The Millefoglie of Success

graduation 2017

Yesterday the fourth graduating class of Columbia Secondary School did what a graduating class is supposed to do: graduate. Heralded with cheers, a mini-orchestra, thoughtful speeches, and a gathering on the steps of the Low Library, the students passed from one stage of life to the next. Yet I sensed that many of them had already done this internally; while relieved to graduate, they had already entered college in their minds and plans. For others, the ceremony may have held some sadness; maybe they had no family there, or they knew they would miss their friends. Still others went into the ceremony with great pride. Most of them, I imagine, had layers and mixtures of these and other emotions.

Success is not understood simply; maybe it is like a millefoglie in motion, with the “thousand” layers sometimes coming together in elegant pastry, sometimes flying past each other, sometimes jumbling in a heap. Any given moment holds more possibilities than can be grasped. Even out on the steps, congratulating and saying goodbye to students, I felt and sensed changing mixtures of elation, pride, affection, melancholy, distance, memory, dignity, hilarity, impatience, restfulness, and more, inside and outside myself. Yet all together they made up something beautiful.

It is a CONTRARIWISE piece from two years ago that brings the millefoglie to mind: “Carpe Diem” by Andrea Sarro, Margherita Pelliconi, Giulia Dall’Olio, Maria Sole Venturi, and Giovanni Mastropasqua. They write that “the millefoglie for dessert is the future, because we have different paths to take as the different pastry layers.” I would add that within each of us there are many simultaneous paths, making for a complex pastry indeed, hard to imagine in time, even less on a plate.

Yesterday, to my great honor, I found that a Rabbi Howard Jacoby Ruben, head of the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, had referred to my article “The Cult of Success” in his moving summer sendoff piece “The Summer Ahead: Looking for Wonder,” which explores the nature of success and wonder through the examples of a mathematician (Grigori Perelman), two musicians (Joshua Bell and Chance the Rapper), and a rabbi (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel). The piece is rich with references; at one point Rabbi Ruben paraphrases Pirkei Avot 4.1, which “urges us to identify wisdom in those who learn from everyone, wealth in those who appreciate their own unique portion, and honor in those who honor others.”

I found myself thinking about the Pirkei Avot passage long afterward. We often juxtapose external and internal success; external success, we realize, often distracts us from what matters. But the passage reminds me that it is we who define external success. We decide whom we will call wise, wealthy, and honorable; those definitions and designations affect those around us. “Societal views” are not just handed to us; we shape them through our thoughts, words, and actions.

As I remember members of this graduating class–whom I taught for two years, and for whom I wrote many college recommendations–I think of their kind and appreciative words for others, spoken many times over time. Seeing the good in others is no meager act or capacity; it influences everything. To see the good, you must also acknowledge that you do not see everything, that what you see and know literally is only a glimpse. The good, after all, comes in glimmers; the cynical dismiss it as illusion, but the courageous see through to its form.

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Images: I took the first photo yesterday (June 22) after the Columbia Secondary School graduation ceremony and the second photo on May 30 on Eurovelo 11.

Ateliers philosophiques et artistiques

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On the website of the Sainte Pulchérie Fransız Lisesi, there is a lovely article about my two weeks of teaching at the school. Besides describing my classes, it mentions some of the school events during my stay, some student honors and accomplishments (including publication in CONTRARIWISE), and more. My gratitude goes to everyone at the school–Dr. Nimet Küçük, M. Alexandre Abellan, students, teachers, and staff–and to everyone involved with CONTRARIWISE.

New Poem: The Swing

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The Swing

There stood a swing by the edge of town
that lifted us over our plight.
It graced the ragged grass of a farm,
and the hired hand would pause and watch
as we kicked off into the blue,
one at a time, over the years,
swinging with nothing else in our eyes
but the edge of town and the sky.

This man had seen people come and go
and whole populations go.
Such memories rob your mind, he said;
they steal on you at any old hour
unless you have toils and cares.
So he tended the hens and watched the swing.
It was the swing, he said, that creaked
his ragged mind to repose.*

I came here when in doubt of the world
or in need of a tilt of soul.
Dozens of others have done the same:
we swang and thought, swang and thought
our way into gilded mind.
All of us yearned for an edge of town,
a place to sit in the wind and song,
a place that stood against time.

Inside, the owners looked on the scene,
their gladness seething with pride.
It is good, they screamed, with our children grown,
that the swing has carried on for so long,
but look at the filth and the noise.
Tomorrow we’ll take it down, they vowed.
And so it happened: overnight
a canticle ceased to be swung.

Not long ago I saw a swing
much like the one I had known.
It stood on a farm, removed from the road,
so I watched from afar, and it eyed me too,
as though we were both on display.
I shook my head and headed on.
The cost of speaking was far too harsh;
the hush, too awesome and true.

 

*He may not have found the hens as calming.

