Monthly Archives: May 2017

a great letter (from an elementary schooler)


“Here is a letter written in 1992 by a ten-year-old girl to her parents. Countless girls write such letters from camp every summer. … We can make no claim of fame or masterpiece status for Elizabeth’s letter. This is but a scrap of writing, a page grown from the welter of human life like a leaf on a tree, born with countless others to be borne away by winter’s first blast. Elizabeth repeats herself, she misspells, and she’s focused on home, not art. Yet Elizabeth is sublime, and her letter glows with life; Shakespeare would be hard put to surpass her girlish passion. No matter how inexpert or unknown the pen, such writing will never die.” — Michael Lydon, Bad Writing (Patrick Press, 2001)

(Note: I have quoted from Michael Lydon’s book to corroborate the point of this post, but I have not posted the girl’s letter, discussed by Lydon, here. The letter which the title of this post refers to is posted below and is a different one.)


“The best letters are often not ‘literary.’ Simplicity and directness are keys. Plain, homely, everyday details make a letter a live piece of human tissue instead of a bloodless specimen.” — Roger W. Smith, “A Walt Whitman Letter; and, What Can Be Inferred from It about Letter Writing in General”




Posted below is a letter I received about fifteen years ago from my older son’s best friend. He was spending the summer in Poland with his grandparents, who had a farm in Poland. He emigrated to the United States in the 1980’s and met my son in the first grade. After receiving his letter, I sent my son’s friend some books to help relieve his boredom. He told me later that he  reed and enjoyed them.

I feel that my son’s friend’s letter illustrates perfectly the points about letter writing made by Michael Lydon and myself, as enumerated in the above quotations.

What I liked and appreciated most about the friend’s letter were his use of telling details and his directness, as well as his honesty.


— Roger W. Smith

   May 2017




Adrian's letter to Roger_Page_1.jpg

Adrian's letter to Roger_Page_2

“Hávamál” (“Sayings of the High One”; translated from Old Norse)


“through translation everyone can admire the sparkling brilliance of their iceberg-like beauty” -– Charles W. Dunn, Preface to Poems of the Elder Edda, translated by Patricia Terry


‘Sayings of the High One’

‘Sayings of the High One’


“Hávamál” (“Sayings of the High One”) is contained in the Codex Regius, a collection of Old Norse poems from the Viking age.

Codex means an ancient manuscript in book form. The Codex Regius (Royal Book) is an Icelandic codex in which many Old Norse poems are preserved.

“Hávamál,” itself a combination of different poems, is largely gnomic, presenting advice for living, proper conduct, and wisdom.

It is believed that the Old Norse poems preserved in the Codex Regius date from the ninth century.  They were written down and compiled in the thirteenth century.

Downloadable text of selections from “Hávamál” is provided above as Word document; and the entire section is also posted here as as PDF.


— Roger W. Smith

   May 2017




A relative of mine who saw this post commented on it.

I wrote the following email in reply to him.

The email explains how I came to read and admire Hávamál.”

I recently wrote a tribute to my former medieval history professor, Norman. F. Cantor, at

my history professor, Norman F. Cantor

In my senior year at Brandeis University, I took a two semester proseminar with Professor Cantor. Each student had to give a paper in a given class on a given date, which would be followed by discussion.

I proposed the subject “frontier societies” to Cantor. The “frontier” regions of Europe then (early Middle Ages) were regions of Europe to the north and west.

He was a very supportive, yeah-saying prof — he said to me “great topic.”

Professor Cantor was like a walking bibliography — seemed to have read everything. He said that I should take a look at the Codex Regius, which had just been published in English translation.

The Brandeis library had the book.

From it, I was introduced to the “Sayings of the High One,” which were at the front of the book. They blew my mind.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, “Platero y yo”



Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895–1968; b. Italy; d. USA) was an Italian composer. He was regarded as one of the foremost guitar composers of the twentieth century.

Posted below is his musical setting of the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez’s book in the form of a prose poem Platero y yo (Platero and I). The book is a simple, semi-autobiographical account about a poet and his donkey. It evokes the region of Andalusia in Spain and the town of Moguer, the author’s birthplace.

