay. The issue overwhelmed me. I had never encountered it directly before. I had no adults to talk to about it. I thought I must be gay too, that this would explain the differences I had felt for so long. In my early twenties I had a relationship with a woman (considerably older than me—I read her obituary a few years ago). Over many years, I have come to know myself as heterosexual, but this came after years of self-doubt. I wish I had had someone to discuss this issue with, in high school and later: an adult who understood something about it and who wouldn’t be scared of the topic or hurt by my ambivalence. I needed room to think and speak, room not to feel terrible about anything I said and did. There were a few such people later on, and I am grateful for them.

I support gay rights and believe that many people, gay or not, have had some kind of attraction to the same sex. Maybe the attraction is sexual, maybe not, but homosexual attractions have existed as long as we know. At the same time, I know how difficult the subject can be for a young person, and how badly it can be mishandled. Today’s teenagers are much more aware than my generation was; through social media and popular culture they learn about things that many of us were shielded from. Many of them have strong opinions on the subject (or cluster of subjects), but they don’t have a place to air these opinions, or to ask questions, without being applauded or attacked.

So Hungary’s new “anti-gay amendment,” which, among other things, prohibits the inclusion of pro-gay or pro-transgender material in classrooms with children under 18, will not accomplish what its supporters in the most generous interpretation hope to accomplish: the protection of children from pressures and ideas that they are not prepared to handle. High school students, and even younger students, are exposed to these issues anyway, through social media and their own lives.

On two occassions, my students have asked to debate the topic of gay rights, which, we found, was not the needed approach, since it made the conversation divisive and antagonistic. Nor is my classroom the place for the topic. But there are ways to discuss it calmly, in the upper high school years, ways that would help students make sense of what they already see around them and what they might be feeling. A calm, unpressured, voluntary discussion can protect young people by helping them get a footing, no matter who they are. It should probably take place in a sex education class (these do exist in Hungary) or in another context where it is understood that the discussion will take place.

One thing that doesn’t get said enough is that not all attractions are sexual or have to express themselves sexually. We live in a highly sexualized culture, on the heterosexual front as well as everywhere else. Many young people think they have to have sex to be valid at all, or to know that they are loved. But some of the most beautiful relationships in life are friendships, acquaintanceships, family relationships, mentorships, collegial relationships, or even encounters with strangers, where two people see something special in each other but also respect each other’s autonomy and privacy. Such relationships can be between people of the same sex or of different sexes, of the same age or different ages, of the same or different walks of life.

Sexual relationships are particular. They are precious but fragile, because sexual wounds go deep. It is good to protect children from such wounds, and to give them the tools to protect themselves. The best protection is to teach them to cherish themselves and their feelings for others, to recognize that feelings do not have to be sexual, and to take romantic and sexual feelings in healthy directions when the time is right. “Healthy” means true to them, true to the other person, capable of being nourished over time, and not subject to coercion. Abuse can happen in any type of relationship; it’s possible to learn to avoid abuse and to foster the good.

No one can protect another from pain; parents try to do this, but it’s futile. Pain will happen. Hearts will be broken. But if the children (or people of any age) have a footing, they can stop short of complete devastation. Conversation alone will not give them such a footing, but it can contribute. Maybe more than anyone realizes at the time.

But big discussions aside, there are other times when the topic of sexual orientation will come up. Many writers, artists, composers, and others have had same-sex attractions and relationships; this comes up in their biographies, and sometimes in their work too. It is better not to make this a taboo topic, because that will just create confusion. Just acknowledge it when it comes up; that is not propaganda.

I know that many Hungarians are worried about what they see as Western extremes of gender-fluidity, pansexuality, and so on. Even some liberals here cringe at the idea of asking young people which gender pronoun they would like to use, which they see as a fad. And I have heard young people say that they support the basic ideas behind gay rights, etc., but not to the extreme to which they are sometimes taken in the U.S.

