“Such Things Do Happen in the World”: The Story of a Nose

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An extraordinarily strange thing happened in St. Petersburg on 25 March. Ivan Yakovlevich, a barber who lived on Voznesensky Avenue (his surname has got lost and all that his shop-front signboard shows is a gentleman with a lathered cheek and the inscription ‘We alse let blood’), woke up rather early one morning and smelt hot bread. As he sat up in bed he saw his wife, who was a quite respectable lady and a great coffee-drinker, taking some freshly baked rolls out of the oven.

–Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose,” tr. Ronald Wilks

Long ago, in September 1992, I got myself a bass and joined a band, the Dogsmen. I was studying Russian literature in grad school at Yale, but this particular year I was on leave, since I had received a fellowship to teach Russian part-time at Trinity College in Hartford. I had written some songs previously for guitar and voice, but my newer songs began with a bass line. The first of these was “The Nose,” based on Nikolai Gogol’s story, one of my favorite stories in the world. I wrote the song one afternoon, recorded it with a boombox, and sent the tape to the Breeders, a band I loved and still love. I explained in my letter that the song was a tribute to them.

What was it about the Breeders? I was thinking today about how rock bands tend toward one of two attitudes: “Rock is God” and “Rock is all of us.” Most have a mixture of the two, but you can usually sense a leaning. The “Rock is God” musicians create music that is larger than life–big, dramatic, overpowering. They wear makeup, have stage effects, jump from heights. The “Rock is all of us” musicians may also believe that rock is God, but they understate the matter. They perform in everyday clothes, sing about everyday things (with a twist or two), and hint that you could do this too–after all, they themselves just learned to play last week.

All of this requires illusion. Rock isn’t God; rock musicians are not priests of God. They’re extremely fallible and often messed up. Nor is rock all of us; the understated musicians are still doing something that few others could do. So it was with the Breeders. There was something tantalizingly close about their music, dangling there just barely out of reach. It touched my soul in a down-to-earth and just-over-the-buildings way. Also, while their music seems technically simple, it’s ridiculously hard to emulate. Kim Deal and her bandmates know what sound they are going for and how to achieve it. It is not easy to create that sound. That, and their songs have a wonderful mix of sarcasm and sweetness, sanity and weirdness, tune and distortion, tightness and mess, all-out joy and pain.

But I wasn’t thinking of any of this when I wrote “The Nose.” I thought of it as a tribute not because it sounded like them, not because the lyrics were at all like theirs, but because it expressed in some way how I understood them. I also thought they’d appreciate Gogol’s story; at one point I gave them the book.

The song translates Gogol’s story into a few frames, and the frames into simple, silly music. The lyrics go (I have omitted most of the repetitions here),

Verse 1
“You’re my nose, you belong right on my face, so don’t be such a such a such a fake!”

Verse 2
“You’ve got it wrong”–he said right back to me. “I’m not your nose”–he said it so smugly. “I’m on my own, and in good company, so get out of this church and let me pray!”

Verse 3 (the Nose speaking)
“I can’t go on in this hostile city, I need a home, your face looks good to me, so I’ll climb on, and live there comfortably, and shake and shake and shake and shake all day….”

Coda (the Narrator speaking)
“Who knows who knows you might be someone’s nose….”

One of the song’s greatest glories came when my band performed a full show at my mom and Stan’s place, during a family reunion (in November 1992, I think). For this song, my sister, Jenna, my aunts Norma (R.I.P.) and Jeanne, and my cousins Ruth and Ben joined as backup singers and dancers. Thanks to my uncle Dan for the video. The Dogsmen were Jon Holland (vocals, guitar), Fabian Esponda (drums), and me (vocals, bass).

Some months later (in December 1993, I think), I was visiting my mother and Stan. I checked my New Haven messages remotely (we used answering machines back then) and heard, to my astonishment, a message from Kelley Deal of the Breeders. She said she had a very important question for me. I didn’t have her number, so I rerecorded my answering machine message with the number where I could be reached, hoping she would try again. She heard the message and called me at my mom’s.

It turned out that they had really liked my song; their bassist, Josephine Wiggs, especially liked it and wanted to use some of the lyrics in a song of her own (that they would record and perform). Kelley wanted to know if I gave permission for this; if so, the record company’s legal representative would send me forms to sign. They would credit me and everything. (They were true to their word; I received and signed the forms, the EP has the credit, and they announced it at lots of shows as well.)

