Dávid Szesztay in Szeged

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This is one of the easiest concert reviews I have ever written. At one level, it’s obvious why Dávid Szesztay’s show last night at the Grand Café in Szeged was so good. First, it was beautiful from start to finish. Second, he speaks the language of music like someone born to it. Third, he has something to say, through music. Fourth, he has wonderful bandmates. Fifth, there’s an integrity to his performance. He doesn’t show off, doesn’t put on a pose, doesn’t do anything except convey this music as he hears it–singing, fingerpicking the guitar, dropping chords and rhythms onto the keyboard with ease. The songs are his (except for a couple of collaborations with András Lovasi from Kiscsillag), but he seems like a messenger who brings you the music from somewhere inside you. As though it were already there, and he were translating it for you, and you were listening with recognition and surprise at once.

Maybe that’s part of the meaning of the album title, Dalok bentre (possibly translatable as Songs for Indoors, though I sense several meanings). But these songs also open up and build, without your even noticing it; they carry you along, and then you suddenly wonder, how did I get here? That happened with several of my favorite songs so far: “Szólj,” “2120,” “Jóbarát,” and “Beleszédültem.” There were a few times when the audience wouldn’t clap until the last note had faded away. From what I felt around me, the audience loved the show; there was no sense that we had to hold back our enthusiasm, and no point in doing so either. The cheers and applause built up as the show progressed, leading up to an encore.

 

I began by saying “at one level,” since there’s much more to the music than I could describe right away, or ever. The rhythms, chords, lyrics, and tones come from years of composing and playing. But you can feel them without understanding exactly what’s going on. And even if you don’t understand all the lyrics, it’s as if you did, because they too speak the language of music.

From “Szólj”:

és táncol a szemeteszsák
ordítja gyere világ itt vagyok
érted dagadok fel
érted szakadok fel hogy

Szólj!
hogy végre szólj!

A rough translation:

and it dances, the garbage bag,
come, world, it screams, I’m here,
for your sake, I puff myself up,
for your sake, I break myself up so you’ll

Speak!
Finally speak!

After the show, I bought a copy of Dalok bentre from Mr. Szesztay himself–a beautifully crafted box CD with a postcard for each song: a photo of the natural outdoors–trees, fields–on one side, and the lyrics on the other. (The photos on the postcard were taken by his wife, the acclaimed violinist Luca Kézdy, with whom he plays in their band Santa Diver.)

I learned about Szesztay through Kiscsillag. When I went to the 1LIFE/Kiscsillag show in Törökszentmiklós, I was especially taken by the song “Ott ahol akarod” (music by Szesztay, lyrics by Lovasi). I later found the video, listened to it over and over, and then looked for Szesztay’s solo work. (I am just beginning to discover it; he has been composing for many years.) I am also eager to hear more of the Szesztay/Lovasi songs. They are a great combination. Dalok bentre has two songs that they wrote together, “Téli nap” and “Elindul.”

There is no need to say more. Listen to these songs if you can. Go hear him and his band if you can. I hope to hear them again soon. And it was great to return to Szeged (my seventh time there). After the concert I walked to the bridge to look at the water. I then went to the hotel and looked at the album (which I played after returning to Szolnok today). The sights and thoughts mixed with memories of sounds. A good end.

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Tradeoffs and Givebacks

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The cliché “nothing is free” is not entirely true. Many things come to us, good, bad, and mixed, through no doing of our own; we don’t have to pay for (or pay our way out of) everything that comes our way. Still, more things come at a cost than we may immediately realize. I want a president who understands the cost and value of things–not only the monetary cost and value, but also that which goes beyond money.

It was snowing when I got up this morning; I think this was the second snow of the winter here in Szolnok. Maybe the third. We often talk about how winters aren’t as snowy as they used to be. But to have snowy winters, we have to stop heating the planet so much. Fewer cars, lower heat, less wasteful consumption. The effects aren’t immediate and direct–we might have blizzards next year–but they’re there.

