Category Archives: Alan W. Smith (Roger W. Smith’s father)

a memory

 

“Well,” his father said, “reckon I’ll hoist me a couple.”

They turned through the swinging doors into a blast of odor and sound. There was no music: only the density of bodies and of the smell of a market bar, of beer, whiskey and country bodies, salt and leather; no clamor, only the thick quietude of crumpled talk. Rufus stood looking at the light on a damp spittoon and he heard his father ask for whiskey, and knew he was looking up and down the bar for men he might know. But they seldom came from so far away as the Powell River Valley; and Rufus soon realized that his father had found, tonight, no one he knew. He looked up his father’s length and watched him bend backwards tossing one off in one jolt in a lordly manner, and a moment later heard him say to the man next him, “That’s my boy”; and felt a warmth of love. Next moment he felt his father’s hands under his armpits, and he was lifted, high, and seated on the bar, looking into a long row of huge bristling and bearded red faces. The eyes of the men nearest him were interested, and kind; some of them smiled; further away, the eyes were impersonal and questioning, but now even some of these began to smile. Somewhat timidly, but feeling assured that his father was proud of him and that he was liked, and liked these men, he smiled back; and suddenly many of the men laughed. He was disconcerted by their laughter and lost his smile a moment; then, realizing it was friendly, smiled again; and again they laughed. His father smiled at him. “That’s my boy,” he said warmly. “Six years old, and he can already read like I couldn’t read when I was twice his age.”

Rufus felt a sudden hollowness in his voice, and all along the bar, and in his own heart. But how does he fight, he thought. You don’t brag about smartness if your son is brave. He felt the anguish of shame, but his father did not seem to notice, except that as suddenly as he had lifted him up to the bar, he gently lifted him down again. “Reckon I’ll have another,” he said, and drank it more slowly; then, with a few good nights, they went out.

— James Agee, A Death in the Family

 

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I sent the following email to my brothers and my sister this afternoon:

to my siblings

I am in a favorite bar near Carnegie Hall. The waitresses are so nice to me.

A guy just walked in with a little kid under five. They are sitting in a booth right next to me.

It triggered a memory which made me feel very sentimental. I have not thought about it for years.

I wound up at a bar with Dad, probably in Cambridge, when I was around six or seven.

I sat on a barstool. Everyone — the bartender and everyone else — was so nice to me. They treated me like an honored guest.

The bartender gave me a bowl of potato chips …. how I enjoyed them!

I was bathed in warmth and kindness.

miss Dad terribly

ROGER

 

— posted  by Roger W. Smith

    July 31, 2021

 

Walden Pond, Concord, Mass., early 50’s. My father, me, and my two brothers. I am the furthest to the left.

a witness at the Nurernberg trials

 

Bunky Morrison letter 2-17-1946

Posted here is a letter to my father Alan W. Smith (“Smitty”)  and my mother, Elinor Handy Smith, from my father’s good friend “Bunky” Morrison, dated February 17, 1946.

My father served in the U.S. Army from April 1942 until January 1946 with the rank of First Lieutenant. Both my father and his friend Bunky (who was from Boston) lived in Massachusetts. My father served in Panama.

Also posted here below is a photo of my father with his Army buddies taken in New York City in September 1942. Bunky Morrison is the furthest to the right; to his left is my father.

 

– posted by Roger W. Smith

   June 2021

 

Photo taken in New York City, September 1942. “Bunky” Morrison to far right. Alan W. Smith on his left.

Broadway musicals

 

 

 

The great era of Broadway musicals, in my humble opinion, was the 1940s and 50s. Today’s hits are poor successors.

This music is in my and my siblings’ blood. My father was involved in such shows and music as a conductor and orchestra member in summer stock and theatrical group productions. The music was constantly playing in our house on LPs and on the piano — by my parents, my older brother, and my father; and I attended rehearsals over which my father presided as musical director.

My older brother would sit down at the piano — I always liked the way he played, with feeling and taste — and play a piece such as “My Time of Day” from Guys and Dolls. And I would develop an appreciation for the song.

My father was amused by the character in Guys and Dolls Nicely-Nicely Johnson and by the opening “Whadaya Talk Whadaya Talk Whadaya Talk” sequence in The Music Man, which I saw performed at the Carousel Theatre in Framingham, Massachusetts with my father in the orchestra. My father found it amusing that in Camelot, which I also saw at the Carousel Theatre with my father performing, Merlin doesn’t age, he “youth-eths.” My mother loved the song “Come to Me, Bend Me” from Brigadoon.

