Friday, December 19, 2008

How a Pig Killing Sheds Some Light


I saw the pig pictured here killed, butchered, and turned into food. It was earlier this month on a Sunday, when Dora and I attended our second traditional 'pig killing.' The more accurate translation would be 'pig slaughter,' but that just doesn't sound right to me.

Many Central European families slaughter a pig just before Christmas. The slaughter is a reason to have family and friends over, as it requires many hands. Over the years, the event has become a floating holiday for those who have the space and means to raise and kill a pig. While there are some places that hold pig killings for tourists, the best way to experience this event is as a guest of a family that is killing a pig for their own use. The killing of an animal is not improved by a tourist-friendly atmosphere.

Dora and I are lucky, because we have now attended two pig killings at the same farm. Being recognized faces made us feel more like part of the event.

Tomas, a good friend of ours, is from southern Slovakia. His family owns some farm land which they rent out. The cost of renting this land is, get ready... One Pig per year.

The pig is not delivered to Tomas's family home wrapped in cellophane. No. Tomas and his family attend the slaughter, arriving at dawn and helping to kill the pig and turn it into a lot of food. It is a major annual event with wine, palinka, cakes, sweets, and... oh yes, pork, bacon, sausage, lard, and other pig products.

I can't even begin to paint a full picture of the day in a blog entry. I will say this, however, I plan to use this experience as material in my next writing project. Still, I wanted to share some highlights.

This is Robi (Robbie). He was our butcher. He brought with him a bag of knives that could have been crafted in the middle ages (see the lower-right-hand corner of the first picture). Robi didn't talk much, but he kept up with the guys as we all drank shot after shot of palinka. And while I struggled to keep from slurring my speech, Robi wielded his knives with an enviable precision.

His job was not a pretty one. He cornered the pig, stunned it with a handheld shocking device, and then he cut the pig's throat. After that he (with help) burned the hair off the pig, scrubbed the skin clean, and prepped the animal for the knife. Then Robi went at the legs, the head, and the spine with his instraments. He pulled the skin off the pig. He cut fat and meat from the bone. He carefully removed the innards. Finally, after two and a half hours of hard dirty work, Robi had turned a pig into food.

Naturally, Dora developed a bit of the crush on the man. I understand. I am not offended. Maybe that's simply because I am not the jealous type, but I think there's something more to my appreciation for Dora's crush. I think my appreciation stems from an admiration of skilled labor. Dora saw in Robi something that has slipped away, slipped almost into mythology for many in the middle class and above: The ability to apply a practical trade.

Watching Robi work left me asking myself, "Hogan, what can you do? I mean really do? What can you do with the skill of an expert?"

My answer is not an empty one. I teach. A task I take very seriously. And I think I'm good at it, maybe not good enough to perform effectively after five shots of palinka, but good nevertheless. However, teaching doesn't turn a pig into delicious sausage. Teaching doesn't make a tree into a sturdy dinning room table. Teaching doesn't bring hot water into my bathroom. What Robi has in his ability to butcher an animal is a skill that our society requires in order to maintain its existence. It is essential.

In my job I aim to improve society. That's what teachers do. But I could not have such lofty goals if Robi didn't turn pigs into food. I like seeing that. I like being there when the essential work gets done. But seeing it leads me to the inevitable question: Why is such essential work valued less than my work, or the work of a marketing exec, or an investment banker? I'm not trying to get all Marxist, or anything. I don't want to suggest a new way of distributing wages. I just find it interesting that our society puts a smaller monetary value on the services we need compared to the services we want.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Great Debate!



Wow, I've never read such well thought out and even tempered political arguments on a blog before. I'm kind of excited to be taking part in it.

The following is an edited response I wrote to a friend who expressed some similar ideas to the comments section from my last post. This is geared toward people who want to lay the majority of the blame for today's financial crisis at the feet of Fannie and Freddie.

*****************
First off, I like fiscal conservatives. I just wanted to start with that. I know it sounds like I don't sometimes, but that's only because there aren't any real fiscal conservatives left in the world. I'd vote for a true fiscal conservative, but I haven't seen one with any clout in my lifetime.

A true fiscal conservative would recognize that the role of government has pushed us well past the free market. That may be sad, but let's face it: Public aid is a reality. So policy must take that into account. There are insured institutions aimed at aiding the public (those institutions make conservatives angry), and there are private institutions aimed at making money for investors.

While public aid for home investments is high risk, the state views it as a more complex investment than a typical home loan. New home owners increase the tax base, stimulate growth, improve local schools, and create more stable communities. That's why the state can argue for a propping up of state insured institutions.

I don't like the way Frank & co. defended Fannie & Freddie, but to call those "companies" instrumental in the meltdown is shifting the blame way too far to the left.

It was the private firms that packaged the toxic debt and sold it as assets. Meanwhile other private institutions modeled F&F's lending practices without obtaining the same kind of backing of the government. During all that, it was a bi-partisan decision to look the other way while these large companies leveraged themselves to the hilt.

It was the fall Bear Stearns, AIG, and Lehman Brothers that signaled how intertwined the system has become.

That intertwined quality is not a result of F&F. It is a result of uninsured companies wanting to take the same risks as insured companies, then swapping risky assests around the world. Without insurance, however, those risks have serious consequences. And not just for the companies, but for the global economy.

If you place the blame on F&F, you are placing Fannie & Freddie on the same playing field as Bear Stearns. Six months ago, anyone at Bear Stearns would have been deeply insulted by that. Six months ago a true fiscal conservative would have been insulted by that.

Private firms over-reached. That same true fiscal conservative would let them fail. But at what expense?

I respect the view that government often impedes business. But the firms that froze the credit markets and inflated oil and housing prices are now impeding governments: Iceland, Hungary, and the US are just a few examples.

While I see where you're coming from, I think you've let partisan thinking cloud your judgment. There is not a party or public institution that can shoulder all the blame for this mess. Fannie and Freddie are not innocent, but if they had fallen alone, this would not be a crisis. The Dems didn't stop this, but the Republicans didn't either.
***********

As for the CRA argument, I never suggested anyone had the power to overturn CRA. I don't think the act should be overturned. I think a bank chartered within a community should serve that community. It is up to them to find an appropriate business model to do so.

