Category Archives: musings (random daily thoughts)

New Yorkers

 

 

I was on a bus in Brooklyn a couple of weeks ago.

My eyes strayed to a seat across from me, and I saw that a young woman was smiling at me.

Beaming.

She had a five or six or year old boy in her lap. It was a bit different than holding a toddler in one’s lap. The boy was restless. But the mother and her son and seemed to be totally in sync.

“Is he going to school. Or he is too young for that?” I asked.

“No, he’s going to school,” she said, still smiling.

Then, I got off the bus. She waved at me and wished me a good day. It was as if we had been glad to meet.

This little encounter — unanticipated, most would say totally inconsequential — set me up for the rest of the day. It was as if somehow I had made her morning pleasurable. She certainly did that for me.

A reason I am writing about this is because this sort of thing happens to me very often in New York. I doubt such encounters would be as likely in the suburbs. (Certainly not if one were driving to work or an appointment.) Rubbing shoulders with others as a matter of course is something I love about living in NYC.

When I first moved to New York as a young man, everyone seemed to in a hurry, and the City seemed cold and impersonal.

It’s exactly the opposite. Many New Yorkers have told me that their experience has been the same.

 

 

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In his poem “Mannahatta,” Walt Whitman said something very similar:

 

Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and
steamships, an island sixteen miles long, solid-founded,
Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender,
strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies, …
The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d,
beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes,
Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the
shops and shows,
A million people–manners free and superb–open voices–
hospitality–the most courageous and friendly young
men,

 

 

Roger W. Smith

December 2018

“I knew a man”

 

 

 

 

 

I knew a man . . . . he was a common farmer . . . . he was the father of five sons . . .
and in them were the fathers of sons . . . and in them were the fathers of sons.

This man was of wonderful vigor and calmness and beauty of person;
The shape of his head, the richness and breadth of his manners, the pale yellow
and white of his hair and beard, the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes,
These I used to go and visit him to see . . . . He was wise also,
He was six feet tall . . . . he was over eighty years old . . . . his sons were massive
clean bearded tanfaced and handsome,

They and his daughters loved him . . . all who saw him loved him . . . they did not
love him by allowance . . . they loved him with personal love;
He drank water only . . . . the blood showed like scarlet through the clear brown
skin of his face;
He was a frequent gunner and fisher . . . he sailed his boat himself . . . he had a fine
one presented to him by a shipjoiner . . . . he had fowling-pieces, presented to
him by men that loved him;
When he went with his five sons and many grandsons to hunt or fish you would pick
him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of the gang,
You would wish long and long to be with him . . . . you would wish to sit by him in
the boat that you and he might touch each other.

 

 

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Written in free verse, “I knew a man,” by Walt Whitman, is part of “I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC.,” a poem with nine short subsections included in the original (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass.

It is a great example of the utter simplicity and non-literary character of Whitman’s poetry. (This aspect of Whitman’s poetry is analyzed and explained definitively in C. Carroll Hollis’s monograph Language and Style in Leaves of Grass [Louisiana State University Press, 1983]).

The poem is read here by the actor Ed Begley (1901-1970). Begley is, without question, the greatest reader, the greatest vocal interpreter, of Whitman’s poetry ever.
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Reflecting upon this poem, it occurs to me that I know, and have known (beginning with my parents), people eliciting such thoughts, such admiration from me.

People seemingly ordinary. Meaning not famous, or great as we commonly take great to mean when we speak of a great statesman, a great author, or any other person of such stature.

Ordinary people.

Yet remarkable people.

Men and women whose character, integrity, sincerity, kindness, thoughtfulness, unselfishness, fortitude, and so forth one is struck by over and over, almost daily. Of whom one finds oneself reminding oneself constantly what a privilege it is to know such persons. And of what they have to offer. To you or me.

Whitman stopped to admire a blade of grass. I often find myself, as did Whitman in this poem, “stopping to admire” ordinary people whom I meet and reflecting upon their wonderful qualities and, by extension, upon our common humanity.

 
— Roger W. Smith

  December 2018

 

to autumn

 

 

 

 

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Madison Square Park, New York City; November 2016 (photograph by Roger W. Smith)

 

 

 

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Poughkeepsie, NY; October 2018 (photograph by Roger W. Smith

 

 

 

Pushkin’s favorite month was October.

Spring starts out wet and raw and often wintry at the outset. Fall starts out just plain nice and within a couple of weeks or so has become just plain gorgeous.

By the end of the season, fall has become indistinguishable from winter. But, in the first month or so, fall features clear, sunny days without oppressive heat, which in summer can be unbearable.

By the end of spring, summer is already here and one experiences days that suffuse the senses of old and young with sheer delight. Ask Shakespeare, who wrote of “springtime, the only pretty ring time, / Sweet lovers love the spring.” (As You Like It).

Ask Edvard Grieg or Carl Nielsen.

Autumn has its proponents too.

