This and That

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A beautiful, long vacation is coming to a close. I don’t remember when I last had such a stretch of time. It was a long time ago.

Yesterday I finished reading Sándor Márai’s novel Kassai őrjárat (Košice Patrol) in Hungarian. It’s the second novel I have read in Hungarian; the first was Krisztián Grecsó’s Vera, which took much longer. Kassai őrjárat, Márai’s meditation on his return to Košice a few weeks after the German invasion of Paris in 1940 (and a few months before Hungary joined the Axis powers), is both beautiful and perplexing, both prophetic and off the mark. It is clear that at this time he did not know what Germany was doing; he believed, or his narrator believed, that if writers and other artists lived up to their responsibility, and if European nations could both work together and retain their individual identity, Europe might enter a new and glorious phase. He saw the writers of his generation shrinking away from their importance; he saw pseudo-writers, concerned mostly with fame and career, filling the gap. He saw the decline of the book from a sacred object to a saleable item. But he did not see what was coming–or, probably, much of what was going on right then and there–in the war.

But even with the blind spots, it is an absorbing, moving book. Maybe the blind spots made it even more so. None of us sees everything that is going on at a particular time. At best, one of us might offer new information, perspectives, or synthesis. But anything any of us observes or reports is incomplete. The imagination fills in the rest, for better, for worse, or for a mixture.

Besides reading, writing, and translating, I have gone on many bike rides and evening runs. When I moved to Hungary in October 2017 (almost three years ago), I looked forward to getting on the bike and going wherever I wanted–on a long or short trip, on bike paths, regular roads, or other routes. In this I have not been disappointed. Today I biked out to Millér and then followed a dirt road for a long time. It was my first time on that particular dirt road.

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Another beautiful part of this summer has had to do with Shabbat. My own synagogue, Szim Salom, has been online throughout the pandemic; members have been taking turns leading services, and only twice a month have the rabbi and I led. But these occasions have been sweet and strong, even with all the technical difficulties. And I have attended B’nai Jeshurun and Shearith Israel online services as well. The time difference makes that a bit strange but no less lovely; on Friday I tuned in to B’nai Jeshurun at midnight (6 p.m. in NYC).

My Hungarian is still far from fluent (in the true sense of the word), but it made some leaps this summer. I think back to a year ago; the progress has been substantial. At that time, I understood a lot but could express myself only slowly and haltingly, with limited vocabulary. Now, in more and more situations, I can express myself and respond to others without hesitation.

The summer has also been filled with music; I listen to a lot at home and went to two concerts: one by two members of Platon Karataev, and the other, last Friday, by Marcell Bajnai. This Saturday evening I intend to go hear Marcell’s band Idea (formerly 1LIFE) in Budapest.

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There is much more to say about the summer and other things, more than I can bring up right now, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dominó and Sziszi, who have brought so much to these days. See them below. And now the season is turning, and I look forward to returning to school and picking up the tempo a bit.

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A Premise of Generosity

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It has taken me most of my life to understand that it’s not only reasonable but necessary to expect a basic generosity in everyday relationships. That is, I now expect that people will not condemn each other for a simple mistake, or look for fault in each other, or reject those with whom they disagree. This does not mean that everyone has to be friends or that people must surround themselves with “positivity.” You can have people around you who offer criticism at times, who go through their ups and downs, and who are not always there for you in a literal sense. But just as they have their own limits and imperfections, they will allow for limits and imperfections in others. Most important of all, they will let the relationship–be it a work relationship, friendship, family relationship, or romantic relationship–continue over the long term, unless it comes to a true impasse.

In my early adulthood, and here and there later on, I lived with intense fear that people would reject or leave me, especially people within my general age range. (I was much more confident, say, in my rapport with professors and teachers.) There were various sources of this fear, but there was a blind spot too. What I didn’t understand was that I could set a standard of basic generosity, both for others’ treatment of me and for my treatment of others. That is, if someone were to reject me out of hand, for a small mistake or for something in my personality, then that relationship would not meet the standard and did not deserve my focus anyway. This doesn’t mean that the other person was unworthy. Rather, the relationship was.

Rejections and fallouts will still happen, even with a premise of generosity. Some people do not click. Some are so persistent with their destructive habits that they drive others past their patience. But a basic generosity allows you to get to know a person, to tolerate a range of personalities and quirks, and to be tolerated as well. There is a mutuality to it.

