Radio

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The radio joins mystery with clarity. We take it for granted today, with all the alternatives out there, but I remember the awe that came from rotating the dial in and out of sound and fuzz, sometimes even tuning in to stations in foreign countries, with broadcasts in French, Spanish, German… Also, from a young age I thought of the radio as something you could make at home, and even broadcast on from home. My various electronics kits allowed me to make basic crystal radios and to broadcast signals, even voice. (Once the neighbors came over to complain because my signals were being picked up by their TV.)

My paternal grandfather, who died when I was six or so, had a ham radio station in the basement of their house in Chicago. My one memory of him is from there: he was in his radio broadcasting room, fiddling around with things and singing along.

We actually didn’t listen to radio much at home; my parents listened to classical music and were content to stick to their record collection and informal musical gatherings with friends. In fact, radio listening stood out through its absence. Once I was home with a fever, and my cousin (who was living with us at the time) put the radio in my room. I heard two songs I had never heard before: Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” They played at least twice that day, maybe more. I would hear those songs many more times over the years; today they are popular classics.

Many years later, when I lived (for about seven months) in Tucson, I signed up to be a volunteer DJ at KXCI, Tucson’s community radio station. There I learned how DJs get to be DJs, what the various rules are, and how to set up a good sequence of songs, with announcements in between. I learned, also, that people will tell you if they like what you’re doing (and if they don’t). My time there was so short that I didn’t get my own slot, but I filled in for people a few times. Twice, I think, I took on the early-morning show “Breakfast Cafe.” I thought some of my favorite songs would be perfect for it, but about twenty minutes in, the phone rang, and someone asked in an aggrieved voice, “Could you play something that isn’t so depressing?” But then another time, when filling in for someone in a prime time slot (around 11 a.m.), I confused the “heavy” and “medium” rotation categories–and thus ended playing songs that people don’t hear very often (and that I happened to like). I got an excited phone call: “This is great! Can we have more music like this?” The thing is, during prime time you are supposed to play mostly “heavy rotation” songs–that is, songs that are already being played all the time. A smaller portion of the time goes to “medium rotation,” and only a tiny portion to “low rotation.” To me, that’s backwards–but anyway, I got it wrong, had a great time, and received no complaints from anyone.

But back to radio itself and what it can be. People used to gather around it for news, radio theatre, songs, talk shows, and more; it was through the radio that people heard the breaking news in the world. Sometimes those broadcasts changed lives. I have brought some recordings of old radio broadcasts to my students here in Hungary; we listened to a few episodes of the Aldrich Family, as well as one of the broadcasts when John F. Kennedy was shot. A radio broadcast about Kennedy (John or Robert) is the opening event of Gyula Jenei’s poem “Rádió” (which I translated and hope we will include in the Dallas events). Listening to old radio shows, I am brought into a time when this device was an opening to the world, or else a tiny world of its own. (In Jenei’s poem, a version of which can be found here, the child imagines little people in the box.)

One of the great traditions of radio is the “call-in” show or the phone request. It was something exciting to find yourself on the air, even for a few seconds, to request a song, ask a question, or enter a contest. For some, this was (and still is) a way of life; Irving Feldman conveys this trenchantly in his poem “Interrupted Prayers,” which begins:

The sun goes, So long, so long, see you around.
And zone by zone by zone across America
the all-night coast-to-coast ghost café lights up.
Millions of dots of darkness—the loners,
the losers, the half alive—twitch awake
under the cold electronic coverlet,
and tune in their radios’ cracked insomnia.

Today radio has distanced itself from us, through streamlining and corporatization; there are fewer request and call-in programs, fewer independent stations, fewer people taking up broadcasting with a passion. Or maybe that’s my imagination–maybe there are more than ever, but they have to be sought out. There’s a lot of controversy about whether radio is dying; some say yes, others say no. To a great extent it is giving way to Spotify, YouTube, etc. But there are still radio shows and DJs discovering, uncovering, loving, broadcasting music. Art of Flying’s new album Escort Mission is getting all sorts of radio play; that right there attests to the vitality of the medium.

