Category Archives: musings (random daily thoughts)

There is a deeper bond in life

I was thinking some more today — musing, as I might say, on “profound” philosophical questions in my favorite pub — about what, in our talks, my departed and sorely missed friend Bill Dalzell — someone whose intuitive ratiocination influenced me greatly (both his way of thinking and the actual thoughts), — communicated implicitly to me about the importance of intuition in cogitation, in decision making, in one’s life course

To put it another way, I was thinking about human relationships

When they work, become meaningful — meaningful and profound — when they endure, it is not because you and the other have worked out and reached an understanding or accommodations on most issues or one another’s views

It is because something deeper and stronger binds you

Call it love or fellow feeling

I have seen it so many times in married couples -– in the bond between my parents, for example

When, to put it simplistically, love and “custom” (lives lived together) mean the most, trump disagreements

I venerate reasoning and acumen in people

I also cherish persons with whom I have achieved something deeper when it comes to relationships. Them and the relationships

There is a deeper bond in life than that of affinity based on commonalities that are supposed to make people compatible. That deep something which binds people who become bonded in all sorts of circumstances and scenarios

 

— Roger W. Smith

  January 2023

my father and Dr. Colp

 

One reason there was such a meeting of minds — a fusion — with my therapist Dr. Colp — he called it the X factor — was similarities in our relationships with our fathers.

I remember when Dr. Colp’s father passed away. I read the latter’s obituary in the Times.

Dr. Colp’s father was a surgeon. Dr. Colp became a surgeon. He said he could never equal his father professionally. And he found that he didn’t particularly like surgery.

But what caused him to, in a sense, defy his father and assert himself by forging a new identity was that he found he was, above all, interested in talking with his patients and learning about them, something most physicians don’t see as a primary function or concern. He said he wrote some short stories based on his patients.

The result was that Dr. Colp “started all over again” and did a second residency in psychiatry.

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Early on, I told Dr. Colp: I can feel the interest in me. That alone is therapeutic.

What a person. His capacity for empathy. And for LISTENING. Rare in anyone, even therapists, it seems.

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Charles Darwin’s father was a physician. He felt that his son Charles would probably never amount to anything. His persona vis-à-vis his son was remarkably similar to that of Dr. Colp’s father; and Dr. Colp (the younger, that is, Ralph Colp Jr.) became a preeminent Darwin scholar.

The parallels were apparent to me. I commented on them to Dr. Colp, who expressed approval for and admiration of my insight.

Dr. Colp’s relationship with his father was a lot like mine.

At some point — in his writings, in our discussions, in general, and when my own father died — I gathered among Dr. Colp’s views that the death of a man’s father (and, by extension, a woman’s mother, which did not pertain to our discussions, but can be implied or inferred) was a crucial event in one’s life (he said this explicitly to me) — I am sure he was speaking for himself. And, that death is profound in terms of loss and grief, but there is also a release. In the case of a parent, you are free of the parent: free of demands and expectations they placed on you; of criticisms that may have crippled you emotionally, undermined your self-confidence.

Dr. Colp saw all this.

You are free to grow. To become, more than heretofore, your own person.

And …

to incorporate into yourself — your personhood, character; your personality; your demeanor — hitherto unappreciated and overlooked strengths and admirable features of the deceased loved one, parent.

In conclusion

I forgive my father his faults.

They are all of ours. My own.

I appreciate much more than I ever did his admirable qualities, Without being aware of it, I absorbed, unconsciously, and mimicked many of them.

I had an excellent male role model without knowing it.

My father.

Perfect. No. A good father. Yes and no. Someone to emulate and admire. Yes.

