Blasts from the Present and Past

IMG_0398

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

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

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

IMG_0406

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

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

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

IMG_0411

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

Pilgrimage in Winter (an old poem, recently revised)

Pilgrimage in Winter

Diana Senechal

Praise for the hill and the cold air over the hill,
the stones on the hill, the stones on stones, the stone
in my hand. The one who moved me over the land,
may you rest well, brave soul; may blessings fall
on those you led from the cruelest fields and those
you helped bring forth. Great worker, receive this stone,
these feet, these tears. I will be leaving soon,
lest figures form or I start taking stock.
I know what Buber meant: measure has fled;
shadow and light have joined. There is no picture.
For a moment (where are its edges?) I was with you,
a moment past the fence around myself.

A fenceless hill it seemed, without a tree;
a glittering snow came down later that day
and blessed the stones. By then I had gone home,
but nothing was the same. I mean this not
in a colloquial sense. I mean: the desk
had lost its former purpose. Sitting to write,
I buoyed with words. I took a walk and sang
the snowfall, marveled at the marks of paws,
and thought again of clambering up that hill,
and praised the source of chill around my head.

It happens to you, and you walk alone.
This truth comes over you: this secret that
can never be a secret, as it’s all
that has been known and all that can be known.
No, that’s not true. My speck was just a speck;
against it, an encyclopedia
could still do well, I figure. All the same,
I walk bareminded to the end of love.

Thank you for the company of good prophets.
Thank you for the closed fountain underground.
Here is the weight of all that I have met;
here is the mark of dignity in stone.
Where, though, where are you? Memory wraps up,
unwraps again, and wraps, but finds hard air.

Stones there were many. The one I left behind
joined a sweet multitude but stayed alone.
Music is made of solitudes like this.
Somewhere, in the kindred air, there were songs.

A miracle, your life; a miracle
to meet a speck of it through hill and stone.

Minnaloushe

IMG_6203

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

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

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

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

The Cat and the Moon

W. B. Yeats

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_7195

A Great Tuesday Evening

IMG_0204
I had planned to spend most of the afternoon reading Krisztián Grecsó’s Vera, from which Grecsó will read on Thursday when he visits our school and the library. Before today, I was about thirty pages into it. I figured I would read for five hours or so. But I got home only to realize that I had left the book at school–and I was planning to see the movie Seveled at 8:15 at the Tisza Mozi. It seemed best to go back to school, pick up the book, bike on down to the Tisza Mozi, and read for a few hours at the cinema’s café. I read up to page 109, without a dictionary, and expect to reach at least the halfway point tomorrow. It’s a wonderful novel and–assuming I keep this up at a reasonable pace–the first novel I will have read in Hungarian.

Seveled (directed by Dénes Orosz) was bittersweet and funny, with some intense beauty. I read about it on blogSzolnok and decided to see it. And I understood it! That was a happy surprise, since it was the first Hungarian comedy film I had seen. In some ways, comedy is easy to understand–a comic situation is often recognizable–but in other ways, it’s more difficult than the weightier genres. So it was really rewarding to get the jokes and laugh along with others. There were many good things about this film, but I especially loved the mother character (played by Juli Básti).

And then there was the bike ride home. To return from the Tisza Mozi, I just have to go north on Szapáry (which has a generous bike lane) and then make a few short turns. It’s a five- or ten-minute ride–and where the path is clear, I pedal full speed.

Here is a photo from earlier in the day, on Batthyány Street, where the pet supply store is located (but this isn’t a photo of the shop). I got a few things for my cat Minnaloushe and then walked home in the rain, enjoying this street (I had not brought my bike to school, knowing that I would have some big things to carry home). So, come to think of it, it was a pretty good day–and I haven’t even brought up the teaching, which went well too.

IMG_0202

New Poem: “Celebrity”

IMG_0111

Celebrity

Diana Senechal

Stop, gossips: before your knee-tongues jerk
out into “snob,” consider who you name,
think of her easy gliding up the same
stairway you throng down onto. Try to work

some silence for a change; notice her own,
the way she harbors thought, her gently cold
turn of the head, her shroud. Your overtold
rumors make petty clatter; glancing down

barely, she laughs, not like a brittle queen
weary of her rude realm, but like a boy
who sees his checkmate move. Those who enjoy
solving puzzles may know of her demesne,

which worships only the divinity
of doing well, where art, clothes, syllables
blaze calm through meme and slogan. Dogma falls,
will always fall, against infinity.