Why am I fond of radio sometimes? Is it just nostalgia? I don’t think so. With radio, first of all, you’re focused on sound; there are no visuals, and so you can get caught up in the listening. Second, it’s there to bring you something you don’t already know, like, or have. Sure, you hope your favorite songs will get played, but in between them, something else catches your ear. Your trusted DJs will bring you things worth hearing. And even news broadcasts seem more intimate than TV; the updates are less polished, more spontaneous, and since you don’t have to see the reporters in suits, with layers of makeup, they seem closer at hand somehow.

I say “sometimes” because I am not always fond of radio; sometimes all the available broadcasts are mediocre, or sometimes I want something that doesn’t skip so quickly from song to song, topic to topic. Giving the choice between listening to a full album and listening to the radio, I will usually go for the former. But the radio has many delights.

It fascinates me when I am taking the cab to the airport (in NYC) and the cab driver has a classical radio station on. And the driver himself is very quiet, listening. Classical music (a broad category, and a misnomer) can give people something to stay their minds on and be staid, to paraphrase Robert Frost. But it’s also full of adventures–twists and turns of melody, many shades of chord. Many people listen to popular music in this way too: who treat it not as background music, but as the center of attention, something worth listening to again and again.

I listened to radio (KXT 91.7 FM) sometimes when driving in Dallas. I enjoy that station; everything I heard on it was interesting, and I intend to keep on listening to it. Just before returning to Hungary, I mailed a copy of 1LIFE’s CD Nincsen Kérdés to KXT 91.7 FM in Dallas. “Maradok ember” is the 8th track. Dallas readers, if you would like to hear the song played on KXT, here’s the online request form. The form allows for three requests–so you can ask for other songs too! It would be great to hear “Maradok ember” on KXT, not only because it’s a great song, but because the song already has a presence in Dallas. I’m not trying to organize a request blitz, since that would go against the whole purpose of requests: to bring hosts and listeners closer together. But if you listen to KXT and would like to hear the song there, you can help bring this about.

That, to me, is part of the fun and meaning of radio: hoping that a particular song will be played, requesting to have it played, listening to hear whether they play it, and in the meantime, getting surprised by things you haven’t heard before.

Image credit: Courtesy of Plymouth Voice (Michigan).

New Poem: “Too Serious”

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Too Serious

Diana Senechal

They took their baby to the oracle
down by the river bank, under the bridge,
who said, “Your daughter is too serious,
well, not too serious, but serious,
which in the world’s eyes is too serious.”
They tore their hair and sank their frantic souls
and savings into schools and counselors.
She learned the daintihoods of lady-lite:
to curl her certainties with “I don’t know,”
to bounce her questions on a lilt of tongue,
to add a smiley to each thank-you note.
They laughed to see their fear fizzle away.

One day she fell into a brouhaha
at the train station, with a stranger—well,
what of it? No one heard or saw the scene
except her tutor, who penned down her shouts
in some blue diary, filled otherwise
with canny formulas and apothegms.
She shook it off as she had learned to do,
travelled to her exam, which she had meant
to pass just barely, but excelled upon,
a thing to laugh about, to dine over,
to raise a raucous glass to, as the glint
fizzles into the deep encaving fear.

Years later, months of quest carried her to
the oracle, who took her in his arms,
invited her to stay the afternoon,
and then fell mum. There on the table lay
a pencil and a sharpener. She took
and worked them in her hands, amazed by the
ringlets of falling wood. She saw sideways
his own eyes fixed upon the gleaming point
that grew more starry with each shave of dross,
which fell and fell. Snapping out of his daze,
he swallowed twice, as if about to speak,
but she had risen to the truth and gone.

Stretches of Time

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It is good to have these stretches of time–to work on projects, go out on the bike, play cello, think about things. It is often said that humans are social beings. This is true, but we are solitary too; each of us has a different combination of the two, and in each of us, the combination changes. Somehow we are led to believe that we aren’t supposed to be alone–but certain projects, even ways of thinking, require a good bit of aloneness. This isn’t the same as being isolated or detached; it can lead to better company, since you have done your work (or part of it) and can enter clear and rich conversation.