How strange that, now that I understand this fully, I see us moving into a culture of condemnation: where a teenager’s college admission can be revoked because of an obnoxious tweet, where someone can lose a top editorial position for publishing a poem deemed offensive, where people dig up dirt from others’ pasts just to ruin their reputations, or, short of all of this, where people just assume and post the worst about each other. Why are people so eager to hurt each other and so sure of their justification for doing so?

Part of this has to do with a rejection of contradictions. People are not allowed to have internal conflicts; if their words and actions don’t all line up, they get blasted as hypocrites. But contradictions make people interesting. At times (not always), they go deeper than consistencies, since there are questions, uncertainties, and discrepancies that we wrestle with–or neglect to wrestle with–our entire lives. Sometimes there’s even a larger consistency holding the seeming inconsistency together.

This morning I finished a new translation of a poem by Gyula Jenei. It’s the sixteenth of his poems that I have translated so far. It tells the story of one afternoon in elementary school when the principal visits the class–the one and only time she does so. She’s a rather grotesque figure–short, pudgy, old, with lipstick smearing onto her front teeth–and she begins by asking the children a question and turning it into a silly pun with a consonant change. But even as the children smile, and then laugh, they sense, with slight anxiety, that the principal has the freedom to do whatever she pleases: she can joke, smile, yell, anything. Poem-time passes by; the narrator tells us that he later teases his children with the same joke, and the thoughts about this lead into a surprising ending. I don’t want to say more about it, because it is better as a poem, and I don’t want to quote it just yet. But I thought about the narrator’s perception in this poem: how he sees his changing roles in time, how the poem’s mild villain, the principal (not really a villain, but a little bit scary all the same), could be any of us.

That is the contradiction that people don’t want to accept: that each of us is capable of being–or perhaps already is–many of the things we fear and reject. Not across the board, but enough to give a person pause. And if I am those things, I can allow them in others too.

I took the photo in Budapest on Thursday evening. Also, I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

 

On Political Correctness

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Many Hungarians across the political spectrum dislike political correctness. For one thing, they had enough of it during the Soviet era; for another, they perceive it as a largely Western (mainly U.S.) creation. Most of all, they do not want to be forced to accept a set of political views or to speak in a certain way. While many stay out of politics altogether, they still want the flexibility to assess issues separately. Those who do believe in political correctness still take an independent approach to it.

Thus, for instance, there are Hungarians who support gay rights and transgender rights but are skeptical of gender fluidity and the new pronouns (Hungarian pronouns do not indicate gender, but Hungarians are aware of new pronouns in English); who support a generous immigration policy but also believe that immigrants should integrate into mainstream society; who oppose racism but hold a negative view of Roma people; or who criticize the current government but consider it an improvement over the Gyurcsány regime. There are many other variations and combinations–but what brings them together is a rejection of political correctness, of packages of views and beliefs.

As for politically correct language, many find it too constraining; they don’t want to be watching their words all the time or hesitating to tell jokes. Many have told me that Hungarians don’t generally take jokes and light insults all that personally, and that it would be a shame if they did. The ease of rough banter and teasing would be gone.

On the other hand, this ease is not always so easy. Bullying exists in Hungary, and many want to pay more attention to it. Along these lines, there are some who see justification for certain kinds of political correctness: for instance, those who recognize that certain words and phrases can hurt people and who do not want to participate in that injury. Or who see issues–and attitudes toward them–as interconnected and interdependent. But from what I have seen so far, many Hungarians do not want political correctness to take over their lives and speech (whether from the left or from the right).

Viktor Orbán is well aware of this; when he decries liberal political correctness, he knows that he is echoing a popular view. Some see his anti-PC rhetoric as a way of evading larger problems in the country. But he still portrays himself as a defender of the country against EU/liberal/Soros encroachments and impositions, including political correctness.

I find the general Hungarian resistance to political correctness refreshing. At the same time, I don’t think it’s fair of Orbán to treat it as a foreign imposition, given that he and his party, Fidesz, have their own version of it. Political correctness can occur anywhere; its terms and wielders change, but it reappears in different guises. Nor is every aspect of it bad; in some cases, it reflects a desire for consistency and unity. Its danger is that it shuts off expression, discussion, and questions and makes language terribly grim.

