NEWS

December, 25, 2018

I am teaching in the Community ESL Program, which is a partnership between the Institute of American Language and Culture (IALC) at Fordham University and  New York’s Department of Youth and Community Development. This program provides free courses in adult literacy and ESL to members of the Bronx community and to anyone regardless of age, income, nationality, educational background or citizenship status.

Please consider donating to help fund this program. The students need books and supplies.

Click on the following link to see an amazing video about the program and to find out information on how to give:

Community ESL

January 19, 2018

“You look good for your age.  That’s why I’m looking at you.  I look good for my age too.  We’re almost the same.  I’m 1963.  I can see you’re suffering.  Don’t worry, hon.  Believe me.  You’re going to be okay,” said the lady fingerprinting me.

On December 23rd, Victor Orbán wrote a Christmas message in Magyar Idők, (Hungarian Times), the Fidesz party’s print and online media arm since September 1, 2015.  The title of his article is Meg Kell Védenünk A Keresztény Kultúrát, (We Have to Protect Christian Culture).  In it, he addresses “mi, európaiak,” that is, we, Europeans, and warns about the hard work ahead.  Moreover, he inserts in the article some festive and novel exegesis of Mark 12:31, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The gospel according to Orbán states that it’s the loving yourself part that’s foremost, and necessitates the keeping out of the “millions of people from other continents…”which is Orbán-speak for Muslims.

In his mission to keep out the outsider, Orbán has powerful friends the world over: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Polish President Andrzej Duda, Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to name just a few.  And Orbán has a like-minded, if thus-far remote, pal in the United States.

On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump tweeted, “We will bring back our jobs.  We will bring back our borders.  We will bring back our wealth – and we will bring back our dreams!”  Trump has also promised to bring to the United States Iraq’s oil.  All in all, he has outlined a busy agenda of reaping.  Although rumor has it that the President has read Mein Kampf, I would hazard a guess that he has not read the Bible, so not come across Proverbs, 22:8: “Whoever sows injustice reaps calamity, and the rod they wield in fury will be broken.”

Trump has not read the Bible, but one of his faithful civil servants has.  In fact, I am confident she knows Proverbs, and the rest of her holy book, backwards and forwards.  I met this civil servant last week at the Application Support Center in Borough Park, Brooklyn where I went by order of the Department of Homeland Security in response to a Biometric Notification letter.  I am applying to become a citizen of the United States.  I have been living here as a Canadian for over fifteen years, but after last year’s presidential election, I am itching to vote.

Walking into the large stark baby-blue room, there was no getting away from Trump’s photo on the wall.  Couldn’t escape the smell of urine either.  There were some nervous looking people there, sitting on gray plastic chairs skidding on a gray mottled floor.  The smell of urine was coming from one of them, or all of them.  The whole naturalization application process so far has been a bit nerve-racking.  (On the N-400 form, which I filled out at home and which is the first step in the process, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services makes it clear that they can refuse you for neglecting to dot an ‘i’.  It took me hours to get up the nerve to sign the twenty-page form; I checked and rechecked a dozen times before I certified “under penalty of perjury.”)

At the Support Center, I was given a number and told to sit and wait with the others facing Trump’s 8 x 10 glossy; three other color photographs–one of an American eagle, another of the Grand Canyon, and the third of a Giant Sequoia–; and the digital display that was stuck on one number despite the fact that some people were walking away into the fingerprinting booths.  A guard was calling out the numbers and urging folks to move closer to the front.  He laughed at 481 who was moving a little slow; he urged 482 to understand English; and he told 483 she was doing a good job hustling to the front row.  484 was shaking in a way that suggested he had cleaned himself up for the occasion but was suffering from withdrawal symptoms.  A family of five Koreans were chatting giddily. Then it was my turn.

“You look good for your age.  That’s why I’m looking at you.  I look good for my age too.  We’re almost the same.  I’m 1963.  I can see you’re suffering.  Don’t worry, hon.  Believe me.  You’re going to be okay,” said the lady fingerprinting me.