CRA strikes me as the latest in a line of strawmen set up by conservative thinkers who want to pretend the private sector didn't do anything wrong. But if that were the case, then why do the private firms need public assistence? If you want to place blame, you are left with an odd choice: Blame the boy who tripped in the mud, or blame the girl trying to help him back up.

I love this kind of dialogue. I want to say this to those who disagree: Thank you for presenting real arguments. I find that these debates often devolve very quickly on the blogs. I really like real arguments devoid of insults.


In The Know: Should The Government Stop Dumping Money Into A Giant Hole?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Crunch in Hungary and Where It's Coming From


The payment on my home loan was up about 35% this month. Kind of.

It's complicated.

The Hungarian currency, the Forint, has been taking a beating lately. Our home loan, however, is calculated in Swiss Francs. So the amount of Forints we were charged this month is up significantly. It is fortunate, therefore, that I landed a job that pays in Euros.

All this leads to the question, 'Why is the loan in Swiss Francs?'

It is that question, and its absurd answer, that has kept me abreast of the global financial meltdown. In an attempt to keep it simple, I'll just say this: Due to a serious deficit, the Hungarian National Bank won't lower interest rates (currently at 11.5%), even if a rate cut would stimulate local lending. For this reason, it is much cheaper for people seeking credit in Hungary to borrow in a foreign currency. But when the Forint lost value last month after the credit markets froze, anyone earning in the local currency got pinched hard on this month's repayments. And it doesn't look like a one-month issue. Recovery is going to take some time.

While I'm normally not the kind of person who pays attention to financial news, having to keep track of currencies and national lending rates has changed the way I read the morning papers a bit.

That being the case, I've recently raised some objections to the way the US dealt with the approaching crisis. I've stayed fairly informed for a layman. My opinions are based on real numbers and actual policy. I don't think the way forward is going to be easy, but I am happy about the Obama camp's take on the issue. The only thing I wasn't too sure about was how the opposition felt about things.

Then last night a good friend sent me an article from The National Review Online. My friend knows I'm not much of an NRO reader, but I send him NPR pieces, so all's fair. Anyway, the article he sent, by Mark Steyn, is titled "The Death of the American Idea." I had to ignore Steyn's bitterness over the sound thumping the GOP received in the election, but the focus of his piece exposed an interesting blind spot in current conservative thinking.

Steyn's complaint is concerned with the ever-expanding Federal Government, a legitimate concern, especially for a fiscal conservative. But what struck me was the evidence Steyn used to put his argument over the top. He described the bailout package as the US Government’s latest step towards the left.

As someone who admires the values of fiscal conservatives, I can understand Steyn's objections to the bailout package. However, it is the policies of 'small-government' conservatives that have been peeling away at government regulatory powers over the past two decades. Those powers had been put in place to keep companies from slipping into an AIG-like situation. The value of such regulation has never been as clear as it is today.

On top of that, Steyn feels comfortable ignoring the fact that the bailout is propping up companies whose failure would wreak havoc on the global economy.

Steyn probably hasn't had to sit across from a Hungarian colleague - a colleague already angry with her own government for botching the local economy - and listen to a diatribe on unchecked American greed. Greed that is, according to my colleague, destroying what little progress the Hungarian economy has made in the past few years. Even with an IMF loan, the EU bailouts, and the US bailout in place, the Hungarian economy is tapping the pocketbooks of its citizens, and American greed has a lot to do with that.

Personally, I will probably weather Hungary's economic downturn, but there are a lot of people earning in Forints right now, and they may have some harsh questions for Mr. Steyn.
"You want to let these companies fail, huh? Then what happens next? You want to let my nation's economy fail?"

It was laissez-faire policies that got us into this situation. Fiscal conservatives may be upset that those same policies can't get us out, but anger or blame pointed at election results is misplaced and ill-spent.

It is very easy to be fiscally conservative when the crisis is under a microscope. But I'm on the wrong end of that microscope. The loan I took out was described as the most economically responsible loan available. When the repayment on such a loan jumps 35% in one month, there is something wrong with the system. If we trace the problem to its roots, we find two things:

A mismanaged Hungarian economy (no big surprise there)

&

Unregulated US banks and investment firms packaging bad loans and selling them for a profit around the world.


This is not a problem that will go away if we just ignore it. Men like Steyn can moan about how their ideology has been violated, but they ought to look at where their ideology has taken the world economy. Their time is up, and now the governments they scorned are left to clean up the mess. I’m just glad the US has a leader whose approach is about inspiring the best rather than fearing the worst.


Monday, October 27, 2008

Visits and Vacations


This last weekend in Hungary was a four-day holiday. On the 23rd the country celebrated the Revolution of 1956 , during which the Hungarians booted the Soviets out of the country for a full seven days (before the Soviets came back with their tanks and guns).

The holiday has taken on a political bent over the past few years. For three years running, on the date of the anniversary the opposition party here in Hungary has held a large rally in Budapest's city center. Two years ago there was some serious violence. Last year there was a little trouble, but it was was much more subdued. This year there was a rally, but no major violence.

Even if events were more civil this year, I did get to see the event through a different, and slightly disturbing lens. My long-time friend Brad is here in Hungary on a visit. He took a walk with Dóra, me, and the dogs on the 23rd. On the walk we skirted the rally itself.

Having a visitor in town always forces me to take a closer look at the city I've called home for four years now. I think the same is true for Dóra, and as we passed the rally we found ourselves in a reflective mood.

The rally was held at Deák Ferenc tér, right where all the major streets and Metros intersect. Meaning the city was effectively shut down so the opposition party could pay homage to the bravery of those who rose up against tyranny some fifty-two years ago. A part of me knows that's a good thing. I'm happy Hungarians are passionate about their nation's history opposing totalitarianism.