In the U.S., political correctness has reached an unhealthy extreme. For instance, in antiracism trainings hosted by the New York City Department of Education (and other school districts around the country), people are taught that “scientific, linear thinking” and “valuing the written word over other forms of communication” are “hallmarks of whiteness” and therefore oppressive. If you question this, you are supposedly “being fragile.” This is not a constructive way to tackle racism. When you divide personal and cultural traits among races, you reinforce racism instead of dismantling it. Racial differences exist, for historical and other reasons, but not in a deterministic way, and not in isolation.

At their most strident, the politically correct not only hold a predictable set of views (predictable at a given point in time–the combinations tend to change), but condemn those who disagree even slightly or who say things in an unacceptable way. Some views really are obnoxious, hateful, or dangerous. But a great many are simply different from what the politically correct have decided to deem acceptable.

The problem has to do with excessive certainty. Here everyone participates, not only the politically correct. All of us have situations where we act on unwarranted conclusions–when we cling to a judgment about a person, situation, or subject. The surety has its place and time, but it also needs to come down. When to be sure, and when to let go of the sureness? There is no final answer; all a person can do is keep on asking.

“Kol-make-nefesh bishgaga….”

Foster_Story_OTB_173_FleeingToTheCityOfRefuge Tomorrow, in Shabbat Torah service, we read Parashat Matot Mas’ei, which I always look forward to, particularly because of the cantillation of Numbers 35:5 (I discuss this verse in the fourth chapter of Mind over Memes). The verse has two trop symbols (and melodies), the yerach ben yomo and the karne parah, which occur nowhere else in the Torah. Beyond that, each of four instances of the phrase “alpayim baammah” (two thousand cubits) has a different trop melody, so that you hear glorious variety in the repetition. (You can listen to my recording of the verse here.) There have been many interpretations of this–but whatever its meanings, I love hearing and chanting it and am not alone in this. Last summer, this Shabbat (which fell in early August), I got to chant these verses at B’nai Jeshurun. A fellow leyner (chanter of Torah), Sharon Anstey, came up to me afterwards to talk about that very verse and trop, and she mentioned it later in a beautiful piece for the High Holidays.

But today my mind and ear is on a different part of the parsha. Verses 9 through 15 give instructions for the appointment of cities of refuge for all those manslayers who killed someone by accident (“kol-make-nefesh bishgaga”). The occurrence of this phrase in verse 15 stands out in a Torah reading, because it comes at the end of an aliya and therefore has the “sof aliya” melodic phrase and a deceleration. It rings in my ear like jubilation and warning: “kol-make-nefesh bishgaga.” The idea is that those who killed in error, or who may have killed in error, should have a place of refuge until they can be judged by the congregation. Without this, people would just be killing each other back and forth in revenge, and mistakes would be treated the same as intentional crimes. “Bishgaga” means not only “by mistake” but “unawares.” In Judaism, those who commit sins unawares are still responsible, but in a different way from those who commit them by intent. The distinction is of great importance; sins and mistakes are not all treated as equivalent.

One of the great problems of today’s culture of online accusation is its outrage over missteps, even unintended ones. People do not have a place of refuge; they do not get to wait for a fair trial. Reactivity is the norm. I don’t have a Twitter account; I am not at all attracted to what goes on there. But Twitter is not a separate sphere; tweets have now become part of everyday reality. They get quoted in the news. They might be brought up and used against someone years after the fact.

If there is one thing I wish for the world around me, it is discernment: distinguishing one situation from another, allowing enough time to assemble the facts, granting everyone fair judgment, and giving a refuge, even within ourselves, for mistakes and unclear situations. The internal city of refuge may be the most important of all: a solitude for sorting out thoughts and actions, a place to go in the mind.

 

Art credit: Fleeing to the City of Refuge (Numbers 35:11-28). From Charles Foster, The Story of the Bible, 1884.

 

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” has just been published online in Harper’s. It will also appear in the Letters section of the October issue. I consider the contents both urgent and enduring; I am honored to be one of the signers, along with many people I respect and admire (as well as people I disagree with on many issues and people whose work I don’t know).  Please read it carefully and share it widely.

I rarely sign group letters or petitions, but the letter strongly reflected my thoughts and observations, and I saw a need for a statement of this kind–against the recent climate of intolerance and in favor of “a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.”

It is difficult to single out one part of the letter as more important than the rest. But this deserves close attention: “We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”

The difference here lies between disagreeing with someone–even vociferously–and demanding that the person be fired, shamed, denied publication, etc.