My father said that he considered My Fair Lady to be a perfect work. He pointed out that the song “Good Night My Someone” from The Music Man was the same melody as “Seventy Six Trombones” with only the tempo changed.

I have posted a few of my all-time favorite songs here. Many of them, upon repeated hearings,  produce a lump in my throat. The good taste and musicality of the songs and the performances are notable. And the performers and their voices are marvelous.

My favorite songs (musical with songs)? It’s a tough call. I would say The King and I. Carousel a close second.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   April 2021

thoughts about Hiroshima

 

‘He was an American child in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb was dropped’

 

Re:

“He was an American child in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb dropped”

by Ted Gup

The Washington Post

August 4, 2020

 

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Roger Smith email to Ella Rutledge, August 5, 2020

Ella —

This story greatly affected me.

My father, a WWII veteran, bought the rationale for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don’t hold that against him; such views were widely shared. But as an adolescent — or around that age — when I heard this, I didn’t agree. Over the years, the conviction that the bombing was wrong and totally unjustified has become stronger. It was strengthened by a reading of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” I think in my late teens.

Am I right that there has been no other use of an atomic or nuclear bomb by any nation ever?

It was Truman’s new toy; we couldn’t resist using it. He was foolish enough to brag about us having it to Stalin at Potsdam.

Why is Truman regarded as an outstanding president? The former haberdasher’s moral compass was out of order.

Roger

 

Ella Rutledge email to Roger Smith, August 5, 2020

Roger,

Thanks for sending the link to the article about Kakita. I was glad to read it. I had not known about Americans in Hiroshima when it was bombed. What a story! When I lived in Japan, I did not visit Hiroshima, but I saw an exhibit at my local library of essays or letters written by school children about their experience. It was heartbreaking.

I sympathize with your views on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The often-heard “excuse” is that by killing all those Japanese civilians, it saved millions of more deaths from the war. My view is, if it was necessary to frighten the Japanese into submission and admitting defeat, why didn’t they drop the bomb on some unoccupied island in the Pacific? Or just into the ocean? I wonder if the people involved in the bomb’s development just got carried away and allowed their eagerness to see how it worked blind them to the reality of what they were doing. After, horrified by what they had done, they made up the story about sparing millions of lives.

To my knowledge, no other use of the bomb has been made since then.

Is today the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing?

Ella

 

Roger Smith email to Ella Rutledge, August 5, 2020

Ella —

The anniversary is tomorrow apparently

From Wikipedia:

The United States detonated two nuclear weapons over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively, with the consent of the United Kingdom, as required by the Quebec Agreement. The two bombings killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people, most of whom were civilians, and remain the only uses of nuclear weapons in armed conflict.

You wrote: “I sympathize with your views on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The often-heard “excuse” is that by killing all those Japanese civilians, it saved millions of more deaths from the war. My view is, if it was necessary to frighten the Japanese into submission and admitting defeat, why didn’t they drop the bomb on some unoccupied island in the Pacific? Or just into the ocean? I wonder if the people involved in the bomb’s development just got carried away and allowed their eagerness to see how it worked blind them to the reality of what they were doing. After, horrified by what they had done, they made up the story about sparing millions of lives.

This is right on.

Roger

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

  August 6, 2020

 

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Addendum:

“The Soviets believed that President Harry S. Truman had dropped atomic bombs on Japan to “show who was boss,” as the Soviet Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov later put it. The bombs, he stated in his memoir, “Molotov Remembers: Inside Kremlin Politics,” were “not aimed at Japan but rather at the Soviet Union.”

— “Long After the Bomb, Its Story Finds a New Audience: ‘Hiroshima,’ one of the first accounts of the devastation in Japan, was read nearly everywhere in the world except Russia. Nearly 75 years later, that is changing.” By Lesley M. M. Blume and Anastasiya Osipova, The New York Times, October 12, 2020

ROGER W. SMITH: I think this is true.

In which the question is taken up: When is the desire to be admired not abnormal?

 

It seems that you must have some insecurities about your writing if you feel compelled so often to exclaim how well done it always is.