But those positive feelings were tempered when Dóra told us that the man at the podium who was addressing the crowd was the leader of Hungary's far-right party - the same party that sponsored the marches that recently spiraled out of control, where police were injured and racist chants were bandied about. Once we knew the speakers affiliation, it was hard to ignore the other signs of intolerance. Shaved heads were peppered throughout the gathering. The red and white stripes of the nationalist flag were much more prominent than the red, green, and white bands of the national flag. At one point the speaker instigated a call-and-response that had the gathered crowd bark out a slogan, and while I know that happens at political rallies, the crowd's tone had an unsettling edge to it. Members of the Magyar Garda, a right-wing militia group, were lined up and ready to parade through the assembly.

Brad was stunned. The combat boots and hairstyles spoke a creepy international language. For someone in from the US, this gathering was an eye-opener. Dóra was more disappointed than stunned. She remembered how this anniversary was once commemorated. In the mid-90s there was little-to-no political posturing. The citizens of Hungary marched the same route that protesting students and workers marched in 1956. Dóra doesn't remember anything from this holiday in the 90s being as divisive as what we saw last week.

After the walk, Brad,
Dóra, and I took the dogs out to the countryside and enjoyed a weekend away from the city. It gave us a chance to clear out heads and relax. Something perhaps more people should do.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Who's Right? Whose Wrong?


Disasters help people see clearly.

Even if only for a moment, people always cling swiftly and surely to what they value most just as the proverbial shit hits the fan.

Two very different disasters struck last week, one in my country and the other in my adopted country. I've come to better understand the character of the people involved as a result.

Last weekend there were several political rallies here in Budapest. The most publicized event was held by the Hungarian Democratic Charta. It was held almost in concert with a demonstration of several Roma organizations. Those rallies were held to protest against the menacing rise in influence of the far-right here in Hungary.

Far-right extremists held a counter-protest which allegedly threatened the safety of people leaving the
Hungarian Democratic Charta rally. The counter-protest led to a violent clash with the police. Petrol bombs and cobblestones versus riot gear and tear gas. Property was damaged. Police and citizens were injured.

A disaster.

Since the anti-government protests of 2006, the extreme right has been gaining political traction - slowly perhaps - but such progress is alarming nonetheless. The ideology of the far-right in Hungary is not something many Americans would recognize as a legitimate part of political discourse. Many of the far-right protesters arrive at rallies wearing
swastikas or other symbols harkening back to the days of fascism. At the protest last week, anti-Semitic chants were interspersed among the anti-government chants. The far-right is proudly racist, hating both the Jewish population and the Roma population with equal vigor. And the violent enthusiasm with which they threw themselves into last week's protest shed some light on what they're all about.

The far-right here in Hungary is cornered, threatened, and frightened. They are lashing out at anything that resembles a threat to their twisted anachronistic values, and they are doing so with the strength of an animal in its final throes.

I would normally think this was a positive sign, but I know a cornered animal is dangerous. And I thought fascism went through its final throes last century.

I am happy the left came out to protest the influence of the far-right. In a country of very reserved people that is progress, but I think it is time for more unified action against such extremism. Fidesz is the mainstream party on the right, and they will certainly win the next Parliamentary elections. They have no need for the votes of extremists. So now is the time to put that dying animal out of its misery. Now is the time for Fidesz to condemn the extremists outright... But where are the Party's leaders? No one can say. What are those leaders saying when they fail to condemn violent racist behavior?

Speaking of party leaders, what the hell is Congress doing about the impending financial disaster? The Republicans can't govern their own, and the Democrats seem to have forgotten they have the majority.

What I've learned about America's political leaders from this disaster is making Hungary look pretty good right now. It seems the panic in D.C. is going to cost Americans even more than the past decade of incompetence.

Let me try and sort this out. For all the politicians who read my blog (none), here's my advice:

Republicans: You have failed. Your fiscal policy has led to a disaster of epic proportions, and the solution is going to run counter to your core principles. So sit back and watch the Democrats make the painful choices needed to put this right again. Oh, and by the way, thanks a lot.

Democrats: You do not have to accept the Administration's Bailout Plan. If you do and people don't like it, the Republicans are going to pin the blame on you. You are the ruling party in terms of legislation. Draw up a plan that illustrates your party's commitment to the middle class.

Here's the plan:
1) Be realistic. Make it a trillion dollars.

2) Buy up the bad mortgages and re-write them, helping %80-%90 of at-risk Americans keep their homes (primary residences only).

3) Extend lifelines to troubled banks on the following conditions:
a) loans are paid back with interest, or if the bank becomes profitable again taxpayers get a percentage of that profit (whatever benefits the taxpayer more)
b) cap executive salaries for three years, but give a substantial loyalty bonus to execs who weather the storm (we need talent now more than ever)
c) Until the loans are paid, banks that receive aid must give monthly reports to a panel of financial experts appointed by a bi-partisan committee, this panel then offers recommendations to the committee which may exercise control of the bank

4) Establish a regulatory apparatus capable of overseeing the financial sector that emerges after this crisis passes

5) Use remaining funds to give a cash infusion into sectors that have been neglected while the housing market was being inflated artificially.

That should do it. Any questions.
Now playing: OK Go - It's a Disaster
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Not So Funny Stuff

I have the Wall Street Journal here at my desk. I get this cute little version over here, not the big broadsheet they publish in the US.

I was reading about the financial turmoil. And I'm surprised to find that the story has me in a vice grip. I don't know why. I'm not invested in much of anything beyond my apartment. So the fall of Lehman Bros. is not going to reach into my pocket much. Still, I can't turn away.

I think it's the enormity of the thing. Markets around the world were shaken. Uncertainty is the only certainty. And everyone who is plugged into an economic system anywhere in the world will be touched by this. It's a world event, right? But it's not like any of the world events we've experienced in my lifetime.

It doesn't have the feel of an attack or a war. It's not like a government falling. I'm tempted to link it to a natural disaster, but I'm afraid that's disrespectful because tsunamis and earthquakes takes lives. I just can't place where this sits in my understanding of current events. But I am straining to do so - It's just so big. So I read and I thought about it, and I think I might have been making progress.

But then what happened? The presidential candidates started talking about it, and I started thinking about politics and the political side of the economy. I started to get angry. And so I watched the following.





I don't know how to fix this, and when I look at the campaigns I do not feel reassured.

They aren't speaking to the issues, as usual. But I guess these events are the issues speaking out of turn.