How Nose-like is that? In Gogol’s story, a nose appears in Ivan Yakovlevich’s breakfast roll (and disappears from Major Kovalev’s face); here, a few lyrics migrated from “The Nose” to the Breeders’ song “Head to Toe.” Specifically, some of the words from the third verse, “Your face looks good to me, so I’ll climb on [and live there] comfortably” became the refrain of “Head to Toe.” And what a song!

Josephine Wiggs’s own version is hauntingly lovely.

Gogol’s story ends (in Ronald Wilks’s translation):

But the strangest, most incredible thing of all is that authors should write about such things. That, I confess, is beyond my comprehension. It’s just…no, no, I don’t understand it at all! Firstly, it’s no use to the country whatsoever; secondly, it’s no use…I simply don’t know what one can make of it…However, when all is said and done, one can concede this point or the other and perhaps you can even find…well then you won’t find much that isn’t on the absurd side, will you?

And yet, if you stop to think for a moment, there’s a grain of truth in it. Whatever you may say, these things do happen—rarely, I admit, but they do happen.

I would translate the last sentence as “Whatever anyone may say, such things do happen in the world–rarely, but they happen.”

Yes, they happen! They’re staggeringly unlikely, yet they makes sense. The worlds of a Russian lit grad student and a rock band came together through a song, a story, and a few words that hit home. And the nose ran off and turned up again. And I reread the story many, many times, and eventually finished my Ph.D. dissertation, which was on Gogol.

But if you think this was the end of it, no, the nose keeps coming back. Years later, Shostakovich’s opera “The Nose” was performed at the Met, and my mom gave me a ticket for my birthday. I loved the performance and bought a little souvenir, a nose pencil sharpener. This was my favorite desk adornment when I taught at Columbia Secondary School.

But one day that nose went missing, along with an “art eraser.” A fitting occurrence–another nose-flight–but I determined, like Kovalev, to track my nose down. I sent out an email to students, asking whether they had seen these valuable items. I got a reply from a parent. I didn’t save it, but it read approximately, “Incredibly, we happen to have a nose pencil sharpener. Will you accept it from us?” This nose (unlike mine) was slightly caked with some gunky stuff; I decided to keep it that way, for the memory. I even brought it to Hungary. In case it has any plans to run away again, I reminded it sternly just now, “You’re my nose!”

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The quotes from Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose” are courtesy of Gogol, Diary of a Madman, and Other Stories, translated by Ronald Wilks (New York: Penguin, 1987).

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

A Great Lecture and Bike Ride

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This evening I bicycled to Szandaszőlős, a suburb of Szolnok, to hear Zsolt Bajnai speak about Szolnok between the world wars. When crossing the Tisza, I stopped to look at the Tiszavirág Bridge, which looked ghostly in the distance. The bike path went along the road, for the most part; but when crossing Route 4, it dipped downhill and passed through three tunnels.IMG_0827
Soon I arrived at Szandaszőlős and was amazed by the majestic houses. I might have been to Szandaszőlős before, but not to this part. (The building on the left is the confectionery, the “cukrászda”; the one on the right is someone’s house, I think.)

Finally I made it to the House of Culture and to the lecture. It was great. I learned about various buildings, sculptures, and other landmarks, including the old bridge (which was bombed in World War II), the boys’ school, the girls’ school, the Tisza Hotel (and the unfulfilled plans to expand it), the beach on the banks of the Tisza, the stores in the Town Hall, the Nerfeld-palota, and much more.

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The return trip was much quicker than the trip out there, since by then I knew the way. I rode back the way I came, through Szandaszőlős, through the tunnels, along the bike path, across the Tisza, then along the Zagyva and back home. Here is a backward look along the Zagyva. A good end to the day.

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“And he said….” (pause)

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Jewish life in Budapest is evolving in exciting ways. The two Reform congregations, Szim Salom and Bét Orim, are working out a schedule of joint services, which officially began this Shabbat. It isn’t clear exactly what shape this will take in the future, but it’s off to a good start. Because of this change, at least for now I will no longer lead services on Friday evenings; instead, I will focus on Saturday mornings (on alternate Shabbatot). That means I don’t stay overnight in Budapest on Friday night; instead, I take the train in on Saturday morning. It worked well; I like this new arrangement because it gives me just a little more time to practice my leyning, and because I can sleep at home. Also, it reminds me of the BJ (B’nai Jeshurun) days in some ways; in New York City I was a Saturday morning regular, but I only occasionally went to services on Friday evenings. It was important to me to have some quiet time at home. For me, Saturday was when it all came together: the beautiful liturgy, the Torah reading, the Haftarah, and everything else. Yesterday was like that. In addition, Szim Salom has a shiur, a Torah study, after the Shacharit service on Saturday; I always stay for that and enjoy being part of it.