You are often harping about how great your writing is and how unappreciated it is and how jealous people are of your writing. You seem to have some illusions of grandeur and seek to dazzle whatever readers you have with your continued brilliance.

Are you the only judge of your writing? Recently there have been a number of posts in which you highly praise your own writing and intellect. Shouldn’t this be something that other people (your readers generally) evaluate?

 

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Several relatives of mine have been critical of what they feel is my undue desire to be admired for my writing. (See comments above.)

Like many people who themselves do not engage in creative activity, they are quick to find fault with others who do.

I can not help thinking of my father. He lived a life in the arts. He was a musician.

He loved the life of a musician. He was proud of his skills, which he exhibited at an early age and then developed and honed throughout his lifetime. He was well trained and well educated in music. Along with natural gifts, he was completely dedicated to music and highly motivated. A natural interest and innate ability drew him to music, yet he could have, at some point in his life, given it up and chosen a different, perhaps more common or pedestrian occupation, which is what many who showed promise in, say, the arts or athletics in their youth often do. At some point, they give up study or pursuit leading to a professional career.

 

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My father loved being able to earn a living doing what he loved most: playing the piano. It was, in a sense, hard work for him. He worked long hours and odd hours, usually for low pay. He never became wealthy. I would observe intense concentration on his face, as if the rest of the world had been blocked out (which is not to say that he was oblivious to there being an audience), and, although he usually seemed at his happiest at the piano, I would sometimes see him grimace and scold himself if he hit a wrong key.

A key thing to understand about my father — and people like him — was that his identity was piano player, and piano player was his identity. Not solely. He was also a husband, a father, and a family man. If someone asked him who he was, I am certain, he would have said, I am the husband of … (my mother), the father of … (four children), and a pianist. (Or, perhaps, a pianist, a husband, and a father, in that order.)

His ego was coterminous, so to speak, with his music making. Take that away from him, and he wouldn’t have been the Alan Smith we and the admirers of his playing knew and loved.

 

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Being able to perform music for emotional satisfaction — knowing it gave others pleasure — and for profit gave me father a sense of being (to use a clumsy phrase) emotionally validated, of being affirmed.

Yet, he was not a narcissist. He had a quiet confidence in his abilities, a not bashful — but not boastful either — sense of them. Only occasionally did he speak to me, in confidence, of his own assessment of his skills. He quite realistically appraised them, once telling me, for example, about his ability to transpose music on demand and on the spot. And, on another occasion, saying, “You know, I never really mastered the organ. I can get by, but I never fully learned the organ, I never learned all the stops.” (Or words to that effect.)

 

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And yet. (Here’s where my writing comes to mind.)

My father loved to be admired for his playing He loved to give pleasure to listeners. To be told how much they enjoyed his music. He was motivated as a professional by the love of his craft, the love of music, and, also,  love of the attention and praise it brought him. By the ego gratification he got.

It’s the same with my writing. I have a quiet confidence, or self-assurance, in my ability as a writer. I feel that I am very good, but I can make realistic appraisals of my own work. I am a perfectionist and am probably my own best critic.

 

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Which leads me to my main point. There is difference in the desire for ego gratification and praise or admiration on the part of creative person and narcissism or self-promotion.

Speaking from a psychological perspective, I would aver that it is normal to desire to receive and enjoy praise and admiration when it has been earned and one knows that one deserves it.

This is not a sign of overweening, all-consuming egoism or vanity.

A soloist or actor performs. They enjoy the applause and plaudits. They have worked for it. They know when they have met their own demanding expectations and deserve credit.

There is nothing psychologically wrong, unhealthy, or abnormal about this. It fact, it would be abnormal to find a person in the arts who did not feel this way. It’s a healthy exercise of one’s selfhood, of exerting oneself, in which one seeks affirmation and validation of one’s industry and talents.

One does not create in a void or a vacuum. Affirmation is crucial. It’s like saying, one can’t love in a vacuum. There must be reciprocity. One seeks someone to love (a love object), and to be loved in return. One loves others reciprocally. Narcissism is something else.

Similarly, “public” acts of creativity are an act of unselfishness, a kind of selflessness, wherein the ego both asserts itself and gives or vouchsafes the productions of one’s self, an individual, to others, expecting to receive appreciation and admiration in return. When affirmation or recognition does not come, one must accept it; it can be frustrating, disappointing, depressing, and worse, the worst case being that of the creative artist who never gets recognition.