I too have wondered how such equipoise
can fill a woman, so that all your names,
rumors, and taunts—even your gilded fames
and praises—fizzle into wisps of noise.

Maybe a brutal grief taught her the cost
of stooping even slightly for the sake
of pleasing. Maybe she turned mistake
into magnificence. But having lost

a thing or two, I want for once to live
up to the dark and say: I do not know.
You say you’ll pay me if I say I know,
but I say no. I want for once to live.

 

(At first, this poem echoes Richard Wilbur’s “Still, Citizen Sparrow”; the echo fades as the poem progresses.)

Goodbye to a Friend

johnny strike and the stalkers 1
It had been a while since I had heard from my friend Johnny Strike (John Bassett), so this morning I googled him and found out that he died of cancer in September 2018. I then started reading tributes to him–by people who knew him, people who admired his music and writing, people who remembered him sharply, or all three.

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

johnny strike and the stalkers 2

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

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

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

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

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

“Self-Partnered”? Or Self-Branded?

IMG_0108

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

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

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

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

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

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

I changed the title slightly after posting this piece.

Nagykörű, Almost

IMG_0171

It has been a while since I went on a good long bike ride, so this afternoon I biked to Nagykörű–well, not all the way into town, but to the outlying farms. Nagykörű is famous for its cherries; I hope to go back in spring to see the cherry trees in bloom. Also, I discovered the northward continuation of Eurovelo 11, which I had been trying to find for a long time. The bike path picks up again about 20 kilometers north of Szolnok (after a stretch of regular road), and it’s glorious riding. If you zoom in on the picture below, you will see a deer standing in the middle of the road. This happened twice–but they disappeared from sight before I got close.

IMG_0162

Besides deer, I saw many birds of prey (maybe falcons and one huge bird that could have been an eagle), a hare, an animal that looked like a fox from a distance (with a long bushy tail), and some farm animals, including the beautiful Racka sheep with their spiral horns. I had never seen sheep like these before.

I turned around after seeing them, because a few began to hurry away as I came nearer.  I didn’t want to bother them. Also, the sun was well on its way to setting, and I wanted to get back before dark. But now that I have found the bike path, I intend to go back and continue farther. Maybe even this month.

IMG_0180

On the way to Nagykörű (or rather, by way of digression), I went to Millér, having read about it on blogSzolnok. I tried to go into the nature preserve, but the dirt road was muddy, and only afterwards did I realize that I had come within meters of the Open Air Water Museum. Another time I will go see both.

IMG_0155

All of these photos are from the bike ride. I added to this piece after posting it.

Dancing Into the Dance

IMG_0134

This was my third year attending our school’s annual Kati Day (on Friday) and ball (last night). On “Kati Day” (the saint day for Katalin, and the culmination of a week of serious silliness at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium), the ninth-graders compete against each other in performance (after a week of campaigning with costumes, stunts, games, and acts) and then are “initiated” into the school in a humorous ceremony. At the twelfth-graders’ ball, members of the eleventh grade officiate; the principal gives an address, the seniors get pinned with ribbons (symbolizing a step toward graduation and adulthood); and they (the seniors) perform ballroom and modern dances for their peers, families. There’s dinner too, and time to get hungry for it.

It was a special year for me, since I am the “vice form teacher” for Class 9C (who won first place) and teach students from every twelfth-grade class (A, B, C, and D). Also, knowing students better and being more familiar with these traditions, I could see, more clearly than in previous years, that not every student felt comfortable participating in them. What do you do if you’re asked to do something that you feel awkward or even pained doing? When everyone else seems to be having a great time? To me, that’s one of the most important aspects of these traditions. They teach you how to dance into the dance. As I see it, that is part of the meaning of these days: that they have room even for people who don’t feel fully part of them.

