Category Archives: musings (random daily thoughts)

It’s gone.

 

It’s gone.

They’re gone.

The past. Our lived history. Past times. The particulars. What made them unique.

This past, our past, dies with people. As they pass away. Dies as well as the people themselves.

An era. A generation. Gone irretrievably.

 

 

 

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My friend Bill Dalzell.

I think of him often. Of New York as he knew it.

When the City was affordable, actually cheap. When it was hospitable to artists, writers, and editors; to independent types who loved culture, the arts, and the life of the mind and who didn’t want the buttoned down life.

The New York of art film houses, the Automat, McSorley’s Old Ale House, and the Blarney Stones; of the Metropolitan Museum of Art when admission was free; of the New York Public Library when it was open 365 days a year. When the subway fare was a dime, a glass of beer was twenty cents, and flats in the Lower East Side rented in the 30 to 50 dollar a month range.

Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr., my therapist.

He practiced when psychiatrists did talk therapy and were intellectuals rather than pill pushers; when (as was the case with me) they charged 30 dollars for a session scheduled for 50 minutes that usually lasted an hour; when a writer such as Dr. Colp used a Royal manual typewriter; when a Sunday afternoon or holiday recreation for him and many Manhattanites, such as myself, involved seeing a foreign film.

 

 

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This melancholy, mournful train of thoughts occurred to me today when for some reason or other I thought of Bill, when something reminded me of him.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 22, 2019

 

 

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

 

 

Shubert 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

 

 

May 6, 2019

I heard the flute in the Andante.

 

 

 

At the end of the second movement (Andante) of Mozart’s Symphony No 40 in G Minor.

In a splendid performance this evening at Carnegie Hall.

It induced a feeling of serenity, of gladness. Of being lulled into peacefulness.

In such a state, I thought — with such pleasure — who can hurt me? Let them try. I have music. Literature.

I have nature — yes, here in the City. I was walking all afternoon today. There was a slight hint of spring in the air.

I love my City. I am in daily intercourse with city dwellers — either in earnest; or transitorily, casually, in a ceaseless intermingling and flux best described by Walt Whitman. I receive (in Whitman’s words) love and return it:

 

“If you meet some stranger in the streets, and love him or her, do I not often meet strangers in the street, and love them?”

— Walt Whitman, Chants Democratic

 

“I am in love … with all my fellows upon the earth.”

— Walt Whitman, Chants Democratic

 

 

I have a loving and supportive wife who is devoted to me and makes it her business day in and day out to make me as happy as possible and to see me fulfilled.

 

 

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My love of such things, both tangible and ethereal, and of people who share and reciprocate such feelings, cannot be destroyed by petty persons who envy me.

 

See my post

 

“Cruelty has a human heart.”

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2019/02/13/cruelty-has-a-human-heart/

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   Valentine’s Day

   February 14, 2019

 

 

 

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Addendum:

 

I read in today’s New York Times the following:

Where will El Chapo most likely go to jail?

We won’t know until sentencing, but it’s probable that Mr. Guzmán will be sent to the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colo., more commonly known as the ADX.

The ADX can house up to 500 prisoners in its eight units. Inmates spend their days in 12-by-7-foot cells with thick concrete walls and double sets of sliding metal doors (with solid exteriors, so prisoners can’t see one another). A single window, about three feet high but only four inches wide, offers a notched glimpse of sky and little else. Each cell has a sink-toilet combo and an automated shower, and prisoners sleep on concrete slabs topped with thin mattresses. Most cells also have televisions (with built-in radios), and inmates have access to books and periodicals, as well as certain arts-and-craft materials.

Drug lord Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera (El Chapo) was certainly guilty, and he is not a nice guy. He was a brutal criminal who murdered — or ordered and witnessed the killings of — opponents and underlings viciously and sadistically without compunction. A psychopath.

But reflecting upon my blessings today, I felt, why must the maximum amount of suffering and deprivation be inflicted upon criminals locked up? It’s another kind of cruelty; organized, state sanctioned cruelty.

I am not trying to find reasons to extenuate El Chapo’s crimes. Except, perhaps, to say that the worst psychopaths seem to have been doomed to be what they became from the start. Deprivation of the worst sort, not solely or primarily economic, must have resulted in their growing up without the normal, so called human, feelings that bind us together.

“Cruelty has a human heart.”

you

 

“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”

 

— Anne Frank

 

 

One wants to believe these words. For me it’s a guiding principle and an operating principle of daily life. It works for me.

Yes, all people have flaws, but that’s different. I try to see the goodness within.

Pettiness. Hatred. I have seen it a lot lately. What’s most hurtful, in people once close to me. Age has embittered them and turned them into haters.