I just hope we can elect someone who will put the right people in place to find our balance again. My thoughts aren't worth much, but for what they are worth: I think we need to reintroduce regulation (duh), but I don't think it would be useful to go back to the stuff Clinton repealed at the end of his term. That stuff was from the 1930's, and the repealing of it was part of what has fueled the last 10 years of worldwide economic growth. I guess someone should have thrown cold water on the mess before we got to this point, but I don't want to place blame (yet). It's too easy to say someone should have been watching. I don't think we have the kind of regulatory apparatus in place to have seen this coming. I guess we have to watch and learn (and when the market hits the bottom, get your money in there).

Seriously, however, best wishes and my sympathy go out to all who are going to be affected by the job losses and the financial strain that's troubling the world right now.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

You can't eat the Venetian blinds.



There's a story in the news about some high-end medical equipment that has gone missing from hospitals here in Budapest. The equipment was obviously stolen, and stealing it was easy because the hospitals in question are currently in the process of closing down. You see, the Hungarian government is trying to fix a broken economy, and part of that process involves closing hospitals.

To their credit, those responsible for the equipment's disappearance knew what they were doing. For one thing, only the most expensive inventory is missing. For another thing, selling this particular stolen equipment is going to be a breeze. Most medical equipment would easy to track down, but because the purchase of high-end equipment for these hospitals was sponsored by private doctors and financed by medical foundations, the paper trail for the equipment is difficult (if not impossible) to follow.

The story screams inside job.

A related story, while not as visible, hit us closer to home last month. Dóra’s colleague Mark recently finished renovating his apartment here in the city. The work was nearing completion just a few weeks ago. All that remained was the installation of the major appliances: stove, oven, refrigerator, water heater, dishwasher, etc. The equipment was delivered the night before it was to be installed, but before that night was over, someone kicked in the door and hauled off all seven of the large appliances.

Again, the story screams inside job.

I've heard more of these stories in Hungary than I ever did in the other places I’ve lived. I realize this kind of crap happens all over the world, but in corruption-plagued countries like Hungary, it happens more often and at more levels of society. Everywhere you turn in Hungary there are people seeking to infiltrate the systems where money or goods are exchanged. They find their way in and skim what they can, be it medical equipment from a pediatric hospital or some guy’s refrigerator. I used to find myself wondering why.

Then, during a recent lecture on academic integrity, one of my students made the following argument: If a student is clever enough to cheat and not get caught by the teacher, then that is reason enough for the student to get a passing grade.

The majority of the class started nodding enthusiastically. They waited for my response, and I managed a reasonable rebuttal. I don’t, however, harbor any illusions. Most of them still believe their peer won that argument.

Interestingly, many of my students come from countries where corruption is an issue at every level of government. Many of them come from cultures where business transactions are hampered by a crippling lack of trust between parties.

It would surprise me if either the thieves from the hospital or the thieves from Mark’s apartment were ever apprehended. They studied the system. They identified a weak spot. And now thanks to their efforts, Hungary lacks machinery for its hospitals. As a result of their talent, homeowners in Budapest can’t trust contractors.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s government is trying to fix a broken economy.

Finally, please check out my brother Myles's music store. He's quite good, and by quite good, I mean excellent. But you don't have to take my word for it...

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Clarity, From a Distance


This is a shot Lili, Szóda, Dió, and me on the island of Brač. That was the last trip of the summer, and it was a good one. Dóra’s got the album up here on Picasa if you’re interested.

We’ve been back for over a week now. School’s started up, and I’m teaching two classes of seventeen. Twelve different countries represented in the classroom, and a theme of inter-cultural exchange in the Writing Skills course. It makes for an interesting day at work.

Dóra’s folks are here in Hungary until the middle of October, and we’ve spent some quality time with them. So things are busy, but there is one thing we can’t escape: The US elections.

I’m fairly certain our exposure is not as overwhelming as it is for those in the States, but it is exhausting none-the-less.

Exhausting for two reasons:

First, people actively seek out my opinion because I’m actually able to vote.

Second, and certainly the more exhausting reason, the European view of American politics is so skewed that I’m often asked to re-explain the issues I'm concerned about. "You mean it about more than just race?"

I’m not saying I live in a vacuum or that I am the only expert over here. I have friends at work who are more up-to-date on this than I am.

Then there’s Dóra, her folks, and the e-news all keeping me humble. But the repeated experience of breaking down my views for people who are unfamiliar with America’s issues has had an effect on me.

Warning! This post will now address politics!

I’ve been politically-minded for years now, and my opinions are important to me. However, I’ve always done my best to hear out and weigh the arguments of those who disagree with me. Not only is this the polite approach, it also allows me to shift my stance if I come across hard evidence that runs counter to my opinions. I don’t think such a maneuver signals weakness, but strength.

You see, I have close friends and family who sharply disagree with my politics. I respect the intelligence and opinions of these people. And in deference to them, I try to keep an open mind on the issues. When they are correct, I’ve learned to swallow my pride and accept their take.

But then yesterday I experienced something for the very first time. I was explaining my choice for president to yet another European who thought a white person was more qualified to be president than a black person (he didn’t seem to care about who the candidates were). I was halfway through my bare-bones explanation of the issues when I experienced – for the first time – absolute certainty and complete clarity.

It was mind-blowing. For the first time in my life, I realized that nothing could change my opinion: The Republican Party as it exists today cannot run the executive branch of the US Federal Government.

I think I reached the tipping point when I started describing the FDA’s inability to contain the Salmonella outbreaks, but it might have been when I got through summarizing the complete lack of oversight on Federally-insured loans.

Whatever it was…

Funding a war with borrowed money,

Failing to maintain basic infrastructure,

Allowing speculation to drive up the cost of oil,

A weak-dollar policy,

Bailing out buddies at a private investment firm with taxpayer dollars (which creates expectations from other firms that want the same kind of treatment) despite the Party’s hard line against government interference in the private sector,

Expanding the powers and size of the central government despite the party’s claim to favor small government

…I cannot think of any reason someone would vote for the Republicans. The blunders I listed are not Bush blunders. He may have taken us to a war on false intelligence. He may have over-politicized the judicial branch. He may have made more mistakes than that. He’s administration has stumbled, sure. But the Republican Party’s arbitrarily enforced small-government policies are responsible for too many of America’s largest problems today.