The responses have been telling–an outpouring of support, some thoughtful criticism, and a number of ad hominem attacks. Jennifer Schuessler and Elizabeth A. Harris wrote an excellent article about the letter for The New York Times. There are many interesting comments, including this from James in San Diego:

It’s widely recognized that this “intolerant” way of thinking is somehow related to the type of speech that takes place on the internet, but the exact relationship remains mysterious, usually waved away with a passing reference to the dreaded Echo Chambers, which are actually just some lovely caves.

But it’s more related to the dominance of advertising on the internet. Before advertising was ubiquitous on the web, netizens were actually quite tolerant. And it’s also not really about “tolerance,” at least not in any causal way.

It’s more about the order of mental operations that advertising requires. Advertising requires you to set your judgments first, THEN absorb information. So articles’ headlines (basically small ads) need you to find the topic interesting, shocking, appalling, or heartwarming BEFORE you’ve read about it. If you wait until after learning the details of something to start forming a judgment about it, advertising has failed.

And the habit sticks. People now EXPECT to be able to draw conclusions about things before starting to understand them, and so they organize the data in a way that facilitates this, by highlighting and foregrounding “easy discriminator” elements, which might be rhetorical, contextual, or personal.

But ads rarely lead to new heights, and the way of thinking they inspire militates against intellectual growth or ascent to the unknown.

I don’t know whether James is right about the influence of advertising culture–I would say that the trend toward rushed opinions comes from several sources, including a few education trends–but many of his observations ring true. There’s now an expectation that we form opinions before actually learning about an issue. The contexts range from satisfaction surveys to dating to political discussion.

In addition, opinions have become like badges. Display the right ones, and you’re fine, until someone calls you out as fake; display the wrong ones, and you’re an elitist fearfully clinging to a dwindling demesne, or simply a terrible person. Don’t display any at all, and you’re defective at best.

I hope the letter will bring some needed questioning and challenge into the air. It is already beginning to do so.

I added considerably to this piece after posting it.

Respect for What Is Other and Different

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Since the killing of George Floyd by police officers–just one of a long line of incidents of police violence against black people–the public has come to recognize the need for profound changes. Not only the Black Lives Matter protests, but countless formal and informal discussions have taken up the topic around the clock. Yet within the drive for racial justice, an injustice is taking hold. People are being shamed, canceled, driven out of their jobs–for saying the wrong thing, saying the right thing but not strongly enough, or saying the right thing, strongly enough, but not coupling it with immediate and acceptable action. Such shaming hurts not only the individuals involved (including the shamers, who bring out the worst in themselves), not only democracy, language, and human dignity (a handful already), but even the protests. There will be no real progress against racism in America if people cannot participate with integrity, if they cannot speak their minds, doubts, and feelings, if they cannot hear others out. Instead there will be heartbreak as the movement fails not only the larger public, but its own participants and supporters.

On June 6, Mayor Jacob Frey was booed out of a protest rally in Minneapolis because he stated–upon being questioned repeatedly–that he did not support the full abolition of the police. You can watch the exchange here.

Another video suggests that many members of the crowd were not booing him but rather letting him pass through. If this is accurate, the booing does not represent the whole, but still drowns out everything else.

For the sake of what? Mayor Frey had already said that systemic change was needed. The woman with the microphone pressed him further by asking him repeatedly whether he supported defunding the police. What does that even mean? The Minneapolis City Council has since vowed to dismantle the police force, but no one knows what the end result will look like. In other words, a mayor was driven out of a rally–which he had come out to support–for the sake of something unknown.

The ganging up on perceived enemies has affected not only politics, but medicine, poetry, theater, art, science, sports, and other spheres. It is not exclusive to the left. Health workers and officials have been pushed out of their jobs and subjected to harassment and death threats by groups protesting coronavirus protection measures–groups that regard the coronavirus as a hoax perpetrated by Jews, for instance. According to The New York Times, Dr. Amy Acton, the state health director of Ohio, dealt with “anti-Semitic attacks and demonstrations by armed protesters on her front lawn,”. While widely different in political orientation and aim, groups from the right and left punish those who do not meet their demands exactly. Whether Trump sets an example here or follows an existing trend, he displays a similar tendency in his tweets to all the world.