The musical setting by Castelnuovo-Tedesco was originally published in 1960 as “Platero y yo, per voce recitante e chitarra.” In other words, it was intended to be performed by guitar player with a narrator speaking the text. It is performed here on guitar without narration.

It consists of ten sections:

1 – Platero

2 – Golondrinas (Swallows)

3 – Angelus

4 – Retorno (Return)

5 – El Pozo (The Well)

6 – La Primavera (Spring)

7 – El Canario Vuela (The Canary Flies)

8 – La Arrulladora (Lullaby)

9 – Melancolia (Melancholy)

10 – A Platero en el cielo de Moguer (To Platero in the heaven of Moguer’s heaven)

— posted by Roger W. Smith

    May 2017

“sick minds”


'The Sick Rose'.jpg

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

— William Blake, “The Sick Rose”


“People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” — Richard Nixon, November 17, 1973, during a televised question and answer session with the press


I thought of this famous quote from Richard Nixon, because it seemed to me that perhaps I should begin this post by stating that I am not a pedophile. So, I hereby state, “I am not a pedophile.”

Do you do, dear reader, believe me? Consider what happened to me the day before last.



I was in what was (but no longer is) my favorite local park,  in the borough of Queens, NYC, taking photographs, as usual, of the scenery. See sample photo from this particular stroll below.

Juniper Valley Park 5-4-2017

I try to go to the park at different times of the day and take photos in the early morning and late afternoon: sunrise, sunset; light on the grass in different seasons and times of the day; the change of seasons; rain and snow, foliage; spring blossoms.

I am not a professional photographer, but I have recently been taking lots of photos of cityscapes during walks I take almost daily. I have recently found — it has occurred to me through trial and error — that a photo of outdoors scenery can be enhanced by having people in it.

Photos can be ruined if someone walks in front of you just as you take the shot. You don’t want close ups of people. But, say, you are at the beach (when it is not crowded). The interest of the photo for a viewer can often be enhanced, it seems, if people are visible in the background. See below a photo I took at the seashore a couple of months ago.


I had a voila moment in the park on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. It was a gorgeous spring afternoon. Kids were playing on a greensward. Wouldn’t it be great to get them in some of my photos, I thought.

Voila moment, you ask? Three things were fused in my unconscious mind. It was spring. It was a beautiful day. Kids were gamboling, frolicking; playing at games and sports in a freewheeling, unstructured way.

I like to watch kids play. It reminds me of the joy that I and almost everyone took in play growing up. At a time when you didn’t look for guidance or instructions from adults for what to do. You just went outside and started tossing a ball around, playing tag, keepaway, and so forth.

Makes one feel young. Appreciate good health and raw energy.

That’s not how everyone sees it.

I pointed my camera in their direction (the frolicking kids, that is), utilizing the zoom feature, and began shooting away (photographically, that is). Samples of the kinds of photos I was taking are shown below.

May 3.JPG



I didn’t really pay attention to whether they were boys or girls or their ages.



I had more or less finished eagerly taking photos of the greensward with kids playing in the distance. I don’t quite recall, but I think I was putting my camera back into its case when I suddenly became aware of someone saying — demanding of me — at a decibel level just below shouting, in a stern voice, “What are you doing?”

Two middle aged men approached me. I was standing on a walkway that encircles the park.

I felt alarm about I knew not what, just the unpleasant sense of being importuned.

Instinct told me that the best thing to do was to stand my ground, to not act as if I were “guilty” (which I wasn’t, by any measure), of what I wasn’t sure.

So, I answered them firmly but calmly (feigning calmness) by saying, “What do you mean, ‘what are you doing’? Tell me, specifically, just what it is you object to about what I am doing?”

They were basically inarticulate and not inclined to engage in a discussion (should they have been capable of it). But what they objected to was my taking photos of children. The only way they knew I was doing this was the direction my camera was pointed in. I was nowhere near the children, who were perhaps 100 or more feet away from me.