And – this is in afterthought which may seem to undercut what I have said – I recall moments of genuine affection. His delight in getting me something I really wanted for my birthday once when I was a preadolescent and surprising me with it; affectionate hugs from him when, after a long absence, I came home for visits in my twenties and thirties; and our last long distance phone conversation, which meant so much to me (that we had it), on a Sunday night two days before his death on the following Tuesday — he told me at the end of a long talk that he loved me. He may have said this because he had a sense of impending death, but our conversation was not gloomy, he was in good humor, and as far as he knew he was going to have a routine operation that he was scheduled for on the day that he died.

 

Roger W. Smith

   December 2022

Melville’s thoughts (mine)

 

To have known him, to have loved him
after loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal—
Ease me, a little ease, my song!

– Herman Melville

Herman Melville was a man of deep insight and feeling. And yet it was difficult for him to get close to people.

I apply Melville’s words to me and my relationship with my father. Not exactly, but close enough.

I so wish I could talk with my father now.

Can anyone understand?

Written by me in P. J. Carney’s pub, while reading Wordsworth’s Prelude and reflecting upon each and every phrase.

 

– Roger W. Smith

 Sunday, October 23, 2022

dealing with a blow (death)

 

My wife and I just got the totally unexpected news from one of our best, dear friends that his wife died yesterday.

She had been ill for some time. She was immobilized, bedridden, for a good part (if not most) of the time, and needed constant assistance. Our friend, who is retired, had little time to himself. When he wasn’t at home caring for her, he was out doing errands such as shopping for food and taking care that other necessities were met. He never complained. That is not his nature.

Yesterday, our friend’s wife managed to attend Thanksgiving dinner nearby with a son and in-laws, accompanied by her husband. She died suddenly on the way home.

 

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I couldn’t help thinking of the worst experience, without question, I had of death; and probably the worst experience of my whole life: my mother’s death at a young age from cancer.

It nearly tore our family apart. Not because of any disagreements among us (in the nuclear family), but just because of losing our mother and our father his wife.

Two things that I shared with my wife on hearing the news today of the death of our friend’s wife were as follows.

 

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When my mother became gravely ill, and treatments appeared not to have been successful, I sank into a state of depression, as did my father and siblings. (Our father’s mental state — depression — seemed the worst.)  Yet, it was sort of “abstract,” in a way, at this point. I couldn’t quite contemplate my mother’s death.

By the time she died, a few months later, I had somehow — partly from talking about my mother’s condition with friends — become more realistic or “objective,” or however one might put it. I was no longer denying that my mother’s illness was terminal.

Yet, when my mother died, inevitably, after a short period during which she was at home briefly and then returned to the hospital, it was a terrible blow. The way I perceived it was: I knew in my rational mind she would not get better and was going to die, but not today.

She died in the spring. I made a visit to my father that summer. He did not talk about my mother, as I recall. He seemed less depressed than he had been a few months before.

I brought this up with my therapist. I said something to him to the effect of, my father looks almost happy. He is active again, enjoying life.

My therapist replied that this was normal: enjoying life. My father, he said, was resuming his life. His zest for it.

Death in such circumstances — unendurable to contemplate, something you are never prepared for — can also be a release and a relief.

Roger W. Smith

   November 26, 2021

morning thoughts

 

 

An email to my brothers and sister, yesterday morning:

 

Pete, Ralph, and Carol,

Listening to Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music — on my iPhone, on the bus – this morning evoked sentimental, grave thoughts and feelings.

about Bill Dalzell

Grammy Handy

Mom and Dad

What they meant to me, how I appreciate some things about them in retrospect keenly.

What death means. My own. That of loved ones. Its inevitability. How death is a poignant part of life, as Walt Whitman said.

Roger

 

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addendum:

 

Another email to my siblings (August 15):

Probably platitudes

But

Is it because of Mozart that I am thinking thusly?

When I am enjoying life keenly, partaking of it, appreciate the most, it seems, being alive.

People … the day as felt (sun, breeze, grass, water, the elements) … books, thoughts, and music … the active life of the mind.

I think of those departed.

Real people who loved and appreciated those same things (and people) purely for them own sake; and enjoyed and partook of them the same … who lived in the moment…. those moments as they experienced them are sharp and indelible in my memory.