Image credit: I took the photo during my bike trip in northern Hungary.

The Cats of Istanbul

Yesterday I learned from David Costanza (Art of Flying) about Kedi, Ceyda Torun’s documentary about the cats of Istanbul! It looks absolutely wonderful; I will write about it after watching it in full.

Speaking of Istanbul cats, it would be a shame not to assemble the photos I took of some of them. Here is a slideshow of fifteen pictures. What moved me was not only the omnipresence of cats, but the love with which they were treated. The first two pictures–of a mother and baby cat inside a restaurant–came thanks to a stranger on the street. He saw me photographing cats and, with hand gestures, urged me to go inside.

While in Istanbul, I sent Andrew Gelman some cat photos in case he wanted any of them for his blog. So far, he has used two; you can see them here and here.

To Have a Home

Last night, at the B’nai Jeshurun Annual Meeting, our rabbis announced their decision regarding interfaith marriage, a decision that emerged from long deliberation and contemplation, including a full year of discussions, lectures, and other events, as well as prayer, thought, and conversation. I quote from their written announcement, which appears on the BJ website:

Beginning in 2018, we plan to celebrate and officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples who are committed to creating Jewish homes and raising any children as Jews. Drawing from traditional Jewish sources, rituals and symbols, we will create a new Jewish wedding ceremony for these couples.

We will continue to hold to the traditional matrilineal definition of Jewishness. We are not prepared to depart from k’lal Yisrael (the total Jewish community) by independently adopting a different approach in defining Jewish identity. In other words, we are not changing the halahic definition of who is a Jew. As rabbis, we have the space to decide whom we officiate for, and there is no concern about the validity of such marriages in the larger Jewish world. However, we don’t want to put BJ members in the situation of having their Jewish identity questioned or contested beyond the BJ community.

We take these steps with deep loyalty to the Jewish past and with unwavering commitment to the Jewish future. We will embrace a renewed sense of inclusiveness toward those who seek to be part of our community.

103 kosice synagogueI listened in wonder. This was not an easy decision; people at BJ and beyond have a range of views on the issue. The decision affects the rabbis’ relationship with the congregation, with other congregations, with Jewish organizations, with Israel, and with Judaism overall. It is not only about marriage ceremonies but about spiritual and practical focus: where to place the emphases and efforts.

What about those who wish to marry but do not wish to build Jewish homes? They have other possibilities, outside BJ. What matters here is that an interfaith couple committed to Jewish life will not be turned away, nor will the non-Jewish partner be required to convert to Judaism for the union to be recognized. Yet traditional definitions of Jewish identity will remain intact. The implications are great but also subtle; they will reveal themselves over time.

Readers of this blog have probably noticed that I am Jewish. I come from an interfaith (or rather, non-religious) parentage and many backgrounds: Eastern European Jewish on my mother’s side (with ancestors from Ukraine, Hungary/Slovakia, and Lithuania) and French, Norwegian (probably Sami), Irish, German, and more on my father’s. All of this is part of who I am. I just visited the town of one of my great-grandfathers (my maternal grandmother’s father); one day I hope to visit other ancestral places, including the northern reaches of Norway. Nor is ancestry the whole point for me, or even close; I know myself through the things I do and think, the music and literature I love, the friends I make, the things I learn, the changes I undergo, the things I lose, and the truths that stay with me over time.

I have been preparing for teaching at the Dallas Institute’s Summer Institute in July; my first lecture will be on Aeschylus’s Eumenides, in which Athena initiates the first Athenian murder trial by jury, bringing an end to a cycle of bloodshed and revenge. Her genius lies not only in the innovation, but in its respect for the hidden layers of society and life. The Furies, who seemed threatening and repulsive to Apollo, become a revered and essential part of the new order–far below the surface, in the depths of the home. In this way, the civic imagination makes room for the seen and unseen, the public and private, the new and the ancient; moreover, it finds beauty in what some would have dismissed as hideous. This is perhaps the foundation of what Edmund Burke and others (including David Bromwich in his magnificent book by the title) would call “moral imagination,” which has to do with seeing things in their depth, beyond their surface appearance or immediate utility. (There is more to it than that.)

I was in the presence of moral imagination last night. How great it is to have such a home.

Image credit: I took this photo on May 29 in the gallery of the Košice synagogue. It appears in my slideshow as well.

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

Storks

I saw a storks in three towns in Hungary and Slovakia. At least two of the three nests had babies, which were difficult to photograph. Only rarely did they poke their heads out, and only once, in one blurry photo, do they show up. But I took a few videos too, and they appear in this one. Why does this little clip give me joy? It has to do with the many sounds, the watchfulness of the parent stork, the squirminess of the young, the messy grandeur of the nest, and the entire scene. Also, I stood there for a long time; when something gets you to pause like that, it makes a mark on you. Even the pausing itself makes a mark.