Back to the left, or a segment of it. A letter to the Poetry Foundation–presented by thirty individuals, most of them Poetry Foundation Fellows, and signed by over 1,800 individuals–demanded that the Foundation replace its president, take specific action to eradicate racism and other discrimination, acknowledge the harm it has committed already, move toward redistributing its funds, and more. All signatories pledged not to work with the Poetry Foundation until the demands had been met “to a substantial degree.” The president, Henry Bienen, has already stepped down. The letter came in response to the organization’s antiracism statement, issued on June 3, which was not deemed strong enough:

The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine stand in solidarity with the Black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism.

As an organization we recognize that there is much work to be done, and we are committed to engaging in this work to eradicate institutional racism. We acknowledge that real change takes time and dedication, and we are committed to making this a priority.

We believe in the strength and power of poetry to uplift in times of despair, and to empower and amplify the voices of this time, this moment.

The Guggenheim Museum and other museums, theaters all over the country, and other institutions are being told to espouse certain values, statements, and actions or face consequences. Those who delay in doing so are named on lists; those who comply are often suspected of not meaning it. A public Google spreadsheet, titled “Theaters Not Speaking Out” and open for anyone to edit, lists 486 theaters as of this writing. According to the Los Angeles Times:

More disturbing than the slowness to speak out, [Marie] Cisco said, was the language of the statements themselves, many of which fell back on pledges of support without acknowledgement of the historical diversity problem in theater or commitments to take concrete steps to support black artists.

As theaters posted statements to social media and emailed them to their supporters and the press, Cisco and her crowd-sourced contributors recorded when each company’s message went public, whether it cited Black Lives Matter specifically and whether the institution had donated to the cause or pledged “actionable commitments,” among other criteria.

Beyond the arts, countless corporations are churning out antiracism statements–and it is no surprise that some of them ring hollow. In a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” environment, many probably figure that they can mitigate their damnation somewhat with a consultant-crafted mission statement.

I think back on the words of O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain.” As the tactics of shaming and demanding become a way of life, so does the damage. The tactics hurt much more than the targeted individuals and institutions.

First of all, they hurt democracy. If, to be treated as an acceptable human being or institution, one must adopt a prescribed line and course of action, then there can be no exchange of views. Without an exchange of views, there is no democracy. We have already seen this, in different form, with Trump’s long series of purges. Democracy depends on a plurality of opinions–an opportunity to discuss, deliberate, and decide. It also depends on a mixture of priorities. Social justice–as usually conceived–is not the only kind of justice worth fighting for, nor can it stand alone.  To be viable, it must consider and combine with other justices, including justice within an individual, justice between two, and public justice.

Second, these tactics hurt language. If those making the demands reject all criticism and challenges, they lose a chance to exercise imagination and logic. In a bizarre Rolling Stone article, EJ Dickson argues that Olivia Benson, a police officer in the TV show Law and Order, (that’s right, a fictional character) should be canceled because she appears as a good cop and could therefore confuse viewers about the true nature of the police force. What, should Marge Gunderson be canceled too for her smarts and tough charm? Should fictional characters from other professions–teachers, mayors, doctors, priests–be nixed as well, while we’re at it? And what price will the mind pay for this? How can anyone “reimagine” the police, for instance, if we are not supposed to imagine in the first place? (Not to mention that literature would disappear.)

Third, these tactics hurt human dignity–the presence, in each person, of something that goes beyond measure, beyond others’ knowledge. If people are so sure of their assessments of others, so quick to name enemies of the cause, then anyone, at any moment, can be flattened to enemy status; not only that, but the flattening will become a way of life and thought. The “I-Thou” relation as described by Martin Buber and referenced in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” becomes a thing of the past, a relic in an antique shop.

Fourth, these tactics hurt the Black Lives Matter protests themselves–not only over the longer term, but now. To accomplish something durable, protesters must be willing to work and speak with a range of people, including those who disagree with them on some points, express ideas differently, or have different priorities. Through such work, the protest efforts can grow and strengthen over time. But just within the coming months, the protesters’ conduct will influence the outcome of the election in swing states. Setting a principled example, showing regard for others, the protesters can help the country overcome Trump (along with his effects and affects) and move toward a saner and kinder world.

The alternative–the extreme self-righteousness, the thronged castigation of dissenters–will dishonor the protests, harm decent people, and destroy the very things worth fighting for.

