Category Archives: Elinor Handy Smith (Roger W. Smith’s mother)

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 were 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

Schubert (specifically, his last sonata), Mitsuko Uchida, and my mother

 

Schubert piano sonata in B-flat Minor, D. 960

his last piano sonata

not published

he died two months later

 

Mitsuko Uchida

flawless performance at Carnegie Hall on May 4, 2019

 

I have criticized her (perhaps unfairly) with reference to Schubert performances.

I saw her a couple of times performing at Carnegie Hall within the past year. A Schubert performance last year left me feeling lukewarm about her, despite the fact that the audience — she has a following — loves her.

But I shouldn’t jump to conclusions or “give up” on her too easily, I thought. It may be that I have been lacking in discernment and, consequently, appreciation for her playing.

She certainly confounded my expectations, and my prior less-than-enthusiastic opinions, on Saturday evening.

I realize that the three last Schubert piano sonatas are all great, just about equally. I have had a sentimental preference for the next to last sonata, D. 959. But I fully felt and experienced the greatness of the sonata D. 960 tonight. Mitsuko Uchida made me feel that.

And, I realized, as an auditor, why she is regarded, probably, as the foremost Schubert interpreter of our time.

So, from her hands, I heard Schubert and felt what makes his music unique and special. And so lyrical in a deeply affecting way. Note I said lyrical, by which I don’t mean to neglect what I would call complexity yoked to powerful, direct expression — a quality preeminent, unmistakably so, in Beethoven. It’s not quite the same thing, but — as to what makes Schubert great – in the program notes from last night’s concert, reference is made to Schubert’s “seemingly bottomless stockpile of melody, his ability to invest the simplest of musical phrases with dramatic significance.” (italics added)

Schubert sounds like no one else. His sound — if I were a musicologist, I could probably elucidate the distinguishing features; chords, for example (the program notes refer to “quicksilver changes of keys and moods”) — is sui generis. He is almost immediately recognizable. Perhaps this is a truism that applies to practically all great artists: the Handel of Messiah and Samson; the Haydn of the masses and The Seven Last Words of Christ; the Mozart of the Ave verum corpus and Masonic Funeral Music … the Melville of Moby-Dick; the Tolstoy of War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Resurrection; the Joyce of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

But– I’ll say it– I prefer Schubert to Chopin (with respect to the former’s compositions for piano).

 

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What is it about Schubert?

I would say that he is incredibly self-contained — his music is sufficient unto itself. By which I mean that his music holds, fulfills, and enraptures the listener without anything in it that was intended necessarily to impress or astonish. The music seems to bubble up like a spring. There is nothing imitative or referential. No other composer could write such music. There is was only one Schubert. Self-evident? Yes, admittedly. But I got to thinking about this at the concert, and my mind wandered without my losing focus on the music. (This has happened to me at other concerts, as I have noted in previous blogs.)

How could I express these feelings or opinions of mine about Schubert? In my mind, I strained to think of a way to put or couch it. I thought of my mother. Yes, my mother.

My mother was a remarkable person. People almost always seemed to notice her special personal qualities, and to speak about them. There was something “self-contained” about her too. The good things were just there, inherent, unchanging; sort of wafted out of her; were effused into the atmosphere, so to speak, to those around her. The good things, the remarkable things — her particular way of seeing things and relating to people and her milieu — seemed to have always been part of her.

She wasn’t trying to impress others (though she was self-conscious, naturally, about the impression she made and eager to be thought well of). She was, to the extent she was admired for her good qualities, just that way. One felt that one would never meet such a person ever again, which is not to say that she was a perfect person or deserved veneration. It’s just that what was good about her was constant; distinctive in her; treasured and consistently welcome for the sense of emotional satisfaction that came from being privileged to be related to or know her. By which I don’t mean that she was like a therapist, healer, or do-gooder (though she was kind and thoughtful), she was someone whom people wanted to know and associate with because of who she was.