Instead of decrying these concerns as dumb or narrow-minded (or as fronts for homophobia), one can acknowledge the importance of approaching the topic conscientiously, considerately, and sanely, in the right contexts and forums. And the dangers of just shutting it off. The world, whether internal or external, does not go away when you make it taboo.

Some of my friends might say I’m being too gentle here, too compromising. But God, gentleness is needed. People need to be able to live and find their way without getting screamed at. To hear, in a secular context, Paul Tillich’s words, “You are accepted.” That doesn’t mean we accept everything that others do or say, but we can accept who they are, who we ourselves are. It has taken me years to reach this point. I am finally here.

Thoughts on Privilege

Any discussion of privilege has to make room for three contrasting truths. Every society, every economy, every political system favors some groups over others in unjustified and sometimes brutal ways. It is essential to examine and address this without flinching. At the same time, the picture is more complicated than we may realize; groups are not internally uniform, nor is their external treatment; neither of these can be understood properly without a careful study of history. Beyond that, no one knows the sum total of another person. We have little idea what those around us have gone through, good, bad, or mixed. Nor are they obliged to tell us. Any discussion of privilege must respect privacy and the unknown.

Everyone’s life contains a mixture of advantages and setbacks. There is no way to calculate the sum total. That doesn’t mean group privilege, such as privilege resulting from one’s race, class, or sex, should be ignored. It can just be approached discerningly.

Privilege comes in many different forms. Some of it is accorded to us, or withheld from us, on account of our race, class, sex, sexual orientation, or even looks or mannerisms. (David Brooks has a compelling opinion piece on “lookism.”) Some of it comes to us in response to things we do. Some responds to how we see the world. It’s hard to isolate the things that we received passively, through no work of our own, from the ones we and those around us had a hand in. One of the biggest complications here is that parents tend to want every privilege in the world for their children. Even if they try to make their children aware of the privilege, they would not want to take it away.

What some people call privilege, others call blessings; yet the two words have profoundly different connotations. Blessings come from God or from unnamed sources; they may be earned or unearned, but a person is supposed to see them, give thanks for them, rejoice in them. Privilege, on the other hand, is a distinctly secular concept. It comes from the world, not from God, and while one can feel grateful for privilege, it’s generally considered wrong to rejoice in it, because it comes at someone else’s expense. The goal of at least some discussions of privilege is to change the system of distribution.

But privilege is only partly objective. Two people in near-identical circumstances can have opposite views of their fortune, and their views can change considerably over time. This does not erase the circumstances themselves, buf it adds a twist to them.

Once you have identified some privileges and inequalities, what then? Efforts to rectify the latter can have terrible (or, at best, mixed) consequences. Social justice movements can be myopic, ignoring some of the injustices in their midst. Take, for example, the teaching profession in the U.S. In many parts of the country, teachers and their unions have succeeded, over time, in securing higher salaries. But in return for these raises and new salary scales, they have agreed to do additional work, such as daily meetings, hall and cafeteria monitoring, regular parental contact, detailed documentation of everything. The job can be so exhausting and packed that it leaves little time for what should be at its heart: thinking about the subject matter and considering how to teach it. The privilege of the higher salary comes at the expense of contemplation. Here in Hungary I have a drastically lower salary than I would in the U.S., but I have considerable freedom and flexibility (as well as a curriculum, mind you), which allow me to do my work better. I would not exchange that for more money. Teachers should be paid more here, much more, but we should be careful about what we agree to give in return.

Discussions of privilege should involve the following questions: What do we mean by privilege? How might our view of it be limited or distorted? How much do we know of another person’s privilege or lack thereof, or even our own? What are we hoping to accomplish? What might be some unintended consequences of our efforts? Who is “we” here? Such questions, if taken up boldly and thoughtfully, would deepen the discussion and action.