But lack of appreciation, or not getting enough or as much as one feels one should, does not mean one should give up. Because creative activity is a fundamentally good thing, like doing other types of productive work, engaging in sports, or being physically active. And wanting others to take pleasure in it is the opposite of selfishness.

 

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I am constantly trying to interest other people in my writing. I often get a response along the lines of how interested they would be reading it, and then, they never mention my writing again — in most cases, they probably never did get around to reading it.

I take this in stride.

But when I do get a reader, when someone tells me how much they thought of a piece and makes complimentary remarks about my writing, it is very gratifying.

I am slaving over a major piece of writing now. I have been working on it for months. I am certain it will be good when I finally finish it.

I can’t wait to make it public, in the hope and expectation that people will read and praise it. What in part motivates me is the desire and thought of wanting to make it good so that it and I will be praised.

If one didn’t feel this way, we would have a case of de facto solipsism.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019

 

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COMMENTS

posted on Facebook by Nancy Jordan Ables (a former piano student of my father)

February 8, 2019

I am thinking that a writer of any kind needs to have confidence in their abilities, especially when they publish it for all to see, and I see nothing wrong with saying “I think I did a good job.” Musicians, politicians, actors, or anyone who has their work available to the public make similar statements all the time.

 

a comment via email

Ewa Solonia

February 8, 2019

Thank you for your post. It was interesting. The comments you are getting are upsetting and unconscionable. I totally understand how you feel. I’ve also been doing all kinds of art throughout the years. Compliments are always appreciated because it’s art! It’s the highest form of communication with the world one can achieve. It’s not about the grandiose.

“There is nothing generic about human life.”

 

I am reading a recently published book by Kate Bowler: Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Ms. Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School. In 2015, she was unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at age 35.

The book is described as follows on Amazon.com:

Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School with a modest Christian upbringing, but she specializes in the study of the prosperity gospel, a creed that sees fortune as a blessing from God and misfortune as a mark of God’s disapproval. At thirty-five, everything in her life seems to point toward “blessing.” She is thriving in her job, married to her high school sweetheart, and loves life with her newborn son.

Then she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

The prospect of her own mortality forces Kate to realize that she has been tacitly subscribing to the prosperity gospel, living with the conviction that she can control the shape of her life with “a surge of determination.” Even as this type of Christianity celebrates the American can-do spirit, it implies that if you “can’t do” and succumb to illness or misfortune, you are a failure. Kate is very sick, and no amount of positive thinking will shrink her tumors. What does it mean to die, she wonders, in a society that insists everything happens for a reason? Kate is stripped of this certainty only to discover that without it, life is hard but beautiful in a way it never has been before. …

Everything Happens for a Reason tells her story, offering up her irreverent, hard-won observations on dying and the ways it has taught her to live.

 

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On pages 123-125, I came across the following passage:

I can’t reconcile the way that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, the gorgeous and the tragic. Except I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out. I see a middle-aged woman in the waiting room of the cancer clinic, her arms wrapped around the frail frame of her son. She squeezes him tightly, oblivious to the way he looks down at her sheepishly. He laughs after a minute, a hostage to her impervious love. Joy persists somehow and I soak it in. The horror of cancer has made everything seem like it is painted in bright colors. I think the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.

The flow of letters has slowed, but I still get at least one every day. Today I received a book in my campus mailbox about how to guarantee that I will communicate with my loved ones from heaven, and a handwritten card about scriptures I could repeat aloud to become a better conduit of God’s power. A pastor from a prosperity church has mailed me a large manila folder containing an enormous banner that reads: SEEK YE FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD AND ALL THESE THINGS SHALL BE ADDED UNTO YOU. I can’t help but think it’s a little passive-aggressive, but I appreciate the gesture. Sort of. He is asking me to employ a series of proven techniques that could help me reclaim my own health, if I would only try.