Thanks to the streches of time this past week, I have been able to accomplish a few things. I finished the entire first draft of the translation of Kata Bajnai’s Farkasok, the first draft of a review of John Wall Barger’s The Mean Game, and the first draft of a translation of a poem by Gyula Jenei–the tenth that I have translated so far of his poems. I intend to revise all of these and translate two more poems in the next week–and then, by the end of the month, write the paper that I will present at the ALSCW Conference. There will be lots else to do this month–getting ready for teaching, going on a faculty trip to Serbia, etc., but all of this will be possible now. The projects have been enjoyable in themselves, and the focus only made them more so.

The fall is full of commitments and projects–including teaching, serving as vice form teacher–not the official form teacher, but rather the support person–for the incoming ninth grade bilingual class, leading services (about once a month, in addition to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) at Szim Salom, participating in the ALSCW conference, going with my colleagues Gyula Jenei and Marianna Fekete to Dallas at the end of October (see the event descriptions here), and translating some poems by Tomas Venclova, whose work I translated in the past. In addition to that, I want to take some new steps with my writing and music–and bring my Hungarian to a much higher level.

And to ride the bike, too; the fall is my favorite time for that. Last week I bicycled to Besenyszög–not an especially long ride, but long enough in the heat. (Tonight and tomorrow’s rains should bring the temperatures down; there’s already a vigorous breeze.) I took the photos on the road. In the sunset photo, I like the way the grass picks up a tinge of the pink and orange of the sky. The farm machines are beautiful too. How much work gets done, and how many ways there are to do it, beyond anyone’s individual knowledge? Work of the mind, work of the fields, work of the stage, work of the bakery–wherever we go, there is some work that requires someone’s work; much of the time, we have only a fragmented idea of it, if even that much.

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Song Series #5: Verging on Nonsense

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Two things to make clear right off the bat. First, I mean “nonsense” as a compliment; what is a good song without at least a touch of it? More about that in a minute. Second, I love this particular topic and have a hard time choosing just a few songs for this post. That said, here we go.

It might be impossible to write a completely nonsensical song, because the music holds the words together and gives them some kind of sense. Also, songs always come close to wordlessness (that is, you can hum them). Songs with nonsense words, or semi-nonsensical words, come close to a hummed state; the words act as instruments, playing out their sounds and associations.

For the first example, I choose “Hell in a Handbasket” by 20 Minute Loop, a favorite and beloved band, and my friends moreover. I originally chose “Jubilation” (and considered a few others too, including “Cora May“) but then changed to this–since the recording is so glorious, and this is one of the first of their songs I ever heard. I heard it while Greg Giles was still working out the lyrics; we were playing music together then, and he would change the words a little each time. I remember cracking up over “Northern Northern.” Over time this song took on a meaning and moved a little away from nonsense; it could be about a suicide or disappearance, yet the eruptive phrases keep you from hardening into a story. “Spun the mud like fabric,” “took the Northern Northern” keep you delightedly unsure of what this all is.

Here is the full recording (from the album Songs Praising the Mutant Race), with Greg Giles (vocals, guitar), Kelly Atkins (vocals, flute), Kevin Seal (piano, rhodes, vocals), and Darren Johnston (trumpet). Here is the teaser video; the lyrics appear below it.

Backed across that bastard,
Spun the mud like fabric,
Tires lifting dropping,
The shining river blinds me…

One false stitch is all it takes,
Just throw your fist across your face and split a lip.
What a thrill to hurt yourself without a thing to blame
for all the suffering.
Serves us right, the violent types,
a word is flipped inside your mind until it’s… shit.

Lost, all lost…

There’s no crazy crush when
The thought is lost in
All the confusion,
The current swept it off…

Back across the byway,
Took the Northern Northern,
Spinal cord and muscle,
I’m strong as hell, I’m open…

Hollow rock beside an estuary bank
of mud and slime where a boat sank.
Clothing stretched across a stone,
cold cigarettes and chicken bones are all he left.
Stinking tide reminds a rat of better times and all
the bread he left behind.
All of the crumbs and gristled fat
he threw at birds who nagged and snapped
and cursed his eyes.