In life we often come up against things that we don’t want to do. We have several choices. We can walk away, say “sorry, that’s not for me,” and go on with life. We can try to change our feelings about them. Or we can walk into them as we are, finding a way to participate without giving ourselves up. This third way offers flexibility; without it, the choices would be grim. Walking away may be necessary at times, but if it’s the only choice you perceive, you can end up isolating yourself and ignoring real possibilities. Trying to make yourself enjoy things may occasionally work, but often it will just lead to more stress. Finding your own way into it requires imagination, and that’s part of the beauty of it too.

The headmaster gave a speech about entering adulthood. If I understood correctly, he said that adulthood requires two things (among others): the ability to concentrate and the ability to exercise fantasy. The second isn’t commonly associated with adulthood; to the contrary, people think of adulthood as the end of fantasy. But it’s precisely in adulthood when fantasy becomes necessary: for raising children, imagining possibilities in life, and seeing a situation from different angles. In this sense, finding your way into the dance requires fantasy too (and the ability to concentrate, for that matter).

Even teachers have to find their own way to participate. A few don’t attend–maybe they can’t, or maybe once in a while they opt out. A few cheer for every act and take dozens of pictures. A few relax, talk with their colleagues, and enjoy what there is to enjoy. A few are fully involved as form teachers–leading the students during the pinning ceremony, and maybe even dancing too. A few take this time to say hello to former students who come back to visit.

I was a mixture of the second, third, and fifth of these. I was thoroughly enjoying it, and also had a chance to talk a little with colleagues and say hello to former students. I was hoping that it wouldn’t be rude to leave at 8:45, since I had a ticket to go hear Krisztián Grecsó and Róbert Hrutka in concert at the Tisza Mozi at 9. As it happened, people were just starting to leave at 8:45, so I left too, walked quickly to the Tiszavirág bridge, clattered over it in my semi-high heels, arrived at the concert just on time (in a packed hall–it is good that I got the ticket in advance), and got absorbed in the music and readings. Grecsó read stories, a poem, and novel excerpts in between the songs, which were sometimes duos and sometimes Hrutka’s solos. They also joked quite a bit and had the audience laughing, but there were sad parts too. It was a gorgeous performance. This video, from a different performance, gives a sense of what it was like. One of my favorite songs that they played starts at 2:14 (the video gives just an excerpt, though, in two parts). I look forward to hearing Grecsó read from his new novel, Vera, when he returns to Szolnok on October 12. (He will give readings at both Varga and the library.)

So it is possible–not always, but often–to find your way into something, to participate as yourself. There’s something profoundly rewarding about doing so. As an editor-in-chief of CONTRARIWISE once said, “It took a lot of time, but I think we finally saw the cake.”

Image credits: I took all the photos; they are all of last night’s ball, except for the three at the bottom, which are of Kati Week and Kati Day. The video was filmed and posted by OrosCafé (camera by József Dancsó, editing by Ádám Patakfalvi).

CONTRARIWISE Continues!

contrariwisebanner

Way back in the spring of 2014, the first boxes of CONTRARIWISE arrived at Columbia Secondary School. I was on alert for the shipment–but when it came, I would not open a box; I wanted to wait until the editors in chief were available, so that they could do the honors. I remember standing nearby as they cut the box open (with a key, I think, or maybe with scissors) and took out a volume–elegant, crisp, and colorful. All the work that had gone into this journal was now in their hands. The rest of the day was filled with signings, distribution of gift copies, sales, congratulations, exclamations.

Soon they received their first review: “NYC Techie Kids Buck Trend, Take On Humanities,” by Cynthia Haven. In May 2014, we had our first CONTRARIWISE celebration, at Word Up Books in Washington Heights. I have a short video of the part where I sang the “Contrariwise song“–based on the Major General’s Song–which I had written just for the event. (Thanks to Mr. Gerald Pape, who shot the video.) After the song, the editors in chief close out the ceremony, and a member of the audience–then in sixth grade–reminds them, “You were supposed to answer my question about time.”