The lady was tall, thin, had long braids.  She had “captured” my biometrics, that is, taken my picture and my fingerprints so they can be “cleared by the FBI.”  She had asked me to stand near her while she stamped my form.  She had glanced from the form to my face, back down at the form, then up again at my face.  Suddenly, she looked me in the eyes and told me, “Don’t worry, hon.”

She went on for a while explaining to me that she had been through it too, her man had left her for another woman, she had stopped eating and sleeping, said she saw it on my face.  Maybe she said my face, or maybe she said my eyes.  I don’t remember because I was stunned.  I teared up, I think.  Or maybe she did.

Anyway, she told me to put on some lipstick and get my hair done and hold my head high.  She told me to pray to Jesus who had helped her–and time had helped her too.  But she didn’t mention praying to time.  She asked me if she could hug me.  I’ve never appreciated a visit to a government office more.

In “The Matter of Kindness,” published in the short story anthology, The Kindness of Strangers, Jan Morris writes, “I believe in Kindness.  Well, you may retort, who doesn’t?  But I believe in it rather as religious people believe in God.  I think it is the answer to almost all our problems: from the miseries of divorce to nuclear proliferation.”

Which brings me back to Orbán and Trump, and the rest of their narrow-minded, self-aggrandizing, profligate crew.  They are going to continue stoking antipathy for and suspicion of the other.  But they cannot stop us, one-on-one, stranger to stranger, instinctively committing spontaneous acts of kindness.

December 10, 2017

 The diplomat patted her arm and nodded reassuringly.  The diplomat has much experience with the reassuring patting and the nodding, and so pats and nods confidently.  Even so, I wish he hadn’t restrained her, as she was about to rip the Hungarian ambassador a new one!

On November 30th, I attended a panel discussion on the current state of negotiations between Central European University (CEU) and the Hungarian government. The panelists were John Shattuck, former rector of CEU and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; Kati Marton, a CEU trustee, author of True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy and Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America, and one-time foreign correspondent for ABC and NPR; and NYU Professor and author of Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, Larry Wolff, who is also the executive director of the Remarque Institute that was hosting the discussion.  We were in a largish boardroom on the 8th floor of 60 5th Avenue, New York City.  The boardroom was full, but not packed, mostly with graduate students who seemed willing enough to listen politely.  (It is unlikely they yet have the life-experience to pull off seeming to listen absorbedly.)  During the discussion, a couple of retired professors in attendance anxiously mumbled to themselves and fingered their printed event flyers.  The panelists spoke for a little over an hour, and then questions were taken.  Ferenc Kumin, PhD, Consul General of Hungary, was in attendance and all ears, right up until it was his opportunity to ask questions, from which point he was all mouth.  Fortunately, the question period was ended at the two-hour mark.  Kumin had more to say.  He shot out of the room to grab a prepoured glass of white wine, and to pull Shattuck into more debate.  Most of the graduate students left when the wine ran out, which was quick; I suspect many of them were in attendance only because their professors had strongly encouraged them to be.  But, I want to return to the beginning.

I arrived fifteen minutes early for the panel discussion, so I was one of the first to go inside the boardroom and sit down at the long table.  I chose a seat in the middle along the length of one side of the table.  Some others were chatting outside in the waiting area, but  I am not one for small talk.  Kati Marton was out there too, schmoozing, but I had already had a satisfying brush with her fame when I had run into her moments before in the ladies room.  I think I caught her fixing her makeup.  Or combing her hair?  Adjusting her skirt?  It happened so fast.  I smiled.  She smiled back at me in a much more accomplished way than I had smiled at her.  (I could kick myself for my half-assed smiling.)  Anyway, she is a beautiful woman who commands being stared at in the ladies room!  And while she perfected her panel discussion game-face in the mirror, I tried to urinate collegially.  (If she is reading this blog, I apologize for my nervous toot.)