Similar things can be said for healthcare. In the U.S., the contenders for the Democratic presidential candidacy have been debating how to reform or overhaul the health care system. But no matter what policy the next president puts into action, it will have severe costs. People often point to Canada as an example of a large country with universal health care. But the Canadian system is struggling: it has enough resources emergency services, but not nearly enough for chronic conditions. Many patients have to wait months, even years, for their appointments. Moreover, the actual quality of care is often mediocre. Canada’s accomplishment is great, but it does not meet everyone’s needs by a long shot.

If I were naive, I would praise the medical system here in Hungary. Everyone has access to health care; those who are employed pay a monthly fee for a health plan that covers just about everything, and those who are unemployed can get free care. In addition, if you want better care and want an appointment right away, you can pay private doctors at reasonable rates. (A recent doctor’s appointment cost me about $20.) But the catch is that doctors make miserable money. Many are leaving Hungary.

To institute any kind of universal health care in the U.S., one would have to change the medical profession and medical schools: make it easier and less expensive to become a doctor, reduce doctors’ salaries, and more. It would take years to make this shift, and many doctors and patients would resist it. For a long time, there would probably be two or three tiers of doctors and medical services. Something like this would still be worthwhile (in my opinion), but it won’t be great for everyone.

Education: another area where very little is free. I love teaching here in Hungary. The environment is calm (yet lively too). Teachers are regarded as professionals; outside of the classroom, we are mostly in charge of our own time. Faculty meetings are held not weekly, but as needed; smaller meetings occur when we call them. Often we just work things out with our colleagues in spare minutes in the teachers’ room, where most of us have our desks. Many of us stay late after school, but there’s no pressure to stay late, no suggestion that those who do so are better than the others. But the pay is low. My salary (on the higher end, because of my degrees and teaching experience) comes to about $12,000 per year.

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In New York City, whenever a pay raise for teachers has been on the table, I have heard talk of “givebacks.” These might include lengthening the school day and school year, increasing the number of mandatory meetings, increasing teachers’ duties outside the classroom (teachers had to monitor hallways and the cafeteria, among other things), increasing the pedagogical mandates (at many schools, lessons have to follow specified formats), mandating the regular refreshing of hallway bulletin boards (a hefty task, especially since they, like the lessons, must follow specified formats), and mandating regular contact with parents. (Here in Hungary, it’s the homeroom teacher who contacts parents if necessary; subject teachers are not expected to do so.)

The result of all this? Teachers’ salaries in New York are quite good (especially when you consider the retirement benefits and pensions, none of which I reaped, incidentally, since I left twice to write two books and was officially part-time for my last five years of teaching there). If you stay in the system a long time, you can not only afford the cost of living in New York City, but even raise a family, buy an apartment, go on nice vacations, and retire comfortably. But the school day (in many cases) is so stressful and pounding from start to finish, that even energetic people in their twenties get worn out. Even at a wonderful school, you feel the pressure of the system.

Speaking of pressure of the system (and a wonderful school), it was painful to read a recent article about my former school, the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering. According to the article, Harlem parents and others have been complaining that the school’s demographics do not reflect those of the neighborhood. While true, this criticism does not take the school’s purpose and nature into account. Columbia Secondary School makes an extraordinary commitment both to high standards and to diversity. Its enrollment is 60% African American and Hispanic; many students come from immigrant families. Moreover, the school makes a point of admitting academically promising students from the neighborhood. But since the neighborhood is historically low-performing, the school faces a dilemma. If it were to relax its admission requirements–for instance, not looking at students attendance records any more–the overall quality would go down and the general stress would go up. If, on the other hand, the school were to rely entirely on test scores for admission (instead of its current combination of interviews, essays, scores, grades, and attendance records), then the student body would represent the neighborhood even less (since the neighborhood’s average test scores are extremely low). I love the school and know that it will hold its own–but I wish it were being honored, not berated.

Yes, many things come at a cost; to set and implement a policy, or even to make life decisions, one has to understand what the cost is and what it means. And why do I have time to write this today? We have no school; it’s a “ski weekend” for those who wish to take off to the mountains. For me, it’s a chance to catch up with some translating, get ready for synagogue tomorrow (practice the leyning in particular), and, yes, write a blog post and maybe more. The cost in this case? Not much on the surface. But if you look closely, each of these things was chosen over something else. I could go on with explanations and examples. But I think the idea is clear.