As I discussed in a recent post, the Mazsihisz’s (Federation of Jewish Communities) has deliberated over the possibility of recognizing the Reform communities. So far, the Mazsihisz has voted against this, but the discussions are ongoing.

But I came here to bring up something interesting from the Torah reading and leyning. Israel (Jacob) is on his deathbed, and he tells Jacob that he wishes to be buried not in Egypt, but where his forefathers are buried. And Joseph answers that he will do as his father has said. This is in the second half of Genesis 47:30: וַיֹּאמַר, אָנֹכִי אֶעֱשֶׂה כִדְבָרֶךָ. “And he said: ‘I will do as thou hast said.'”

The word “vayomar” (“and he said”) is in pausal form (the regular form is “vayomer”). The cantillation phrase is a zakef gadol, which typically accompanies a word that constitutes a phrase on its own. It is a medium-level disjunctive; there is a slight pause after it.

Just a few verses later, in Genesis 48:2, there’s another zakef gadol, but this time with “vayomer” instead of “vayomar.” וַיַּגֵּד לְיַעֲקֹב–וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה בִּנְךָ יוֹסֵף בָּא אֵלֶיךָ; וַיִּתְחַזֵּק, יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֵּשֶׁב, עַל-הַמִּטָּה. “And one told Jacob, and said: ‘Behold, thy son Joseph cometh unto thee.’ And Israel strengthened himself, and sat upon the bed.” Why is “vayomer” in the non-pausal form here, when it seems to have an equivalent place grammatically to the previous one?

Then, a few verses later, in Genesis 48:9, there’s a zakef gadol again, this time with “vayomar” again! וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף, אֶל-אָבִיו, בָּנַי הֵם, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן-לִי אֱלֹהִים בָּזֶה; וַיֹּאמַר, קָחֶם-נָא אֵלַי וַאֲבָרְכֵם. “And Joseph said unto his father: ‘They are my sons, whom God hath given me here.’ And he said: ‘Bring them, I pray thee, unto me, and I will bless them.'”

What is the difference between the two instances of “vayomar” and the one instance of “vayomer,” given that they have the same cantillation phrase and therefore (more or less) the same grammatical and syntactic function? I looked all over for answers but found nothing specific. I see two possibilities here. First, both instances of “vayomar” indicate a response to another person: Joseph responding to Jacob, and Jacob responding to Joseph. The word is separated from what precedes it as well as what follows it. In both cases, the cantillation phrase that precedes it is an etnachta, which separates the two halves of the verse.  “Vayomer,” in contrast, continues the idea of “vayaged,” “told.” It isn’t separated as strongly from what precedes it (melodically, a zakef katon).

Another (related) possibility is that both instances of “vayomar” are moments of great emotion: Joseph promising to bury Jacob with his forefathers, and Joseph asking to see his grandsons. The instance of “vayomer” is not as emotionally charged. This is connected with the previous points in that the emotion is a response to what was said before. I can imagine a pause both before and after “vayomar”–slightly longer than the pause before and after “vayomer.” Pauses in cantillation can be extremely subtle; only the most advanced readers know just how long to pause.

The difference in sound between “vayomar” and “vayomer” is not just that of one vowel; in “vayomar,” the last syllable is stressed, whereas in “vayomer,” it’s the second syllable. I don’t know how often “vayomar” occurs in Torah with a zakef gadol, but there’s something arresting about it. For these verses, you can hear the first “vayomar” here, the “vayomer” here, and the second “vayomar” here. (These recordings are by Hazzan Robert Menes, former cantor of Beth Shalom in Kansas City.)

These fine distinctions–who notices them? Some people spot them right away; when I was in New York City last summer and read Torah at B’nai Jeshurun, Sharon Anstey, a fellow congregant and Torah reader (and an extraordinarily dedicated BJ member) noticed the special trop (cantillation melody), the karne parah, which occurs only once in the Torah. She even mentioned it in a beautiful piece she wrote.