Painting: Marc Chagall, The Revolution (1937). “I think the Revolution could be a great thing if it retained its respect for what is other and different,” Chagall had written in My Life (1923).

Correction: The Minneapolis rally mentioned here took place on June 6, not June 7.

Update: See “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published online in Harper’s on July 7. It will also appear in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue.

Meet Sisi/Sziszi (also known as Füsti)

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Yesterday I went on an expedition to the twenty-third district of Budapest to pick up Sziszi, the kitten I was to adopt. Why go so far? I had tried twice to adopt a local cat or kitten, but each time, I called or wrote too late; the cat had already found a home. When I saw Füsti’s pictures and found that she was still waiting for a home, I knew the distance did not matter. I could get there and bring her back.

I named her Sisi after Queen Elisabeth (Sisi, spelled Sziszi in Hungarian), Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, who went to masquerades and wrote poems singing of her fictional adventures there. One of the poems, “A sárga dominó dala” (“Song of the Yellow Domino”) has these lines:

Az arcomat fedte az éjszinü maszk.
– De rég volt, de rég volt, de rég! –
A lelkemet nem fedte, láttad te azt!
– És hidd el, az többet is ért! –

My translation (with liberties taken for rhythm and rhyme):

A night-colored mask enshrouded my face.
– But long ago, long, long ago!
My soul it left bared, you were witness to this!
– And that was worth more, you should know! –

Sisi the kitten looks like she is wearing a mask–but a white one or a black one? Either way is possible.

Sisi also appears in Gyula Jenei’s poem “Olló” (“Scissors”), my translation of which will appear in The Massachusetts Review sometime in the coming year. (The quote below is as the text appears in Jenei’s 2018 collection Mindig Más; a slightly different version can be found here.)

vonásaikat már nem lehet rendesen kivenni,
egyébként is aprók a portrék, de nagyanyám állítja,
hogy az ferenc józsef és sziszi. ő persze erzsébet
királynénak fogja mondani, s a félszárú pápaszem
mögül elnézi nagyon öreg szemével a megkopott
vonású fejeket, amiket még tovább koptatok,
ahányszor smirglivel kifényesítem őket.

Back to the kitten. When I arrived to pick her up, the whole family was standing outside and waiting for me: the two parents, the two boys, the little girl, who was holding Füsti (“Smokey”), and the dog, who ran to greet me. The girl was crestfallen about giving up the kitten. The mother cat had had seven little ones, and Füsti was the last to be given away. (The family kept the mom, who was recovering from her spaying operation.)

They asked me to send them pictures; I did so last night and will send them more. Because they were so kind, and because the little girl was so sad to lose her, Sisi is keeping the name Füsti too. She will be Sziszi Füsti, or whichever name I call her at a given moment.

At first she meowed in the cat carrier, but on the train ride home, she settled down and started playing with the toys. She slept a bit too.

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When we got home, she immediately started exploring–running here and there, hiding, darting out of hiding and running back again. Then the temptation to play grew too much for her, and we played for a long time.

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Then she flopped down on the rug and slept.

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But that was only the beginning. By nighttime, she had discovered the bed, decided that she liked it, and revealed her cuddly, purring side. Now she is completely at ease. She jumps and leaps around, then curls up and basks in the quiet. She loves it when I cuddle with her. She has figured out everything in the apartment: she knows where her food is, where the litter box is (and, fortunately, how to use it), where the toys are, where the comfortable places are, and where to find me. She knows how to stretch out and curl up, how to wiggle her paws. Tomorrow her cat tree will arrive; once she can climb to the top, she will be able to look out the window. (Update: it is here.)

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How does a little kitten know how to do all of this? How did she make herself at home so quickly? I think she had a great start in her original home–but I think cats also have a sense of home in their souls, especially if they are born into a home and not on the street. Each cat does this in a different way, and in changing ways over time, but they get to know a place, run and leap in it, and fall asleep in it too. I think of the ending of Edward Hirch’s “Wild Gratitude” (and of the beginning, too, and the middle):

And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise—purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

Bike Rides and Their Layers

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One thing I love about long bike rides is that they allow me to think without interference. I can sift through many things over those hours. Another thing I love is the discovery: exploring towns and countryside, taking detours here and there. A third is the return: coming to know a place better through visiting it again and again. Then these three things start to play with each other in counterpoint: the thinking, exploring, and return, so that the bike ride becomes a kind of music.