 

 

Simplify (Once or Twice)

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In Walden, Thoreau wrote: “I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify.” Emerson is said to have commented, “One ‘simplify’ would have sufficed” (or something along those lines). I haven’t been able to verify this yet, but I see his purported point. Then again, it’s possible to simplify once and then simplify all over again.

Like many, I often comment on how much I have to do, but actually I am trying to keep some simplicity. It’s good not to be frazzled. With possessions, I am no ascetic, but I can live contentedly with books, CDs, clothes, a few kitchen supplies, some furniture, a few special items, a laptop with internet connection, a couple of musical instruments, and my bicycle. As far as a home goes, it doesn’t have to be big; if it has room for these things and me, and a cat, and guests now and then, that’s enough.

I am buying an apartment here in Szolnok–a beautiful little place, cozy rather than spacious. This summer I will sort out some belongings. Some things will stay in storage in NYC. Some things will move over here.  Some things will go (to charity if possible).

But back to Thoreau: pooh-pooh him all you like (because his mom supposedly did his laundry while he lived out in the woods and wrote about self-sufficiency); call him out, if you like, on the redundancy of “simplify, simplify”–but admit that he’s right about the “chopping sea of civilized life” and the principle of living by “dead reckoning.” A bit of simplicity is not surrender; it’s a staple. Like rice, it allows for feasts, fasting, and thousands of spices and sauces.

I took the photo this week while biking just past my current apartment.

Old School in Hungary: Part 5

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Whenever I go into the classroom to teach Tobias Wolff’s Old School, I am in for surprises. Sometimes the class is so lively, sometimes slow and contemplative, but in both cases it can take unexpected turns. Most of the students disliked Ayn Rand (the character) and readily explained why the narrator changes his view of her writing after hearing her speak. One student, though, resisted this line of thinking. If he had loved her writing before, she argued, shouldn’t he still love it now? Shouldn’t he be able to separate the writing from the person?

These questions brought us back again and again to the passage on pp. 92-93, where the narrator admits to something complex. He acknowledges that he has his own personal reasons for rejecting her writing, reasons that have more to do with his own shame and self-pity than with the writing itself.

The self-pity I felt at this betrayal [by Ayn Rand’s characters Dominique and Roark, who wouldn’t have shown up in the sickroom while he was sick–DS] dressed itself up as fierce affection for Grandjohn and Patty, who had done all this for me. I found myself defending them against Dominique and Roark as if they, not I, had turned up their noses at these loyal, goodhearted bores.

So the narrator admits that at the time of turning away from Rand’s writing, he was blaming her for things he had done himself–for the scorn he had felt toward his grandfather and grandfather’s wife, “these loyal, goodhearted bores.”

In the next paragraph he continues this thought:

I blamed Ayn Rand for disregarding all this [that is, his family’s difficulties and struggles, and human struggles in general–DS]. And I no doubt blamed her even more because I had disregarded it myself–because for years now I had hidden my family in calculated silences and vague hints and dodges, suggesting another family in its place. The untruth of my position had given me an obscure, chronic sense of embarrassment, yet since I hadn’t outright lied I could still blind myself to its cause. Unacknowledged shame enters the world as anger; I naturally turned mine against the snobbery of others, in the present case Ayn Rand.

But is that all there is to his criticism? In the next paragraph, he suggests otherwise. “This part of my reaction was personal and unreasoned,” he says. “But there was more. It had dawned on me that I didn’t really know anyone like Roark and Dominique.”

The student who raised the initial objection stayed staunch in her argument. “If Ayn Rand’s writing made him realize all of this,” she said, “then it must have had something.” This prompted a distinction that might not have come up otherwise. There’s no question that the narrator breaks with Ayn Rand’s writing here–partly for personal reasons, partly because he finds it lacking, and partly because he is now drawn to something else. This complex mixture of reasons cannot be summed up as a judgment against Rand’s attitudes and characters. It is that but also more. Moreover, Rand’s writing deserves some credit: after all, it was able to wake him up.