The next song is “Velouria” by the Pixies (from their Bossanova album). Why this song, and not a different one? I don’t know; many songs could serve as an opening into their music, and this is one. The video here is delightfully anti-video; throughout it, they’re walking across a quarry.

Hold my head, we’ll trampoline
Finally through the roof onto somewhere near and far in time
Velouria, her covering, traveling career
She can really move, oh, Velveteen
My Velouria, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria

Say to me, where have you been?
Finally through the roof
And how does lemur skin reflect the sea?
We will wade in the shine of the ever
We will wade in the shine of the ever
We will wade in the tides of the summer, every summer
Every my Velouria, my Velouria

Forevergreen, I know she’s here in California
I can see the tears of Shasta sheen
My Velouria, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria

There’s something romantic about the song, and something nostalgic too, but beyond that, I don’t know what it means, and that does not bother me. What does lemur skin have to do with it all? Or Shasta sheen? According to some, these are references to the fabled lost land of Lemuria–but what this has to do with the adored Velouria, who can know? Those apparent non sequiturs keep this from being a typical love song. But you don’t even have to look that far; even the word “even” raises questions. They don’t have to be answered; they just linger.

The next is Laurie Anderson’s “Monkey’s Paw” (from her Strange Angels album) all about dreams and limitations, but also about nothing, nothing at all, and glorious in its beats and sounds. I love the sliding beween singing and speech, the funny voice dipping and soaring and cooing, the playful intensity of it all.

Well I stopped in at the Body Shop
Said to the guy:
I want stereo FM installed in my teeth
And take this mole off my back
and put it on my cheek.
And uh… while I’m here, why don’t you give me
some of those high-heeled feet?
And he said: Listen there’s no guarantee
Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
but listen look out for the monkey’s paw
And I said: Whaaat? He said:

The gift of life it’s a twist of fate
It’s a roll of the die
It’s a free lunch A free ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
It’s sayin: Haw haw!
It’s saying Gimme five!
It’s sayin: Bye bye!

I know a man he lost his head
He said: The way I feel I’d be better off dead.
He said: I got everything I ever wanted
Now I can’t give it up
It’s a trap, just my luck!

The gift of life it’s a leap of faith
It’s a roll of the die
It’s a free lunch A free ride
The gift of life it’s a shot in the dark
It’s the call of the wild
It’s the big wheel The big ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
You better Stop!
Look around!
Listen!

You- could- be- an- oca- rina- salesman-
going- from- door- to- door.
Or- would- you- like- to- swing- on- a- star-
and- carry- moon- beams- home?
Or- next- time- around- you- could- be-
a- small- bug-
Or- would- you- like- to- be- a- fish?

The gift of life it’s a twist of fate
It’s a roll of the die
it’s a free lunch A free ride
The gift of life it’s a shot in the dark
It’s the call of the wild
It’s the big wheel The big ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
It’s singin’: Gimme Five!
It’s singin’: Bye Bye!

The last one I’d like to include today is Virgil Shaw’s (and Dieselhed’s) “Carving Soap.” It isn’t nonsense at all, but it pushes again and again toward nothing, and it has been one of my favorite songs for over twenty years. Here’s the recording from his solo album Quad Cities (the song also appears on the Dieselhed album Shallow Water Blackout).

I pull that knife towards my thumb
in the most delicate demeanor
the blade kisses my thumb
but it does not bleed ‘er
flecks fell to my feet
where I stood there on the street
and strips they fell away
in the most usual way, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

Every time I carve the soap
I try to make out something
Every time I carve the soap
well I always end up with nothing
sometimes I’m a sailor
and I’m engraving scrimshaw on the sea
and sometimes I’m a hunter
and I’m carving a big hunk of ivory, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

I fold that knife towards my palm
in the most delicate demeanor
it’s been three weeks
since I last felt cleaner
I put that knife away
and I’m whittling my life away
I put that knife away
and I’m whittling my life away, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

The song is full of sadness and whimsy; one can easily say that it’s about wasting your life in some way, maybe–but the subtleties tell a different story, maybe about art and its hidden emptiness. Every piece of art risks being nothing, it risks being flecks of soap, as the imagined carving disappears before the eyes. Any artist risks being the one on the street, carving and carving away. But there’s also an addiction of sorts; “it feels good, just like chopping wood.” There’s some waste and loss here, and some beauty too, and something that cannot be told, except through song itself.