We got this from Mom and Dad; and I did from people like Bill who cared not a whit for externals.

Then I think to myself, at such times, that Mom and Dad aren’t here to enjoy these things; and friends like Bill, or Dr. Colp: and I can’t share my enjoyment and appreciation with them.

Then I feel their absence keenly, and feel the poignancy of it all.

Roger

 

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I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

— Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry “

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   August 15, 2021

morals (in which I anoint myself a philosopher)

 

Perhaps a present-day Edmund Burke.

 

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I was discussing politics with a friend yesterday. Mostly President Trump. (I have had similar recent discussions with my wife.)

I find Trump’s habitual lying hard to comprehend. How could anyone make bald faced lies that are a priori untrue? Such as that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States, that cable news host and former Representative Joe Scarborough is a suspect in murdering an aide, that Joe Biden is a pedophile? And, then, when such statements and unfounded accusations are shown to be false, never retract the statement?

This is not the same as something that politicians routinely do — in a political campaign, say — take something that is partly true or possibly could become so and put a spin on it: e.g., Joe Biden is beholden to the radical left and will carry out their agenda.

 

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Regarding the cardinal sin of dishonesty, the supposed moral obligation we are under to tell the truth, I started thinking in a general way about morals.

First, that it is wrong to lie.

I was brought up to believe this. That to be caught in a lie was one of the most shameful things possible. That it is incumbent upon oneself to admit error when caught saying something not true, that can be proven to be so, and that, as guiding principle, persisting in a lie or trying to lie one’s way out of a jam, not only will result in one’s being embarrassed, but will make for a worse outcome in the long run.

Then, I thought about the broader topic of morals, of codes of conduct. I myself am sometimes guilty of thinking that they are for puritanical types with no real understanding of human behavior, and that perhaps they do more harm than good.

But, think about it — or, to put it another way, come to think about it — moral codes do work to make society “work,” so to speak — the way rules in an athletic contest do — to ensure a certain degree of “fair play,” “decency,” and harmony in human interactions and social life. (You may be asking yourself, why is this would be philosopher spouting truisms?)

 

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Then, I thought, we all know that codes of conduct and behavior — morality in general — are more honored in the breach than the observance. Hardly anyone is strictly faithful to them, and most people break them in big or little ways all the time.

But, when I have engaged in dishonesty, I feel guilt and shame inwardly. My parents’ moral percepts are still there within me.

The difference between Trump and most politicians is that there is no frame of “moral reference.” He lies continuously and shamelessly and has no compunction about doing so. I think this shocks most informed people and the journalists who cover him. It is hard to believe that this is really occurring. In this case, with respect to government and public life. The presidency. Presidents have been caught in lies before. But …

 

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So, then, I thought to myself — and said to my friend — it makes me see that having a moral frame of reference, those values we were brought up with, is not to be taken lightly. They mean something, even if we ourselves are far from perfect.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 2020

empathy III

 

I narrowly missed a bus going home.

It was raining.

The bus had just pulled away from the curb.

It wasn’t moving; there was a long red light at a major intersection.

I stood on the curbside next to the bus’s front door, waved at the driver, and got her attention.

She wouldn’t open the door.

 

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A Hispanic guy whom I at first didn’t notice arrived at the curb a moment later; he had seen what had happened.

He seemed dismayed on my behalf.

What was it to him? New Yorkers are supposed to not have time for others. (Actually, the opposite is usually the case.)

I don’t recall his exact words. He said something like, what’s wrong with these bus drivers? She couldn’t let you on? And so forth.

 

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That could have been the end of the conversation. But, noticing his Spanish accent, I asked, “Habla español?”

We talked for a minute or two about English versus Spanish: learning to speak. He said (so true) in essence that if you know how to spell a Spanish word you always know how to pronounce it. It’s the opposite in English, he said. He gave the example of diner being pronounced differently than dinner.