This week we read Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” in one lesson, and, in another, the Parable of the Prodigal Son and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29–all of them to help students understand allusions and references, but also for their own sake. Each of these pieces set off a discussion; “Indian Camp” had the students enthralled. As for the parable and sonnet, we read each of them carefully; then I asked the students what the two had in common. I finally asked them what they had to do with Old School (so far). The responses could fill several blog posts and more. But this is all for now.

 

This is the fifth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

The Fallacy of Growth Mindset

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Growth mindset, a term coined by Carol Dweck, consists in the belief that your intelligence is malleable: that, through practice and strategic problem-solving, you can become not only more skilled, but smarter. According to Dweck, the opposite of growth mindset is fixed mindset (the belief that your abilities are fixed). Criticism of growth mindset has generally focused on the research. If students are exposed to the concept of growth mindset, do they perform better? Take on more challenges? Persist through failure? The jury is out–but all of this evades a basic philosophical problem: growth mindset has no ultimate superiority or autonomy. People not only have both mindsets, but need both. A world of pure growth mindset would be frenetic and absurd.

I devoted the ninth chapter of Mind over Memes to this topic; I discussed it many times on this blog. Here I will make my points briefly. Each of us has both potential and limitation; the one helps the other. To do one thing well, you have to let yourself not do certain other things. Even young people, capable of doing many things at once, need to set some limits. It should not be shameful, at some point, to say “I can’t.”

Ability itself has outer limits. Most of us can get a little better at just about anything. If I wanted to get a little better at tennis (to the point where I could hit the ball), I probably could. But it’s safe to say that I would never–and I really mean never–make it to Wimbledon, except as an audience member. The same is true even for things that I do well, such as languages. I am getting better at Hungarian by the week. I will get much better within the next few years. Yet I may never reach complete fluency: being able to say anything, accurately and expressively, on any topic within my knowledge.

But even if we could do anything and everything, we would not necessarily want to. There’s something to be said for rest. It is not necessarily lazy to lie down and sleep. It is not necessarily shameful to stop working and take a walk.

It is not a copout to work a job and consider it a job–to leave it at the end of the day. As  a teacher, I take my work home, but there’s a good argument for the contained work week. It allows you to do other things, whatever those may be.

It is not shameful to spend time with others and alone, to go through the many ups and downs of life, and to choose your attentions. But that requires letting yourself be “fixed” in some ways: admitting that you want something other than constant improvement, as important as this may be.

Growth mindset advocates have already admitted that people have a mixture of mindsets. (Are they even mindsets, I wonder?) But they have not acknowledged the possible virtues of the mixture. They have not yet acknowledged that growth mindset is anything but The Answer.

It is good to believe that one can improve, and to know how to do so. But it is also good to to allow for some focus, to acknowledge that we can’t all be everything, and (at some point) to call it a day.

Old School in Hungary: Part 4

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“If they go to Kamchatka, I will be happy,” one student told me after class. “But they will never go.” He was referring to Robert Frost (the character)’s advice to George Kellogg, who won the audience with him: “Go to Kamchatka.” He was also complaining that nothing seems to be happening in the novel. “I’ve been waiting for some action,” another said. “But it is all in vain.”

This provided the opening for a discussion of action itself. What is action? I asked the class. A student defined it as something that has consequences. Does action have to be physical? I asked. No, several replied; thoughts and words can be actions. (Another time we will consider to what extent actions must be intentional, and to what extent thoughts can be considered actions, or part of actions.)

So the novel does have action, I explained, but it also has inaction, and this is important to notice. What has not happened yet that is waiting to happen?

A student who had made one of the original comments answered, “He hasn’t won a writing contest yet. Is he going to win the third one?” I wouldn’t answer that question, but I asked what else hadn’t happened yet, in relation to that. We talked about how the narrator’s character’s writing hasn’t taken off yet; he puts so much pressure on himself that he can’t write, he doesn’t like his own ideas, he’s holding something back.

Then we could look at his reaction to The Fountainhead, which he reads four times; the students were disturbed that he likes it so much, that he gets so caught up in the idea of selfishness that he even sees his grandfather and grandfather’s wife as pathetic bores who are trying to keep him down.

