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.
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.
I am in our living room this afternoon, thinking about going out.
Beautiful day. My wife was out.
A light tapping at the thick front door. Not a knock. Tapping. So faint; rare. Almost never occurs. Usually they ring bell. My wife will knock loudly sometimes if she’s coming home with groceries.
I open door and there are three little girls probably age seven to eight to preadolescent standing there. So cute and innocent looking — true is it not of most kids?
They live next door. A family from Yemen. One of the older girls had a head scarf. The father runs a deli/bodega on the corner that his father started.
There are a few adult women living there whom I rarely see. It seems that Muslim women remain indoors unless business calls them outside.
One day I encountered them standing on the front steps. They had head and face coverings. I thought they might not be willing to speak to me. Instead, they returned my greeting politely with friendly smiles.
The three girls explained to me that they had lost three (!) balls on our garage roof. I often hear them playing (rare with kids in NYC … music to my ears) in our common back yard or in the narrow space between our house and theirs.
Is there any way we could get access to the garage roof and retrieve the balls? I thought we could, but wasn’t sure.
If we can’t do that, they said next — before leaving — if, by any chance, we have a tall ladder, they would be willing to climb up it and get the balls themselves.
I told them I would see what I could do. They said thanks and left.
Except the youngest girl hesitated. She stood there with a fixed gaze, so innocent. Beautiful black eyes. Then she said bye and left too.
The world of childhood. Psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg called them “the magic years.”
What preoccupies them. Their lack of guile. Their innocence.
Robert Levet (1705–1782), described in an obituary as “a practitioner in physic,” was an unlicensed medical practitioner in London during the eighteenth century. Levet was befriended by Samuel Johnson. He lived in Johnson’s home for many years. He practiced medicine among the poor and destitute of London, for modest fees.
A few observations on the poem, and a few platitudes of my own. It is good — following the example and preaching of Jesus — to assist, and not to shun, the needy and downtrodden; and it is good — as exemplified not only by Levet, but by Johnson, in befriending Levet (who was regarded by some of Johnson’s friends as being coarse in manner and who was of humble origins himself) — to show kindness and solicitude for those whom one encounters in the byways, so to speak, of daily life, on our journey through it.
This is essentially what the poem says to me. I could relate it to my own experience and, for me, that matters a lot when it comes to reading and literature.
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.
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?)
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
My wife does most of her grocery shopping at Costco. Costco is a huge store selling grocery and other products at reduced prices; it operates on a membership-only basis.
My wife and I went shopping together in the early evening, beginning with Costco. The store is usually crowded, especially on days before holidays.
I decided to wait outside while my wife was shopping. Big Costco-like stores tire me.
After a half an hour or so, I got bored and restless. I’ll go inside and see if I can find my wife, I thought. Better wandering the aisles and gawking at shoppers than sitting still.
There was a burly guy at the entrance. He was talking with a coworker and didn’t seem to notice me. But then he said something indistinct indicating that he was inquiring whether I was a Costco member. I knew it was a members-only store, and on the rare occasions when I am there with my wife she shows her card at the door.
I might have just kept going (pretending I hadn’t heard). Sometimes that works. But I thought to myself, honesty is probably the best policy. It usually is.
“I’m looking for my wife. She’s shopping,” I said. Then I added, “I don’t have a Costco card.”
“You’re looking for your wife?” he replied with a big smile. He seemed amused, acted as if that tickled him.
“Welcome, brother!” he said. “Go find your wife!”
This little incident and interaction made my day and magically helped offset or reduce the tension I had been feeling. The Costco “gatekeeper” displayed humanity and a lack of officiousness.
The moral of the story. The smallest acts of human empathy and kindness can do more good than one would think and can have an incremental effect in terms of their larger benefits.
I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall this afternoon of Schubert’s Winterreise (D. 911) performed by Joyce Didonato (mezzo soprano) and Yannick Nézet-Séguin (piano).
Nézet-Séguin, who is Canadian, is not only a pianist. He is the music director of the Metropolitan Opera, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal.
Regarding Ms. Didonato’s performance, which was outstanding, The New York Times noted in an article published last week that Winterreise is ” a work not usually sung by a female voice, but one that profits from it.”
The song cycle was, as I have already noted, performed brilliantly. It goes without saying that the piano is equal to the voice in this musical setting. Winterreise (Winter’s Journey, 1828) is a setting by Schubert of 24 poems by the poet Wilhelm Müller.
“A power duo of Joyce DiDonato (one the world’s greatest singers) and Yannick Nézet-Séguin (a thrilling conductor-pianist) perform one of music’s greatest song cycles: Schubert’s harrowing and compellingly tragic Winterreise. The two dozen songs in this cycle chart a journey through an icy winter landscape, telling tales of alienation and loneliness. Schubert’s gift for what Liszt described as ‘dramatizing lyrical inspirations to the highest degree’ comes to life in this riveting performance.” (Carnegie Hall website)
Indeed, emotion — particularized human emotion — comes through so strongly in Schubert’s lieder. It is the music of a composer and also a poet in his medium (music).
Schubert, I realized and felt, knew and understood humanity. Human longings and sorrows.
About two thirds into the concert, something in the music or lyrics of Winterreise took me elsewhere in time. Perhaps it was the thoughts in the lyrics of the inevitability of death:
Weiser stehen auf den Strassen,
weisen auf die Städte zu,
und ich wand’re sonder Maßen
ohne Ruh’ und suche Ruh’.
Einen Weiser seh’ ich stehen
unverrückt vor meinem Blick;
eine Straße muß ich gehen,
die noch keiner ging zurück.
Signposts stand on the roads,
point towards towns.
Yet I wander on and on,
unresting, in search of rest.
One signpost I see stand there,
steadfast before my gaze.
One road I must travel
by which no-one ever came back.
— “Der Wegweiser” (The Signpost)
I was transported in my mind (my thoughts wandering) back to my home and family sixty-five years ago. My father and mother. My siblings. A bittersweet sadness came over me. Comprised of happy, glad memories. The joy my parents took in their children. The appreciation they had and showed for them. Realizing that my parents are no longer living, were deceased long ago. I remember them so keenly. They were so alive then and aren’t now. Realizing that I will cease to exist and become only a memory.