Some people aren’t interested in people.

 

 

On Sunday, February 23, I attended a matinee concert at Carnegie Hall. Beethoven’s Pastorale and seventh symphonies.

I was in something like the fourth row center in the balcony.

I got there about a half an hour early.

Two middle aged guys sitting next to me are having an animated discussion. In Russian, as I realized after a minute or two.

Hearing Russian spoken always excites me. I can make out words and phrases but can’t follow the conversation.

I couldn’t resist. I leaned over and said to the guy to the left of me, “Excuse me, are you from Russia? I have studied Russian. I can’t speak it well. …”

Not much by way of response and no apparent interest, but he did tell me, in answer to questions of mine, that they were from Russia and were visiting. The guy next to me said he was a professor of mathematics. of which he seemed proud.

For how long? “Two months,” the guy next to me said. He seemed to be fluent in English.

“Where in Russia are you from?” I asked.

“Siberia,” he replied

“Siberia!” I said
.
The conversation seemed to be on life support. But curiosity got the best of me.

“What city?” I asked.

”Novosibirsk.”

“The largest city in Siberia?” I asked.

“Yes. 1.6 million people.”

I told him that I have befriended two Russian scholars through the internet — one from Arkhangelsk and the other from Petersburg — and that we collaborate on research and scholarship.

Absolutely no interest.

“I love Russian composers. Shostakovich. Also Tchaikovsky.”

No interest or response. As if the names Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky meant nothing to him and/or he had no opinion.

“The conductor conducting tonight, John Eliot Gardiner, is great for Beethoven,” I said. “English. Believes in fidelity to the original score and orchestration.”

At this point, he wasn’t even pretending to listen.

 

 

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Contrast all this with my mother, Elinor Handy Smith.

She loved to engage people and draw them out in conversation. (I learned this from her.)

Some stories illustrate this.

In the 1930’s, my mother’s kid brother Roger was riding in the back seat of an open convertible. My mother was at the wheel. My mother, a notoriously bad driver, was involved in a collision in which my uncle was ejected from the back seat and ended up on the roadway.

My mother, unfailingly polite, got out of the car and was exchanging information with, as well as offering apologies to, the other party.

My uncle told me years later — it amused him greatly — that my mother almost forgot and drove off without him. She found the persons in the other car extremely interesting and had gotten into a deep conversation with them about some topic entirely unrelated to the present situation and the accident. To my uncle, this was characteristic of my mother; and it illustrated things like a certain up in the clouds quality (in the good sense). I think it was this that amused him most, but in the sense that, which my uncle realized, some things mattered to my mother more than others. People, for example (not thumbtacks).

Then there was Mr. Dustin, the farmer from Concord, Mass. who would deliver fresh farm produce to our house in Cambridge once a week in the 1950’s. My mother loved his visits. He loved them. He would sit and talk with my mother for I don’t know how long. She looked forward to his deliveries because she enjoyed talking with him so much.

There were many others, many other instances, such as the interim Unitarian minister, whose name I forget, at our church (this was in my high school days) who loved to be invited to our house on Sunday afternoons because he enjoyed my mother’s Sunday dinners and loved their dinner table talk; he didn’t want to leave. There were many other visitors – all were welcome. They came from all walks of life and a notable diversity of backgrounds and countries. They would depart saying to my mother. we enjoyed so much talking with you.

 

 

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I attended a 50th class reunion at my high school a couple of years ago. In attendance was my former classmate Jack Horigan.

Looking at his nametag, I said. “Nice to see you, John.”

“Everyone calls me Jack,” he said

“Oh, my. Jack Horigan!” I replied. “I didn’t recognize you.”

How I had failed to I don’t know.

“I remember you well,” Jack said. “Because of your mother. I had an egg delivery job every morning before school then. My favorite customer was your mother. I loved it because of the talks we had.”

A high school boy. Jack was not a close friend of mine; I never spoke of him to my mother. My mother was interested in EVERYONE.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 25, 2020

“Oh, For a Lodge in Some Warm Wilderness!” (a New Yorker’s dream)

 

 
OH, FOR A LODGE IN SOME WARM WILDERNESS!