I began to feel their kindness as a form of aggression. Patty was pitilessly solicitous. I couldn’t touch a book without getting grilled about the sufficiency of light and the comfort of the chair. Was I warm enough? Did I need a pillow for my back? How about one of the five thousand Cokes they’d stored up in anticipation of my visit? Grandjohn kept telling me how lucky I was to have my mother’s eyes, and how proud of me she would have been. Sometimes I had to go to the bathroom and scream silently, rocking from side to side like a gorilla, my head thrown back, my teeth bared.

Everyone could recognize this kind of situation. But his attitude? In many students eyes, reprehensible. How could he not see his grandfather’s wife’s kindness and good intentions?–but I asked them if they could see any hints that this was not going to be the narrator’s final attitude. A student pointed out “I began to feel” as a temporary state; others picked up on other things. We could then consider why he works himself into a fever of (supposed) confidence over a story he hasn’t written yet, and why he collapses in French class. And then–humiliation upon humiliation–Big Jeff wins the contest. Think what you will of Big Jeff’s story–some students found it preposterous–but he wrote it.

That was one section. In the other, on Monday, I was giving them some background on Nietzsche and Rand; we read excerpts from Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Fountainhead. But some students would not let me get away with telling them that Nietzsche said that “God is dead.” What does that mean? they wanted to know. Does this mean that God was alive before? How, according to Nietzsche, did humans kill God? Was Nietzsche an atheist, or was he creating a new religion of his own? All of these are important questions, and I had never been pelted with them in this way before, so I tried to offer answers, realizing that the more important thing here was the wrestling with these questions, the insistence on making sense of them. Then a few students got onto a seeming tangent about animals. Do animals go to heaven, according to Christianity? I said there was no clear answer on this issue. If they do go to heaven, a student asked, does that include all the animals over the course of evolution? I imagine so, I said, but I really don’t know! How do you expect me to know these things?

“Teachers are supposed to be smart,” a student quipped.

“Yes, and smart people admit that they don’t know everything.” (Ha! I got them there.) So we turned our attention to the text–and from here it made sense that the narrator would get caught up in The Fountainhead, as distant as Rand supposedly is from Nietzsche, as much as she liked to think of herself as indebted to no one.

At least at this stage, liking the book is immaterial here. Or rather, the dislikes are as important as the likings, as a way of opening up the book. This is partly a surprise for me. I knew that disliking was important, but I didn’t know how much it could fuel a discussion, and what kinds of understandings it could bring out. Some lessons are so lively I can barely keep up, and others are sleepier, but we’re now in the middle of the book, following it where it goes.

The book won’t go to Kamchatka, not on the surface, anyway (I’ll give just that one spoiler). But I think some students will be surprised by where it goes.

 

This is the fourth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

I added a sentence to this piece after posting it.

Toleration, the Cracking Stone

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In my teens and twenties, I didn’t think much of the concept of toleration. It seemed condescending, grudging, arcane. Along with many others, I thought: Don’t give me toleration, give me love and acceptance. It took me decades to understand what toleration really was. I now see it as fundamental to government, basic relationships, and intellectual life; take it away, and you have factions trying to destroy each other.

Toleration is complex, contradictory, and fraught, and it can take a variety of forms. For now, I will focus on what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls the “respect component” of toleration: the idea that “even though they differ fundamentally in their ethical beliefs about the good and true way of life and in their cultural practices, citizens recognize one another as moral-political equals in the sense that their common framework of social life should—as far as fundamental questions of rights and liberties and the distribution of resources are concerned—be guided by norms that all parties can equally accept and that do not favor one specific ethical or cultural community.” In other words, to live together in a country or other entity, all parties respect each other as equals within a common ethical framework. This framework typically involves an idea of personal liberty.