 

 

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Let Autumn spread his treasures to the sun.
Luxuriant and unbounded …

From heaven’s high cope the fierce effulgence shook
Of parting Summer, a serener blue,
With golden light enliven’d, wide invests
The happy world. Attemper’d suns arise,
Sweet-beam’d, and shedding oft thro’ lucid clouds
A pleasing calm; while broad, and brown, below
Extensive harvests hang the heavy head. …

The sultry south collects a potent blast.
At first the groves are scarcely seen to stir
Their trembling tops; and a still murmur runs
Along the soft-inclining fields of corn.
But as the aerial tempest fuller swells,
And in one mighty stream, invisible.
Immense! the whole excited atmosphere
Impetuous rushes o’er the sounding world;
Strain’d to the root, the stopping forest pours
A rustling shower of yet untimely leaves. …

 

– James Thomson, The Seasons (1726-1730)

 

 

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Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue.

 

John Keats, ‘To Autumn” (1820)

 

 

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Октябрь уж наступил — уж роща отряхает

Последние листы с нагих своих ветвей;

Дохнул осенний хлад — дорога промерзает.

Журча еще бежит за мельницу ручей,

Но пруд уже застыл; сосед мой поспешает

В отъезжие поля с охотою своей,

И страждут озими от бешеной забавы,

И будит лай собак уснувшие дубравы.

 

 

Теперь моя пора: я не люблю весны;

Скучна мне оттепель; вонь, грязь — весной я болен;

Кровь бродит; чувства, ум тоскою стеснены.

Суровою зимой я более доволен,

Люблю ее снега; в присутствии луны

Как легкий бег саней с подругой быстр и волен,

Когда под соболем, согрета и свежа,

Она вам руку жмет, пылая и дрожа!

 

 

Ох, лето красное! любил бы я тебя,

Когда б не зной, да пыль, да комары, да мухи.

Ты, все душевные способности губя,

Нас мучишь; как поля, мы страждем от засухи;

Лишь как бы напоить, да освежить себя —

Иной в нас мысли нет, и жаль зимы старухи,

И, проводив ее блинами и вином,

Поминки ей творим мороженым и льдом.

 

— Александр Пушкин, Осень (1833-1841)

 

 

 

October has arrived – the woods have tossed

Their final leaves from naked branches;

A breath of autumn chill – the road begins to freeze,

The stream still murmurs as it passes by the mill,

The pond, however’s frozen; and my neighbor hastens

to his far-flung fields with all the members of his hunt.

The winter wheat will suffer from this wild fun,

And baying hounds awake the slumbering groves.

 

This is my time: I am not fond of spring;

The tiresome thaw, the stench, the mud – spring sickens me.

The blood ferments, and yearning binds the heart and mind..

With cruel winter I am better satisfied,

I love the snows; when in the moonlight

A sleigh ride swift and carefree with a friend.

Who, warm and rosy ‘neath a sable mantle,

Burns, trembles as she clasps your hand. …

 

O, summer fair! I would have loved you, too,

Except for heat and dust and gnats and flies.

You kill off all our mental power,

Torment us; and like fields, we suffer from the drought;

To take a drink, refresh ourselves somehow –

We think of nothing else, and long for lady Winter,

And, having bid farewell to her with pancakes and with wine,

We hold a wake to honor her with ice-cream and with ice.

The latter days of fall are often cursed,

But as for me, kind reader, she is precious

In all her quiet beauty, mellow glow.

 

 

— Alexander Pushkin, “Autumn” (1833-1841)

 

 

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“Europeans coming to America are surprised by the brilliancy of our autumnal foliage. There is no account of such a phenomenon in English poetry, because the trees acquire but few bright colors there. … October is the month for painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world.”

— Henry David Thoreau, “Autumnal Tints” (1862)

 

 

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And, Roger W. Smith.

And, yes, the foliage is unmatched in the Northeast. I grew up in Massachusetts like Thoreau, and I never can or will forget the September and October days of my childhood.

 

 

— Posted by Roger W. Smith

   October 2018

the music of the spheres (linguistically speaking)

 

 
I live in the borough of Queens in New York City.

In a metropolitan area with the most ethnically diverse zip codes in the nation, and in a City where far more languages are spoken than in any other city in the world — in public; on the streets and in parks; in stores and restaurants; on buses and the subway; and so on.

To hear the variety of languages spoken in NYC is exhilarating.

I love to hear foreign languages.

Their musicality.

To hear the wonderful sonorities of Spanish being spoken. To hear Russian, and to be able to recognize it. To be able to recognize Polish, which I hear spoken very often in my neighborhood.

To guess at other languages that I hear being spoken during my peregrinations.

To me, it’s just another reason to WELCOME IMMIGRANTS. If only others — some do, but I fear, and in fact know, it’s far too few — could see this.

