On Ranting

The Opposite of Conversations

I have a friend who has been pretty much out of circulation for a quarter century. On an average of once a week, I give him a call. When I do, I have to brace myself for a series of rants on various subjects that are currently galling him. I would say he does about 90% or more of the talking, deftly segueing from one subject to another. He is capable of going on for hours if not stopped, usually by me—I am not overly fond of long telephone conversations.

At the same time, he is my best and oldest friend; so there is a reason why I continue calling him. Fortunately, this behavior mostly manifests itself over the phone. In person, surrounded by his family, the conversation is more of the give-and-take variety, which I prefer.

One of the dangers of living an isolated life is a tendency to go off into rants. If I did it, Martine would tell me in no uncertain terms to shove it. I guess he feels I am a safe person on whom to vent his grievances. And, as we age, the number of those grievances only increases.

I will continue to call him and listen—but not uncritically—to his rants. As soon as he mentions some subjects, such as artificial intelligence, or AI, I just ask him not to go there. He has nothing to say that he has not said a hundred times or more. But, as long as the grievance sticks in his craw, it will attempt to migrate to my ears as well.

Perhaps that’s just in the nature of friendship.

The Long Retreat

Middle School Greek Dancers at St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church

I remember a time when most foreign-born Americans were of European ethnicity. My father, Elek Paris, was born in what is now the Republic of Slovakia; and my mother, who was actually born in Ohio, was taken to Hungary to be raised by her grandparents. For the first five or six years of my life, I thought that Hungarian was the language of the United States.

What inevitably happens has happened. The children of European-born immigrants see their parents’ culture, religion, and language as something quaint which they are being reluctantly marshaled into accepting. The three-year Covid-19 lockdown has brought this tendency into sharper focus.

Yesterday, Martine and I attended the annual Greek Festival at St Nicholas in Northridge for the first time since 2019. Sure enough, the tours of the church were more perfunctory; the calamari was more breading than squid; and there were fewer people able to do the traditional dance steps. I noticed much the same at the two Hungarian festivals we attended this month. Only the Grace Hungarian Reform Church in Reseda had anything like the same quality of food and entertainment as before the lockdown.

Our neighbors downstairs are refugees from Putin’s Ukrainian invasion. I notice that their two little daughters are addressing their mother in English instead of Ukrainian.

When I first came to Los Angeles, there were at least half a dozen Hungarian restaurants. Now there are none. If I want real Hungarian food, I’ll either have to cook it myself or visit my brother more often. (He’s a far better cook than I am.)

If Martine and I expect to find more authentic ethnic events, we will have to concentrate on the Asian and Latin American ethnic events, as they have arrived in this country more recently.

“Long Torn By Ill Fate”

Melinda Borbely Singing Hungarian Folk Songs

Today was another Hungarian festival, this time it was the Tavaszköszöntő at the First Hungarian Reformed Church of Los Angeles. Although I can speak Hungarian (ungrammatically), I have a difficult time understanding the language when all the long agglutinative words are strung together in paragraph lengths.

Still, just letting the language wash over me, while understanding only bits and pieces, sends me back to my roots. As a child born in the Hungarian neighborhood of Buckeye Road in Cleveland, Ohio, I did not even know that English existed as the language of my home and neighborhood was strictly Magyar. Listening to spoken Hungarian makes me feel as if I were being washed by the gentle waves of the Danube as it flows through Budapest.

This is the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon, which resulted in millions of Hungarians being assigned to Czechoslovakia, Romania, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia. One cannot go to a Hungarian gathering without seeing a map of the pre-Trianon borders of Hungary. It has led to a mythology of the lost cause, which is perfectly enshrined in the Himnusz, the Hungarian national anthem. Here is a YouTube video of the Himnusz:

Here are the lyrics in all the stanzas of the Himnusz:

Verse 1
O God, bless the nation of Hungary
With your grace and bounty
Extend over it your guarding arm
During strife with its enemies
Long torn by ill fate
Bring upon it a time of relief
This nation has suffered for all sins
Of the past and of the future!

Verse 2
You brought our ancestors up
Over the Carpathians’ holy peaks
By You was won a beautiful homeland
For Bendeguz’s sons
And wherever flow the rivers of
The Tisza and the Danube
Árpád our hero’s descendants
Will root and bloom.

Verse 3
For us on the plains of the Kuns
You ripened the wheat
In the grape fields of Tokaj
You dripped sweet nectar
Our flag you often planted
On the wild Turk’s earthworks
And under Mátyás’ grave army whimpered
Vienna’s “proud fort.”

Verse 4
Ah, but for our sins
Anger gathered in Your bosom
And You struck with Your lightning
From Your thundering clouds
Now the plundering Mongols’ arrows
You swarmed over us
Then the Turks’ slave yoke
We took upon our shoulders.

Verse 5
How often came from the mouths
Of Osman’s barbarian nation
Over the corpses of our defeated army
A victory song!
How often did your own son aggress
My homeland, upon your breast,
And you became because of your own sons
Your own sons’ funeral urn!