Music! someone might say. What are you doing talking about music? There’s no time for that. You should be out on the streets protesting.

But music is not an escape. It is protest of its own kind. It demands and allows truth.

I stayed in Vajdácska, at the bed-and-breakfast I have visited four times now, in four consecutive years. The owners are welcoming, the food is delicious, and the place is lovely and full of original touches. The photo at the top was the view from my window. Here, below, is a view from about 300 meters away. (The church on the left is Hungarian Greek Catholic; the one on the right, Protestant.)

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In 2017, when I first visited, I biked around the surrounding towns and villages. In 2018 and 2019, I bicycled up to Kassa (Košice) and took a train back; this time, I biked to Tokaj and back. Tokaj is famous for its wines, especially sweet white wine–but it is the dry Furmint that especially appeals to me.  Anyway, I had more than one reason for going to Tokaj: I wanted to stay within Hungary, see Tokaj itself, see what this southbound route was like, and start figuring out a future bike trip–about two and a half days long–from Szolnok to Vajdácska.

But this bike ride took me beyond what I had expected. In Vámosújfalu, I noticed that every house had a well next to it. That is, everyone drew their own water. The next village, Olaszliszka, had something magical about it, but I didn’t start to understand it until the way back. Then in Szegilong there were storks in nests, one after another, all of them feeding their young. (There had been storks before, but this was the first time that I saw them in a row.)

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As I drew closer to Tokaj, I started seeing wineries and vineyards, one after another.

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Then Tokaj itself–a place where you were invited to take a rest and enjoy yourself. A statue of Bacchus, by the sculptor Péter Szanyi, sets the mood in the town square. (Tokaj legends include a cult of Bacchus, thanks in part to the Jesuit teacher and poet Imre Marotti.)

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I had some goulash at the Bacchus Restaurant, then visited a wine cellar (the Borostyán Pince, over 350 years old), where I bought some Furmint and talked for a while with the owner, who showed me the currency he had received from visitors from around the world and asked me many questions about how I ended up coming to Hungary to live and teach. (All the conversations on this trip were in Hungarian.)

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So far, this sounds more or less like a typical tourist trip, or tourist bike trip. But I had been noticing some other things too. When I entered Tokaj, I passed by a large Jewish cemetery, larger than the one in Sátoraljaújhely. It was closed, so I just looked at it for a few minutes. (To take this picture, I passed my hands through the gate.)

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On the way back, I was thinking about how some of the villages were entirely inhabited by Roma people (“Gypsies”), others by white Hungarians, others by both. I thought about how each village had its own history–sometimes a violent history–of ethnic conflict. I didn’t know anything yet about Olaszliszka, but on the way back, I took a little more time to look at it. It seemed to be all Roma–I saw children playing in the streets, parents pushing their babies in strollers, teenagers chatting outside a corner store. I saw medieval ruins overgrown with greenery.

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I saw a sign pointing the way to a Jewish synagogue and cemetery–and biked in that direction but found nothing. Later I learned that this was a famous center of Hungarian Hasidism–where the first Lisker Rebbe, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Friedman, lived. The village apparently still has a memorial synagogue site.

The village was also the site of a murder in 2006, which became part of the subject of a play by Szilárd Borbély. A white Hungarian biology teacher, Lajos Szögi, was driving through with his two daughters when his car hit a little Roma girl, who fell down but was unharmed. The family attacked the man and beat him to death in front of his daughters. The father of the little girl later received a life sentence; all the others involved received stiff punishments. There have been some discussions of why this happened, but for many, the incident confirmed existing prejudice and hatred. (There has been repeated violence against Roma people too.)

A village like this keeps everything secret and tells all. Knowing nothing of this yet, I stopped to listen to the swooping birds. I hope to go back and see more, including the synagogue memorial.

Before and after, I was thinking about the U.S., about police violence, about the protests. I support the protests in that they call out truths and necessities. I do not stand with protesters who shame and debase people who disagree with them even in part (for instance, those who booed and shamed Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis when he said that he did not support abolishing the police force). This leads to no good; it alienates some possible allies and coerces others into false agreement. It makes deliberation impossible.

On the other hand, protests need their fire. Many protesters are understandably tired of moderate arguments; too often moderation has squirmed away from its promises.

