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.

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!

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).

Facebook, the Indifference Factory

Facebook is in mild trouble. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission and more than forty states have accused it of illegally squashing competition; Chris Hughes, one of Facebook’s founders, argues in a scathing opinion piece that it should be broken up. Facebook has been faulted not only for eliminating competition, but for intruding on users’ privacy and spreading fake news, some of which is intended to incite violence. (This should give “growth mindset” cheerleaders at least some pause.)

Above and beyond all of this, Facebook is a factory of indifference. Its newsfeed, likes, and “friends” put pressure on you to read stuff you don’t really care about, “like” things you might actually love or might not care for much at all (the range of emojis doesn’t do much here), and put up with dizzying interruptions, so that you lose track of whatever it was you originally came to read. It socializes and publicizes friendships; even plans for get-togethers end up in comments on posts, for everyone to see. You have some control over privacy, but often it isn’t worth the bother to go through the steps to exert it.

To care about things in life, you need privacy, and you need levels. You don’t share everything with everyone; you don’t share everything right away. Conversations are individual and selective, not for public display except for special cases, such as interviews. You need time to respond to things, without pressure to give an instant reaction. Facebook pushes against all of this. What Orwell says in Nineteen Eighty-Four about the loss of tragedy applies here. There can be no tragedy (or great joy, or anything important) when there is no privacy. I don’t just mean the privacy of data (which is what people usually bring up), but also the privacy of personal life, thoughts, and reactions.

A heart-sinking pettiness takes over; you have to be a little rude to shake it off. I often feel like a spoil-sport. I post photos that I take here in Szolnok and elsewhere, post links to my blog and other things, and forward links from other people. But I rarely get involved in Facebook discussions and games. When invited to “like” pages, I rarely do, unless I really want to see the updates. I get messages from strangers and near-strangers that I leave unanswered, often because they contain attachments that I don’t want to click, or because I just don’t want to chat.

Facebook is all about activity, constant activity. There’s a recurring chain letter that goes, more or less, “I get discouraged by the superficiality that I find here. Most people on Facebook don’t read each other’s posts; they just skim them, like them, and move on. So I am going to conduct an experiment. I want to find out, for my own peace of mind, who actually cares enough to read this post to the end. If you do read it, please leave a one-word comment below, then copy this post and repost it verbatim on your own timeline. The word should have something to do with your relationship with me. Do not leave a comment without reposting, since that would ruin the experiment.” This kind of post tricks people into thinking that they have to prove their sincerity and readership by reposting. In reposting, they are not saying anything of their own; they are just duplicating someone else’s words, without saying so outright. The message comes down to an ultimatum; if you’re genuine, and you really read my posts, you can prove it by following these steps; if you don’t follow these steps, I may deduce that you don’t read them and don’t really care about me.

A subtler version is “Post 10 photos of books that have had an impact on your life, with no explanation” (or something similar with films, songs, etc.) Each time you post one, you are supposed to nominate someone to start a list. Now, granted, sometimes these can be interesting (and fun too), but if I were nominated, I wouldn’t do it–simply because I don’t want to be pressured to list things and to nominate ten more people. Now, some may say that this has nothing to do with Facebook, but rather with users and the various games they come up with. But these games happen to benefit Facebook by escalating activity. I suspect that some of them originated with Facebook staff and that they accompany hundreds of other ways of manipulating people into depending more on the platform.

There’s a flattening of communication–a pressure to treat everyone dimly as your friend, to play games you don’t want to play, and to let go of thoughts and posts within seconds. The worst part of it is that if you really do take something seriously (or humorously), you are reduced to the same gestures you’d give anything else–a “like,” a “love,” maybe a brief comment.

This does not reflect on Facebook users as people. There are people on Facebook whom I truly like and love, whose posts I enjoy (even chain-letter posts), and whose greetings I know are genuine. The pain lies in having to mix all of this up with so much stuff. Advertisements, updates, posts, comments that I didn’t ask for and have to sludge through anyway. Reading a book, reading anything that doesn’t blink and convulse and broadcast its popularity and split into vanishing bits, has become a revelation and relief.