In the Thick of It (or Not)

midsummerLast night I woke up with the beginnings (or rather the ending) of a poem; within half an hour, I wrote the whole thing. It’s a sonnet, like many of my others.

I want it to begin below this picture, so I’ll go on here for another sentence or two. Why a sonnet? What’s so appealing about this form? I am drawn to the conciseness, the logic, and especially the volta; but beyond that, the more sonnets I write, the better I know their language. I am not sure that sonnets should tell stories, as this one does, and some of my others do–but since this is a story about telling a story, I think the form fits. (Why am I ambivalent about sonnet-stories? That’s a discussion for another time.)

The Misunderstanding

The room was loud, so after spurts of whats
and I-can’t-hear-yous, I declaimed a tale,
doused with illusion, of a bowl of kale
all crinkly somber green, sprinkled with nuts
and lush tomatoes…. where from here? A klutz
with small talk, stumped beyond the pale,
I nailed the salad part, but when the frail
rundown ran out, I flailed in ands and buts.

And while you smiled, and while the windowsill
cracked open into breeze, and I believed
that every nod of audience you meant,
that, just as I poured forth with the intent
of giving, so with soul was I received,
a fragile evening glittered in goodwill.

With poetry, as with music and other things, I am either in the thick of it or not; when immersed, I have one idea after another–no trouble with “writer’s block,” yet a strong sense of how to improve, where to go from here, what to try, what to refine.  I am not good at “sort of” doing things; I have to be surrounded by the idiom.

When not in the thick of it, I have trouble doing it at all; a poem might come now and then, but scrapingly.

This one didn’t scrape, though. Maybe there will be more soon.

Art credit: Henry Towneley Green, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1895.

“And so it begins, again.”

contrariwise meeting

The above title quotes the “Five Word” (as opposed to last year’s “Four Word”) of the fourth issue of CONTRARIWISE. You can see all four issues side by side on the table. Today I went in to meet with the current and future editors-in-chief (two current, two future) and the faculty advisor–to discuss carrying CONTRARIWISE into the future. The new editors seemed eager to take on their new roles; the outgoing two, Kelly and Alan (who graduate in just over a week), regaled them with good advice.

It is not easy to give up the journal. I handed it over a year ago and stayed out of the production except when someone had a question for me or when I had a specific role to play (such as facilitating an Istanbul/NYC Skype conversation) or contributing to today’s meeting. All the same, I awaited the fourth issue eagerly and often opened up the earlier ones for browsing and reading. I remembered meetings, hours of editing and layout, deliberations, dilemmas, jokes, mishaps, sudden ideas, and uproarious yet serious celebrations.

But in giving it up, each person (the editors-in-chief or I) gave something to it. Others could now take charge of it and carry it onward, and the journal could strengthen its spine. No one left it abruptly; each person gave thought to its editorship and future. Those who took it over–editors and faculty advisor–did a terrific job. At this rate, there will be a fifth issue in 2018, a sixth issue in 2019, and onward, into the unknown. Or maybe the unknown will come first; who knows.

So as far as lettings-go go, this one went pretty well.

“How Was It?”

When I come back from a trip–or anything, really–and people ask, “How was it?” I don’t know what to say. “Rich, beautiful, fantastic,” etc.–those are generic words, but if I go into too much detail, I might try anyone’s patience, including my own. Moreover, the most important parts are often the most difficult to sum up. So I put together a slideshow–just a fraction of the photos I took, but a hint of the three weeks. To avoid big downloads and crashes, I put it on YouTube. (I adjusted and re-uploaded it several times; this is the final version.)

Also, I made a short video playlist of musicians I heard on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul. I find myself listening to these songs again and again.

Speaking of “How was it?” yesterday I saw a delightful performance of The Government Inspector, Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s play. The acting, stage set, directing, and the text itself combined into a performance that was part social satire, part panorama of human vice, and part utter silliness and play. I was grateful that that last part, the silliness and play, did not get short shrift; to me, it was the greatest part of all. Afterward there was a discussion with the director, Jesse Berger; the Russian scholar and author Emil A. Draitser; and several members of the cast.

Gogol’s play and the adaptation have the same basic plot: Residents of a small provincial town learn of the imminent arrival of a revizor, or government inspector. They scramble to cover up the town’s far-reaching corruption. In the meantime, Khlestakov, a self-indulgent, imaginative, unsuspecting dandy, has been staying at the inn for a week; once his presence is noted, people assume he is the revizor himself. This plays out hilariously–and in this production, everyone is having fun. But there’s also a sad irony: while believing they are covering up their foibles, the townspeople actually reveal one vice after another, particularly obsequiousness. What seems like concealment unravels into disclosure.