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty works with this conception of toleration. According to Mill, to tolerate is to recognize each individual’s liberty to live as he or she pleases, as long as this does not impinge on the liberty of others. Such liberty benefits not only the individual, but society, which can learn and benefit from the range of opinions and ways of life. In Mill’s view, one can go far in one’s own choices before truly interfering with others; for instance, in his view, a person should not be punished for drinking, only for harmful actions that the drinking has induced. This is one of the most controversial aspects of his argument (and of toleration itself): at what point are you hurting others, and at what point are you not?

But such considerations come later. First, let us look at the merits of toleration as a basic principle. To do this, we must discard the idea that toleration is sufficient for human life. Few people, if any, can live on tolerance alone. Most of us need more than that: not only love and affection, but instruction, correction, and challenge. Treated as the sole principle of life (“live the way you wish, but leave me alone”), it condemns us to isolation. But take it away, and you have something even more dangerous. You have Trump firing those who dared to testify in the impeachment hearings; you have people “cancelling” each other online (and in some cases wrecking their careers and lives).

Toleration comes to this: You may not love me, or even like me. I may not love you, or even like you. We may not agree on all things. We may have profound differences in our beliefs and ways of life. But while we may try to persuade each other, we also recognize each other’s right to exist as we are. We will not bully each other, willfully hurt each other, or try to overpower each other. This agreement is mutual, full, and unconditional (within this framework). It is not contingent on one person being converted to the other’s way.

It is difficult in that most of us believe (at least at times) that we are right and others are wrong. Not only that, but this is often the case. How can you tolerate someone whom you see as wrong? Aren’t you under obligation to show this person the light and demand some kind of awakening?

No. “Awakening” loses all meaning if it is demanded. Moreover, even when we are right, we have things to learn, and the lessons can come from surprising places.

In my freshman year in college, in the spring of 1982 (when I had just turned 18–I was a year younger than most of the others), a friend came out to me and others as gay. His roommates decided that they did not want to room with him the following year. I felt terrible for him and decided I would try to help. So one evening I walked over to their quad and knocked on the door. One of his roommates was home. I began to talk to him, thinking I was doing something good and brave.

We talked for two or three hours; it was late when I left. The roommate explained to me that he didn’t have anything against my friend but that he had been taught, all his life, that homosexuality was wrong, and he could not get rid of that feeling overnight. Maybe he would change over time, he said, but rooming with my friend at this point would be too much. He talked about his religious upbringing, his understanding of relationships, and his awareness that his views might change. I found, to my surprise, a principled and open person, a person who was questioning himself while also staying true to who he was. Some might scoff at that. But I look back on this conversation as one of the great lessons of my life.

I have had similar lessons in politics and religion. The person who seems to be on the bad or wrong side (from your perspective) may be one of the most trustworthy people you will ever meet. The person may even become your ally or friend. Sometimes the best of friends–like Gilgamesh and Enkidu–are the ones who have battled each other, because they see each other’s strength, they are not trying to reduce the other to a version of themselves.

There are famous histories and stories of friends who disagreed about everything, for whom the disagreement was itself a sign of respect. G. K. Chesterton’s exuberant novel The Ball and the Cross is in part about two men, a Catholic and an atheist Socialist, who, after dueling each other at great length and risk, realize that they have something in common: their belief in the importance of these questions.

This kind of toleration is not grudging, haughty, or hypocritical; to the contrary, it requires a willingness to set grudges, haughtiness and superiority aside. The people involved do not have to be friends; they do not even have to know each other. Toleration can exist among strangers.

So why is it in such disrepair? Part of the reason is that it isn’t taught adequately. People are encouraged instead to take positions and stick to them. One terrible disadvantage of the debate format–which is taught all around the world, and which I include in some of my lessons–is that it turns into an exercise in proving oneself right, instead of coming closer to truth. It often doesn’t allow for a middle ground or for a subtle view, unless this is deliberately worked in. It tends to reinforce the belief that those people on the other side of the room are wrong. Debate has its place as a skill and exercise, but it cannot be the prevailing form of conversation.

Another reason is that social media has made it easy for people to join up with others who share their views. Then attacking the other side becomes a matter of course. When you can’t see the other person, you forget that this actually is a person. People get some kind of instant satisfaction from putting down people whom they will never have to face.