But people at other levels of knowledge pick up on the trop as well. I remember when I first heard a shalshelet and had no idea what it was. After the service, I ran up to Shoshi, then the cantorial intern, and asked, “What was that I heard?” She told me, and added that the young woman who had read that Torah portion loved the shalshelet so much that she had a pendant in its shape (it looks like a zigzag, a lightning bolt). Later I wrote to a cantor about this experience, and he sent me an article about the shalshelet.

And even without that kind of awareness, even without knowledge of Hebrew or cantillation, we pick up on the phrasings and cadences that we hear. It is possible to be moved by a text without even understanding the words–not because the reader chanted it with emotion, though that might also be true, but because the very rhythms and cadences of the words convey something. Over time, meanings start to come through, then more, then more.

 

The photo shows a kiosk with a video advertisement for an upcoming one-woman operatic production of Anne Frank naplója (Anne Frank’s Diary), to be performed at the Budapesti Operettszínház in February.

 

 

How the Other Half Learns: Not a “So What?” Experience

how the other half learnsA few days ago I wrote a response to Robert Pondiscio’s terrific book How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice. Here are some more thoughts, this time about the “so what?” question.

Before reading the book (but after reading many reviews, summaries, and excerpts), I wondered if I would be left nonplussed, even if I enjoyed and learned from the book. If part of the book’s message is, “The Success Academy is not for everyone–students, parents, or teachers–but insofar as it serves some students and families extremely well, it should be recognized and supported,” doesn’t a similar message apply to all students, parents, and teachers? That is, shouldn’t all of us seek out a place that works for us, leaving the rest alone except to acknowledge its value for others? If I, as a teacher, do not like the Success Academy model, then isn’t it my right (and responsibility) to seek out a place that does suit me, as have done over time? And if this is so, if it is on us to find the place that suits us, then who cares about a larger picture, except insofar as it offers each of us a place? Why should I care what’s going on at another school, if it’s not my type of place to begin with? But this conclusion dissatisfied me; there are reasons to care what is going on in other schools, and as it turned out, Pondiscio’s book brought them to light.

I found myself rooting for the students as I read about them–from Adama, whose parents were continually pressured by Success Academy to transfer him to another school (and finally gave in), to Darren, who shot up the waiting list and was finally admitted, to  Luis, who passes an informal reading test and blurts out to his class, “I’m Level L!” Even when I disagree with the admissions procedures, teaching methods, and more, I want things to go well with these kids–and I want to keep up some kind of discussion about what is important in education. Even if different approaches work for different students, even if different kinds of schools can, do, and should exist (not only among charters, but within the public school system itself), there are some universal goods and ills worth considering.

Take the instance of Luis becoming a “Level L.” Setting aside the business of calling oneself an L or a P or a 2 or a 3, I see at least two sides to the issue. On the one hand, despite my many criticisms of the Fountas and Pinnell leveling system (which Pondiscio gives a good shaking), I recognize that moving up the levels represents some kind of progress in reading, especially if the instruction is good, the texts are worthwhile, and the student practices continually at school and at home. And when a little boy reacts with such joy and pride to his progress, I want to join in. I want him to get to level Z and beyond–into good literature and other texts worth reading for their own merits.

On the other side, the Fountas and Pinnell system has even more problems than Pondiscio discusses (particularly on pp. 230-236). In addition to its misleading measures of text complexity, in addition to its flimsy basis in research, Fountas and Pinnell has given rise to some terrible writing. There is an industry devoted to writing children’s books and texts to match the F&P rubric exactly. If you read these texts (the ones written to match a particular level), you find something canned about them, and for good reason: they are canned. There isn’t a Curious George or Winnie-the-Pooh among them. In fact, many classic children’s books have been rewritten (i.e. simplified, distorted, and re-fonted) to match this or that reading level. In some cases they don’t even make sense.

Beyond that, the insistence on precise levels is inherently limiting. Any books worth their salt, including children’s books, contain a mixture of levels. In school, students can learn phonics systematically while also being exposed to texts, many texts, that they can’t read entirely on their own yet. They can learn background information that will help them understand texts on specific topics. They can learn to read a book several times, with more understanding each time. That way, they will not only progress gradually but amass concepts, words, and structures that allow their understanding to take off.