I had trouble answering them and explaining or defending myself. They weren’t inclined to listen. But, I said that I often visited the park, took photos in different seasons, and in fact took photos all over the City. I said that I had recently taken photos in Central Park, that several (but by no means all) of them included kids and no one objected. See two such Central Park photos below.

April 10.jpg

April 27.jpg

I said that I had posted them on Facebook and people admired them.

They were contemptuous of this, didn’t care. Aesthetics isn’t their thing.

They kept haranguing me. I concluded that telling or explaining to them that I experienced aesthetic satisfaction from taking such photos and that others enjoyed them was a waste of time. I therefore said that I was not doing anything illegal. “Call the cops,” I said to them. “There is nothing I am doing that is illegal.”

“We don’t care about the law,” they said. “Don’t take photos of children. Understand? Those are someone’s kids.” They said something about girls, too.

I told them I had children of my own. They weren’t listening. (They themselves were not accompanied by children.)

I tried to remonstrate. One of the guys said, “don’t get on my back!” As a matter of fact, I wasn’t approaching him, I was just standing my ground and answering him back. He didn’t like that. It looked like he was going to punch me.

I started to walk away. “Where are you going?” one of them said. “I’m going home, if that’s okay with you,” I said. “It’s this way.”

I noticed, which I hadn’t up to then, that the wife of one of the guys was standing behind him. She was glaring at me.



The two men who accosted me view themselves as guardians of public morality. They are self-appointed neighborhood “police.” Vigilantes, actually. A sexual predatory-iness patrol/posse.

They have poisoned the well, ruined the park for me. I will never set foot in it again.

It would be too unpleasant for me, basically because of the unpleasant feelings I left with on this particular day. Unpleasant is putting it mildly. I went home in a condition of severe anxiety and under great stress. It took me full day to begin to get over it.



When I got home, I researched on my computer the law on taking photographs in public.

What I found is that

Anyone in a public place can take pictures of anything they want. Public places include parks, sidewalks, malls, etc.

People can be photographed if they are in public (without their consent) unless they have secluded themselves and can expect a reasonable degree of privacy. Kids swimming in a fountain? Okay. Somebody entering their PIN at an ATM? Not okay.

If you are challenged, you do not have to explain why you are taking pictures, nor do you have to disclose your identity (except in some cases when questioned by a law enforcement officer).

In the United States, it is legal to photograph or videotape anything and anyone on any public property.

Photography on private property that is generally open to the public (e.g., a shopping mall) is usually permitted unless explicitly prohibited by posted signs.



Let’s leave the legal issues aside for a moment. It seems that society has gone so over the top, people have become so crazed –and themselves out of control — about smoking out and pursuing sexual predators that wholesome, innocent, blameless things which actually make life pleasant on many levels are no longer tolerated.

The guardians of public morality, the suppositional, amorphous “vice squad” could care less about culture. They see boogeyman everywhere. They impugn bad motives and attribute foul, nefarious desires as a matter of course to innocent persons.

They are philistines.

Self-appointed vice squads. But it’s even worse. They’re vigilantes. They have taken it upon themselves to enforce what they see as the law. They have appointed themselves as enforcers — local, on site “law enforcement” — who will decide what is permissible and take steps to protect the innocence, inviolability, and purity of children, say (theirs and others’), in their neighborhood. Presumably of women too.



The guys in the park obviously regarded me as a predatory pervert. They don’t want my “type” in what they consider to be their park.

It’s a municipal park. Rules for conduct are posted there. The rules are sensible ones crafted to make the park pleasant and prohibiting things like littering and loud music.



People have sick minds.

Not me, THEM.

Read William Blake’s poem above. It’s the speaker in the poem who is sick mentally. The speaker who says, “O Rose thou art sick. ”


— Roger W. Smith

   May 6, 2017




Great art would not be possible if the self-appointed guardians of public morality had their way.


Raphael, 'Aldobrandini Madonna'

Raphael, “Aldobrandini Madonna””

Kiddie porn?


'dejeurner sur l'herbe'

Manet, “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe”

The work of a voyeur?


'Young Sewing Girl'

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, “Young Sewing Girl”

Did he obtain a signed parental permission slip?