The Cry of Many a New-Yorker Whose Business Worries are Aggravated by a Bad Cold.

New-York Tribune

February 21, 1904

 

 

Doubtless, this winter, when the North River,* overhung with mist and full of huge cakes of ice, resembled a scene on the coasts of Labrador, and the streets have seemed never to be free from snow and ice, many a New-Yorker with a cold has found the Psalmist’s words: “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove; for then I would fly away and be at rest,”** highly expressive of his feelings. Forgetting that one of the great characteristics of the human being which most widely differentiates him from other animals is his ability to adapt himself to the rigors of any climate, and that, therefore, he ought to give proof of his superiority by gloriously braving it out, he would gladly take wing and follow the birds to the warmer climates where there is no pneumonia, where the furnace troubleth not and the walks are fringed with green instead of covered with white. This winter has been more trying than previous winters for a number of years. The constantly recurring snowstorms and cold waves, almost clasping hands with one another, have worn down the patience of many persons who cannot get away. The very cough syrup, with its reminder of the wholesome, aromatic atmosphere of the great pine forests of the gentle tempered South, has tantalized while it performed its work of healing. If one could only adopt the mind cure and imagine himself in some semi-tropical isle in the Spanish Main, what a consolation it would be as one sits back at one’s desk, every window tightly closed to prevent draughts and keep out the fog laden air, twisting one’s nose with moist handkerchief! A vision of

 

The slender coco’s drooping crown of plumes,
The lightning flash of insect and of bird,
The lustre of the long convolvuluses,***

 

rises in one’s mind and feels how pleasant it would be to lazily loll for a few weeks in that country, with its changing tropical lights.

If the climate of New York in winter is not an ideal one, there is the consoling thought that within the confines of the United States one may experience any kind of climate one desires, from the arctic temperature of Alaska to the semi-tropical of Florida. Of course, one does not wish to think of the former, with its frozen temperatures. It is much pleasanter to dream, if one cannot realize it, of “the South where the gulf breezes blow.” To know that one may enjoy in March strawberries, ripe and red on the table; violet blossoms in the woods, the breath of jasmines in the air, and glimpses of the passion flower, scarlet trumpet creeper, wild honeysuckle, blossoming blackberry vines; delicate hued lichens, is enough to make a New-Yorker desire to sell his business and go instantly to such a favored clime with his family. While a New-Yorker is breathing the stuffy air of his office, in another part if his “native land” myriads of orchids are perfuming the air of dense forests with no man near to appreciate their beauty and fragrance. Forests of live oaks with hanging banners of Spanish moss; cypresses and blossoming magnolias invite the eye, and strange birds with tropical melodies entice the ear as they dart through the darkened recesses of the woodland. And if a little adventure is desired, it may be had by awakening an alligator lazily sunning himself at the edge of the stream.

Or, in another part of country, thousands of miles away, where once the indolent dons cultivated their ranches, flaming poppies, ranging from bright yellow to scarlet, violets, primroses, sweet clover, yellow and purple; the blue larkspur and the scarlet silene are mingling with the green of the fields and making an entrancing carpeting. There the mercury remains almost stationary in the tube. and the rain falls almost never.

 

* The North, now Hudson, River.

** I never knew where the words “wings of the dove” come from.

** * The lines are from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Enoch Arden.”

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   December 2020

 

 

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Addendum:

 

I myself have seen the “huge cakes of ice” on the Hudson, viewed from Riverside Park, during one particularly cold winter when the river partly froze over. It was beautiful. You could hear the ice hissing as the chunks broke up.

Roger W. Smith, “Jean Rhys”

 

 

‘Jean Rhys’ – Annual Obituary essay

 

 

In the early 1980’s, I saw an advertisement in The New York Times classified section (they still had classified ads back then) for a freelance writer for The Annual Obituary, a new reference book to be published by St. Martin’s Press.

Respondents were required to submit a trial essay.  Which I did (see PDF document above). The essay was typed by me on my “cherished” electric typewriter. No word processors in those days. Typos were corrected by hand.  A wavy line underneath meant boldface, and so forth.

I was excited about the opportunity to write about real people prominent in fields such as the arts and writing — I had been working as a copywriter for a college textbook publisher.