I will remain registered an independent and keep an open mind on other matters. But this issue is closed for me. You can like or dislike McCain. You can feel energized or deflated by whoever that disaster of a VP nominee is. You can say Obama is the president we need, or completely un-presidential. But you cannot get me to believe that the Republican Party is capable of wielding executive power at the Federal level in its current state.




Finally, please check out my brother Myles's music store. He's quite good, and by quite good, I mean excellent. But you don't have to take my word for it...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Summer's end


All right. So summer is coming to a close.

I visited Africa: Animals. Culture. Family time.

I spent some time in Wisconsin (& Chicago): Radiohead. Funky New Year. Friends & Family time.

I got some research done for this academic year. Not very exciting blog material there.

And I finished a major rewrite of my novel. I'm thinking about a title change from "Mifflin" to "Miffland." (That link is important if you want to understand the change). The book has become something of a reflection on the legacy of the activism and protests from Madison's heyday in the late 60's and early 70's. The title is supposed to suggest a theme, right?

Now it's back to work. I'm excited about the upcoming academic year. I'll try and get back into my rhythm of one entry a week here at Hogs. The novel kind of took all my writing time this summer.

Anyway, let me know how your sumer was.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Injured




I hurt myself.
Last weekend I was at a summer party held in Leányfalu. That's where Dorá's family has a house. We spend most of our weekends there for nearly three seasons of the year. It's nestled in the hills that form the western bank of the Danube Bend, a lot of forest and summer homes, but not much else. The dogs love it there, and for me it is always a welcome respite from the city. Here's a view of the Danube from the front porch of the house.
The landscape never gets old.

That, however, has only a little to do with my injury. We left the dogs at home and went into the village for a party hosted by a friend of Kazi's (Dorá's cousin). There was a DJ, and a goulash over the fire, and as it took place at an outdoor bar, there was plenty to drink (cash bar, grrr).
This outdoor bar is situated next to Leányfalu's popular "strand." [That is a word I have trouble translating. If there is a lake shore where a beach is set up, the Hungarians call it a strand. But They also call a public pool a strand. So I guess you could call it a 'swimming place,' but that doesn't sound right.]

Leányfalu's strand is popular because it is a big collection of pools, with an Olympic sized pool as the main draw. The Hungarian water polo team actually hosted the US water polo team at the Leányfalu Strand a few weeks ago.
Anyway, the bar we were at allows its customers to use the strand bathrooms after the strand closes. In order to do this, they roll back a section of the chain link fence. The night I was there, however, someone pushed the fence aside, but forgot to unscrew the lower guide wire from its mooring. This left a taut steel wire stretched parallel to the ground at ankle level. I'm the one who demonstraed the danger in having such an obstacle between the bar and the bathroom.

I went down like a plank. My left wrist broke the fall (I'm a lefty). I tried to walk it off, but the next day there was some swelling and a lot of pain. I went to the hospital.
I've written about Hungarian hospitals before, but there were a couple of little gems I thought I include in my closing here.

There admission process was not a problem. The hospital is in a very old building with sub-par upkeep, but everything that needed to work was in place, including a fairly efficient staff (and its 'free'). It didn't get weird until after Dorá and I entered the hallway where patients waited for their diagnoses. I assumed the elderly woman in bloody sneakers would be the strangest thing of the day. After all, when she was asked by an orderly, "What did your son do?" she responded, "He stabbed me in the leg with a knife."

That was only the second oddest part of the hospital trip after Dorá told me to check my 5 o'clock. Behind me there were two wooden sliding doors with a small window in each. The doors were just barely ajar. The brass handles of the doors were loosely tied together with a long piece of gauze, the kind they use to wrap injuries. There wasn't even a proper knot tied. The gauze was just wrapped around the handles and twisted up a couple of times. Emerging from the open crack between the doors, there was a wrinkled old hand reaching out and trying to unwrap the strip of gauze. There were three orderlies in the hallway with us. I assume they knew there was a person somewhat trapped in the next room. But no one seemed concerned, especially the owner of the hand. Any attempts to untie the gauze were half-hearted at best. When the thin white fabric finally did fall from the handles, the woman merely peaked out at those of us standing in the hallway. She must have been close to 150 years old. She had a black eye and greasy gray hair. I made eye-contact and she retreated back into her room.
Easily the most Lynch-like moment of my year.

I didn't break my wrist (they think). I've got a cast on for a few days. They'll x-ray again to check for minor fractures on Friday, but the outlook is good.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Balaton Weekend


If you spend the summer months here in Hungary, you've got to hit Lake Balaton. Summer weekends at the lake are an important part of life in Hungary. And if done right, a visit to the lake is very rewarding.

Coming from Milwaukee, the best analogy I can make is Summer Fest, because both are more than time spent near a body of water. Balaton, like Summer Fest, is a cultural touchstone in the region: a place, an event, and an experience. It comes with pluses and minuses, but if the summer goes by and you haven't visited, then you haven't really had a summer that reflects the place you are in.

Last weekend, Dorá, Lili, and I drove to the lake for a weekend get-together that Dorá's cousin Kazi planned. The company was great. I've known many of the people who were there for nearly a decade. There have been several marriages, some kids, and a lot of laughs exchanged in both broken English and Hungarian. It was a good group to share a Balaton weekend with.

During the day, we drank beer ate
Lángos, Palacsinta, and Hekk. We threw the Frisbee around and wished the weather was more suitable for swimming. It was a good day. Relaxing.

We were in town called
Balatonföldvár. Kazi's wife Kati has spent most of her summers there, and knows where to take guests. She showed us a hell of a night with some very odd karaoke and a great set of live music at some of the town's more lively bars. The most notable aspect of the karaoke was that the video accompaniment for all of the Beatles songs were soft porn fantasy sequences involving topless women and motorcycles. You don't get that many other places.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Reflections on Summer's Arrival

Summer is here. That means a lot of good things in Budapest. This year, one of the best is free time for me. While in Hungary, I've normally spent the summers looking for private English lessons or other kinds of work. There isn't much for me to teach at CEU or McDaniel during the summer months because the undergrads are off until August.