Yet another reason (related to the second) is that the people making the most noise appear to represent more people than they actually do; many quieter views go ignored, and many people resist speaking up because they know they will just be flailed.

But the fourth (and most important) reason for the disrepair is that toleration does not come easily. It is not immediately understood. It is never a fully settled matter, since what one person considers personal choice, another sees as an imposition or violation. The lines of liberty necessarily shift; it is on us to determine when an action is going too far, but to tend, as much as possible, toward generosity. Toleration is not something that one “has” or doesn’t have. It must be built, repaired, renovated, and inhabited, and the work does not end.

Old School in Hungary: Part 3

IMG_0935 The third chapter of Tobias Wolff’s Old School, “Frost,” has the following exchange between the narrator and Purcell (p. 44):

Frost. I don’t even know why I bothered submitting anything, given how he writes. I mean, he’s still using rhyme.

Yeah, so?

Rhyme is bullshit. Rhyme says that everything works out in the end. All harmony and order. When I see a rhyme in a poem, I know I’m being lied to. Go ahead, laugh! It’s true–rhyme’s a completely bankrupt device. It’s just wishful thinking. Nostalgia.

The situation was this: At the beginning of the third chapter, we learn that George Kellogg, the excessively benevolent editor of the Troubadour, has won the first contest and will thus get to meet with Robert Frost. Purcell dismisses the whole enterprise.

First I asked the students to explain what Purcell was saying. They did it, point by point. Then I asked what they thought of it. In the first section, one student burst out, “That’s what I think.” A few others seemed to concur. They gave reasons: to rhyme, you have to invent something; rhyme sounds pretty, whereas the world often isn’t; rhyme imitates other rhymes and rhymers. Then I asked whether anyone saw or heard rhyme in a different way. Hands shot up. One student said that good rhyme is hard, so you can admire it. Another said that we are drawn to harmony. Another said that rhyme makes a poem memorable. Another suggested that Purcell was speaking out of jealousy. Then we started talking about how rhyme can draw associations between things.

The other section was more subdued but just as perceptive. Most of them rejected Purcell’s complaint from the start. One student pointed out that you can rhyme with the word “chaos,” in which case you aren’t creating harmony at all. Another said that we rhyme all the time, that rhyme is part of our everyday language. Others talked about how rhyme makes you think.

This set us up well for the next lesson, where we discussed the rest of the chapter. When I arrived, I saw students discussing the novel in the hallway.

At the start of the lesson, I played a muffled recording of Frost reading “Mending Wall,” which they had read with me. In the first section, no one seemed to know what was going on until the very end, when one student cried out in Hungarian, “Emlékszem!” (“I remember it!”). In the other section, they recognized it right away. We then talked about the passage in Old School where the headmaster introduces Frost, and the one where the narrator’s understanding of “Mending Wall” changes as he listens to Frost reading it aloud. (This is a fictional Frost, but I can imagine Frost reading like this.)

Then the teacher Mr. Ramsey’s challenge: Aren’t those poetic forms–rhyme, stanzas, etc.–outmoded? Shouldn’t poetry reflect modern consciousness? And Frost’s response (of which this quote, from p. 53, is just a fraction):

I am thinking of Achilles’ grief, he said. That famous, terrible, grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry—sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry.

We talked about the difference between grief and grievance, poetry and petition–and everything seemed to be settling unsettlingly into place. Then in the last minute, I asked, “What advice did Frost give George when they finally met?”

“Go to Kamchatka!” they cried out. “Or Brazil!”

And what do you think this advice means?

In one of the sections, students called out: “Go see the world!” “Step out of your comfort zone!”

But a student in the other section heard it differently. He thought Frost was subtly getting back at George for (as he interpreted it) making fun of him. That left me in thought as we headed on to our next stops in the day.

 

This is the third in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

Goodbye, Minnaloushe

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This morning I took Minnaloushe to the vet to have her put down. There was no good reason to wait longer. She could barely walk, since her tumor was dragging her down. Back in January, when I took her to the animal hospital in Budapest, it was so large and diffuse that they said it could not be operated. It must have doubled in size since then. She was bearing it all bravely, but each day got harder for her; sometimes when I stroked her she would start purring a wailing purr, a purr that sounded like a scream.