On Being a Woman in Hungary

First of all, I’ll get this out of the way: I don’t think women necessarily have a harder time than men, here or anywhere else. Nor do the difficulties I am bringing up apply to Hungary alone; they exist in some form everywhere. Being alive is an awkward matter. Everyone, in some way, has times of feeling out of place, feeling plunked in the wrong era, and so forth. No two people have the same kind of aloneness, the same kind of alienation; if they did, they wouldn’t be alienated any more. So, as with most things, the picture is more complicated than can be conveyed in a blog piece. Still, Hungarian society can be hard on girls and women who do not conform to standard expectations of appearance, behavior, and roles. Being pretty (during youth, at least) often means being skinny with long, straight, sleek hair and perfect skin; being acceptable often comes down to keeping yourself within size, doing things well but being delicate, not threatening, about it. As for the roles, women are still expected to raise children and do nearly all of the housework (often on top of full-time jobs and careers). Though this is slowly changing, it will stay as is, more or less, for a long time, partly because of the incentives, partly because of the intrinsic and social rewards. The government offers generous maternity and family benefits. You can have a child, take two years off from work, receive a partial salary, and still have your job waiting for you.

Some of this is laudable. I would have loved to have children, but for many combined reasons, this didn’t happen. One of many factors was growing up in a generation in which we were encouraged to wait: not just to get children, but to get married, make a commitment to another person, and so on. As a result, in the U.S., a kind of superficiality took over dating; relationships were emptied of responsibility, not across the board, but palpably. If you were a woman and mentioned wanting to have a child, you could scare a man away. People strove to appear casual, even if they weren’t. From what I hear from friends, social media has made the situation even worse. So it’s refreshing to find, in Hungary, a basic understanding that relationships involve commitment, and that one of the primary duties and joys in life is to raise children.

But life takes many paths, and not everyone has to follow this particular one. Nor is it given to everyone to do so, or to follow the standard timing. That’s where it gets difficult; I sense that women here who diverge from the norm have to contend with feelings of failure, at the very least. I remember last year when a girl asked, in class, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I not in a relationship yet?” (It was the beginning of the year, and I was asking them about issues that were on their minds.) That’s a common teenage worry, but I think it was profound in this case.

Also, many young people, women and men, feel intense, informed anxiety about global warming. Not only do they hesitate to bring children into a world that might not be livable much longer, but they also see massive indifference, passivity, and paralysis around them. They distrust a system that encourages them to have babies but fails to make the world more habitable. They look around and see hardly anyone doing anything, even in their peer group. For women, this can lead to a kind of split consciousness: a wish to have children, but a distrust of the pressure to do so.

In addition, women face dilemmas over higher education. At the school where I teach, the girls outnumber the boys significantly; I have been told that this is generally the case at the gimnáziums, the high schools that prepare students for university. Boys tend to choose trade schools, as these lead more directly to jobs. So I assume that girls outnumber boys at the universities as well, at least by a little. But the picture changes when it comes to doctoral programs and professorships. There men are still in the majority and have, on the whole, the more demanding and prestigious positions. This suggests that women are highly encouraged, and encourage themselves, to pursue education and a career, but then turn to something that can accommodate their domestic responsibilities. (From what I have seen, women work extremely hard.)

I have met many young women who dislike the pressure to conform and who dream of studying or working abroad. It isn’t just economic opportunity that attracts them to other countries; it’s the belief that they could lead their lives there, and be themselves. (“Being yourself” is more of an American concept than a Hungarian one; it gets taken to silly extremes in the U.S., but there’s something to be said for it. Hungarians often think and speak more in terms of “we” than “I”; this, too, has its beauty and pitfalls.)

I do not feel judged for being different—but I definitely feel different, not just as a foreigner, but as someone who has taken an unconventional path in more ways than one. (This is true in the U.S. too.) On the other hand, I am warmly accepted and appreciated here, and am at a point in life where I don’t care so much what others think of me, except when it’s based on something important. So it would be completely wrong to say that I have faced discrimination or rejection here; the opposite is true. But I do sense people wondering, once in a while (to the extent that they think of it at all), why I go to concerts and films alone, for instance. I sense that women especially are expected to be with someone. Going to a restaurant alone is almost unheard-of. In the U.S., it is much more acceptable, especially in cities, to attend events alone as a woman.