That concludes the fifth installment of the series. About nonsense I have said nothing at all, but I hope these songs have said something, or nothing, or a mixture of the two.

Photo credit: Back in 2016, I took the photo in the Northern Boulevard station (in Queens) and adjusted it later to say “Northern Northern,” in honor of 20 Minute Loop.

I revised this post substantially; for the 20 Minute Loop selection, I first chose “Jubilation,” then began to switch to “Cora May” (and posted an in-between draft by mistake) and then finally landed on (or in) “Hell in a Handbasket.” I made other revisions and additions as well.

For the earlier posts in the song series, go here, here, here, and here.

Verging on Home

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I was exhausted and thrilled to arrive in Szolnok, take a taxi home, enter the apartment, greet the cat (not the one pictured here), run down to the river, walk across the river to the SPAR, go back home, take a long nap, then walk around town in the wind, under the pressing clouds. I have said “home” three times so far, but for me Szolnok is a home in the making. I have lots to do before I can fully call this home. The plans are getting clearer and clearer.

In November 2020, when I will have been here three years, I intend to apply for permanent residency. Around that time–maybe sooner, maybe later–I will try to purchase an apartment. The prices for downtown apartments are now high (by Hungarian standards and my own), but it’s possible to find something roomy and inexpensive on the outskirts: for instance, near the old sugar factory, which would allow for a daily bike ride along the Tisza to school.

Assuming I can work something out with my school for the longer term, I would plan to teach for another 10 years–no more than that, since I want to retire with some force left in me. Upon retiring, I would devote myself to writing, music, Szolnok culture, biking, translation, and Jewish study and practice.

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Also, while I won’t become fully fluent in Hungarian within the next year–fluency takes years–I hope, in this coming year, to read much more Hungarian literature and to speak comfortably on everyday subjects. I want to continue translating.

I hope that it will be possible to continue teaching at the Dallas Institute in July and to visit the East Coast before and afterward. This would be good not only for the known reasons, but for unknown and surprising ones too.

Any pieces of this could change. Emergencies come up; plans get thwarted or diverted. But these plans have been steady for a while. I look forward to seeing at least some of them take shape. In the meantime–particularly in the next few weeks–I have lots to do:

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1. Finish at least a draft of a translation of Kata Bajnai’s play Farkasok. I have translated the first scene and intend to translate the whole play by August 15. That will leave time for revisions and adjustments–first on my own, and then in consultation with the author and others.

2. Write a review of John Wall Barger’s book of poetry The Mean Game. I hope to complete it by August 15.

3. Translate a few more of Gyula Jenei’s poems (by August 20 or so).

4. Prepare for the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s 2019 Education Forum, presented by the Dallas Institute’s Louise and Donald Cowan Center for Education.

5. Write the paper that I will be presenting at the 2019 ALSCW Conference (on Frederick Douglass and Robert Hayden, in Ishion Hutchinson’s seminar)–by the end of August.

6. Plan the seminar that I will be leading at the ALSCW Conference (on the nature of great literature).

7. Translate at least one of Tomas Venclova’s more recent poems, and then translate more over the coming months.

8. Read books in Hungarian, beginning with the books I have received as gifts or begun reading on my own.

9. Take bike rides, including long ones.

10. Go with my colleagues to Serbia for three days.

11. Get ready for the school year.

12. Write sketches for the next book.

13. Write some other things.

14. Play cello. (This appears in 14th place but should go higher.)

15. Learn Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.” (Thank you, Tonya Fisher!) This should go higher too.

16. See friends, answer emails, make a few phone calls.

That’s just a start.

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I took all four pictures in Szolnok on Tuesday, August 6.