I told him that he definitely had an accent but his speech seemed to indicate command of English grammar and usage.

 

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We had a five or ten minute conversation which covered a lot of ground. NYC, mainly. How long he has lived here. What he thinks of it. How he likes it, but it’s way too expensive. New York has become a city only for rich people, he said.

Boston, where I come from. He wanted to know what the climate was like there. A bit colder and more snow, I told him.

He remarked on the fact that you get to experience the change of seasons here.

I asked where he came from.

Honduras.

Mostly through my asking him, he told me the name of the capital and second largest city in Honduras, how long it takes to fly there (five hours), the climate (warm year round), and that it’s surrounded by water and beautiful beaches. He named the five countries that make up Central America. (Chitchat can be very educational.)

He had recently been to Seattle. Liked it. But expensive, he said. Almost more so than New York. He mentioned a fragrant smell of pine cones. Always cool, he said.

He has relatives in Canada. Mostly in Quebec. We briefly discussed French Canada. He said they spoke a different type of French there than in Europe (as he put it). Also, Winnipeg (he has relatives there). We discussed where it was. Neither of us knew for certain.

 

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Another bus arrived. As I was about to get on, he said, “God bless you.”

The words came to me. I replied, “Que Dios lo bendizca.” I got it slightly wrong (it should have been Que Dios lo bendiga), but at least I knew to use the subjunctive.

He seemed pleased.

 

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When he first spoke to me, that was empathy by definition. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. No matter who, how close you may or may not be, and how big or small the other’s situation or misfortune appears to be.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   March 3, 2020

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

Everyone wants to amount to something.

 

I didn’t think I would be engaging in psychobabble so soon again, but I got to thinking about something today while I was out and about. A time when the mind wanders. (The thoughts are often not wasted.)

I got to thinking about things my wife and I were talking about last night and comments she made that I found insightful and worth considering.

But first, something else I recalled this morning — not necessarily related — but I thought I saw a connection.

 

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I have a male friend almost the same age as me whom I sort of inherited from another acquaintance of mine. We usually get together for lunch or dinner. We have a prolonged conversation when we meet. Sometimes he seems in need of companionship and will tend to talk a lot without being a great listener, and sometimes his conversation can be tedious and filled with the minutiae of his daily life: things that would not likely be of interest to someone else.

I have told my wife many times about what I perceive to be [     ]’s being “challenged” when it comes to [     ]’s lack of communication/social skills. But I usually qualify this by saying “[     ] is really a good guy. He means well.”

He’s never mean-spirited.

[     ] seems to be one of those people who are highly intelligent and could run circles around you or me in many school subjects but who do not have a high emotional IQ.

The incident I recalled this morning was when I met [    ] last year for lunch at a diner where we often rendezvous. I was five or ten minutes late. We had agreed to meet there, not outside. I entered the diner. [     ] was already seated in a booth. I walked past it and was looking for him. When I finally found him, he erupted, so to speak, with comments such as: “How could you miss me? I was right there?”

He kept at it. I got annoyed and said: “What’s the big deal, [    ]? Who cares? I’m here, aren’t I? You said to meet you here, didn’t you? You have a problem with that?”

I was actually annoyed.

I told this story a day or two later to a friend, who made a perceptive observation. I was too dim to have seen it. “That’s his way of relating,” he said — in other words, that [     ]’s browbeating me was a kind of (awkward) conversational gambit.

 

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Recalling this this morning, I thought about the conversation with my wife last night.

We were talking about people we have known who often seemed to be exaggerating their achievements or accomplishments.

The parent whose son or daughter wrote an article for the school paper who it is quite possible will become the next George Will or Maureen Dowd.

The person in a firm or organization whom you know through acquaintance with the firm or them personally who is supposedly a mover and shaker or very important, and it turns out that they are not as important or successful as they claim to be.