Why does this matter? Because, for one thing, there’s a joy in attending an event alone. You can focus on it, but more than that, you’re there for the event itself, not for a social image. You don’t have to have someone with you to take in what is happening. I also enjoy being at events with others—it’s good to share things like this, and it can be lots of fun—but being alone can be great too.

Going to events alone also means that you are allowed to exist in yourself, that you don’t need someone else to make you acceptable—in general, not only at events. I am open to having a relationship in the future. I think it’s possible that someone might come along who really gets me, and whom I understand as well, and with whom I would like to build something. But it’s also possible that it won’t happen, and in that case, I am still (to quote from a friend’s unpublished humorous piece) “a perfectly legitimate human being” with a full life.

It’s a bit easier for men to go to events alone. True, this depends somewhat on the nature of the event; at a classical concert or a literary reading, it really doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or man, alone or with others. But on the whole, I think, men are more likely than women to appear somewhere by themselves, and even to be silent and solitary, whereas women not only show up with others, but also act sociable. (On a tangent: I don’t remember ever seeing a fisherwoman in Hungary, though they must exist. It is typically men who sit silently on the banks of the rivers, waiting for the fish to bite.)

This idea, I believe, has yet to find its way into Hungarian public consciousness: that women exist in themselves: that while we all need others in our lives, we don’t need them for legitimacy’s sake, for basic human status. We can step into the world on our own, without embarrassment or shame, and the relationships, when they form, will be the better for that.

I made a few minor changes to the piece, in several stages, after posting it. It is still just a fraction of what I could say on the subject, which in turn is an even smaller fraction of what could be said.

Congratulations to Class 12.C!

When I first started teaching at Varga in the fall of 2017, one of my classes was the wonderful 9.C in the school’s bilingual program. I continued teaching them over the next two years, and one of the two sections continued with me this year as well. They graduated today.

They are full of intelligence, curiosity, and humor. We slogged through the textbooks together, read literature together, prepared Shakespeare performances, sang, and much more.

I remember visiting the school in September 2017, nearly two months before I moved here, and meeting this class. So when I began teaching them in November of the same year, we got going right away. Besides working from the textbook, we held a weekly News Day (where the students would perform a mock newscast in class), read and performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream (followed by Hamlet the next year), and had all kinds of interesting discussions.

In tenth grade, some of the students attended my philosophy elective, where we would read texts together—Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Buber, and others—and discuss the ideas.

In eleventh grade, for American civilization, we followed the textbook but also read poems, sang songs, listened to speeches. One of my sections read The Crucible by Arthur Miller. This was also the year when the class prepared a Christmas caroling show for the school.

This year, I had only one of the two sections, and we did a lot: in addition to preparing intensively for the exams, we read To Kill A Mockingbird and had lively discussions for which the students themselves prepared the questions.

But those were only my classes. The students were doing so much beyond them: learning other languages, other subjects; taking part in Model European Parliament, student government; playing instruments, performing in folk dance groups; taking part in competitions; forming relationships; learning magic tricks; figuring out life.

With Covid, we had online classes for several months last spring, then again from November to April of this year. They had different reactions to this, but whether they liked it or didn’t, they held up. It was great to return to school in person, though. I remember when we first started doing so, for small review sessions, a few weeks before the whole school went back. I could see what a difference it made to them too, how happy they were to be in a room together.

After many months, the time for their final exams arrived. This year, almost all of the subjects had written exams only, but we still held the oral Civilization exam, since there wasn’t a written counterpart. For weeks, the eight students taking this exam had been attending our review sessions. This morning, they came to the appointed room, prepared their topics, and gave presentations. A colleague and I held the examination; other colleagues and an exam supervisor took part in the proceedings. Ceremony surrounds these exams: the teachers meet early in the morning to establish the protocol, then the students enter the room, dressed for a formal occasion, then they leave until called in for their exam. At the end, the teachers confer, the supervisor gives a report, many documents are signed, and then the students, teachers, administrators, and testing supervisor gather for the closing ceremony, where the students receive their diplomas and prizes and present the teachers with gifts.