This year, however, I've found myself in a very fortunate situation that's going to make this summer much easier. In the fall I will (likely) be taking up a full-time position as Senior Lecturer of Communications at the CEU Business School. I have been an adjunct lecturer (part-timer) up until now. This meant that in order to make ends meet I was teaching a full course load at one school and a near-full course load at the other school. Last semester almost broke me, but the extra work was all worth it when the offer of a two-year contract came through.

The contract will have me teaching a composition course for first year students, a business communication course, a one-credit course on the expectations of a US style university, a course that combines team-building activities with the case study method of learning, and a course on critical thinking. I'll be working exclusively with undergrads, and exclusively in courses within my general interests, which is exactly what I want to be doing. On top of that, I will also be undertaking a two-year project: establishing an undergraduate writing center for the business school.

While this may not sound exciting to everyone, I couldn't be happier with my employment situation. First, I've found in recent years that I really enjoy teaching young adults how to articulate their ideas (they typically cannot do this very well when they arrive). Second, everyday I'm teaching in a classroom composed of at least 10 different nationalities. It's impossible to describe how much I'm learning from teaching in such an atmosphere. My plan is to capitalize on this position. I want to write up some research on teaching composition in a truly multi-cultural classroom and get myself into a well regarded composition PhD program in the fall of 2010.

The most exciting part of all of this, however, is very internal:
I feel like I've become an adult on my own terms.
There have always been forces guiding me on my long (some would say very long) journey toward adulthood: family, schools, friends, employers, and others. And I've listened along the way, but I've also stuck with what felt right to me. Not what felt easy. Not what was the most fun. What felt right.

I was a horrible office worker. I was a damn good waiter. I still think I can write, and I don't plan to stop. But put those years of searching together, and here I am living in a European capitol with a beautiful, intelligent, and wonderfully generous wife. I'm teaching people from all over the world how to write. I have two adorable dogs, and I'm not conflicted about any of my choices.

Dorá deserves a lot of credit here. She's been reminding me of what I value for the past nine years, and that has helped me (pardon the expression) stay the course - regardless of the unexpected turns that course has taken.

Perry was here visiting a little while ago, and in one of my more obnoxiously wistful moments I mused, "Who could have predicted I would be living in Hungary?" Perry brought me back to Earth with, "Actually, Hogan, if it was going to be anyone I knew in college, it was going to be you." I like to think that means, with all that's changed, I've remained the same.



Monday, May 12, 2008

Bringing the Ugly


Over the past week, Dorá and I have both had to deal with the ugly side of the public services offered here in Budapest.

Dorá's story is the more frustrating of the two. She was driving home from work last Saturday when a police officer stopped her. They can stop you for no reason here, just pull you over because they feel like. So the cop comes to the driver's side door and goes through the car papers. He's at it for a few minutes when he stops and says, "Well would you look at that. You failed to get your emissions service done in February." Then he waited for a beat. Then he waited for another. Then he asked
Dorá, "What are we going to do about this?" And he stood there repeating that question. Dorá says he was at it for at least 30 minutes (read 10 minutes).

Now,
in that situation Dorá was supposed to say the magic words: "Is there some way we can solve this problem here?" The cop would have named a price, and Dorá would have shelled out something between $50-$100.

To her credit,
Dorá wasn't in the mood for that kind of bullshit. She was not about to give that prick a dime. So after some time had passed, the cop took our car papers away and told Dorá that we would not be allowed to drive the car again until the papers had gone through the appropriate channels. Then, before telling Dorá that she could drive the car home via the most direct route, the officer had the gall to ask, "Young lady, haven't you ever been in this situation before? A situation in which you could solve the problem here and now, without losing your papers?"

Again to her credit,
Dorá simply looked at the officer and said, "No." (I love that woman)

Yes, it is inconvenient. And yes, it could have been avoided for what is not a lot of money, but I am proud of
Dorá for not perpetuating a corrupt system.

The fact that the officer asked her, with disbelief in his tone, about her lack of experience with bribing cops is the most infuriating part of it all.

If this country ever wants to lift itself out of the backwards backwaters of the underdeveloped world, if Hungary wants to stand tall among other members of the EU, then this complacency is the first thing that has to go. People look the other way,saying things like, 'Oh, the cops don't make enough money. They need to take bribes.' or 'Well, it's better than giving it to the corrupt politicians.' And I get to pulling my hair out when I hear these poor excuses for excuses. If you can't count on the police to protect and serve, then they shouldn't get paid that much. But the population pads the pockets of incompetent police officers, and the pattern continues.

Speaking of incompetence, I called the national health emergency line yesterday, and the woman who answered hung up on me. I called because while out on a walk I nearly stumbled over a man sprawled out across the sidewalk. He was clearly drunk, but he also looked as though he could have hurt his head when he hit the ground. He was facing the sky. His eyes were closed. He was sweating profusely. There was a lot of spittle in his mouth and the stuff popped and bubbled as he breathed in and out. It was pretty awful.

Another man stopped beside me. The two of us looked at the man and shook our heads. He asked if I had a phone. I asked him if 104 was the right number to dial. He said he thought that was a good idea.

When I explained the situation to the woman on the other end of the line, she asked, with a bit of disbelief in her tone, "He's lying in the street?"

I told her that was correct, and she said, "Thank you. Goodbye." And she hung up.

I waited a bit, but I knew there would be no assistance sent out.

After a while, the drunk started to stir. A man about my age helped the guy to his feet. The drunk tried to get moving, but the good Samaritan and I didn't think it looked very promising. We watched as the man nearly stumbled into the street, then stumbled back to find the nearest building for support. If he's lucky, after we left him, the only person he hurt was himself.

So I'm left asking, why does a city like this even have public services? The public servants who are out on the street are looking for bribes while the civilians in need are ignored.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Seeing the World through Others' Eyes


I was in Dublin when I started this entry. It was a wonderful long weekend. Dóra had some work to do there, and we decided to make a trip of it. I’ve never been, but I plan to visit again. Great city. It’s somehow simultaneously cosmopolitan and quaint.