But this does not sum up the play, the adaptation, or the performance; as I was watching, I noticed that each scene, and many moments within the scenes, come across as pictures, po-gogolevski. The wordless scene at the end–the famous “nemaia stsena”–still shifts and staggers in my mind.

This actually brings me back to my trip. The four lessons I taught in Istanbul (to four sections of eleventh-graders) were about the relation between concealment and disclosure in specific works of art, music, and literature: a Degas painting, a Verlaine poem, the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7, a passage from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and Chekhov’s story “Home.” This play would have been a great addition to that syllabus, had there been time for it. In that sense, the study continues.

So my reply to “How was it?” is “Was? No, is.”

Popularity Sans Teeth

IMG_3280Mitch Prinstein’s New York Times op-ed “Popular People Live Longer” bounces between conflicting conceptions of popularity and fails to establish a working definition. For this reason I trust neither the premise nor the conclusions. Moreover, it relies heavily on Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s meta-study, which examines the relationship between the quality and quantity of one’s relationships (not popularity exactly) and one’s mortality. But what is popularity anyway? Some clarity would have helped.

In the fourth paragraph, in passing, Prinstein seems to define lack of popularity (“being unpopular”) as “feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely.” This conflation of the subjective and objective confuses the issue. If “being unpopular” is the same as “feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely,” then “being popular” would be the same as “feeling included, connected, fulfilled.” Yet there are plenty of people with few but strong friendships who feel “included, connected, fulfilled.” Does having just a few good friends, then, make you popular, if you feel good about the situation?

If so, then standards definitions of popularity go out the window. In dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster, popularity is associated with “common” or “general” approval, not the strong approval or support of the few, or with one’s own feelings of acceptance and fulfillment. Has Prinstein pulled a Humpty Dumpty on us?

No–I suspect that instead he has just used the wrong word and concept. Popularity is not the issue here. It may be that some combination of the number of one’s friends, the quality of one’s friendships, and one’s own feelings of inclusion can have a great effect on one’s health. In fact, Lunstad and colleagues emphasize the importance of the combination: ” Importantly, the researchers also report that social relationships were more predictive of the risk of death in studies that considered complex measurements of social integration than in studies that considered simple evaluations such as marital status.” (I view Holt-Lunstad’s study cautiously but see possibilities in the general principle.)

In other words, Lunstad’s study is not about popularity in the first place. Prinstein writes that “Dr. Holt-Lunstad found that people who had larger networks of friends had a 50 percent increased chance of survival by the end of the study they were in.” Yet Holt-Lunstad says “stronger,” not “larger”: “Across 148 studies (308,849 participants), the random effects weighted average effect size was OR = 1.50 (95% CI 1.42 to 1.59), indicating a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships.”

Very well. What about Prinstein’s own discussion of popularity?

He wisely distinguishes between different kinds of popularity, particularly between likability and status–and notes that Facebook likes have more to do with the latter than the former. “Which means that it wouldn’t kill you to step away from Twitter once in a while,” he concludes, bringing me close to to liking the piece. Yet he fails to make other necessary distinctions–not only between subjective and objective states, not only between number and quality of relationships, but also between one’s qualities and others’ responses to them, and between likability and virtue overall.

Likability,” he says, “reflects kindness, benevolent leadership and selfless, prosocial behavior.” First of all, likability, defined in this manner, is not equal to being liked; it is just the state of qualifying for being liked. You can show kindness and benevolence and still be shunned by those around you. In fact, this has happened often through the ages.

But there’s another rub. Often to be kind and benevolent, you have to do things that others don’t immediately like. Suppose, for instance, you are the principal of a school that has had ongoing problems with bullying. To curb the bullying, you institute a schoolwide program of discipline and character education. Students start complaining that it’s stupid; teachers, that it’s taking too much time from other things; parents, that their own child doesn’t need it. But you persist with the plan. Over time, the bullying goes away, and the school’s new practices become habitual. People now praise the character education program for its content and effects. Students who used to dread coming to school now thrive in their classes and walk easily down the hallways. But for this to happen, you had to risk being disliked.

That leads to more brambles still. Likability is not the only virtue in life. Often there is reason to do things that come into conflict with likability. Of course, to do good or to accomplish something important, one need not be gratuitously nasty or cold–but sometimes one needs an independent streak, an ability to think and act alone. It is possible that such internal strength also contributes to longevity.

All in all, Prinstein’s working premise needs much more probing, definition, and refinement. In addition, the forthcoming book (from which the op-ed is adapted) needs a new title. Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World mimics Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (and other titles with similar formulas). It’s too late–the book comes out tomorrow–but did the author and publisher choose this title for the sake of popularity? Or was it meant as a tribute? Either way, it’s a shame; the title limits the book by establishing a flawed opposition. Don’t judge a book by its title and accompanying op-ed, I remind myself, but the two leave me with doubts.

 

I took this photo on Eurovelo 11 in Hungary.