Back in the boardroom, most of the chairs were still empty.  While I waited for the room to fill, a young woman sat down next to me.  She said something like, I’m sitting here because you’re reading French and I’m French.  What a fitting sentiment, I thought, when we are just about to hear a panel discussion on the global importance of the revival of populist-nationalist tribalism.

The young woman turned out to be a very pleasant former student of Kati Marton who had urged her to attend this discussion.  When I showed her what I was reading, which wasn’t in French, but was very much in English–a translation of “Part Five: À la recherche du temps perdu” from Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts–we were both a little red-faced.  Fortunately, a rapprochement was established over a pleasant conversation about the importance of bilingual education.  (I explained to her that I had grown up in Canada and done my anglophonic-best to try and retain all the French I had been force-fed; I think the correct term is gavage, referring to the supplying of a nutritional substance–cultural sensitivity–by means of public education.  It was practiced on us, with some success, from grades one to thirteen.)  We also bonded over a laugh about the intrusive and downright crazy questions on the United States citizenship application.  (For example, applicants are asked, “Have you ever been a habitual drunk?  For the record, I haven’t.  And, “Do you now have, or did you ever have, a hereditary title or an order of nobility in any foreign country?”  Tragically, I was stripped of my nobility at birth; I am of pure shtetl stock.)  The young woman told me stories about living in China Town; her five-year-old son speaks French, English and Mandarin.  I teach English as a Second Language at New York University.  My mother-tongue is Hungarian, which I still speak, every chance I get.  However, I have made no effort at all to teach my daughter Hungarian.  (I worry that ma voisine francaise regretted sitting next to me.)

When the panel discussion finally began, Shattuck spoke first, and at some length.  Here are some statements he made, which should make us shudder:

“Victor Orbán is the most successful authoritarian leader in Europe.”

“The impact of the election of Trump is electrifying.  Orbán has found a soulmate in Washington.”

Then, it was Marton’s turn to speak, which she did passionately, leaning into her microphone and glaring at Ambassador Kumin:

“History is too important to leave to the historians,” she said.

“Mr. Orbán controls the press!” she warned.

“If Hungary is still a democracy, it is a fragile one,” she declared.

After some more back-and-forth by the three panelists–concerning the Trianon narrative of “Brussels is the new Moscow”; the differences between Eastern Europe and Central Europe; and the legal-limbo in which CEU finds itself because of Orbán’s “thinly-veiled anti-Semitic campaign against George Soros, founder and funder of CEU”–the question period began.  It was monopolized by Ambassador Kumin.  He held forth for as long as he could, complaining that Marton was mixing in liberal politics with “this CEU issue,” which was really no issue at all, he clarified.  On behalf of the Hungarian government, Kumin wanted to assure everyone present that CEU did not need to worry about its status so long as it complied with Hungarian law.  This was an insignificant legal matter, he said, and had nothing at all to do with the radical liberal agenda-driven issues Marton had raised.  In response, Marton was noticeably incensed and thrust forward to grab the microphone.  She was about to set the Ambassador straight when Shattuck patted her arm and nodded at her reassuringly, as if to say, Don’t get worked up, Kati.  He isn’t worth it.  I’ll handle this.

Then, Shattuck sparred with Kumin for a while.  He pointed out the fact that CEU was meeting all of the government’s demands, including opening a campus in New York, but Orbán was refusing to sign the agreement between the government and CEU.  As it stands, CEU cannot recruit students and faculty, or promise its current students and faculty that its doors will be open next year.  Shattuck, in his diplomatic way, and Kumin, in his disingenuous and mocking way, continued on playing-at discussing the matter.  Nothing was resolved.  I wish Martin had not allowed Shattuck to restrain her.

Not only is it right, as Marton said, that “history is too important to leave to the historians,” it may also be right, in the ideological and political pressure-cooker in which we find ourselves today, that diplomacy is too important to be left to the diplomats.  I would rather trust it to the commanding woman in the bathroom mirror.