Verse 6
The fugitive hid, and towards him
The sword reached into his cave
Looking everywhere he could not find
His home in his homeland
Climbs the mountain, descends the valley
Sadness and despair his companions
Sea of blood beneath his feet
Ocean of flame above.

Verse 7
Castle stood, now a heap of stones
Happiness and joy fluttered,
Groans of death, weeping
Now sound in their place.
And Ah! Freedom does not bloom
From the blood of the dead,
Torturous slavery’s tears fall
From the burning eyes of the orphans!

Verse 8
Pity, O Lord, the Hungarians
Who are tossed by waves of danger
Extend over it your guarding arm
On the sea of its misery
Long torn by ill fate
Bring upon it a time of relief
They who have suffered for all sins
Of the past and of the future!

It is a powerful anthem. Hearing it sung at the festival today, I felt like taking my sword and riding to the border to stop the Turkish invader in his tracks. It is such a powerful hymn that it is forbidden to be sung at international sporting events—which just adds to the Hungarian sense of grievance.

Martine’s Tiny Treasures

A Sample California State Identification Card

Martine likes to take long walks. She walks very slowly and looks carefully around her and typically finds all manner of things. These include infant socks (many different varieties), unused Narcan nasal spray for opiate overdoses, birth control pills, drug syringes, and coins of all denominations, including foreign coins.

Today, she picked up a California state identification card outside a Santa Monica supermarket, similar in format to the above photograph. It was from a young woman who lived in the immediate vicinity of Santa Monica College. As she was about to go by bus to deliver the card to the address shown on it, I offered to drive her there. Going on foot or by bus would have taken hours, and it was already dark.

So I drove Martine to the house whose address was on the card. She went up to the door and handed it to an older woman who was probably the mother of the card holder.

When I first came to Southern California around 1967, I had one such card. After all, it was not until 1985 that I learned to drive and was able to get a California drivers’ license. The card enabled me to buy alcoholic beverages for eighteen years. I imagine that the young woman whose card Martine found is now able to celebrate by boozing it up with her good buds.

One Night in Santa Monica

The Apartment Building at 1323 11th Street

During most of the 1970s, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment on 11th Street in Santa Monica. I was on the second floor, with the bottom floor being a carport. On the way up the back stairs to my apartment (#10), I had to pass #8 and #9. I am giving you this detail so that you will be able to better see what happened to me on night around 1978.

I was returning from Von’s Supermarket with a bag of groceries. As I walked down the alley, I saw two young Armenian men crouching behind a car with a trailer loaded with furniture. They motioned for me to take cover. I surmised that they were moving into one of the apartments (the building owner was Armenian), but I had no desire to wait for man indeterminate time in the dark, cold alley. So I continued on.

As I turned to mount the stairs, I saw my alcoholic white trash neighbor Merle standing at the top of the stairs with a rifle. I greeted him: “Hi, Merle. How’s it going?” He complained that those damned kids who were moving in made too much noise and giving him a headache. He added: “You’ve always been a good neighbor to me, Jim.” So he moved to one side and let me pass.

As I turned my back to him to go to my front door, I was conscious that I had just done something irrecoverably stupid and that I might be shot in the back. I turned the key, entered my apartment, and fell on the floor, breathing heavily.

Within minutes, the Santa Monica Police arrived and arrested Merle. I never saw him again. Shortly thereafter, his wife Ursula moved out. One neighbor had told me that once, when he knocked on the door of #8, Ursula answered the door stark naked. I, however, was deprived of that experience.

Actually, except for that one incident, Merle and I got along all right.

Hiking to Inspiration Point

Atop Inspiration Point Ten Years Ago

Today I took a hike … sort of. Now that we are not being flooded out very week, I needed some exercise—only to find that I was way out of shape. I drove to the Will Rogers State Historical Park in Pacific Palisades. Now this is a trail I had hiked many times before, but today I couldn’t quite make it to the top. And that despite the fact that the trip there and back was only 9/10 of a mile (1.5 km) with a total gain of 119 feet (36 meters)!

I am resolved to try again soon. It is amazing how a long spell of bad weather can expose how out of shape one is.

No matter. I still enjoyed the experience. The hills were covered with purple and gold wildflowers, and at several points there were still rivulets seeping from the hills right through the center of the trail. At three points along the trail, there are benches . I took advantage of them once on the way up and once on the way down. It was a lovely day, with coastal fog starting to come in at the lower elevations.

In another ten or twelve weeks, it’ll be too hot to hike this trail, so I had better do it again soon perhaps two or three times. When it gets really hot in L.A., it’s better to stick to level ground—and that early in the morning. Once 11 am rolls along, it becomes a sweaty ordeal.

When I finished the walk, I sat down on one of the three rocking chairs on the porch of Will Rogers’s old house and watched parents play with their children on the wide lawn in front.