I didn’t learn how to read at school; according to my parents, I taught myself, at ages 4 and 5, and began writing before reading. But that had to do with having a lot of literature in the air. I can’t describe how I learned, since I don’t remember any more. But when it comes to learning languages, I have benefited from struggling with difficult works, works well above my level, works that I would want to reread many times. I persist with the first reading, and before I know it, I understand much than when I began, as a result of noticing roots, grammatical structures, syntax, and more. It has consistently helped me, rather than hurt me, to go beyond my level.

Not everyone benefits from the same approaches. Nor is mine foolproof, even for me; one weakness is that I have missed or sidestepped some systematic instruction along the way. For instance, I was reading Dostoevsky without a dictionary by the end of our year in Moscow, when I was fifteen, but I didn’t really learn how the Russian verbs of motion worked until late in college. I used them correctly enough to make myself understood, but my speech and writing must have been filled with mistakes.

All this said, it’s worth bringing up the weaknesses of Fountas and Pinnell, even while recognizing that it has done some good. At the same time, I can appreciate teachers who wholeheartedly encourage students in their progress (as did Luis’s teacher), even if the content and measures of said progress are flawed.

So, yes, the book affirms that it does matter what’s going on at other schools–because the fads and other weaknesses are worth criticizing, the strengths are worth learning from, and kids (at any school) deserve support and guidance. They want to learn, they want to make progress, they want to know what this means and why it matters. It is possible to hold two sides of the truth at once: that we’re all different, with different needs, and yet that we have something to do with each other, even if our paths never visibly meet.

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

Happy Hanukkah!

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Happy Hanukkah to all! I dedicate this post to the idea of finding (in ourselves and in the world) the kind of fire that lights and warms things but does not burn everything down. To be able to live among each other, see, appreciate, and honor each other, but not take over each other or force others to be who they are not. To survive and build survival for the future, to do more than survive, to make art, enjoy life, tend the land, pursue science, practice faith or not (according to belief, heritage, and wish), take risks, embark on adventure, challenge conventions, speak freely and boldly–but to hold back from greed, waste, cruelty, and rash judgments, and to embed this restraint in our laws and practices. Special thoughts to everyone in Australia, whose country is burning.

Caroling with Pizzazz

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On Friday, Class 11C (the eleventh-grade Hungarian-English bilingual class) gave spirited caroling performances all day long, visiting one class after another–and, in the long break, treating us to a special performance in the teachers’ room. I had trouble deciding which pictures to include here, but many others took pictures and videos, so anything I post here will be supplemented or superseded elsewhere.

The show was long in the making (they rehearsed weekly for over a month, and then more frequently as the day approached). Three teachers–Anikó Bánhegyesi, Mariann Banczik, and I–worked with them. First, we decided which songs they would like to sing. I taught them a few, and they suggested a few and made the final selection. Then we worked out the underlying story, which was refined over the weeks: There would be a fake Santa and a real Santa; the impostor would tell everyone that they weren’t getting any gifts, and then the real Santa would defeat the fake Santa with Rudolph’s help (but then let him rejoin the group). Then the “Christmas presents” would be brought in.

Then came the choreography, which the students worked out to the last detail. By the time the last few rehearsals rolled around, things were looking and sounding pretty good. Still a few glitches, a few things to figure out, a few things to remember not to forget.

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But I didn’t realize how much thought and care they were putting into their costumes. Everything lit up and came into color on Friday.

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And then the performances began–energetic, beautiful, funny, and full of joy. People enjoyed them so much. There were many ovations, Hungarian style (with the audience clapping in rhythm).

The teachers’ room was one of the highlights. Another was the gym. Each room had its own character and shape; the performers figured out immediately how to make the most of each space.

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Here are a few more photos, for the fun of it. Congratulations to the 11C Carolers!

 

Blasts from the Present and Past

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I have a lot to say in a short time, since tomorrow morning I leave for Germany, and then a few days later for the Netherlands. Then I come back on January 1, bring my cat to the animal hospital for surgery on January 2, and work on some translations over the weekend before returning to school. But three blog posts are on my mind; I hope to write at least two of them today. First up: last night’s concert.

Yesterday evening, after Shabbat in Budapest, I went to hear 1LIFE open for Kiscsillag in Törökszentmiklós. They had actually played in Budapest on Friday evening, at the famed Akvárium Klub, but I couldn’t go, since the Friday night Szim Salom service (including the kiddush and meal) didn’t end until after 9, well after their concert was over. So I was determined to make it to this one; to get there in time, I had to leave Budapest on the 4:28 train. I had bought the concert ticket in advance and had reserved a room at a guesthouse (the Almásy Vendégház, a lovely inexpensive place), since there are no late-night trains back to Szolnok. It was more than worth it; 1LIFE played a terrific show, the Ipolyi Közművelődési Központ is one of my favorite venues, and I enjoyed Kiscsillag too. I was left thinking about the differences between the two bands.