'snap the whip'

Winslow Homer, “Snap the Whip”

Was Homer a closet pederast?




Manhattan is the polar opposite of the outer borough of Queens, where I live, and where the rednecks and philistines who are ever present assume that their views are the only ones that matter.

On the morning of Tuesday, August 15, 2017, I was in Central Park taking photos. Central Park has quite a few big rocks that kids like to climb upon. I noticed a mother and son joyfully playing on one of these rocks, seemingly oblivious to all else, and started snapping photos. The mother turned her head and noticed me. “I hope you don’t mind my taking a photo of you,” I said to her. You look so wonderful and happy playing together.”

“I don’t mind at all,” she said.

IMG_9762 (2).JPG




Below is an exchange of an emails I had with an acquaintance who read my post. He lives in Belgium.


Dear Roger,

I just read your post. I feel sorry for you this happened, and I can feel your disgust about the situation and towards the people who gave you this awful feeling.

Defending yourself, “standing your ground,” was a very human and normal reaction. However, I doubt they would have changed their minds, since they already had a sick, perverted image of you in their heads, an image they clearly would not have been willing to change, even after tons of explanations. I regret this happened to you, I can see there is nothing wrong with your pictures. I am wondering why they made such deductions, why it made them angry in a way they wanted to verbally attack you. It says a lot about them. Keep that in mind. Don’t let them give you a feeling of guilt.


JB — Thanks for the email. I really appreciated it. It was very comforting.

You are right. It as a case of me being the victim of people who “wrongfully thought” of me “based on … their twisted minds.”

You are also right that they were not going to change their minds. They had an idée fixe, an image of me that they formed, instantaneously, on the spot, since they had never seen me before. They were making what is called in an English idiom a “snap judgment.”

And, as you noted, “tons of explanations” — in fact, anything I said — would have done, and did, no good whatsoever.

I appreciate your encouragement.

They are ignoramuses and busybodies who have nothing better to do.

Meddlers. Snoops.

They also have no appreciation of the finer things. But that’s obvious and goes without saying.


Benjamin Britten, “Elegy”



The Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31, is a song cycle written in 1943 by English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) for tenor accompanied by a solo horn and a small string orchestra. Composed during World War II, it is a setting of six poems by British poets.

It is comprised of eight movements, including “Elegy”, set to the poem “The Sick Rose” by William Blake.

— Roger W. Smith

   May 2017



The Sick Rose

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

a significant (glaring) omission


I recently saw the documentary film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, about urban theorist and activist Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) and her epic battle during the 1960’s against city planner Robert Moses (1888-1981) over urban renewal projects in New York City.

I was surprised that a film that would seemingly be of great interest and relevance to New Yorkers was not better attended. The theater, the Lincoln Plaza Cinema on Manhattan’s West Side, was practically empty.

The New York Times gave the film and a more or less favorable but lukewarm review.

There was an interesting article about the making of the film in Vogue:

“Citizen Jane Is a Primer on How to Resist Authoritarianism” by Julia Felsenthal, Vogue, April 21, 2017

The article was based on an interview with the director, Matt Tyrnauer.

Felsenthal: “Jane Jacobs isn’t mentioned in Caro’s book [a biography of Robert Moses]. Is that an erasure? Why would he leave her out?”

Tyrnauer: “It’s unclear. Caro has spoken to this, and he’s said that the manuscript when he turned it in was double the length of the published book. He has said there had been mention of Jacobs that was cut out. Whether it was a purposeful erasure or not, it is in a way an erasure. She was an important figure who had written about this city in that period. She probably wrote the greatest book about the city [The Death and Life of Great American Cities], and she’s not mentioned in this other book [Caro’s biography] about power and the city. She was involved in key battles against Moses and not mentioned as an activist either. So I think this film serves as another part of the narrative of the period that you don’t find in The Power Broker [Caro’s book about Moses] for whatever reason. I think it’s important to have that history told, to have it be accessible. [italics added]


Robert A. Caro wrote a groundbreaking, award winning book about Moses: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974).