This is the problem, I suppose, with formulas. They are generic. But there is nothing generic about a human life. [italics added]

When I was little, to get to my bus stop, I had to cross a field that had so much snow my parents fitted me with ski pants and knee-high thermal boots that were toasty to forty degrees below zero. I am excellent in the stern of a canoe, but I never got the hang of riding a bike with no hands. I have seen the northern lights because my parents always woke up the whole house when the night sky was painted with color. I love the smell of dover and chamomile because my sister and I used to pick both on the way home from swimming lessons. I spent weeks of my childhood riding around on my bike saving drowning worms after a heavy rain. My hair is my favorite feature even though it’s too heavy for most ponytails, and I still can’t parallel park. There is no life in general. Each day has been a collection of trivial details—little intimacies and jokes and screw-ups and realizations. My problems can’t be solved by those formulas-—those clichés-—when my life was never generic to begin with. God may be universal, but I am not. I am Toban’s wife and Zach’s mom and Karen and Gerry’s daughter. I am here now, bolted in time and place, to the busy sounds of a blond boy in dinosaur pajamas crashing into every piece of furniture.

“Who’s my baby?” I ask him.

Zach is running long loops around the room and stopping at every ledge to run his car along it. He turns to me.

‘A boy?” he says hopefully.

“Yes,” I say, scooping him into my arms. He tolerates my tight hug for a few breaths and then squirms his way out, laughing. “Yes.” I say. “But not just any boy. You.”

 

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This a marvelous passage. It needs no explication, but it says so much. And, I might add, does so with a minimum of words. And doesn’t just affirm something, but shows it with details that hit the mark and resonate.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 2018

 

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Addendum: Ms. Bowler grew up in Manitoba, Canada. She writes: “I have seen the northern lights because my parents always woke up the whole house when the night sky was painted with color.”

This reminded me of a Christmas Eve in our house in Massachusetts at some indeterminate past time when I was a teenager. My father woke us children up in the middle of the night in great excitement. He wanted us to go to a window in the upstairs hallway and gaze out of it at a bright star. It was like the Star of Bethlehem, he said. I tried to look, but I was so sleepy I was unsteady on my legs and could barely hold my head up. I seem to recall something very bright. I believe there had been something in forecast models about an especially bright North Star during that particular month and year.

 

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The Gospel According to St. Matthew

2:1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, 2:2 Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 2:3 And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 2:4 And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ should be born. 2:5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written through the prophet,

2:6 And thou Bethlehem, land of Judah,
Art in no wise least among the princes of Judah:
For out of thee shall come forth a governor,
Who shall be shepherd of my people Israel.

2:7 Then Herod privily called the Wise-men, and learned of them exactly what time the star appeared. 2:8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search out exactly concerning the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word, that I also may come and worship him. 2:9 And they, having heard the king, went their way; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 2:10 And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 2:11 And they came into the house and saw the young child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and worshipped him; and opening their treasures they offered unto him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 2:12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

Roger W. Smith letter to Rev. Paul Gallivan, December 6, 1989

 

imageedit_1_7710755523 (2)

I wrote this letter to Father Paul Gallivan, a Roman Catholic priest, on December 6, 1989.

Father Paul delivered a eulogy at my father, Alan W. Smith’s, memorial service in Bourne, Massachusetts on November 17, 1989.

 

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See also my post:

Father Paul Gallivan

Father Paul Gallivan

Although my father and Father Paul were of different faiths, they were close friends and meant a great deal to one another.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    June 2018

on happiness vis-à-vis sadness (and the other way around)

 

“We are more apt to feel depressed by the perpetually smiling individual than the one who is honestly sad. If we admit our depression openly and freely, those around us get from it an experience of freedom rather than the depression itself.”

— Rollo May, Paulus: Reminiscence of a Friendship (1973)

 

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These thoughts, this post, are occasioned by a film I saw about beleaguered people in a foreign country.

I was transfixed — totally engrossed in the people’s stories and the picture the film gave of their daily lives.

I shared my enthusiasm for the film with someone close to me and suggested that she see it with me.

She said no, she had no interest (despite my strong recommendation) in seeing the film.

“Why?” I asked.

She answered (perhaps she was looking for excuses), “I don’t want to see something that will make me sad.”

This struck me as patently ridiculous. Since when has it been imperative to avoid things — in life, in art — with the potential to make oneself sad?

 

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It should be obvious that true art mixes joy and beauty with pathos.

In his Poetics, Aristotle developed the theory of catharsis (from the Greek κάθαρσις, catharsis, meaning “purification” or “cleansing” — the purification and purgation of emotions — especially pity and fear — through art”; as explained on Wikipedia). Note that, as explained in the online encyclopedia article, catharsis represents an “extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration” (italics added).