Kiscsillag–a famous Hungarian alternative rock band with witty lyrics, zesty musicianship, and many musical influences–drew a crowd of excited, enthusiastic fans who danced, jumped, laughed, sang along, interacted with the band members, and rollicked all around. The atmosphere brought back strong memories of Dieselhed shows in San Franciso. The music wasn’t really similar–if anything, Kiscsillag reminds me of Cake, though with more melodic vocals and a more driving sound–but the overall feel in the room was just like what I remember. Twenty years ago, I loved going to hear Dieselhed; I went whenever I could. Their songs had a mix of silliness and melancholy, their music would stay in and on your mind. Lyrically and antically, the band members wielded irony; the audience had a sense of “getting it,” of being part of the show. By irony I mean (in this case) looking askance at the world, putting a wedge between the music and yourself, so that the audience takes it as entertainment.

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Brilliant as it can be, I am not as drawn to that kind of irony as I used to be (and even back then, I had my limits–I never liked Gogol Bordello, for instance). I can enjoy it a lot–and believe I will enjoy Kiscsillag lyrics when I take some time with them–but when it goes overboard, it loses me. One reason I like 1LIFE’s songs and performances so much is that they don’t put a barrier between themselves and the music. They are fully in it. Granted, they are performing; their songs are art, not direct speech, and they play them with gusto and  superbly crafted sound. They’re serious when performing but also have lots of fun. Some of their songs are lighter than others–and sometimes the heaviness of the subject contrasts with the lightness of the music, or vice versa. The lyrics mix forthrightness with enigmas of various kinds; you come to understand them in different ways over time. There’s irony in them sometimes too. But the band doesn’t lean on irony, and I find that compelling and refreshing. They let themselves say what they want to say, through their songs and performance. Last night they seemed relaxed and revved up, still filled with the experience of the previous night’s concert (which, I gather, was fantastic). They played some of my favorites (with some slight changes and variations) and some of the less familiar ones; several of the highlights were “Sötét van,” “Kopog a szív,” and a song whose name I don’t know but that has a refrain of “Ná–ná ná ná…”

The Kiscsillag show had lots of beauty, probably more than I caught. My favorite song was the one sung by the keyboardist, Dávid Szesztay, “Ott ahol akarod.” I want to get to know their music better; I need time to learn what’s in it. My point here is that different bands (like writers, actors, and others) have profoundly different understandings of what music does, what it is for, and what is most important in it. As a listener, you come to know yourself gradually; over time, you get a clearer sense of what you are seeking out and hearing. It’s good to stay open, to avoid writing off any particular kind of music. No matter what the type, there’s something good to be found in it, maybe even a surprise or revelation. But it’s also good to find your way, even if others don’t understand or agree with it. Irony in music (or its absence, or something in between) is not just a matter of style or taste; it holds a worldview, a rhythm, a language.

All in all, it was a great evening–my first time going to a nighttime rock show in Hungary, and a comfortable adventure at that. There were people of many ages there, from kids to grandparents. The house music playing through the speakers was fantastic–one ear-catching song after another, such as David Gilmour’s “Faces of Stone.” I had a conversation with a young man from Törökszentmiklós who, as soon as I told him I was a teacher, addressed me as “Tanárnő” (literally, “woman teacher,” a respectful form of address) and tried to treat me to a beer (I insisted on a Coke instead). We had a short conversation; he had never heard 1LIFE, but he told me Kiscsillag would be the better of the two. I found that amusing; I told him that I had come expressly to hear 1LIFE but would stay for the later band as well. Then, in between the bands, a grandmother of one of the 1LIFE members (whom I have met many times before) approached me and gave me Christmas cookies! She had brought them for me, knowing I would be there. I was delighted and touched. A few minutes before the end of the Kiscsillag show, I left and went back to the guesthouse. At the crack of dawn, I took the train back to Szolnok.

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I made a few minor changes and added two photos to this piece after posting it.