Caro is known as the consummate investigative journalist, an admired biographer who leaves no stones unturned in his research, which is exhaustive and prodigious. He writes massive tomes that answer every conceivable question about his subject. (He has done the same thing with Lyndon Johnson.) He unearthed incriminating information about Robert Moses that was unlikely to have otherwise ever been discovered.

So, I keep asking myself, how could Jane Jacobs have gotten completely left out of his 1246-page biography of Moses? She is not in the index.

Jacobs was the key figure in organizing opposition to and defeating Moses’s plans to extend Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park in Manhattan; to designate the West Village as a “slum,” which would have meant essentially razing the neighborhood; and, most importantly (and most frightening), to build a Mid-Manhattan Expressway that would have destroyed the character of much of Lower Manhattan and, in the final analysis, of Manhattan itself. It was the beginning and then the apotheosis of Moses’s downfall.

As one film critic has observed, “Jane Jacobs was the David to Robert Moses’s Goliath.” She succeeded against what seemed to be impossible odds.

What is the excuse for Jane Jacobs not even being mentioned in Caro’s book?


— Roger W. Smith

   May 2017

Yankee “friendliness”



“During Rikers Upheaval, the ‘Prettiest Village in Maine’ Beckoned”

The New York Times,

April 30, 2017


The story is based a visit that a Times reporter, Rick Rojas, made over the weekend to the town of Wiscasset, Maine.

According to the Times: “Investigators found that Joseph Ponte, the correction commissioner in New York City, had repeatedly taken his city-issued sport-utility vehicle on trips that ended around here [Wiscasset], a small town near the Maine coast.”

The story goes on to say:

Some around Wiscasset said they had recognized Mr. Ponte or had encountered him or his wife around town. But many said people here tended to place a premium on independence, treasuring a kind of live-and-let-live attitude in which neighbors are friendly but also allow for a bit of space. [italics added]

“Everyone just leaves you alone,” said Deb Schaffer, who owns a boutique downtown and remembers seeing Mr. Ponte and exchanging greetings on the street. “But if you need something, they’re there to help.”

Yes, indeed, I thought. That’s Yankee behavior. Yankee conduct, deportment, manners. Just what is the right word?

Perhaps I should say Yankee ways.

I was born and bred and a Yankee. Grew up in Massachusetts. A descendant of Yankees who go back to colonial times.

Wikipedia entry

In the United States, Yankee largely refers to people from the Northeast, but especially those with New England cultural ties, such as descendants from colonial New England settlers, wherever they live. Its sense is more cultural than literally geographical, sometimes emphasizing the Calvinist Puritan Christian beliefs and traditions of the Congregationalists and Presbyterians, who brought their culture when they settled outside of New England. The speech dialect of Eastern New England is called “Yankee” or “Yankee dialect.” Within New England itself, the term “Yankee” refers specifically to old-stock New Englanders of English descent.

I never recognized the Massachusetts dialect when growing up there. It’s quite pronounced. I have been told that I have lost my New England accent. I can certainly hear it now when I go back to New England or hear New Englanders on television or radio.

But the behavior patterns, that’s what struck me about the characterization of the townspeople in the article. Darn right. I remember it well. Our neighbors tended to always maintain a sort of formal politeness. Never got that close. Rarely visited one’s house. Respected the privacy of others, which was considered of paramount importance.

Unfailing, unvarying politeness.

And, a certain reserve.

Block parties? No such thing. Men outside in summertime with no shirt on? Not usually, except at the beach.

But, say your car got stuck in the snow during the winter; that you needed to borrow a book, a needle and thread, or a tool; that you needed a ride; or some such thing. Your New England neighbor would help you without a moment’s hesitation. Would never ask you why you needed or were asking for help, or inquire directly or indirectly about your trustworthiness. And, they would go the extra mile to ensure that they had fulfilled their duties as a good neighbor and helping hand.

Never would ask for thanks in any shape or form. Not only would they be constitutionally disinclined to do such a thing (it would never occur to them in the first place), but they also would consider it (should it be somehow suggested to them that they deserved some sort of recompense) to be a violation of good manners and codes of proper behavior, as well as an embarrassment to themselves, to do so.


— Roger W. Smith

   May 2017