We arrived on Friday night. Our cabdriver offered up some of the best English-language cursing I’ve heard in a while. With his command of the idiom, he helped me to understand that “…the country [Ireland] will driving you absolutely fucking nuts.” He did get more colorful than that, but I can’t reproduce the accent here, so there’s little point in sharing.

It is worth noting, however, that while driving us to the hotel, our cabby read stories out of the newspaper to back up his assertions about the crazy-making nature of Ireland: gang war in Limerick, rising cost of living, botched city planning, Romanian pick pockets, healthcare horror stories, and government corruption were just some of the stories we got to hear about.

What struck me while listening to the cabby’s rant was the man’s tenor: disbelief and frustration mingled with a smile.

If I were to sit through a similar set of complaints in Budapest, the tone would be exceedingly somber: knitted brows, pensive frowns, and a lot of exasperated sighing. But when I take a step back, something becomes clear: When I compare 1) the complaints I heard in Dublin to 2) the complaints I hear in Hungary to 3) the complaints I have about the US, I notice that they are all very similar. That isn’t any kind of revelation, I know, but this visit to Dublin shed a new light on things.

As our cabby went on and on about the absurdity of modern living, his tone stressed the absurdity. The lilt of his voice suggested that the problems Ireland faces are ridiculous, almost silly. He had a laugh caught in his throat as he described each new outrage, and over the course of the weekend, I noted that this tone was a common one in Ireland. I don’t want to fall back on the stereotype of the merry-old-Irishman, because our cabby wasn’t merry. He was upset. It’s just that his way of seeing problems differs from the way both Americans and Hungarians see problems. Seeing that difference helped me better understand how my countrymen and I see the world, and how the world sees us.

When my American friends and I start talking about politics or social ills, our approach to the discussion… it doesn’t really feel like we’re complaining. The way we talk, it often sounds like we’re on some kind of policy committee, like we’re planning to solve the healthcare crisis before we finish the next bottle of wine. Surprisingly enough, we haven’t managed that yet. Actually, my friends and I haven’t solved even one domestic issue over a bottle of wine. Yet, despite our abysmal record, our approach to such topics has yet to change. We discuss an issue as though we’re searching for some solution. With our very American optimism, a complaint becomes a challenge, or a puzzle.

Here in Hungary, on the other hand, a complaint is treated as a simple statement of fact. For instance, the current crop of Hungarian politicians is grossly inept, unable to make even the most basic kind of legislative progress. That is true.

If you want details, how about this?
(If you already know, or you don’t care, skip to the next paragraph)
The opposition party spent the last few years refusing to participate in parliamentary meetings. I like to call it the “Oh-yeah?-Well-then,-I’m-gonna-take-my-ball-and-go-home” policy. In the meantime, the ruling party made sweeping policy changes, but forgot to tell the public why such changes were necessary. Recently most of those changes were condemned in a referendum and the Prime Minister’s approval rating has sunk into the teens. And now the moderate party that had lent its support to the ruling socialist party has dissolved the coalition, leaving the entire political system in a state of uncertainty.

Ask a Hungarian, and they will tell you exactly how awful the political situation is, and they’ll do it with what can only be described as a sick kind of pleasure. The people here approach nearly every problem in this manner. To an outsider, it seems as though the Hungarians thrive in only the shittiest of conditions, and as a result they have mastered the art of complaining for the sake of complaining. If you ask a Hungarian what can be done, the answer will be some form of complaint about the hopelessness of the whole situation.

One more step back from these observations, and I start to see how the Irish and the Hungarian perspective are more similar to each other than they are to the American. Perhaps history helps to explain that. Both countries have seen their fair share of hardships and strife. So in the face of problems one nation accepts those hardships with laughter while the other simply accepts those hardships. It makes sense. After all, the problems we tend to complain about have been around for quite a while. What’s the likelihood of this generation sorting it all out?

Even though I know the answer to that question is not going to jive with my American optimism, I don’t think my conversations on politics or social ills are going to change very much. In fact this whole issue presents itself to me as a challenge of inter-cultural exchange. I wonder if any of my American readers can help me overcome these cultural barriers.

And there I go again.

It’s no wonder both the Hungarians and the Irish think Americans are a bit starry-eyed. “Oh, look at the cute little American thinking he can resolve long-standing issues stemming from the complexity of national identity and cultural heritage; I just want to eat him right up. Coochie, Coochie, Coo!”

And now some puppy pictures that Andras took:

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Meanest Thing I've Ever Written on the Internet



So this is the crap I deal with while living in Europe. Some guy who went to school with Dóra contacted me through Facebook to let me know that he took a look at the blog. Here’s what he had to say:

Javier Colon (Denmark) wrote
at 8:47pm on April 1st, 2008

Hello!

Just took a look at your Hogs In Budapest website.

I thought maybe you should consider clarifying exactly what you mean by "Midwesterner living in Central Europe"

Midwesterner... To native United Stater's makes sense... but when taken out of context... It can be quite confusing ;)

I thought the comment was tongue-in-cheek. I mean, it had to be, right? So, I wrote back the following:

Hogan Hayes wrote
at 8:32am

Happy to hear you took a look at Hogs. But I'm wondering, do you know of any other region in the world called the Midwest? I'm pretty sure the one in the States is the only Midwest.
If, however, there is a European out there who has never said anything disparaging about the poor geography skills of Americans (unlikely), and who also can say they don't know where the Midwest is, then maybe I'll think about giving a better explanation of the term Midwest (one of only six regions within the continental US).

Okay, so maybe that was a little more biting than necessary, but how many more times am I going to have to see that “Smarter than a 5th Grader” video accompanied by smarmy comments from some EU citizen who thinks Ms. Kelly Pickler is a quality representative of the American intellect? So I bristled. I’ll admit it. I do not, however, think my response was wrong-headed. My intended reader here at ‘Hogs in Budapest’ is someone who knows that in English, the term ‘Midwest’ refers to American fly-over country. I also expect my readers to comprehend understatement, sarcasm, and omission of the obvious. I expect my readers to be able to read subtext. I hope my readers can appreciate irony. I pray my readers will avoid taking themselves too seriously. Now, with all that in mind, have a look at what Javier sent in way of a response.