That audience member is now in twelfth grade and—for the second consecutive year–one of the editors-in-chief of CONTRARIWISE. I just received a message from him that the sixth volume is at the printer–to be released very soon–and that the contest and writing prompts for Volume 7 are now available. I will copy the prompts below in just a moment. Right now I am contemplating what it took, from many people, to keep the journal going and lively all this time. I initiated it and was the faculty advisor for its first three years. Then Kim Terranova advised it for two years, and then John Beletsky stepped into the role. There have been four pairs of editors in chief: Ron Gunczler and Nicholas Pape, Kelly Clevenson and Alan Rice, Zosia Caes and Melany Garcia, and the current editors, Amogh Dimri and Theo Frye Yanos. In addition, CONTRARIWISE has had an editorial board throughout its history–students who read, discuss, and select submissions, judge the contests, help with sales, and plan events. Beyond that, CONTRARIWISE has been enlivened by its readers–people who buy copies, read them, enjoy them, and maybe even submit an Infrequently Asked Question or two (or five or ten).

Here are the new prompts and submission information, courtesy of the editors-in-chief. Everything except for the first one (the National Contest) is open to high school students around the world. Submissions must be in English. The new deadline is January 20. The information will soon be up on the CONTRARIWISE website (which will be restructured as well as updated, according to my sources).

National Writing Contest (select one) — for students in the U.S.

  • How should crimes be punished in the ideal society, and should they be at all? What is the purpose of “punishment” — an act of enforcing individual justice, or of maintaining the cohesion of the broader society? You may relate your argument to history or current legal systems as well if you would like. (Below is a scenario that might inspire you along this line of thinking.)

    • You have been accused of a high-profile crime, but you have no memory whatsoever of the time you supposedly committed it. Moreover, none of your friends or family believe it is possible that you could have done it because they know you to be a very good person. Supposing that you did actually do the crime, should your punishment be any less?

  • Write about an idea that is impossible for humans to understand or a problem that is impossible for us to solve.

International Writing Contest (select one) — for students outside the US

  • Why do we laugh? Can all the causes of laughter, varying from dark humor, to simple gags, to tickling, all be explained by one theory? In whatever sense you take it, what is the purpose of laughter?

  • Can violence be justified to achieve political ends? If so, why, and to what extent can it be used?

Writing Open Call — for all students

  • Write whatever you want!

Remember, your submissions for the writing contests or open call can be in whatever form you want: reflection, short story, poem, dialogue, letter, or whatever else you can think of! Feel free to take the prompts in whatever way you are inspired to!

Art Contest — for all students

  • Many artists use abstract or surreal art forms in order to express philosophical ideas, purposefully subverting the confines of the real. Make a piece of art that does this. (Below are two ideas that might inspire you on the ideas of surrealism and abstraction.)

    • Surrealism — French writer André Breton: “The purpose of surrealism is to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, or super-reality.”

    • Abstraction — Vietnamese monk Thích Nhất Hạnh: “The secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts, in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.”

Art Open Call — for all students

  • Make whatever you want!

Cover Contest — for all students

  • For this year’s cover contest, draw two abstract representations of non-mammal animals. Other than this guideline, be as creative as you want. Preferred width-to-height ratio is 2 : 3.

All submissions are due on January 20, 2020.

  • For writing, please share a Google Doc with editors@columbiasecondary.org. Do not forget to put a title and write out your full name as you want it to appear (or say that you would like it to be published anonymously).

  • For art, if it is digital please send an email with the file to editors@columbiasecondary.org, or for CSS students you can also give physical art to Prof. Beletsky, Theo Frye Yanos, or Amogh Dimri in person, or put it in Prof. Beletsky’s mailbox.

Don’t forget to credit any inspirations or inclusions of other works in your submission! (That is, cite sources and quotes, and credit any works that inspired or contributed to your own work.) An added comment from Diana Senechal: Borrowed/adapted art and photographs can lead to tricky copyright problems (and, in some cases, hefty fees). It’s better if your art is entirely original–that is, created from scratch, not a digital adaptation or direct copy of someone else’s work. But if you do adapt someone else’s work in some way, please provide the source, so that the editors can look into the copyright issues. As for writing, cite your sources accurately and thoroughly.

I hope many students in Hungary–and Turkey and around the world–submit their work!

eb meeting october 2015

Image credits: The photo at the top was taken by Shirley Reynozo at the inaugural CONTRARIWISE celebration on May 18, 2014. The video was recorded at the same celebration by Gerald Pape. I took the second photo at a CONTRARIWISE editorial board meeting (in October 2015).