I was hired on the basis of this essay I wrote about the writer Jean Rhys. I have no desire to read her books now. But, I was thrilled then to be hired. My wife got a phone call from the editor saying that I had been chosen. “He will be so excited to hear they you called and that he has been chosen,” she said. “Well, he has,” she said, stuffily.

 

 

Roger W. Smith

   February 2020

“we are literally nothing …”

 
“Two of the great poverties of modern psychological thought, it seems to me, are its inability to see human beings related to other forms of life: flowers, water, leaves, mountains, etc., and its failure to affirm that we are literally nothing without family and loved ones.”

 

 

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The above words were written by a poet whom I befriended in my mid-twenties, in a letter to one of his friends. He had sent his friend a copy of his first book of poetry, along with his own commentary on references and allusions in the poems; and a brief account of their major themes.

He was very well read — steeped in literature classic and contemporary — and seemed to have read all the poets and modern philosophers.

A deep thinker, and he rarely wasted words, much as was the case with my former therapist, Dr. Colp.

 
Roger W. Smith

   February 2020

Mr. Kidd

 

 

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A couple of memories about Mr. Russell E. Kidd, the former gym teacher and coach at Canton High School in Canton, Massachusetts, who died this month at the age of 86.

I actually remember Mr. Kidd best from junior high. He was a phys ed instructor in both the junior and senior high schools in the early year of his teaching career.

There was always a hortatory streak in Mr. Kidd. But first, a digression.

 
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In my senior year, a neighbor and fellow student, Dave Freiday, told me after school one day: You wouldn’t believe what Mr. Kidd said about you today. Dave had been in the locker room after school, probably as a member of the track team. Paraphrasing what Dave told me (I remember it very well), Mr. Kidd had said to him: Look at Roger Smith. It’s incredible. He was the most uncoordinated kid you could imagine and now he has developed into a good athlete and always goes out for sports.

He didn’t mean that I was an outstanding athlete, but that it was wonderful how I had gone from being hopelessly inept to a student-athlete.

What nice words! Would that all coaches have such interest in and appreciation for the development of the boys in their domain.
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To backtrack, my first experience of Mr. Kidd was in the eighth grade. After a workout, we boys were seated in a circle either on the ground outside or on the floor of the gymnasium.

Everyone looked up to Mr. Kidd. He was handsome, had a muscular physique. He spoke well and with sincerity. He chose his words well; was forceful, clear, and direct.

He delivered a de facto sermon.

We were about to enter high school. Mr. Kidd told us, “If you go out for football, it will make you a man.”

“I’m not saying you can’t become a man if you don’t play football, “he continued, “but if you do, I guarantee you will become a man.”

Wanting very much to become a man. I took this seriously and went out for football in my freshman year in high school,

Mr. Kidd talked about himself by way of example. This was the most memorable part of his talk. He told us boys, you can make something of yourself (as he had done) regardless of your circumstances. He told us that he had had a summer job as a moving man when he was in college. “I was in some of the worst slums in Boston.” he said. In some of the apartments, he said, everything was neat and orderly. “It was so clean you could eat off the floor.”

I never forgot these indelible words.

 

 

Roger W Smith

   February 23. 2020

The infinitive is infinite.

 

 

In a text I bought for my German course, Basic German: A Grammar and Workbook, 2nd Edition, by Heiner Schenke, Anna Miell, and Karen Seago, pg. 7, it says:

 

A verb with a personal ending — e.g., Woher kommst du? Ich wohne in Frankfurt, Woher kommst du? — is called a finite verb. This is in contrast to the infinitive form of verbs.

 

I never knew.

In other words, a verb when used with a subject and tense — we speak, they spoke, English is spoken — is finite, determinate; there is definite action, occurrence.

But, yes, Shakespeare can write to be or not to be, but to be is timeless, so to speak. But, I was satisfied — this refers to the past and an actual point on time, whether specified or not.

 

 

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I love learning new things. In the category of learning “I never knew that.” Something simple that should have been obvious, but that for me represents a discovery.

When you learn it, some fundamental that increases overall understanding is now part of your mental repertoire.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2020