 

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Like Schubert? Meaning one wants to listen to him. Not because one should (because someone told you you must, because of his musical standing or stature as a composer). Not because he is the best composer in this or that medium, or was important as a composer in the transition from classicism to romanticism. But because he’s Schubert . And, with my mother, people wanted to know and talk with Elinor.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 6. 2019

 

IMG_4547 (2)

my mother and I in Danvers, Massachusetts

vengeance

 

If I whet My glittering sword,
And My hand takes hold on judgment,
I will render vengeance to My enemies,
And repay those who hate Me.

— Deuteronomy 32:41

 

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

— Isaiah 53:3

 

The glory of Christianity is to conquer by forgiveness.

— William Blake, “Jerusalem”

 

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.

— William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

 

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This post is about yesterday’s news stories about the sentencing of “monster doctor” Larry Nassar to a term of 40 to 175 years for sexual abuse.

Before I get to my main point – actually, points — I would like to mention some of my deep feelings about human suffering and sympathy.

My mother used to say to me that she had always wished one of her children would become a doctor. She used to say how much she admired our pediatrician, Dr. Cohen, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was the type of caring, humane physician she most admired. He was the type of doctor who was always on call.

I would always say to her, “I couldn’t be a doctor. I can’t stand the sight of blood.” And, indeed, the sight of people or animals suffering, just the thought of it, was something that deeply upset me. Once, I observed boys torturing frogs in a local reservoir with their pocket knives. This greatly upset me. It also struck me that there was no reason for such cruelty, and I couldn’t understand what motivated the boys or why they enjoyed it. I had such feelings about suffering in general, including emotional pain, even minor emotional hurts.

To repeat, I hate to see needless suffering: inflicted upon others; experienced by them.

 

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Yesterday, on January 24, 2018, Dr. Lawrence Nassar was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of from 40 to 175 years by Ingham County (Michigan) Circuit Court judge Rosemarie Aquilina for molesting young girls and women. Larry Nassar, D.O., is a 54-year-old former Michigan State University and USA gymnastics team physician who has also been sentenced (in November 2017) to 60 years in federal court on child pornography charges.

Judge Aquilina, who had opened her courtroom to all the young women victims who wanted to address Dr. Nassar directly, forced him to listen when he pleaded to make it stop.

“It is my honor and privilege to sentence you,” she said yesterday, and noting the length of the sentence, added, “I just signed your death warrant.”

Given an opportunity to address the court before sentencing, Dr. Nassar apologized and, occasionally turning to the young women in the courtroom, said: “Your words these past several days have had a significant effect on myself and have shaken me to my core. I will carry your words with me for the rest of my days.”

Just before sentencing Dr. Nassar, the judge read parts of a letter that he had submitted to the court last week, in which he complained about his treatment in a separate federal child pornography case and wrote that his accusers in this case were seeking news media attention and money. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” he wrote in the letter. There were audible gasps from the gallery when the judge read that line.

Dr. Nassar was accused of molesting girls as young as six, many of them Olympic gymnasts, over a period of many years under the guise of giving them medical treatment. In November, he had pleaded guilty to sexually abusing seven girls.

Judge Aquilina was a fierce advocate for the victims, often praising or consoling them after their statements.

“Imagine feeling like you have no power and no voice,” Aly Raisman, an American gymnast and Olympic gold medal winter, said in court. “Well, you know what, Larry? I have both power and voice, and I am only just beginning to use them. All these brave women have power, and we will use our voices to make sure you get what you deserve: a life of suffering spent replaying the words delivered by this powerful army of survivors.”

 

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I hate to see anyone suffer. And that includes Larry Nassar. I wish he could be given some hope.

I hope I do not appear to be minimizing the horrors of what the girls who were abused by Nasar experienced. Perhaps I am. I don’t know what it was like.

 

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A sad story. Horrible. So what do I think? And why should anyone care what I think?

That I wonder: is anyone completely beyond redemption?

Should the purpose of punishment be to humiliate and make an example of the victim? To make a statement? I think that that is what the judge was doing. The trial has given her the stage, a platform; she is in the spotlight. She is making the most of this opportunity to impose a draconian sentence on Nassar.