So that was the day.

Here is one of my fond memories from our Shakespeare rehearsals, in the spring of 2018.

And here is the finale of their final caroling performance (one out of many) in December 2019.

This afternoon, after the little graduation ceremony, I bought some groceries and headed home. I noticed that the Lipóti bakery had the class tableau in one of their windows.

Thank you, Class 12.C, for all that you brought to my classes and to the school. Best wishes with everything you hope and plan to do, and with all the surprises that come along the way.

Blogging, “Winky,” and More

Blogging is a kind of mental relaxation for me, and a way to start working with ideas that may take a different form later. I have just started to realize how old-school it is. Not that many people blog any more, or when they do, it’s partly to make money. I make no money off of this blog; I pay a little each year to keep adds off of it. I do make money from other forms of writing, but this is a place where I can say what I want, on my own terms and timing, and that’s how I want to keep it.

I have gotten weary of the new economy of punditry. So many people are competing to be pundits, to make ponderous pronouncements about the state of the world, pronouncements aimed at winning followers and subscriptions. Very few of these pronouncements have any lasting quality. The whole thing feels vain to me, and boring. But then, I have my vanities too.

My students (that is, one of my tenth-grade sections) read George Saunders’s “Winky” last week. The other section didn’t read it because we had too few classes left in the year—that is, just one. We have been reading a lot of stories this spring: Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” Alice Walker’s “The Welcome Table,” and now “Winky.” They are so lively and thoughtful in discussion that my planning only goes so far; things come up that hadn’t occurred to me.

It’s hard to talk about “Winky” without giving spoilers. But I’ll try. The story begins at a strange motivational seminar, in which a tacky modern version of a medieval morality tale is playing out on the stage. One of the characters, “You,” is trying to reach “Inner Peace,” but then a number of other actors, including “Whiny,” “Self-Absorbed,” and “Blames Her Fat on Others” get in the way. Finally a GoldHat appears and drags these obstacles into jail. The crowd then bursts into the familiar mantra: “Now Is the Time for Me to Win!”

Then Tom Rodgers, the founder of the Seminars reveals himself and begins telling the audience about how he learned to stop letting people crap in his oatmeal. (This becomes the bizarre ruling metaphor of the session.) Then the participants line up for the Personal Change Centers. Neil Yaniky finally finds himself face to face with Rodgers, who helps him identify the main obstacle in his life—his sister, Winky—and the main problem: “Needs her own place.” Yaniky resolves to go home at the end of the session and tell Winky precisely this.

In our discussion, the students quickly saw through the Seminars and the message they were broadcasting. You can’t just treat people as obstacles in your life, especially people close to you; you can’t solve life problems by cutting people out of your life, sending them away, etc. But they saw this even more when we were taken into the world of Winky.

Winky is unsummarizable. A little bit out there, in her own world, Christian, full of happy fantasies, but also with her shair of pain from being taunted and lonely. We see her catching herself in the middle of daydreaming and realizing she had to get ready for Neil-Neil’s return home at the end of the day. She rushes up the stairs “with a strip of broken molding under her arm and a dirty sock over her shoulder.”

The students saw that Winky adores Neil-Neil, that he is at the center of her world, and that she also takes care of him, cleans for him, cooks for him. One student was very upset by Winky’s Christian faith, her belief that she really should turn the other cheek when people abused her. “How can you let other people bully you and not fight back?” she asked. We talked about this for a while. In the story, it’s complex, because we’re supposed to see Winky’s naiveté, but we also see that she’s happy in her own way.

Neil-Neil has fantasies of his own, as we learn on his way home. A beautiful wife, a Jaguar, a feeling of power wherever he went. But he’s short and bald, and Bev, whom he apparently dated for a little while, left him, so the fantasies are far, far out of reach, except in his mind. But he doesn’t think so as he walks home; he thinks he’s on the verge of winning. The seminar has pumped him up.