That Mixture of Things

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This summer a few people have asked me, “What’s it like to live in a country [Hungary] that has moved so far to the right?” I try to explain that the government and the country are not the same, but even that is just a sketch of what I wish I could say. I am just starting to get to know Hungary’s literature, music, dance, theatre, daily life, wit, history, natural surroundings, education, language, bike routes, skies. I could spend the rest of my life there and learn only a fraction of it all. Beyond that, I am inspired by the people I have met: their kindness, works, reality, and thoughts.

The United States is complex too, eh? I leave with sadness and anger over the mass murders in El Paso and Dayton–and yet I love my country, troubled as it is right now, and during this visit have come to love it more. I love its vast diversity, its persistent dream, its expanse and cities, its alleyways and nooks, its clubs and cafés, its music and poetry, its continual capacity for more. I am grateful for my friends, colleagues, students, teachers, family.

Can a country be judged by its leaders? Its news highlights? Its summaries and takeaways? To an extent, yes, but beyond that, no, no, no.

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I took the first photo through a mirror at Grand Central Station; the second, through a window at Dobrá Tea in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Song Series #4: What Is a Song?

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What is a song? It’s sung, and it often has a recognizable structure (verse-chorus, for instance). It’s memorable; something about it makes you want to sing along. But there’s more still; in a song, the music affects the lyrics and vice versa. Words and wordlessness interplay. Here are four classic examples.

In “Canción del árbol del olvido,” by Alberto Ginastera and Fernán Silva Valdés, performed by Víctor Jara, the lyrics are brief and haunting, ending in a reversal (forgetting to forget). The guitar tones and arpeggios carry the words languorously along, slowing down to stillness and then resuming; the song feels like it falls asleep and wakes up, again and again.

These are the lyrics:

En mi pago hay un árbol
que del olvido se llama
donde van a consolarse
vidalita, los moribundos del alma.

Para no pensar en vos
en el árbol del olvido
me acosté una nochecita
vidalita, y me quedé bien dormido.

Al despertar de aquel sueño
pensaba en vos otra vez
pues me olvidé de olvidarte
vidalita, en cuantito me acosté.

For the next song, I have to name “Ring of Fire,” written by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore. It’s an incredible example of how the music transforms the lyrics. On the page, they look like nothing, but in the music, they become a ring of fire itself; the repeated words (“down, down, down, down,” etc.) are flames leaping up. I love the off-kilter, varying measure counts, often found in Carter Family songs. Here’s the original version, sung by Anita Carter; after that and the lyrics, I’ll include the Johnny Cash version (1963), for which he brought in trumpets (an unusual choice for him). It was the Cash version that made the song famous, but I love the Carter version more.

Love is a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring
Bringing her to the heart’s desire
I fell in to a ring of fire

I fell into into the burning ring of fire
I fell down, down, down down
Into the deepest mire
And it burns, burns, burns burns
The ring of fire
The ring of fire

The taste of love is sweet
When two fiery hearts meet
I believed you like a child
Oh, but the fire went wild

I fell into into the burning ring of fire
I fell down, down, down down
Into the deepest mire
And it burns, burns, burns burns
The ring of fire
The ring of fire

I wasn’t sure what to choose for the third. I had a few songs in mind, but they seemed remote from the first two; I will bring them up some other time. Then I had a dream about Ecclesiastes in the form of a song, and remembered–or maybe learned–that such a song exists: Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!.” covered by The Byrds, Nina Simone, and many others. The music gives the lyrics a mood different from what I would expect: something sparkling and thoughtful at once. Almost the entire song consists of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.  Only a few words (“Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late”) are Seeger’s own. Yet the music and those lyrical additions turn the Biblical passage into a dreamy yet grounded song.

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones
A time to gather stones together

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace
A time to refrain from embracing

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late!

And how different and gorgeous the Nina Simone version:

Well, this brought me to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” beloved around the world. The melody, instruments, and intonations bring out the song’s complex tones. I love Leonard Cohen’s original more than any cover, but as far as covers go, I am drawn to Regina Spektor’s, especially this performance with cello.

That is all for this installment of the song series. The next one will focus on songs with a sense of the absurd.

I took the photo in Central Park on Friday, August 2.

To see the first three installments of the song series, go here, here, and here.