Is anyone so horrible that they cannot still be considered part of the human race? Perhaps amenable or susceptible to making amends and reforming themselves? Nassar is clearly a pedophile. The evidence of his guilt is overwhelming. Is there treatment for such persons?

To repeat: I hate to anyone suffer, and that includes the worst of the worst, the most lowly and depraved.

 

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The Nassar trial was like an orchestrated Orwellian “hate,” with the judge the conductor. Public outpourings of hate seem to be common nowadays. Consider the Women’s March 2018.

I was looking at some photos shared with me by an acquaintance who attended the march on January 20, 2018 in Washington, DC. Here’s what I saw:

A woman holding a poster aloft with what appears to be a doctored close up photo of Trump. Two arrows are pointing to Trump’s mouth. Trump’s lips have been altered and colored brown, so that it appears that his mouth is an anus. On the sign, in big letters, “‘THE ONLY SHITHOLE” is written.

A woman with raised fist, a tattooed forearm, half closed eyes, and pursed lips holding a sign that reads “Kicking Ass & Taking Over the World” with a cartoon Rosie the Riveter type flexing her muscles.

A woman holding aloft a sign that reads “the EMPEROR HAS NO TAX RETURNS.” There is a cartoon drawing of a fat man’s midsection. Where his penis would be, a blank piece of paper is covering it up, with only “1040” written on it.

A young woman with a pink knit cap holding aloft a sign that reads “HELL hath No FURY LIKE SEVERAL MILLION PISSED OFF WOMEN” with the female gender symbol.

Two women sitting on a low stone wall (with another woman between them). Both have large signs on their backs. One sign reads: MY SUPER POWER IS THAT I CAN LOOK AT SOMEONE WITH GETTING A BONER.” The other sign reads “I’D CALL HIM A CUNT BUT HE LACKS BOTH DEPTH AND WARMTH.”

Two guys with broad grins standing on top of a stone wall. They are holding aloft a sign that reads “THE ONLY xxxHOLE IS IN THE WHITE HOUSE.”

An elderly man with a funny hat and aviator sunglasses, holding aloft a sign reading “TRUMP: Racist. Sexist. Fascist. PSYCHO”

Most of the hate is directed at President Trump, and, by extension, to sexual predators.

Much of it seems crude and uncalled for. And, actually, disrespectful. Yes, I do think public figures deserve some kind of respect. As was true of authority figures and adults when I was growing up.

There is a swell — threatening to become a tsunami — of meanness, and a lack of a modicum of decency, in our culture nowadays, in the public square.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   January 25, 2018

 

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In an up email to close friends on February 28, 2018, I wrote:

I wrote on my blog last month: The Nassar trial was like an orchestrated Orwellian “hate,” with the judge the conductor. Public outpourings of hate seem to be common nowadays.

That’s what I disliked about the trial. I know Nassar was guilty of doing awful things.

To know what such a “hate” is, you have to have read “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

 

Judge Aquilina & Nassar

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina; Larry Nassar

the effervescent (sometimes typographically challenged) pedant

 

I am blessed to come from a family that is very verbal, that delights in oral and written exchanges and expression and in word play. It seems as if they always put things just right, and often they amuse or provide a pleasant surprise with verbal ingenuity.

When I was in college, my brother and his wife gave me a book as a Christmas gift: Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Oxford History of the American People. On the flyleaf, my brother wrote an inscription: “To the effervescent pedant / With love”

I thought of this because of an email exchange I had with my brother this morning.

In the email to my brother, I quoted from my post

 

“her” instead of “him”; Ms.; and what else?

“her” instead of “him”; Ms.; and what else?

 

as follows: “The PC types are all for conversation (of the wilderness and the natural environment). Why do they want to tear asunder our language? Like nature, it should be conserved, which does mean embalmed or ossified.”

 

and, in the email, said:

See any problem with this?

The PC crowd does tend to be loquacious.