And he gets home, and things don’t work out as he planned. But he doesn’t have an epiphany either. I can’t give away the ending. It’s wonderfully mundane and disturbing. I asked the students, why does the story end this way? Why doesn’t it end with him realizing that he was wrong and that he loves his sister?

“This isn’t Disney,” one of them offered.

“That wouldn’t be Neil-Neil,” another said, explaining that he clearly has limitations, and it would be too much out of character for him to have that much insight at once.

Then another student spoke. “I think we all have a little bit of Neil-Neil in us,” he said. We talked about that until the end of class.

And now is it clear why I love teaching at Varga?

We didn’t have time, but I wanted to bring my students an article, in The Economist, about how young adults in the U.S. are increasingly cutting off contact with their parents. At one point the article points to one of the causes (or at least contributing factors): “Those who decide to break off contact with their parents find support in a growing body of books (often with the word ‘toxic’ in the title), as well as online. Threads on internet forums for people who want to break ties with their parents reveal strangers labelling people they have never met as narcissistic or toxic and advising an immediate cessation of contact. This may make it easier to shelve feelings of guilt.”

In my book Mind over Memes I devote a chapter to the word “toxic” and the damage it can do when overapplied. (I bring up “Winky” in the chapter too.) Surely some situations are toxic in some way. But to call people toxic, without first trying to understand what is actually going on, can lead to more harm than the so-called toxicity itself. There are situations in life where you do need to cut someone off, and that may even be a family member. But there are many more cases where you actually don’t—where, through learning to say “yes” and “no,” and through learning more about the situation, you can find a way to relate to each other. It can have limits, it can be imperfect, but it’s still a relationship of some kind.

The fad of cutting off relationships, and justifying it blithely, is nothing short of monstrous.

But “Winky” does much more than teach a lesson, and it leaves a lot unresolved. (The story is not punditry, thank God!) The students were able to take this.

The title of this blog piece promised “more,” but that will have to wait until next time.

Folyosó, a Concert, and More

The past few months have been full, and I think I have finally met all the pressing deadlines. So now it will be possible, while wrapping up the year, to resume work on some projects and go on a long bike ride or two. The summer will be varied; except for ten days in the U.S., I expect to be here, relaxing, working on projects, riding the bike, and going to the Kolorádó music festival in August.

The spring issue of Folyosó (our first anniversary issue) came out on May 17, and it is beautiful. There’s a section with pieces about walls (of many different kinds), a section of short absurdist scenes, a section of miniature stories, a section of speeches, and some beautiful art by Lilla Kassai. Click on the picture to view the contents. If you feel so moved, please post a comment on the comments page.

This evening I am going to my first concert of 2021, a highly anticipated solo concert of Cz.K. Sebő, who is going to treat us to a double program at the TRIP Terasz, the outdoor part of a ship nightclub on the Danube. In the first part, he will play his own songs, including one or two entirely new ones; in the second part, he will play covers of some of his favorite songs. Because a maximum of 80 people can be admitted, and priority is given in order of arrival, I can’t take any chances. So that means: get there very early (when they open at 4 p.m.) and bring something to read, and I have the perfect thing: Csenger Kertai’s poetry collection Hogy nekem jó legyen, which I ordered after listening and relistening to Sebő’s musical rendering of Kertai’s poem “Balaton,” in which Kertai reads the poem and Sebő’s music paints it underneath.

This little book is not easy for me to understand; there are words I don’t know, expressions to puzzle over, meanings to ponder, but so much the better; the time will whisk by (on a ship on the Danube, with a beer), and then the concert will begin, and there will be time to sink into it, and then I can return to the poems later, on the train ride home, and again and again over time. I will say more about all of this later, after it has happened.

Speaking of songs, I wrote my first song in Hungarian and will try to record it over the weekend (I may need more time). The song is mostly set in my mind; it just needs to be played, in its various parts and instruments. The title is “Időköz,” which means “time interval.” It’s my first serious attempt at a song in a language other than English; at age 14 I composed a round with brief Russian lyrics, but that’s it. I don’t even remember the first part, but the second part went, “Счастлив человек, который каждый день слушает музыку.” (“Happy is the person who listens to music every day.”) Before posting “Időköz,” I will run it by a native speaker, just in case there’s something impossibly wrong with the lyrics. A few quirks I don’t mind.