The film which I saw was a documentary about North Korea entitled Under the Sun. More about this below.

 

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So much for theory. Let’s consider some examples. But first, a digression about happiness in PEOPLE.

To what extent is happiness a desideratum? Can we expect it? Is there even such a thing — is it real? How should we regard others who are, seem to be, or claim to be, happy?

My father, Alan W. Smith, thoroughly enjoyed life, on many levels: an interest in things (including the delight he took in little things, such as observing what happened once to dry ice when he threw a chunk of it over the side of a ship into the water; he wanted us to see it), including intellectual curiosity; a love of music (chiefly as a performer); a delight in people and their company; a delight in little amusements; pleasures such as eating, drinking, and the outdoors (experienced as an everyday citizen, not as a woodsman; e.g., raking leaves in the fall, a walk with his wife or the dog on the seashore, a blizzard). He had a keen appetite for life.

Unlike a lot of adults, he loved his work. He never begrudged, never complained about anything. Welcomed everything and anyone who came his way.

He could loosen and cheer up a group simply by being himself and by virtue of his presence. He didn’t mind looking ridiculous, making fun of himself (or being made fun of), or being regarded as extravagant or incautious.

Oftentimes, he would enter a parlor with people leaning forward in their chairs — tight lipped, looking uncomfortable.

“What’s everybody looking so glum for?” he would say. The complexion of the group would change just like that and people would begin talking and joking. In the words of Louisa May Alcott*, he “pervaded the rooms like a genial atmosphere, using the welcome of eye and hand which needs no language to interpret it, … making their [his guests’] enjoyment his own.”

He took the weather with equanimity, be it a blizzard, a hurricane, or an earthquake.

My father happened to be in the Bay Area, visiting my older brother in the late 1980’s, shortly before the former died, when an earthquake struck. “I’ve always wanted to be able to experience what an earthquake feels like,” he told me afterward. As my former therapist pointed out, such an attitude showed an appetite for life and an eagerness to experience it.

A hot summer’s day? A great excuse for setting off a few fireworks in our back yard, or for a lobster cookout (which both my parents loved) in the front yard of our rented summer house on Cape Cod.

I remember a blizzard in my home town of Canton, Massachusetts when I was in high school. Everything was shut down. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. An idea came to my father. Wouldn’t it be great to toast marshmallows and cook hot dogs in our living room fireplace? There was a problem, however — we didn’t have the ingredients. Such niggling problems never seemed to stand in the way of the fun planned by my father. Come to think of it, how about a walk? We walked, tramped about two miles each way through snowdrifts, found a store that was open, and bought marshmallows, hot dogs, and buns.

There was, of course, another side to him. He could be pensive and gloomy. He could be irascible and had a bad temper. His cheerfulness was only one side of the coin.

When something untoward happened to him — an argument with his second wife, for example — he would say to himself through gritted teeth (as she used to tell me), “I’m not going to let it ruin my day.”

*In Alcott’s novel Work: A Story of Experience (1873).

 

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Phony Cheerfulness

A truism: no one is happy all the time.

There was a nice looking, perky girl in the class a year ahead of me in college: Marie E______.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say this. It will sound petty and perhaps mean spirited. But Marie’s perpetual cheerfulness grated on me.

A friend of mine, who lacked emotional depth and (often) insight into human relationships, was eager to get to know Marie and had several tennis dates with her. The relationship went no further.

“The thing I like most about her,” he told me, “is that she’s always cheerful.” This comment seemed obtuse and fatuous. It nettled me. I would be willing to bet that Marie’s perpetual cheerfulness was her way of dealing with insecurities that she probably felt.

 

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Happiness in a person without an admixture of sadness seems to be inimical to the human condition. One wants to get to know both sides of a person — to hear about their highs and lows from him or herself.

What about my father? you might ask. Didn’t I just wax rhapsodic over his cheerfulness and capacity to enjoy life?

I noted that he had another side that, while it was less often seen, would suddenly be displayed in bursts of anger. And, my father knew profound grief from family tragedies for which he did not bear responsibility but in which he was the chief mourner and suffered the most.

A capacity for joy does not preclude an awareness of sadness, does not obviate sadness.