 

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My brother responded as follows:

Cute typo.

Reminds me when you confused “martial relations” with “marital relations,” an apt malaprop that sent Mom into gales of laughter — loving laughter because in part she was enjoying your early advanced vocabulary.

 

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I wrote back:

All very true, Pete.

Aptly described.

Your memory is impressive.

I had forgotten how I used to get “martial” and “marital” mixed up.

Sometimes, I would make words up, which amused Mom … I used to say, “It’s just the INTRACITIES of life.”

Once I wrote Mom a letter using several big words I had just learned. I said that if she had no objection, I would DESCANT upon a few things. (To descant means to talk tediously or at length.)

She wrote back a letter beginning with, “So, cant me no descants.” She loved word play.

 

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This was brilliant usage by my mother. The intransitive verb cant (the meaning of which I did not know) is defined thusly:

1: to talk or beg in a whining or singsong manner

2: to speak in cant or jargon

3: to talk hypocritically

I’m trying to remember in which work of literature I first encountered the word descant.  I usually don’t forget such things.

It will come to me.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 22, 2017

 

 

 

Mrs Miniver

 

I recently saw the American film (which I had always assumed, mistakenly, was English) Mrs Miniver (1942) on television. I have seen it many times.

The film, as described in a Wikipedia entry, “shows how the life of an unassuming British housewife in rural England is touched by World War II.”

Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) and her family live a comfortable life at a house called “Starlings” in Belham, a fictional village outside London. The house has a large garden, with a private landing stage on the River Thames at which is moored a motorboat belonging to her devoted husband, Clem (Walter Pidgeon), a successful architect.

As World War II looms, their son Vin (the oldest of three children) returns from the university. As the war comes closer to home, Vin feels he must “do his bit” and enlists in the Royal Air Force, qualifying as a fighter pilot.

Together with other boat owners, Clem Miniver (Walter Pigeon) volunteers to take his motorboat, the Starling, to assist in the Dunkirk evacuation.

Early one morning, Kay, unable to sleep as Clem is still away, wanders down to the landing stage. She is startled to discover a wounded German pilot hiding in her garden, and he takes her to the house at gunpoint. Demanding food and a coat, the pilot aggressively asserts that the Third Reich will mercilessly overcome its enemies. She feeds him, calmly disarms him when he collapses, and then calls the police.

Soon after, Clem returns home, exhausted, from Dunkirk.

Later, Kay Miniver and her family take refuge in a shelter during an air raid, and attempt to keep their minds off the frightening bombing by reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which Clem refers to as a “lovely story” as they barely survive as a bomb destroys parts of the house. They take the damage with nonchalance.

At the end of the film, villagers assemble at the badly damaged church where their vicar affirms their determination in a powerful sermon:

We in this quiet corner of England have suffered the loss of friends very dear to us, some close to this church. … The homes of many of us have been destroyed, and the lives of young and old have been taken. There’s scarcely a household that hasn’t been struck to the heart. And why? Surely you must have asked yourselves this question? Why in all conscience should these be the ones to suffer? Children, old people, a young girl at the height of her loveliness? Why these? Are these our soldiers? Are these our fighters? Why should they be sacrificed?

I shall tell you why. Because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is the war of the people, of all the people. And it must be fought not only on the battlefield but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman and child who loves freedom. Well, we have buried our dead, but we shall not forget them. Instead they will inspire us with an unbreakable determination to free ourselves, and those who come after us, from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down. This is the People’s War. It is our war. We are the fighters. Fight it then. Fight it with all that is in us. And may God defend the right.

The members of the congregation rise and stoically sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” while through a gaping hole in the bombed church roof can be seen flight after flight of RAF fighters in the V-for-Victory formation heading out to face the enemy.

Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mrs._Miniver

 

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It’s one of my favorite films. I love the slow, deliberate, unfrenetic pace; the feeling of another time; the nostalgia and the pathos. (And the lack of blood and guts seen in films such as Saving Private Ryan, which I hated.)

I can relate to the ethos and the decency of the characters; their values.