I have to run, so that is all for now.

Song Series #14: One Morning in May

This morning I had the joy of listening to songs with my ninth-grade students, as part of the music unit in the American Civilization course. A few weeks ago, while we were still online, I had introduced them to U.S. American and Canadian songs and pieces from various genres: jazz, blues, folk, country. They then had to choose one of the songs from the playlist and write a reflection on it. From their reflections and songs, I chose five, and added one more (which isn’t American but which is clearly influenced by these traditions, particularly folk): Platon Karataev’s “Orange Nights.” So here was what we listened to, in person, this morning in May.

First was the remastered version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Mirrors,” which an eleventh-grade student had strongly recommended to me. I listened to it and understood why he thought I should hear it. A person could listen to this piece alone and fall in love with jazz. One ninth-grader wrote, “In the first second when I heard the jazzy piano, I knew
that this song was going to be good. The wind instruments are played like they are the singers I’m a fan of. It is really calm and smooth.” Another mentioned that he might include a sample from this piece in one of his own musical projects.


The next one was Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” which I have brought up on this blog before. While Cohen was Jewish and observant, as well as being involved with Buddhism, the verse that describes Jesus is heartbreaking. That is part of the song’s opennness; Suzanne in the song carries the spirit of openness, the ability to feel with the world and to love with a purity that sweeps up everything.

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And then you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind

The next was “Little Red Rooster” by the great blues musician Howlin’ Wolf. A student found it intriguing because nowadays teens don’t listen to this kind of music. “I noticed his beautiul energetic voice,” he wrote, “which is incredible.” He gave some brief background on Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett), his teenage life on a cotton plantation, and his musical evolution.

The next one was Sarah Jarosz’s “Song Up In Her Head,” this version recorded during the Music Fog sessions at the 2010 Americana Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee. The students who had written about this song had been taken by her voice and the way the song gets you to sing along. “I personally think that the lyrics are catchy,” one wrote; “they are easy to memorize. After listening to the song two or three times, you can already sing along easily. There aren’t many too high or too low notes, because the focus is more on the instruments, as the genre is bluegrass.”

From there, we moved along to Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” which had appealed to several of the students. The song has layers and layers of memories for me. I love the languourous mood, the characteristic soaring of the voice, and the way the song tells a story and then, in the last verse, moves into the first person.

People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin
But I lost the ring
She was born in spring
But I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate

To wrap it all up, we listened to Platon Karataev’s “Orange Nights,” which they hadn’t heard before. I chose it because it is gorgeous and because it fit so well with the rest; also, because they could hear how a Hungarian band draws on U.S. folk traditions in a genuine and original way. The music wraps you up and carries you along; you can hear and see the orange nights in Pest. The lyrics are full of textures and meanings. One of my favorite aspects is the rhyme of “Pest” (“pesht”) with “detest,” “rest,” “best,” and “chest”; another is the pair of lines “Solitude, you’re with me in the end / We salute as old friends,” with “salute” pronounced with a stress on the first syllable, so that it sounds very close to “solitude” and brings out this beautiful paradox of solitude and greeting. No native English speaker would come up with this, and it’s perfect; the song, after you listen to it a few times, starts playing in the mind and limbs.

What a happy lesson, and a rare treat at school: to be able to listen to songs like this, one after another. The students were tranquil and thoughtful, and several commented at the end that they had enjoyed this. One of them doesn’t like slow songs, so it wasn’t quite as enjoyable for her; but others were strongly enthusiastic (one especially loved “Orange Nights”), and in any case, this is an opening into more: for instance, the full albums, or these same songs again, or something else. Who knows where listening will lead?

To see all the posts in the Song Series, go here.

  • “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

  • Always Different

  • 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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