Each day was a question. Is it time yet? Should I wait just a little longer? Then yesterday the question narrowed down: today, tomorrow, Monday, or Tuesday? Yesterday afternoon I could find no vet office that was open; a couple were technically open, but no vets were there. Sunday all the offices would be closed. I thought waiting until Monday would put Minnaloushe through too much pain. Tuesday was the day when I could bring her back to the vet who had seen her before, but that was too far away. So this morning I brought out the cat carrier and put her inside. She didn’t resist me, and it took a few minutes before she could work up a meow.

Carrying her on foot to the vet, I realized how much weight she had lost since January. The carrier used to be heavy; now it was light. Before heading over there, I stopped by the Zagyva river and let her sit on the wall, to hear the ducks and feel the fresh air. Then I put her back in the carrier and walked onward.

In the waiting room, there were several people with dogs. One family was gathered around a little dog, stroking him and crying. The dog was still alive, but I knew they were about to say goodbye to him. They let everyone go ahead of them; they were waiting it out with the dog as long as they could. I let myself cry too. I went into the vet’s room before them.

The vet was astounded by the size of Minnaloushe’s tumor (he called it “borzasztó,” which means “awful,” “tremendous”). There was no question that this was the time for her to go. He asked me to leave the room, but I said that I wished to stay if possible. He said I could, so while the assistant kept hold of Minnaloushe, I held her head in my hand and stroked her. She was mostly calm; she struggled a little, but not much. They put her in a box, and I carried her home. I had decided on cremation–I regretted not doing this for Aengus, so this was in memory of him too–and called the cremation office when I got home. One of their staff came out to Szolnok, to my apartment, and picked Minnaloushe up. I had wrapped her in the blue towel she used to love to cuddle in; he let me put her, towel and all, in his carrier. He, or one of his colleagues, will come back tomorrow and give me the urn with her ashes.

She was a great companion. The best word for her is “lelkes,” the Hungarian word for “enthusiastic” (but it has the same root as “lélek,” “soul”). If anyone came by, she would run up and greet the person (while she was still well, that is). She didn’t usually play with toys on her own, but if I tossed a toy, she would run and pounce on it. She also enjoyed things that dangled from strings, as well as strings themselves.

She and Aengus (the other cat I brought with me to Hungary–he died two years ago) started out as resolute foes, then grew close. But their relations grew tense again after we moved to Hungary, maybe because they had to share a much smaller space. Even so, they were troopers.

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After Aengus died, Minnaloushe annexed his share of the kingdom, but day after day she bore her regal status humbly, greeting me at the door, waiting patiently for me to feed her, and napping on the bed or floor while I worked at my desk. But she also did things that were emphatically the ways of a cat.

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Many people have met her over the years–played with her, stroked her, sung to her. A few have taken care of her during my travels. Many have been thinking of her lately, asking about her, and wishing us the best. Thanks to all of you.

Goodbye, Minnaloushe.

Old School in Hungary: Part 2

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I don’t want to say anything yet about today’s discussion of part of the third chapter, “Frost”–in particular, George’s poem, Frost’s take on it, and Purcell’s attitude toward rhyme–because the other section will be discussing this tomorrow.

On Monday, in class, we (both sections) read and discussed the second chapter, “On Fire,” and talked about many things: the class picture of the boys who had died, decades ago, in a fire supposedly caused by smoking; why the narrator was drawn to smoking, and why he finally stopped smoking at school; what it might say about him that he could imagine the consequences of his smoking; why Big Jeff, who started the current fire with a failed rocket experiment, does not get in trouble; why Purcell wishes (or claims to wish) that Big Jeff had been expelled; and why the narrator decides to submit not his fireman poem, but rather his elk poem, to the competition. At the end, we considered how the chapter wove together past, present, and future.

The discussions went gracefully–thoughtful comments, a good rhythm, enough time to slow down with certain passages. But today something took off. It surprised me. I hadn’t expected such a lively and moving discussion of rhyme itself. But more about that another time, after a little more time has gone by.

This is the second in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.