Does that make me a retrograde snob? Perhaps it does. Well then, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, I’m an atavistic elitist.

Scenes I love:

When the stationmaster wins first prize at a local fair for his rose and they all sing “for he’s a jolly good fellow!” Warms the soul.

Walter Pigeon with his quiet dignity and his pipe almost perpetually in his mouth.

Greer Garson: so beautiful, the perfect mother. Quiet; caring, understanding and sympathetic; yet no shrinking violet. Reminds me of my own mother in looks and personality.

When Clem Miniver and his fellow boat owners row off, silently, in the stillness of the night, in darkness, to assist in the Dunkirk evacuation. It’s a beautiful scene made effective by silence. Boats being rowed. No engines. Stealing off, as it were.

The Anglican church services. The hymns. Reminds me of hymn singing in church when I was growing up. (When I was simply experiencing the rousing music and was too young to be evaluating it or attempting to deconstruct religion.) “Onward Christian Soldiers,” sung by the congregation in the film, sends shivers up my spine.

The sermons given by the Anglican minister. His words. Eloquent. Beautifully expressed. The last church service shown in the film, at the conclusion, in a church with a roof with a big hole in it from German air raids, concludes (the scene, that is) with Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.”

There is one scene I don’t like: when the German pilot is discovered hiding in the Minivers’s garden. He’s a stock figure, a fanatical Nazi. The scene is contrived.

The film is propagandistic. But, while there is pathos, it is not melodramatic. And, the people ring true. That’s what I like most about it.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2017

 

unnamed.jpg

my mother

 

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Addendum:

“Mrs Miniver: The film that Goebbels feared”

by Fiona Macdonald

bbc.com

9 February 2015

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150209-the-film-that-goebbels-feared

 

“We will come. We will bomb your cities.” So bristles a character in the film Mrs Miniver. A German pilot who had been shot down in the chocolate box English village of Belham, he momentarily brings the horrors of World War II to what is largely a domestic drama.

… Adapting the original treatment, [director William] Wyler changed the character of the German pilot from that of a sympathetic victim of war to someone much more aggressive. Thomson tells Gambaccini: “Wyler took it upon himself to toughen that character up in the scripting and the shooting – and in fact he really turns into a Nazi. The story goes that Louis B Mayer… was alarmed when he saw this footage… Wyler is reputed to have said ‘Mr Mayer, do you know what’s going on — this man is a shadow of the nastiness that’s going on there’.”

one cent more

 

My mother, Elinor Handy Smith, had an excellent, novelistic memory. She remembered all sorts of particulars that brought her past and the people who populated her past alive.

She told amusing stories about herself too. Like how, graduating near the top of her class in high school, she was admitted to Radcliffe College and thought college would be a breeze. How she spent a lot of her first semester attending films at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge and, when final exam time came up, she was hopelessly unprepared. How she stayed up cramming for a week or two drinking cup after cup of coffee with little sleep.

About Professor Arthur Pope, who taught Fine Arts at Harvard. My mother said that if you were a minute late for his lecture, he would have already locked the door.

 

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My mother told a typically detailed and amusing anecdote once to me about taking the subway in her young adult years, after she was married.

Subways and trolleys back then cost a nickel. It was still five cents when I was growing up in Cambridge in the 1950’s.

You would throw the coin into a fare box. Pennies were accepted.

On one occasion, my mother somehow had practically no money in her pocketbook: only four cents. She was anything but a devious person, and highly moral, too. But, on this occasion, she thought she could get away with the following stratagem: she swept in one motion, striding briskly, through the turnstile, threw four pennies casually into the fare box, while looking at nothing particular, and kept going.

Then she heard a stern voice following her, as it were, the voice of a male attendant whose function it was to see that the fare had been paid. “Miss,” he said loudly, “you only put four cents into the box.”

“I did?” said my mother, feigning surprise. “Imagine that.” She nervously began rummaging through her pocketbook. To her relief and amazement, she found another penny and threw it into the fare box.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017

hats

 

The other day, I used a cliché in conversation with a friend. I had shared an audiotape of an interesting lecture with him. “If you don’t find it interesting,” I said, “I’ll eat my hat.”