When I find out about such “deceptions” — you hear from someone’s spouse that their partner has started his or her own business and is knocking ‘em dead, only to find out later that they have an office and business cards, but very few clients — I tend to joke about such stories repeatedly with my wife.

Don’t be so quick to, she said.

As we followed this train of thought a little further, I realized that she was right. What she said was that everyone wants to amount to something; I realize that this applies to ME. Whatever accomplishments I have — this includes very small and/or not notable ones — I want to be recognized and perhaps acknowledged for them; and, what’s more, for this to lead people to credit me with being admirable in some respect or another. And when it comes to conversational gambits like my friend’s, I myself am constantly trying to engage people I meet or associate with with self-styled clever, witty remarks which may or may not interest, amuse, or engage them

 

— Roger W Smith

  February 12, 2020

vaporized; or, when is a person not a person?

 

My wife and I got to talking this morning about people who make demands on one’s time or attention, something that we experience with acquaintances from time to time.

We were sharing stories from the past. She told me one about a fellow member of an organization she belonged to who knew another member who was looking for a math tutor for her son, and how the fellow member thought my wife would be perfect to recruit to do it, pro bono; that my wife would be eager to do it for another member of the organization, assuming (the fellow member, that is) that my wife had the time and motivation, which she didn’t. My wife said the fellow member was miffed when she told her that she wasn’t interested.

I thought of times when I have shared my writings with other writers or scholars, thinking they might be interested. Usually, they are not responsive. I said to my wife that this was not “wrong.” Most writers are too busy doing their own work to want to pay attention to that of others (especially writers who a priori would have no claim on their interest or attention). (Ditto for other fields of endeavor.)

Which brings to mind a story I shared with my wife.

 

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I think that the following anecdote illustrates something about people and interpersonal interactions. Something that has nothing to do with importuning someone.

In 1987, I took a journalism course at New York University. I was enrolled in the graduate journalism program. The course was city reporting. It was taught by New York Times political reporter Maurice Carroll, known to everyone as Mickey.

The course was very hands on. Carroll had us actively doing reporting assignments with New York politicians. He was well connected and arranged for group interviews with Mayor Dinkins and City Council member Ruth Messinger; and we attended a City Council meeting (open to the public), which we were required to report on.

(An aside: I recall that the Council members at the meeting were constantly talking about “budget mods.” And that Queens Borough President Claire Shulman called Rikers Island “the world’s largest penal colony.”)

We journalism students were sitting in the first row of the spectator section, which was right behind the committee room, I believe separated by a wooden railing. During a break in the hearing, one of the prominent Council Members, Sheldon Leffler from Queens (who served in the Council for over two decades), leaned over, and to my surprise, addressed me. “Are you from the New Yorker?” he asked in a seemingly friendly manner.

“No,” I began to answer. “I‘m a journalism school student at NYU and –.”

In mid-sentence, he turned away as if I didn’t exist.

 

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I continually run past events over and over in my mind, trying to conceptualize and make sense of — extract meaning from — them.

Something occurred to me the other day that I shared with my wife.

The incident was inconsequential, though I momentarily felt the effects of a putdown or rebuff (equivalent, perhaps, to a mosquito bite). But, even then, it did not make me think well of Leffler. All he had to say, should have said, if he were not rude, was something like, “Good luck in your studies.” (After all, he had addressed me.)

But it occurred to me the other day (I hadn’t thought about the incident for a long time) that such behavior illustrates something. Some people evaluate other people they meet solely on their “resume,” on externals such as occupation, importance, etc. (and perhaps — in fact probably — on whether the person has enough standing to somehow be of value or use to them). They care nothing about people as people. They are not interested in people as persons. I think this is true of many politicians and probably of many successful people in the private sector, such as executives and entrepreneurs who have made it big.

When Leffler realized that he was not speaking to a New Yorker reporter, I was “vaporized” from his consciousness. I became a nonperson.

 

— Roger W. Smith

  January 29, 2020