The next day, on my way to the Sárospatak train station, I passed by a rose garden. It was beautiful, so I stopped. The gardener saw me and cut a rose for me. I thanked him and headed on. Then I turned back and asked him if he would take a picture. He obliged. (There is much more to say about Sárospatak, and far more to learn.)

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I wondered, throughout the trip, whether my own uncertainty (over politics and many other things) was a sign of strength or weakness. I don’t think I can answer that yet (or maybe ever). But for better or worse, uncertainty is part of what I do, what I have to offer. I know that I don’t know the entirety of another person, a country, myself, or a crumbling building. But I want to come back and learn more.

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

Wending Its Way to Readers

mindovermemesWhen you write a book, there’s great excitement and anticipation around its publication. Who will read it? How will they respond to it? Then come the book events. Then the reviews–maybe many, maybe few. A few responses from friends. Then a few interviews. Then the wait. Sometimes a long silence.

My book events–in Dallas, Budapest, Szolnok, and New York–were dreamy and lively. I couldn’t have wished for better. They come back as happy memories. The responsible reviews were encouraging too. (A few Goodreads reviews were irresponsible in that their authors showed no signs of having read the book or knowing what it was about.) But overall, the book went under the radar.

People have so much to read, they are so bombarded with stuff, that they don’t rush to read your book unless they have a particular interest in it or have been hearing about it from everyone. That is why so many publishers and publicists compete to create “buzz” around a book even before it is published.

My book opposes buzz, though; that’s part of its point. It is about thinking carefully about what you want to say and saying it on your own terms, in your own time. It is about questioning those catchwords and phrases–“the team,” “creativity,” “the good fit,” “toxic people,” and others–that do so much damage when thrown about carelessly.  It is about recognizing that we don’t have the last word about the people around us, the ways to lead life, or the meaning of a text.

So it was a delight to be interviewed by Marci Mazzarotto at the New Books Network. She is an Assistant Professor of Digital Communication at Georgian Court University in New Jersey. We had an unrushed, enjoyable conversation about the book and its ideas. The podcast appeared online today.

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A good interview brings out some new aspect of a book or author, or at least something that hasn’t been emphasized yet. In this case, we talked about the presence or absence of empathy in language. For instance, when people write others off as “toxic,” they often haven’t taken the trouble to speak with them, learn who they are, or address the particular problem at hand. To call someone “toxic” is to say, “I don’t have to bother with you.”

Empathy is a tricky matter. It can bring its own illusions. But as a rejection of over-certainty about others, it is good. As an acknowledgment that others cannot be summed up, that they have lives and thoughts of their own, it can help us out of many errors.

The book was written well before COVID-19 appeared, but today I notice various ways of writing off the disease–not by calling it or its victims “toxic,” but by somehow describing those affected in a way that separates them. It’s tempting to believe that the virus comes just to the old, the sick, the faraway–as though anyone could escape any of those states with just a bit of willpower. It is easy to trick yourself into this kind of thinking, even in mild forms, until you know someone who has been ill.

When I reread the book now, I see that it says important things that hold up over time. There are a few superfluous sentences and phrases that I would cut today, but they don’t overwhelm the text. In any case, it is wending its way to readers, and I have thoughts for the next book.

The First Issue of Folyosó

folyoso coverIt is my joy to announce the first issue of Folyosó, an online literary journal by students of the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary! This first issue is entirely in English (except for a handful of words); this means that the authors are writing not in their native language, but in a language they have been learning at school and on their own. Later this year, Folyosó will become bilingual (English and Hungarian), with a section dedicated to translation. In 2021 it will be open to submissions from high school students around the world.

This inaugural issue features students’ fiction, nonfiction, and art (including Lilla Kassai’s painting “The Lonely Castle,” which is also the cover art), a “high-stakes test,” and an interview with Dániel Lipcsei, a folk dancer currently in the eleventh grade at Varga. One story has a teenager behind the wheel of a tractor on a hot day; another shows a woman spying on her neighbor. One is told by a narrator who has taken up miniature-building; another, by the footman from Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose.” Students grapple with current and ongoing questions, ranging from the future of the coronavirus pandemic to the nature of envy.

We wish you fruitful reading. Please feel free to leave a comment on the comments page. Here’s to the arts, here’s to languages, here’s to good health for all, and here’s to Folyosó!

Update: SzolnokTV interviewed us about the journal. I added the video here.