He joked that I don’t wear a hat.

“Yes,” I replied, “nobody does. Since JFK.”

 

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Afterwards, I got to thinking about a remark a friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, once made to me.

In the preface to his Collected Stories (1978), the author John Cheever wrote: “These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat [italics added].”

Alluding to this, my friend Charlie observed that this indicates something that was true of what he called the “New Yorker writer” and New Yorker stories.

“They trade off on what you already know,” he said. “It’s a commonplace that men used to wear hats.” The implication: such stories are not really original in content; they don’t take us into new realms of consciousness, thought, or experience.

 

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Another thought, a memory, about hats occurred to me because of my friend’s jest the other day.

When I was in the seventh grade, I rode a bike to school every day. It was freezing cold in the winter months. We lived in New England. Often, I would get to school and would be rubbing my hands at my desk; they would seem almost frostbitten. There would be tears in my eyes.

I didn’t wear gloves; nor, for the most part, did I wear a hat.

Actually, I had a knit cap. My mother would insist that I put in on every morning.

It was probably something stupid such as that I didn’t want to mess up my hair (slicked with hair tonic). That must have been the reason. Anyway, I didn’t want to comply. But I would give in and put on my hat.

When I got just past our front yard, I would take the knit cap off and stick it my back pocket.

My mother in later years would joke with me about this. She said that she would be watching me, through the kitchen window, leave for school. (She was the solicitous type — although she was not overbearing — and undoubtedly wanted to make sure I got off okay.) She said she would be amused to see me take my hat off, without fail, when I thought I was out of sight.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 2017

“my shining visage”

 

 

I had a somewhat remarkable experience in connection with a memory today.

I had a mild, temporary disappointment once. It was over 50 years ago.

My parents were going out somewhere for the evening. I hesitated and then said to my mother, “It’ll be okay. I will put on my shining visage,” meaning she didn’t have to worry: I accepted the setback and would not let it get me down.

What I meant was, I’ll put the best face on things.

My mother was affected; she liked words herself and liked the way I invented my own locutions. She felt better about having had to disappoint me. (I do not recall details, but I think it was a situation where she informed me about something that was a negative. I think she was the intermediary.)

“Shining visage” means something like beaming, smiling face.

My mother was touched. She said that’s so like you.

 

 

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I was ransacking my brain today trying to think, what was the phrase? I drew a blank.

I told myself, you can remember … keep trying.

I thought it might have been something like blithe spirit. That didn’t seem quite right.

I looked in an online Thesaurus for an adjective that means cheerful, buoyant, or sunny. Then a NOUN came to me: visage. Whereupon shining came back to memory within a minute or two.

Memory works by association.

The memory, the memories are there, in one’s brain.

Recall is possible.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 24, 2017

two of my favorite piano sonatas and how important the performer seems to be

 

They are as follows:

 

Beethoven, piano sonata no. 27, opus 90, second movement (“Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorgetragen”; Not too swiftly and conveyed in a singing manner)

Andrew Rangell

 

Emil Gilels

 

Manon Clément

 

Maurizio Pollini

 

Steven Osborne

 

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Schubert, sonata no. 20 in A, D. 959, second movement (Andante)

 

Alfred Brendel

 

David Korevaar

 

Gerhard Oppitz

 

Mitsuko Uchida

 

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My love of these two pieces may partially have to do with the circumstances under which I first heard them.

My mother used play the second movement of the Beethoven sonata. Like many amateur pianists, she had a few favorite pieces she would play all the time that she must have learned from her piano teacher. I would fall asleep listening to her play the second movement of sonata number 27 with great feeling. I didn’t care whether her technique would have been regarded as good or not. (Nor, at that age, would I have thought about this.)