Facebook needs to be broken up–not just because it is a massive, ever-growing monopoly, not just because it exerts undue influence on people’s sense of reality, but because it mass-manufactures indifference, dresses it up in cheery forms, and tricks people into embracing it (a paradoxical metaphor). No one has to speak, feel, or think this way.

I took the photo yesterday. It has nothing to do with the post, but with a bit of a stretch, one could connect it somehow.

Announcing the Autumn 2020 Issue of Folyosó

The Autumn 2020 issue of Folyosó–an online journal by students of the Varga Katalin Gimnazium–has arrived, filled with witty, spooky, thoughtful pieces! Browse through it and let us know what you particularly enjoy.

For starters, here are just a few excerpts.

From “Finding Yourself” by Gréta Tóth:

The Milky Way is made up of many different things. Stars, planets, together with other celestial bodies, dust and naturally other strange, almost unknown particles like black holes, wormholes and dark matter. They are usually in balance with each other, but sometimes they cross each other’s path. Collisions happen between solar systems, stars and planets meet, or black holes absorb anything that comes near them, even time.

This story is about a common world, actually really similar to ours. But whenever a baby is born, a celestial body is born too. They are not independent of each other. They are the same, waiting for the moment to finally find each other and become one. They affect each other’s life and path. Let us start at the most important part of the Milky Way and humanity:  Finn Love, also known as the Supermassive Black Hole, the center of our galaxy. Love is probably the most important cementing force in humanity. His mission is to keep the balance in our Milky Way.

From “All Should Be in Order” by Gergely Sülye:

All should be in order. Of course we never think about that because it is a given in our lives, for most of us. I say most of us because there are people out there, in less-developed places, who live without order. They live per se, but not for long, not without order. Thus their chances of seeing this letter are really thin, making it appropriate to assume that the person this reaches lives in a civilization with successful guidelines. After all, a civilization is fully dependent on an orderly structure with its rules and regulations.

This is what the me of yesteryear would have said.

From “Grandpa’s Stories” by Áron Antal:

– Ya know, you always remind me of the times when I was young, I looked much like you back then. Me and my friends went to Moscow when we were in fourth grade in secondary school. We went there by train and it took almost a week to go there and back. I enjoyed it so much. The underground metros, they were so huge; the ceiling was like fifteen meters high, you could fit a town into there, and those majestic statues… But the place where we stayed… That was a bit nasty.

– I know, grandpa, you told me these stories like a hundred times and….

– You see, the apartment was full of roaches, literally full. They were everywhere. One night we stayed up and slapped them with our slippers. We killed a few hundred, but the next day they were back, hehe…

– I came for meat, grandpa….

From “Danse Macabre” by Lilla Kassai:

Mrs. Mars walked out to the garden. It was her favourite place: the grass was dark green, and every morning it was glistening with water drops. Behind the house was an enormous rose arbor filled with black roses. She smiled every time she peeked at the big, fragrant flowers. She breathed in the air filled with the smell of the roses and sat herself down on the bank under the arbor. The bank was guarded by two gargoyles, which had been sculpted by her husband. Ivory stroked their heads, knowing that her beloved had worked on them from morning to night, to surprise her on her birthday. She wanted to be with him, feel his strong arms around her, while cuddling, listening to his heartbeat, and kissing him passionately.

These were her everyday thoughts, even on the thirty-first of October. The black roses and the deep purple petunias were no longer  blooming. It was autumn; nature was preparing for winter, The leaves of the trees turned brown, red and yellow, and started to fall from the branches. In the window of multiple houses, Jack-O-Lanterns appeared. It was Halloween, Mr. and Mrs. Mars’ favourite holiday. They loved to carve pumpkins together, and always awaited the kids with plenty of sweets and candies, but they never went trick-or-treating.

This is just a small sample; there is much more to be found.

The next issue will feature an international contest, open to secondary school students anywhere in the world. Hajrá!

Ride of Rides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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