Minnaloushe

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Minnaloushe is still alive–this is not an obituary! But she is sick, and I have spent the last two days planning the next steps. Yesterday I took her to the vet, where she had a sonogram and an x-ray, both of which showed a large abdominal mass, probably cancer. The vet gave me an antibiotic for her, just in case the bulge was due to an infection. I am supposed to bring her back next week, but it’s clear that I have three choices: to bring her to Budapest for surgery, to have her put down, or to just let her be (for now). It’s too soon for euthanasia, and the third option seems like procrastination. So I made a surgery appointment for January 2; I’ll come back from my vacation early to bring her in. (My downstairs neighbor, the building superintendent, feeds her while I am away.)

After the appointment, I didn’t have time to bring her back home before my final class of the day, so I brought her to school in her big carrier. That’s probably against the rules, but I saw no other option except to cancel my class, which I didn’t want to do. The students were thrilled to see her and showered her with love. I explained the situation to them; some of them talked about their own pets. During class–a 10th-grade English class that meets with me once a week–we talked about cats and dogs, sang (holiday songs, including a song in Dutch, and the lullaby from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), improvised (“A Midsummer Night’s Christmas”), and played a gift-giving game. Throughout all of this, Minnaloushe sat calmly in her carrier, looking on. Afterward, students crowded around again to look at her, talk about their cats, and show me cat pictures. My colleagues were kind about the situation too. I finished a few things and took her home.

But I meant to tell a little about her here. I adopted her in the winter of 2010-2011 from a friend of a friend in Brooklyn. She was a stray; she had given birth to several litters of kittens, had been spayed, and was living in a basement. She has a sweet, friendly, and cuddly nature; when she had more energy, she would run up to people, even strangers, and rub against them. These days she’s a bit slower, but she does come to greet me at the door.

I named her Minnaloushe after the cat in W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Cat and the Moon,” which I quote here in full.

The Cat and the Moon

W. B. Yeats

The cat went here and there
And the moon spun round like a top,
And the nearest kin of the moon,
The creeping cat, looked up.
Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
For, wander and wail as he would,
The pure cold light in the sky
Troubled his animal blood.
Minnaloushe runs in the grass
Lifting his delicate feet.
Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance?
When two close kindred meet,
What better than call a dance?
Maybe the moon may learn,
Tired of that courtly fashion,
A new dance turn.
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
From moonlit place to place,
The sacred moon overhead
Has taken a new phase.
Does Minnaloushe know that his pupils
Will pass from change to change,
And that from round to crescent,
From crescent to round they range?
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
Alone, important and wise,
And lifts to the changing moon
His changing eyes.

I named Aengus, my cat who died almost two years ago, after another Yeats poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” Despite this Yeats affinity, the two cats did not get along, although they had moments of gentle proximity. Minnaloushe preferred to be the only cat in the home; Aengus enjoyed Minnaloushe but would taunt her (as soon as he grew big and strong enough to do so). I miss Aengus and think of him every day–but Minnaloushe does not. When she realized he was gone, she exulted.

She has always been a little bit lazy–for instance, when it comes to playing with toys. She never would chase after toys on her own; if I threw one her way, she would catch it (if it was close enough), release it, and wait for me to throw it again. So I didn’t notice big changes in her behavior over the past year. A couple of times she seemed to be waddling, but then her gait would go back to normal.

But then, in the past two weeks or so, she started coughing a lot and breathing heavily. I realized that the cat litter was generating lots of dust; I switched brands and saw a big improvement, but not in her. Her belly looked larger than ever, and she seemed to be in pain. In the past she loved to be held, but now she squirms away after a few seconds.

Yet today she seems perkier: not only did she gobble up the new food I brought her from the pet store, but she played a little and climbed up onto my lap. Maybe the antibiotics (which she detests) are doing some good. So all I can do is help her be as comfortable as possible until her surgery on January 2.

Many times in my life I have heard people describe cats as “aloof,” “disdainful,” etc., but the cats I have known, including Minnaloushe, ruffle the stereotype. When I would home from even an overnight absence, Minnaloushe would accost me with meows and then roll over and over on the rug, purring. It’s hard to know what cats think and feel, but think and feel they do, and they attach themselves to particulars. I bet Minnaloushe has a lot to say, but not in anything like the words I know.

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Goodbye to a Friend

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It had been a while since I had heard from my friend Johnny Strike (John Bassett), so this morning I googled him and found out that he died of cancer in September 2018. I then started reading tributes to him–by people who knew him, people who admired his music and writing, people who remembered him sharply, or all three.