 

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Schubert, sonata no. 20 in A, no. 959, second movement (Andante)

I first heard the Schubert sonata, hitherto unknown to me, in the film Au Hasard Balthashar, directed by Robert Bresson, at the now defunct Elgin Theatre on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. It got me in a visceral sense. Bresson was a master at using music in his films, sparingly yet always effectively. The Andante functions as a leitmotif for the soundtrack.

 

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Beethoven, piano sonata no. 27, opus 90, second movement

As far as these renditions of the second and last movement go, I think Emil Gilels plays the movement too fast. I am not sure that’s the right way to put it, but he seems to play without feeling, sort of rushes through the movement and wings it, so to speak. As if he were not heeding Beethoven’s instructions to play it “not too swiftly and conveyed in a singing manner.”

I like Andrew Rangell and Manon Clément’s interpretations. Neither pianist is that well known. I have a preference (I think; it’s hard to make such judgments) for Manon Clément’s rendition. Maybe she’s inferior to the other pianists in technical skill, but she manages to make the piece compelling.

 

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Schubert, sonata no. 20 in A, no. 959, second movement

What was Mitsuko Uchida thinking (or intending) when she played the Andante of this sonata? Andante, yes; means at a “walking pace.” She seems to have interpreted Andante as meaning “crawling.” She puts you to sleep. (I am not an expert, but it seems as if she could have played a tad more fortissimo.) She is a renowned interpreter of Mozart, Schubert, and other composers. I have heard some of her Mozart renditions, and they are outstanding.

Note at how much faster a tempo (dramatic, but perhaps it should have been a bit slower) Alfred Brendel commences the andante. And, he plays it much louder. Overall, I think Brendel’s rendition is impressive and does the movement justice.

Overall, of the four versions posted here, I prefer German pianist Gerhard Oppitz’s rendition.

 

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This brings to mind something true about music from my personal experience. How valid it is, or whether it conforms to others’ experience, I don’t know. As is evinced by the Beethoven, I grew to love it by hearing my mother, an amateur pianist, play it with feeling. And, of all the versions posted here, I think I like Manon Clément’s the best, yet she is the least well known performer. Conclusion, for what it’s worth: the circumstances under which one hears music and the emotional content the performer can convey — through skill but also through performance intangibles, and through the desire to “communicate” musically (rather than just be admired as a performer) — make a great difference.

It’s not that different in writing, something which I know more about. An earnest desire to communicate can go a long way in making a piece of writing succeed. It’s not the only thing — technical skill and knowledge must be there — but a showoff who just wants to impress and does the job with no sense of their real or virtual audience (be it that in playing or writing) will leave listeners and readers feeling unfulfilled.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2017

 

 

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Addendum: Igo Pogorelich’s rendition of Sonata no. 27, op. 90 is worth listening to.

William Handy (1762-1852)

 

My ancestor William Handy was born on August 15, 1762 in Sandwich, Massachusetts, a town on Cape Cod, and died in Sandwich on February 8, 1852 at the age of 89.

Mr. Handy served in the Continental Army under George Washington during the Revolutionary War when he was eighteen years old.

It is astonishing to me to realize the following: Mr. Handy was my mother’s great-great grandfather. That means he goes back only four generations from my mother, Elinor H. Smith (1918-1973; nee Elinor Congdon Handy).

My mother was the daughter of Ralph E. Handy (1893-1947). Her grandfather was Henry T. Handy (1845-1916). Her great-grandfather was Henry Handy’s father, Joshua Handy (1813-1877). Joshua Handy’s father, my mother’s great-great grandfather, was the above mentioned William Handy.

Here’s a very interesting fact, among several, about William Handy. His Revolutionary War service required him to travel to New York State. Presumably, this would have been on foot. During his service, he was present at the execution of Major John André (1750-1780), the British Army officer who was hanged on October 2, 1780 in Tappan, Rockland Country, New York as a spy during the Revolutionary War for assisting Benedict Arnold’s attempted surrender of the fort at West Point to the British.

An account of Major André’s hanging indicates that a large crowd was assembled for the hanging, including many troops.