Who wrote the Ode to Joy? The same composer who in his late quartets, beautifully, incomparably, expresses pathos, sadness.

 

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The film mentioned above is Under the Sun (2015), a documentary about North Korea. It was directed by the Russian documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky.

It is beautifully done and tugs and pulls at the viewer emotionally on many levels. The central person in the film, who is unforgettable, is an adorable eight-year-old North Korean girl named Zin-mi. The plot is ostensibly about Zin-mi going through steps, including school, as she prepares to join the Korean Children’s Union. At the film’s conclusion, she breaks down and cries upon being admitted to the children’s union. She is perhaps crying from relief that the stress of achieving the goal is over and, it seems, from what one would call joy mixed with sadness.

As I noted in a previous post:

re “Under the Sun” (a film about North Korea)

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/08/25/re-under-the-sun-a-film-about-north-korea/

The compelling thing about the film is that you come away caring about the people and touched by the film’s PATHOS — despite the fact that one is aware that the people live incredibly hard, regimented lives in a totalitarian state where they have been effectively brainwashed and reduced almost to automatons (or so it often seems).

The film features beautiful, elegiac music composed by a Latvian composer, Karlis Auzans. It captures the pathos musically, for example, in a scene where you see North Koreans having family photos taken in a sort of assembly line fashion. A couple stands proudly in front of an automatic camera with their children. The photo is taken and another couple poses. And so on. As they stare into the camera, one sees expressions of pride but also feels a great sadness. The music rises to an emotional pitch and captures this. One feels empathy with the people posing, with the North Koreans! One feels that they are people, just like us. That, despite very hard lives, they experience feelings like ours. One feels like crying oneself, but one, at the same time, experiences a kind of joy in contemplating the miracle of human existence, and how this elemental reality links us all, regardless of circumstances.

 

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This got me thinking about pathos in literature and music. About the comment “I don’t want to see something that will make me sad.”

Anna Karenina ends sadly. Does that make one any less desirous of reading it? It seems that in most operas the plot involves a tragic love affair, often with someone committing suicide, dying of grief. Art (in the broad sense of the word) is full of grief, so to speak, as well as happiness — as depicted by the artist drawing upon a profound knowledge of human life. Would one wish all art to be reduced to the level of a situation comedy?

What about music? Ever hear stirrings of pathos? In Beethoven’s late quartets, in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony, and so forth?

Case closed.

 

— Roger W. Smith

  February 2018; updated May 2018

a February concert

 

Last night I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall.

The program:

Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550; Orchestra of St. Luke’s; Robert Spano, conductor

Bryce Dessner, “Voy a dormir”; Kelley O’Connor, Mezzo-Soprano

Beethoven, Piano Concerto in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (“Emperor”); Jeremy Denk, piano

I jotted down some notes and impressions as well as personal thoughts on my way home.

 

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Mozart symphony no 40

have known and loved the first movement from a very young age

but, to my surprise, I think I enjoyed the second movement (Andante) even more tonight … it is a musical conversation between the instruments … Mozart THINKS musically (as I noted in a previous post)

The second piece, “Voy a dormir,” was the world premiere of a work by a young composer … beautiful soprano voice (the composer collaborated with her on the work) … Spanish text, based on poetry by Alfonsina Storni (Argentinian)

It is pleasurable to hear Spanish and to be able to follow the lyrics, since I know the language. It sounded so beautiful, as are all the Romance languages. All kind of the same — in a way — and at the same time each unique with its own “melody.” En el fondo del mar / hay una casa / de cristal.

Listening to the Emperor Concerto performed live. What an experience. There is such a range of emotions in Beethoven — e.g., from the first to the second movement.

One can HEAR such a difference in and evolution of styles between and from Mozart to Beethoven. From classical to romantic. But, to me, Haydn is the clearest exemplar of the classical style — not Mozart (not to detract from Mozart; it’s just a question of musical styles).

I had unusually good seats. It was great to watch the conductor, Robert Spano, and the piano soloist close up.

There must be such an incredible feeling of power to be the soloist in a piano concerto.