We were initially colleagues in San Francisco, where we worked as counselors. He had been a legendary rock musician back in the 1970s–the frontman of Crime–but by now he had accrued a stately, slightly professorial quality (with a chuckle and a hint of dark wisdom). He, our mutual friends, and I loved to make fun of bureaucracies and buzzwords. We formed a band at work that did just that. Then I joined him in another band (Biff, Johnny, and me, as pictured above, and, in reverse order, below) that he created mostly for recording purposes. We recorded a demo.

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As the bassist, I was definitely not good enough for his band, I lacked the technique and texture, but he never said this; he seemed glad to have me there, and when I left San Francisco, he found someone else. The band came out with a recording and later morphed into a new lineup of Crime.

Once or twice, when I came back to visit, we met up for brunch. In Brooklyn, in 2002, I started a literary journal, Si Señor; not only did he contribute, but he connected me with artists and writers who became part of the journal as well. For the first issue, he submitted a piece on literary rejection. We agreed that it would be funny if I “rejected” it and publish it as a rejected piece, with a satirical editorial comment. So it turned into a combo: his piece on rejection combined with my bombastic rejection of the piece. I will post it here one day after I retrieve a copy from the U.S. (I have them in storage in NYC).

He wrote four novels and a collection of stories. I edited one of them (Name of the Stranger) and briefly reviewed another (Ports of Hell). Many of his tales came out of his long travels; he would go off to Thailand, Mexico, Morocco, and other places for months. I enjoyed his crisp, morbid, funny narration, his imagination, and his way of creating characters that you could hear in the dark.

I miss him as a friend, acquaintance, colleague, and accomplice–someone I could listen to, talk with, and joke with. The last time I went to San Francisco–in November 2016, for 20 Minute Loop’s record release–Johnny said he wasn’t sure he could get together with me, since he was having health troubles. He wrote a few times after that; the last time was a group email, in August 2018, a month before his death. It contained just a link: “Make a Suggestion–Berkeley Public Library.” (The link is broken now.)

I will. But an earlier email contained another link–to his essay “Sunrise Tangier,” which I read too quickly at the time and reread more slowly just now. I am sorry that our correspondence dwindled down to links and silence and that I didn’t understand what was happening. Even less did I know how much was in those links and silences. Now I am catching up, slowly, on my own.

“Self-Partnered”? Or Self-Branded?

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A recent New York Times opinion piece by Bradley B. Onishi posits that many single people are in fact “self-partnered“–in other words, that they are in a relationship, not primarily with others, but with themselves. Onishi seems to see this–including the branding–as a good thing. While I see many joys in being single–and do not view marriage as the key to human legitimacy–I find this argument preposterous. A relationship with oneself is not the same as a relationship with another. Using the term “partner” for singleness creates confusion. But beyond that, I see no reason to justify single life, or any other kind of life, with a big idea.

First of all, singlehood is not a partnership with self. When you’re by yourself, you more or less know yourself. You may question yourself, search yourself, or even argue with yourself–but all of this happens within yourself. In contrast, when you face another person, you are confronted with what and who you do not know, even if in some way you know the person well. Even Odysseus and Penelope call each other “strange.”

Second, no matter what your relationship or lack thereof, you don’t have to justify it with a big idea or catch-phrase. It can exist on its own terms, and it can change. Why would anyone want to be “self-partnered”? It sounds more lonely than not being partnered at all–because the term evades the solitude. Why not let there be solitude, and company, and anything in between? Why not let these things be a little bit wordless, too?

One of the commenters on the NYT piece wrote, in response to my first comment,

Bingo. Everything has to be portrayed as some kind of new discovery of The True Way (same with diets, exercise, our relationships to technology, religion, and so on).
Looking for a ‘soul mate’ has little to do with reality. A partner is something else. Not to say that there aren’t good reasons to live on one’s own; there are plenty. But do we have to call it being your own soul mate?

That’s right, we don’t! Terms like “self-partnering” create the illusion that our choices are equal to any others. In fact they are not. Nothing is complete. No matter which way we choose in life, we give up something else. Some of us wonder what might have happened if we had chosen (or at least allowed for) a different way. Such questioning is fine. We can rejoice in what we have; we can bewail it. But we don’t have to petrify or laminate it in phrases. It can take surprising and changing shapes. I would rather learn from life than sum it up; I would rather work with words over time than scavenge them for an instant brand.

I changed the title slightly after posting this piece.