The hanging is described as follows in an eyewitness account by James Thacher, M.D., a surgeon in the American Revolutionary Army (in his The American Revolution: From the Commencement to the Disbanding of the American Army Given in the Form of a Daily Journal, with the Exact Dates of all the Important Events; Also, a Biographical Sketch of the Most Prominent Generals):

The fatal hour having arrived, a large detachment of troops [italics added] was paraded, and an immense concourse of people assembled; almost all our general and field officers, excepting his excellency [Washington] and staff, were present on horseback; melancholy and gloom pervaded all ranks, and the scene was affectingly awful.

In his History of Cape Cod, vol. II (1862), Rev. Frederick Freeman, who knew Mr. Handy personally, writes:

During the revolutionary period, at a time when it was most difficult to obtain men for the war, he volunteered and served in several campaigns. He was present at the execution of Andre, a scene the incidents of which he related at the very close of his life, not only with nice accuracy but with an exhibition of fine sensibilities and generous feeling.

The full account of Rev. Freeman is as follows:

Capt. William Handy was, in some respects, a remarkable man.

During the revolutionary period, at a time when it was most difficult to obtain men for the war, he volunteered and served in several campaigns.

He was present at the execution of Andre, a scene the incidents of which he related at the very close of his life, not only with nice accuracy but with an exhibition of fine sensibilities and generous feeling.

Endowed with an iron constitution, of good judgment and most determined will — fearless, resolute, and full of energy, his earlier life was chiefly devoted to maritime pursuits — first in the merchant service and then in whaling.

After one whale voyage as mate, he was for many years in command of some of the best and most successful ships engaged in that business, making repeated voyages from New Bedford, and also from Dunkirk in France in pursuance of an arrangement made first by Tupper with Bonaparte when First Consul and afterwards by Rotch with the Consul as Emperor.

Captain Handy’s ability, integrity, and success were proverbial, securing unlimited confidence. Retiring from the seas, he engaged still in maritime affairs, establishing a ship-yard near his house on Buzzard’s Bay and becoming largely a ship-owner.

He sent forth from his own yard the ship Rebecca, the brig Fame, schooners Resolution, Nancy [named after his daughter], Sophronia, Love [named after his wife], Acsah Parker [named after his daughter Acshah Handy, who married Calvin Parker], and sloops Betsy [named after his daughter], Nancy [named after his daughter], Deborah, and other smaller vessels designed for the Long Island Sound trade during the war of 1812. These last smaller vessels were, for greater security against the ravages of the enemy, built near his door at a distance from the shore, and then without great difficulty launched across fields to their intended element.

Capt. H. suffered greatly from French spoliations, as well as from the war of 1812; but cherished faith in the tardy justice of his country to the very last of life.

When more than 60 years old he resolved, to replenish his coffers and “to show the boys how to take whales,” to adventure one more voyage. His purpose was no sooner known in New Bedford than eminent merchants and ship-owners were ready to further his views. Put in command of the Com. Decatur in 1821, he accomplished in 15 months a most successful cruise to the admiration of all.

He had an utter repugnance to public life, and yet was elected Selectman, and commissioned as Jus. Pac.

Anecdotes might be related of him … showing the energy and daring of the man; and one … would be of thrilling interest — that of a rencontre by himself and one other with a white polar bear, engaged upon the ice and snows without firearms. The contest was desperate; but the bear weighing more than 500 lbs. labored under the disadvantage of breaking through the snow-crust, whilst his assailants were supported by it and finally conquered.

William Handy married Love Swain (ca. 1779-1857), who was born on Nantucket. Love Swain Handy was a descendant of the first settlers of Nantucket, including Peter Folger (ca. 1618-1690), Benjamin Franklin’s maternal grandfather.

The couple had nine children, the youngest of whom was Capt. Joshua Handy (1813-1877), our mother, Elinor H. Smith’s great-grandfather.

Love (Swain) Handy, William Handy’s widow, applied on April 14, 1855 for a pension based on her husband’s service in the Revolutionary War.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    May 2016