 

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I thought of my father, a pianist who conducted occasionally

and of my family’s experience with music as performers

my father, who graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in music and who was a professional musician and piano teacher

my mother, who was in the Radcliffe College chorus and played the piano

my three siblings, all of whom are gifted musicians, notably on the piano, and each of whom achieved proficiency in more than one instrument

my maternal grandmother, who — I never knew this during her lifetime — is said to have played the piano well

my paternal grandmother, who was a church organist and choir director … and my father the same

my paternal grandmother’s mother (my great-grandmother), who, I was told by an aunt, played the piano and sang in a Methodist Church in the nineteenth century

 

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I have hazy memories of my father conducting once or twice … I see him striding down the aisle proudly with his usual good posture, perhaps a bit more serious of mien than usual, but not overly so; assuming an appropriate air of dignity … being applauded … the performance commencing

where did he learn to conduct? … guess it’s not difficult if you have performed in orchestras … he did not, to my knowledge, conduct classical works

 

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when one is growing up, one takes one’s parents and nuclear family largely for granted … they are a given, like your front yard or neighborhood

your parents’ unique or distinctive attributes are something you are not likely to think about until much later in life

watching this particular concert, I felt a twinge of sadness, loss, and regret for my father and mother — occasioned by thoughts of what such a concert would have meant to them; how we could have talked about it (and would have enjoyed doing so); and how their existence and persons not only made mine possible, but endowed me with musical and aesthetic sensitivity

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 16, 2018

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Mozart. Symphony No. 40

second movement (Andante)

I am not the center of the universe.

 

Call it an epiphany.

Did you ever have an experience in the course of life, at a particular moment on a particular day — something seemingly inconsequential — that permanently altered your fundamental outlook on life?

This happened to me once.

It is funny how such moments of extraordinary perception and insight come about.

The sudden realization I had was something obvious which could be expressed as follows: The world doesn’t revolve around me.

Of course, I already knew that. I was not that self-centered. But, the epiphany inducing incident, which occurred when I was in middle age, blew away the last vestiges of adolescent style self-absorption.

 

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I had just completed graduate school and was hired by a consulting firm as a technical writer. I was about to begin my first day of work.

The head of my department, Jack Barrett, called me to finalize arrangements. I asked if I could report on March 15, which was a couple of days away. Would that be all right?

“Certainly,” he said.

I was looking forward to the new position, but at the same time I was kind of rueful because I had been getting, all of a sudden, some very interesting freelance writing assignments of which I was proud. I said to Barrett: “Today, I will be working on the City Desk at Newsday. I have been asked to work there a lot lately.” Something like that.

“Hmm,” he said, and quickly moved on to discussing a couple of details of my employment. He could have cared less about the freelance work I was doing. He was a busy man running a department. He had called me merely to finalize arrangements. We had already discussed my qualifications and accomplishments in the interview, based upon which I had been hired. That was a fait accompli.

Why should I have thought he would be interested in the details of my freelance work, I saw, to my chagrin.

It hit me square in the face: Most people are engrossed in their own responsibilities and daily activities. They don’t have time to focus on mine, nor would they be likely to be all that interested. Perhaps my wife would. But that’s different. One should not assume that people one meets in public, so to speak, are that interested in or focused upon you. When interacting with them, one should always keep in mind: it’s about THEIR priorities, not yours. For the moment, that is. Or, to put it another way (awkwardly), in the present actuality. This does not mean self-abnegation is required. It’s simply a matter of always keeping the thought uppermost in one’s mind: what is the other person likely to be thinking? where are they coming from? what do they need or require?

 

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My father told me a story once which, I think, illustrates the same point, though perhaps not obviously. He said that as a young man he had a tendency to try to impress people. Once, he said, he was at a party and somebody or other was talking about a new model car that was supposed to be THE car to own, a vehicle one would be proud to be seen driving. My father put his two cents worth in and started talking about that car and how great it was, and how he knew all about it. The man who had introduced the car as a topic of conservation looked askance at my father and said, “You own one?”

“No, I don’t,” my father had to admit.

My Dad said that the realization came upon him that he was always talking as if he were entitled to be an authority on this or that — to weigh in — or that he was in on something, to impress people. The other man’s comment made him see this, to his chagrin, but for him it was a valuable lesson.

 

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People are preoccupied with themselves and their concerns, whatever they are doing and thinking about at the moment; what concerns them; what they are or must be dealing with. I am of scant interest to them and if one manages to engage another’s interest, it is only transitory.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2017