The Tooth, the Whole Tooth, and Nothing But the Tooth

Uh oh! A couple days ago, I felt a sharp pain in one of my upper molars. Plus, when I drank anything cold, I felt the same pain. My last dental siege involved a new crown for one of my bicuspids, which couldn’t stay on. That was followed by two root canals of the bicuspid and an adjacent tooth, which had to be scrapped by having the tooth pulled. Total cost: about $4,500.

That sort of sequence is not exactly balm to someone like me on a fixed income. After that adventure, I did something I had never really done before. I purchased an electric toothbrush and did a thorough brushing of the gums and all tooth surfaces (fore, aft, and sides) for two full minutes—timed—before going to bed.

Today, I saw my dentist and had the sore tooth x-rayed. Apparently, the problem was caused by the molar next to the extracted bicuspid sticking out a little too far. So my dentist carefully measured my bite and trimmed the tooth so it wouldn’t receive too much pressure from my normal chewing of food.

The good news: It seems to be holding up for now.

Fool’s Mate

The Fastest Checkmate on the Board—By the Black Pieces, No Less!

I first learned how to play chess at the age of nine, thanks to the husband of my mother’s best friend. Ever since then, I was hooked. Central and Eastern Europeans have always had a special affinity for the game. My parents respected my love of the game even when they were annoyed by my being a bookworm: It was considered acceptable to Hungarians to go gaga over the game.

Mind you, I don’t consider myself to be a particularly strong player. My main weakness is my game to too undynamic, frequently bypassing attacking sacrifices and, what is worse, not paying close attention when attacking sacrifices are played against me.

On the other hand, I have taught over thirty people how to play the game. Some of them went on to beat me, the ungrateful pups!

In my retirement, I frequently play six or more games a day against the computers at Chess.Com. Shamefully, I take moves back when I have made an obvious mistake. And I tend to play weaker automated opponents. When I do play human opponents using Chess.Com, I find myself rated as a middling player, verging on (but never quite reaching) advanced status.

It is still possible to love the game when one is just what chess players refer to as a patzer.

Flying to Florida 1959

My first flight was in the summer of 1959—to Florida of all places. Way back around 1946-47, we had all lived in Lake Worth, now a suburb of West Palm Beach. My Dad had the worst job in the world for someone with a delicate stomach: disposing of the bodies of dead alligators. My Mom worked as a checker in a supermarket. So when Mom wanted to hook up with her Florida friends a dozen or so years later, my Dad wanted no part of it.

Wait a minute! Florida in the summer? Were we out of our minds? Apparently. It was either June or July, and Mom had made a reservation at an apartment on Federal Highway in Lake Worth. So Mom, my brother (then seven years old), and me (aged fourteen) were off to Cleveland Hopkins Airport, where we boarded a prop plane similar to the one shown above and flew to Jacksonville, where we landed to embark and disembark passengers, and continued on to West Palm Beach.

That second leg of the flight was a real doozy. We were flying at low altitude through a violent thunderstorm. I saw a stewardess lose her footing and dump a tray of beverages into the laps of a row of passengers.

Then, when we finally landed in West Palm Beach and stepped out of the plane, it was as if we were hit in the face with a hot, wet towel. Cleveland in the summer was humid, but nowhere near so bad as Florida. We sort of got used to it. We even got used to seeing dead palmetto bugs as big as mice piled up along the curbs.

Bookworm that I was, even at that early age, I remember vividly that I was reading Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur, which I completed there and started reading MorrisWest’s The Shoes of the Fisherman. Good reading for a devout Catholic schoolboy, though I couldn’t stomach it today.

One interesting memory of that trip: My Mom had worked for a rich widow in Palm Beach named Mrs. Gregory. One day, we went to visit her. Mom always thought that some rich person would out of the goodness of her heart shower us with money and gifts. It never happened. Instead, we went for a ride in her chauffeured Cadillac with no air conditioning and the windows resolutely closed on a sweltering day. Afterwards, she generously offered us a glass of ice water.

At Sea in 1949

Boats and Fish Seen By Me at the Age of Four

It’s in execrable shape—but then, so am I—but here is a pencil drawing I made at the age of four. It is inscribed by my mother in Hungarian “Jimmy drew this in March 1949.” It displays an attention to detail surprising for a little boy who did not have access to television and who did not know a word of English. All I had were the stories my mother told me. Interestingly, she made them up herself most of the time. A lot of them involved fairy princesses and dark forests.

Then, too, there were the stories she read to me from library books. We would go together to the public library near Harvey Rice School (where I would go for kindergarten and half of first grade) and pick them out, mostly based on the pictures in them. My mother knew English: she was born in Cleveland, but taken back to Hungary to be raised. She would meticulously translate the selected stories from English to my little-boy Magyar tongue. (Magyar means Hungarian in the Hungarian language.)

At the time, we were living at 2814 East 120th Street in the Buckeye Road Hungarian neighborhood of Cleveland. For several blocks around, one could be born, live, and die without knowing a word of English. Not any more, of course. Eventually all the Hungarians moved out and it became a black ghetto. We moved out, too, in 1951, shortly after my brother was born.