Thanks Upon Thanks

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In just a few minutes, I will board a plane to New York–so this is a quick post filled with thanks. I am grateful to the Dallas Institute, its Summer Institute, the Cowan Center, and everyone in and involved with them. The literary works, music, discussions, lectures, films, conversations, laughter, delicious meals, and overall spirit made this one of the most glorious summers yet. I learned from my colleagues, the participating teachers, the staff, the works we read, the songs we sang, and more. Thanks to Marcell Bajnai and all of 1LIFE for the song “Maradok ember,” which brought so much to our last two days here. I played it twice: first during my faculty remarks (the opening remarks before the main lecture) on Thursday, and then at the closing ceremony on Friday. Both times, people sang along in the chorus; the second time, there was a standing ovation! Here are two photos courtesy of the Dallas Institute (if you click on them, you can see them on Flickr and browse the other photos as well); here, also, is a short video taken at the closing ceremony by Leo Vaughns Jr. MEd.

Thanks to Dallas Strings, the wonderful place up in Allen where I rented the cello and purchased some sheet music for future playing (including cello pieces by Liszt and Farkas).

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Thanks to Congregation Shearith Israel, the synagogue I have attended every summer when in Dallas, which has become a “shul away from shul” for me. I got to leyn (chant) Torah again–from one of my favorite parshiot, Balak (about which I hope to say something later). It was good to be there again—in the shul, community, liturgy, teachings, and text.

And thanks to the extraordinarily generous person who lets me stay in her apartment, summer after summer. This has made my Summer Institutes not only possible but fruitful, since there, in the quiet of her place, I could read, write, gather my thoughts, and sleep.

One more thanks: to Tom McLaughlin, who made one of these beautiful pieces for each of the faculty members, using pyrography and a branch from a nearby felled tree—and gave each of us a lovely antique book too. And to everyone who gave their works and thoughts.

I am leaving some things out, but that’s the nature of it, full and unfinished. From here into the air.

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Who Are the Real Influencers?

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I have been hearing a lot about “influencers,” people who have managed to build a gargantuan social media following and thereby exert power in real life: as politicians, pundits, CEOs, “unboxing” video creators, and so on. Some claim that influencers are the way of the future. That must be partly true. But deliberate influence has its limits; some of the greatest influence is unintended, or at least not an end in itself. It comes from a quality of a person or thing.

Who has influenced me the most over my lifetime? Do I even know? Surely my family, friends, teachers, classmates, colleagues, students, and various mentors, but also the books I read (some modern, some hundreds or thousands of years old), the music I listen to, the places I have lived and visited, the languages I learn, the faith I practice or not, the things that happen in a day. But there’s still more: memories long forgotten, strangers who have crossed my path, mistakes I have made, angles of the light. When we speak of our influences, we usually refer to things and people we admire, but influence goes far beyond that, far beyond what we can name. Also, influence has a complex chemistry. It doesn’t always take effect right away, and even when it does, it may or may not be visible. Sometimes it inspires its opposite, or something at a skew from it.

So it is important to distinguish the “influencers” from the full range of influences in our lives. Yes, the influencer economy is part of reality. Not all of it is terrible; it offers a certain democracy, as people can gain an audience through their own efforts, with minimal equipment and funds. Also, if they’re influencing others for the sake of something worthwhile, they deserve some respect. But one can influence others profoundly without being an influencer, and vice versa.

Should influencing be a primary goal? It certainly has a place among other goals. Everyone wants to reach and affect others, and affecting them can mean influencing them. But as a primary goal it lacks something; who am I, that I should want to influence you? Even in teaching, influence happens as a result of other things: interesting lessons and subject matter, a quality of conversation, and so on. There would be something vain, for instance, about hoping all my students will go into my field or adopt my perspective. Influence, if it happens, will take its own form.

As for popularity and outward success, they have some meaning but do not deserve complete trust. Large outward success can ruin private and internal life and can quickly disappear; some brilliant work is done in obscurity. A lot takes place in between the extremes. The influencers will do what they do, but over the long run, the ones who do good work, learn from others, speak bravely, and treat others kindly will leave traces without even trying.