 

 

—  Roger W. Smith

    August 2018

 

 

 

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photos taken in Manhattan by Roger W. Smith

 

 

 

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a brief exercise in “verbal impressionism”

 

 

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Juniper Valley Park, Queens, NYC; August 21, 2018

 

 

 

Observations made by me while jaunting this week.
Monday, August 20, 2018

girl with mother and siblings eating lunch in a Macdonald’s in Queens

 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

kids eating potato chips in a park in Queens (see photo above)

 

I noticed the same thing. That when kids are happy they get a glassy eyed, dreamy look. Like they are looking at nothing in particular. And are happy in a half-conscious way.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 21, 2018

re the development of musical appreciation, as seen in myself

 

 

I am afraid some people will see this post as boastful. It is not intended to be.

 

 

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I have a good friend whom I share with my wife. He was a former teaching colleague of hers.

He reads all my posts — I am very happy to have him as a regular reader. He tends to admire my writings, which is very welcome, although if he disagrees with something (such as an opinion of mine about an author), he will tell me or my wife. He is a thoughtful person and reads with care and attention. But his criticisms are not harsh.

He has mentioned several times to both of us having enjoyed my writings and thoughts on classical music. He is an accomplished and serious pianist and a lover of music, about which he is knowledgeable.

I said I was glad that he enjoyed my posts about music. “You know,” I said, “with my limited technical knowledge of music, I am surprised to find I can write about it. But it seems I can.”

He said something in response to the effect that my writings on music read like those of a music critic.

Thinking more about this, I wrote my friend a follow up email, the text of which follows.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2018

 

 

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Dear _______,

Yesterday we were talking about early influences, namely music and art.

I seem to be able to “think musically.”

Even though I can’t read music or play an instrument.

How is it that I know (or think I do) that Bartók outranks Stravinsky? How and why is it that when I was listening once to folksongs by Bartók, I was reminded of Porgy and Bess? And, then (this was in the past), I happened to read something about Gershwin somewhere and found out that he had used pentatonic scales in Porgy and Bess and realized that Bartók did the same with folksongs that used ancient modalities.

As I said, I seem to have always been able to think musically. My father graduated from Harvard when I was around four or five with a degree in music. I don’t recall it well, but he had 78 RPM records of classical music that he would play when doing assignments. I recall that I loved the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 — if one can do that at a very early age, one is inherently musical. I enjoyed listening to my mother play classical music on the piano around bedtime. I liked some other works I recall such as Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite. Plus kids’ songs such as “Rain, Rain, Go Away (Come Back Again Some Other Day).” I still remember the words and the basic tune. We had a scratchy old record of it which I wanted to hear over and over again.

I seem to have a photographic memory for music. I always recall what the pieces were and remember them exactly, going way back and extending through my lifetime. If I hear a different rendition at some later date, I can tell it’s not the same. (This includes popular music and rock.) How is it that I remember both the music and the actual pieces, including what they were?

For example, on the first day of school I attended in the seventh grade in my new hometown, Canton, our teacher, Mrs. Sullivan, led us from the piano in singing. The songs were “Over the River and Through the Woods, To Grandmother’s House We Go. The horse knows the way, to carry the sleigh”; and, “Oh, Those Golden Slippers.” I can hear the songs still. I can hear Mrs. Sullivan playing — can seem to almost remember how that old piano sounded —  remember what the songs were and the melodies.

Music is linear, like mathematics. I think linearly. I always did very well in math. Music and subjects like algebra are left brained.

I never had to develop an interest in music, like, say, someone who says, or thinks, they should take up tennis or golf for some reason, and begins by taking lessons.

It was similar to my love of books and reading in that it was never an interest that was part of academics or coursework. The best interests develop naturally this way.

So that when I was in high school, I began to seriously develop a taste for and knowledge of classical music. It came naturally.

But when it comes to playing and performing, I could never, should I have tried, come close to my siblings’ proficiency.

A footnote: My former therapist, Dr. Colp’s, intellectual development seemed similar, in some respects. He grew up in a very intellectually stimulating atmosphere of books and ideas. He told me that the life of the mind was like breathing for him.

I was very fortunate to have grown up in a home were music was a part of everyday life and where aesthetic enrichment and appreciation came with the territory. Music has always been an important part of my life.

 

Roger

the head versus the heart

 

 

Here’s a simple post. And a simple thought.

A friend left me a voice mail yesterday. He asked me if I would like to go to the Bronx Zoo with him sometime in the near future and said to ask my wife if she would like to go too.

I mulled it over last night, mentioned it to my wife. She said she had no interest in going.

I thought to myself, I don’t want to go either. I went to the Bronx Zoo once with my wife and sons a long time ago. Nothing special, didn’t do it for me.

I got up this morning and thought about it again. My friend was reaching out to me. The invitation is something he thought we would enjoy doing together. He is looking for company.

What harm could it do for me to go? I thought. It would be an outing for me and a diversion. I would make HIM happy.

I called him up and said I would be glad to.

My head told me not to go: that I had no interest in it, and, besides, I’m busy. (But, am I really too busy? What am I doing that’s so important anyway?)

My heart, my human instincts, told me: say yes to the invitation.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 29, 2018