 

 

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I had a lackluster day. I was having computer problems. I didn’t get as much done as I wanted to. I wanted to go for a walk in the City but never got out. I felt logy and out of sorts physically.

I got mixed up and left a tote bag with valuable papers — on the subway, I thought, but my wife found it. I had left it behind on the way to a concert.

 

 

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The concert was fantastic. It was foul weather–snow and sleet. There were a lot of empty seats.

I took the subway to Queens and was waiting for a bus on a dark, deserted street corner– no one around–in sleet and rain.

Suddenly, all alone, by myself, at a deserted bus stop, my feet wet, my spirits lifted and I felt better. It was an experience akin to moments of transcendence I once read about in a book by Colin Wilson,

I texted a friend: “I’m waiting for a bus. I’m happier now.”

 

 

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Saint Augustine taught us that evil is human. The awful thing about hatred is that it feeds on itself and is usually inflicted upon undeserving persons whom the haters are confident will not be in a position to retaliate.

Hatred makes them feel alive and like they have their own “guiding principle” and rules to live by: Thou shalt hate. It is good to despise those who deserve your scorn.

Why do they deserve it? Because they are despicable. It’s a tautology. A closed circuit whereby hatred must be discharged upon the hated to prove they deserve it. And to prove to the haters’ satisfaction that by their cruelty they vindicate themselves. The exercising of which, they feel, perversely, exalts them in self-righteousness.

Note that I said righteousness, which is different from being in the right. This type of cruelty is never “right” and is usually based upon misinformation and hasty, false, or superficial judgments.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 13, 2019

 

 

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Addendum:

 

The type of hatred exhibited by chronic haters should be distinguished from what we mean when we use the word loosely, by saying, for example: I hate busybodies, gossipers, or nosy people.

As just one example, I recall a coworker of mine once whom I just couldn’t stand. My therapist never could quite figure out why he annoyed me so. (Yet he didn’t necessarily think it was improper for me to have such feelings.) Certain things about the coworker’s personality and way of relating got on my nerves.

We worked in the same department, but I did not have to deal with him constantly. It’s just that when we did have interaction, or were working on a project together, I hated it.

But, here’s the difference between such feelings and perverse hatred. I wasn’t close to this person, and I never to my knowledge expressed any sort of anger, annoyance, or displeasure. It was more like an annoyance. (A mosquito?) With someone I was not close to. Totally different from cruelty practiced towards those close to you, cruelty meant personally for them, inflicted with relish and with a deliberate intent to wound.

“You are among those who love you.”

 

 

A thought occurred to me this evening. I hope I can put it into words.

It involves a memory. On the way home on the bus, some words from long ago came back to me. I recalled them exactly, but could not recall who said them.

I have been blessed with a good memory. Think, I told myself. My memory works contextually. The words, I knew, were said by a male of my acquaintance. Not by someone in my immediate family or by a relative.

The words, spoken long ago, were as follows: “You are among those who love you.”

Why did they come back to me? Because of a feeling I have been having over the past couple of days, or perhaps the past week, of being loved and cherished by those closest to me, of being suffused with love from others. Of basking in the warmth of and feeling enveloped by it.

Did a former boss say this? A coworker? I doubted it. A friend? Did not seem to be the case.

Then, as is usually the case with an effort at recall, it came back to me. The words were spoken to me by my boss at Columbia University, a dean, when I was working there many years ago. I was his administrative assistant.

My boss was gay, which was common among academia, but he was not openly gay. It was a time when being openly gay could be damaging to one’s career. He was discreet and reticent about his personal life, yet we had a close relationship in the office and I got to know him well. He was an emotive person, who openly shared his daily trials and work frustrations with me, and his likes and dislikes. We had rapport on an intellectual level from the get go.

His remark did not amount to saying that he had erotic feelings towards me.

 

 

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Putting his remarks in a larger context today, remembering and reflecting upon them, it occurred to me — something that I have thought about occasionally — that people want to love and be loved. Not just to have love affairs and intimate relationships, or to be loved by spouse or family. Not solely or exclusively this. But to love others and be loved in return. By others, I guess one could say I mean to love humanity. Maybe it’s not always love; it’s more like affection. But people, excluding perhaps psychopaths and haters, want to express and share affection towards other people and from them in return. Even including people they don’t know well. I experience this all the time. Living in a big, supposedly impersonal city. I go into a store or office or cross paths with someone, and they want to make me feel liked, and to show that they took pleasure in meeting me, if only in passing.

So that, I would conclude, the default, the human condition, is to want to love or at least to be affectionate as well as appreciative. Not to dislike or hate. The latter is an aberration.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    January 2019

 

 

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O the joy of that vast elemental sympathy which only the human
soul is capable of generating and emitting in steady and
limitless floods.

 

— Walt Whitman, “A Song of Joys”

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