Javier Colon (Denmark) wrote
at 9:17am

Hello Again!

Although I have lived in several countries over the years… I have yet to find one that uses the term "Midwest" when describing their geographical regions. However, this may be due to the fact that I do not speak the local language of the places I’ve been. This does not grant me the right to just automatically assume that no country uses the term “Midwest” to describe their regions. My concern was the fact that you were using this term “Midwesterner” based on the assumption that it only refers to the USA. This can be interpreted as a slightly arrogant way to generalize that everyone who visits your webpage would automatically understand what you meant. I would suggest that you consider being more diplomatic in your descriptions. Since you are a USA citizen living abroad, I feel it is your duty and responsibility to avoid perpetuating the foolish American stereotype of making board assumptions based on random thoughts.

I would like to start by saying, I was just accused of arrogance because I said I am from the Midwest. For those of you who also hail from the Midwest, hold on to this moment: Javier (who has lived in several countries over the years) thinks a claim to Midwestern roots is arrogant.

That said, I’d like to thank Javier for his concern; it’s true that the word “Midwesterner” may have more than one meaning. And perhaps Javier is right to point out that my use of the word could reinforce “the foolish American stereotype of making board assumptions based on random thoughts.” (I know it’s a cheap shot, but how could I resist?)

So, since Javier felt compelled to share his concerns about my Blogger profile on Facebook, I thought I’d share my concerns about his Facebook comments here on ‘Hogs.’ Javier, I am concerned that you might be a bit of an ass. You see, as a ‘USA citizen living abroad’, I bump into your type all too often: the type who on one hand ‘automatically assumes’ that Americans are ‘slightly arrogant, ’ and on the other hand feels comfortable informing me of what my ‘duty and responsibility’ might be.

Understand, I’m not generalizing here (a deed you seem to abhor). I’ve met plenty of people here in Europe who are good-natured, intelligent folks. You just aren’t one of them. You think I ought to be more diplomatic with my language? Well, I think you ought to engage in autoerotic stimulation. It would be a more valuable use of your time than the above exchange.

Would a winking emoticon make this easier to swallow? Too bad.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Sacredular


I’m teaching an undergraduate course in critical thinking this semester. Each week the students read up on an issue or a long-standing philosophical debate. Last week it was torture. The week before that, we discussed gay marriage. This week we’re reading “The Will to Believe” by William James.

Two bright female Hungarian students asked me what the reading was about for this week. When I told them, they got very excited.

Originally presented as a lecture, “The Will to Believe” seeks to prove that a rational mind can believe in god even if there is no evidence for that belief.

Now, let me make something clear: Mine are not students who typically get excited about 19th century lectures on epistemology. But I have noted in my classroom a profound interest in the sacred-secular debate.

The interest in this topic belies the (typically conservative) American notion that Europe has become a playground for atheists and relativists. I can’t speak for many Western Europeans, but here in Central Europe, God has still got a firm grasp on the population.

During last’s month’s debate on gay marriage, I had one Romanian student who, despite repeated requests from his peers, refused to acknowledge any authority other than the Church in regards to the institution of marriage.

Here in Hungary, the Catholic Church’s holidays are State holidays. We get a day off on Pentecost. I was an active Catholic for years, and I didn’t know exactly what Pentecost was until I just googled it.

Anyway, I try to arrive in the classroom ready to play devil’s advocate for both sides of a debate. (Devil’s advocate, by the way, was originally a post in the Vatican for the officer who argued against the canonization of potential saints)

With this in mind, I poked around the Internet for arguments on both sides of this issue. What I found was unsettling. This debate has sharper fangs than I had anticipated. The people on either side of the divide fight as though this issue has a direct impact not only on their lives, but on society as a whole.

As someone whose faith has waxed and waned throughout my life, I’d like to ask anyone reading this to help me understand the vitriol behind the arguments.

I don’t mean to sound naïve. I understand that the issue is deeply personal. I see in both family and friends that spiritual belief is profoundly important. But several questions still remain.
To quote Malcolm X, “…I believe my religion is my personal business. It governs my personal life, my personal morals. And my religious philosophy is personal between me and the God in whom I believe; just as the religious philosophy of these others is between them and the God in whom they believe.”

This sounds reasonable to me, but the debate I’m seeing on message boards, pundit show clips, and video posts tells me that people do not believe faith is ‘personal business’ anymore.

I have theories as to why, and before I sign off, I’d like to share just one. I’ll focus on the debate in America because I’m more familiar with it.

On one side you’ve got secularists angry because religious interests are creeping into the halls of government. On the other side you have the religious advocates upset because the education system is pushing a secular agenda.

To caricature each side’s voice:
Secularists say, ‘The fundamentalists want to rid our nation of diversity and create an all-Christian America.’
While the religious claim, ‘The universities and laboratories are brainwashing your children with anti-God propaganda.’

So, it’s a turf war. One side’s got the instruments of government. The other side has the tools of education. If you can separate yourself from the fight, it’s actually kind of fun. Cause they’ve both got a point. The US government is the WASPiest institution you could hope to create; name one president who didn’t regularly finish each address with an appeal to God. And the academy has worked hard to keep religion out of the classroom.

What tickles me is that the reason both the government and the academy have developed the way they have clearly stems from the nature of the institutions themselves. The democratic process is bound to produce religious elected officials in a country where the majority of people are religious (Palestine anyone?). And the academy’s pursuit of knowledge is bound to exclude any influence that hampers its investigations.

So why are we surprised? Why are we fighting? The two institutions have attracted the minds that one would expect them to attract. Both institutions exert a powerful influence on the public. But does that undermine Malcolm X’s point? I don’t believe it does. Why would I foist my agnostic beliefs on my students who observe Orthodox traditions? What would I have to gain? I could ask the same of a fundamentalist trying to convert me. What’s the motivation?
Any help?

Below you'll find the vid that pushed me over the edge on writing this entry. I like Richard Dawkins. I think he's a smart guy. And while I respect the views of the minds behind this video, I think the video itself is a horrible piece of trash, but its popularity is interesting to me.