P.S. See the sharp and enlightening Lex maniac entry on the term “influencer.”

A Few Thoughts on Immigration

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On this blog, I rarely write on political issues (in the usual sense of the phrase). As soon as I start to say something, I start to see more sides, realize how little I know, and delete or postpone the post. I am usually somewhere on the liberal side of moderate (or vice versa). There are issues where my views are clear-cut: for instance, I support same-sex marriage (and marriage generally, while also acknowledging the possibility of an unmarried life); international cultural exchange; the arts in schools, public institutions, and beyond; and religious freedom, including the freedom to have no religion at all (though I am wary of religious extremism). But elsewhere I see many complexities and would rather take time to think things through. So this is a reluctant and imperfect attempt at saying something.

I am dismayed at the Trump administration’s actions and attitudes toward immigrants: its decision to hold children in detention camps, its upcoming raid (scheduled for today) on undocumented immigrants, and its attitudes of indifference and scorn toward the immigrants themselves. Not everyone in his administration shares Trump’s views; I respect Kevin McAleenan, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, for speaking up on various occasions. I imagine that many others in the field are doing their best. But the overall policy needs an overhaul.

What should happen instead? The U.S. should welcome immigrants while setting necessary limits. There should be a clear immigration policy. Those seeking entry should be given information on their options and rights. Children should not be separated from parents; no one should have to spend days, weeks, or months in a detention center. There should still be a distinction between legal and illegal immigration, but the U.S. should give legal status to as many people as possible and treat everyone with dignity and clarity.

For any of this to happen, the U.S. must stop condoning or ignoring its underground labor market. Millions of people–with legal and illegal status–work unofficially under dismal conditions, for wages far below the legal minimum: domestic workers, construction workers, agricultural workers, salon workers, sex workers, and others. Slave labor, or something close to it, still runs rampant. Illegal businesses should be treated, to varying degrees, as criminal operations; the owners should be tried in court, and the workers should be given other options.

Immigrants, too, have responsibilities and commitments: to learn about the country in which they seek to live, to learn its primary language, to learn and follow its laws, and to contribute to its economic and civic life. Many immigrants take up the learning with vigor. But it comes with a sacrifice; every immigrant must decide how much to retain of the former culture and language. Immigrants should have a chance to choose among several levels of commitment, each with its corresponding privileges. There should be a path, through several stages, to citizenship.

For various reasons, the U.S. has about 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. The overwhelming majority has been in the country for a decade or longer. This is due partly to the underground economy, partly to the bureaucratic difficulty of keeping up with each individual (many of whom have overstayed their visas), and partly to the U.S.’s reluctance to grant immigration amnesty. I support some kind of amnesty, though I recognize the difficulty of agreeing on a specific plan.

In general, immigrants have enriched the U.S. over time and continue to do so in new ways. They bring their experiences, languages, cultures, dedication, desire to work, desire for freedom, and love of the new land. Not all immigrants are benevolent–some belong to gangs, drug rings, extremist groups, etc.–but this is separate from the issue of immigration overall. The U.S. should crack down on destructive activity of this kind without equating it with immigrants.

Any policy involves and arises from difficult decisions. The New York Times Editorial Board writes (in a trenchant opinion essay), “Whichever Democrat ends up challenging Mr. Trump for the presidency would be right to call for fundamental change from the cruelties of the current administration. But as long as America wants to have secure borders, immigration will present painful trade-offs for any president. Some people will get in, others will be kept out, still others will be compelled to leave. Any meaningful effort to reform the country’s degrading approach to migrants will fall apart if it pretends a president can simply ignore such choices. ”

Questions of immigration matter to me for many reasons: my ancestors came to the U.S. in an era of relative openness and welcome; I live and work in Hungary (and hope to stay for a long time); most of my students in the U.S. were immigrants or children of immigrants; and I believe that people should be able to seek work, asylum, or freedom outside their country of origin. In addition, I recognize that many people today are driven by desperation at home: extreme violence, poverty, catastrophe. We should recognize the severity of these problems.

An immigration policy can be clear, humane, generous, feasible, and strong. This is no easy feat, but it is worth every bit of doubt and sweat.

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