Category Archives: my family

a February concert

 

 

 

Last night I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall.

The program:

Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550; Orchestra of St. Luke’s; Robert Spano, conductor

Bryce Dessner, “Voy a dormir”; Kelley O’Connor, Mezzo-Soprano

Beethoven, Piano Concerto in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (“Emperor”); Jeremy Denk, piano

I jotted down some notes and impressions as well as personal thoughts on my way home.

 

 

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Mozart symphony no 40

have known and loved the first movement from a very young age

but, to my surprise, I think I enjoyed the second movement (Andante) even more tonight … it is a musical conversation between the instruments … Mozart THINKS musically (as I noted in a previous post)

The second piece, “Voy a dormir,” was the world premiere of a work by a young composer … beautiful soprano voice (the composer collaborated with her on the work) … Spanish text, based on poetry by Alfonsina Storni (Argentinian)

It is pleasurable to hear Spanish and to be able to follow the lyrics, since I know the language. It sounded so beautiful, as are all the Romance languages. All kind of the same — in a way — and at the same time each unique with its own “melody.” En el fondo del mar / hay una casa / de cristal.

Listening to the Emperor Concerto performed live. What an experience. There is such a range of emotions in Beethoven — e.g., from the first to the second movement.

One can HEAR such a difference in and evolution of styles between and from Mozart to Beethoven. From classical to romantic. But, to me, Haydn is the clearest exemplar of the classical style — not Mozart (not to detract from Mozart; it’s just a question of musical styles).

I had unusually good seats. It was great to watch the conductor, Robert Spano, and the piano soloist close up.

There must be such an incredible feeling of power to be the soloist in a piano concerto.

 

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I thought of my father, a pianist who conducted occasionally

and of my family’s experience with music as performers

my father, who graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in music and who was a professional musician and piano teacher

my mother, who was in the Radcliffe College chorus and played the piano

my three siblings, all of whom are gifted musicians, notably on the piano, and each of whom achieved proficiency in more than one instrument

my maternal grandmother, who — I never knew this during her lifetime — is said to have played the piano well

my paternal grandmother, who was a church organist and choir director … and my father the same

my paternal grandmother’s mother (my great-grandmother), who, I was told by an aunt, played the piano and sang in a Methodist Church in the nineteenth century

 

 

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I have hazy memories of my father conducting once or twice … I see him striding down the aisle proudly with his usual good posture, perhaps a bit more serious of mien than usual, but not overly so; assuming an appropriate air of dignity … being applauded … the performance commencing

where did he learn to conduct? … guess it’s not difficult if you have performed in orchestras … he did not, to my knowledge, conduct classical works

 

 

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when one is growing up, one takes one’s parents and nuclear family largely for granted … they are a given, like your front yard or neighborhood

your parents’ unique or distinctive attributes are something you are not likely to think about until much later in life

watching this particular concert, I felt a twinge of sadness, loss, and regret for my father and mother — occasioned by thoughts of what such a concert would have meant to them; how we could have talked about it (and would have enjoyed doing so); and how their existence and persons not only made mine possible, but endowed me with musical and aesthetic sensitivity

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 16, 2018

 

 

program

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Mozart. Symphony No. 40

second movement (Andante)

 

a trip to Massachusetts (and its disappointing aftermath)

 

 

 

During the month just ended, I took a trip to Massachusetts to attend the American Literature Association’s annual conference in Boston, and also to take photos of personal interest from the point of view of my personal history and also from a genealogical angle.

I grew up in Massachusetts, in the Greater Boston area.

Practically all of my relatives came from Massachusetts. My father’s ancestors, on his father’s side, emigrated from Scotland to Boston in 1872. His relatives on his mother’s side emigrated during the colonial period and lived mostly in Essex County, north of Boston, and subsequently in the Greater Boston area.

My mother’s relatives were originally mostly from Cape Cod; some of my relatives continue to live there.

The following is a trip itinerary with photographs.

 

 

 

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Wednesday, May 24

I went to Danvers, Mass., which is where my mother grew up and photographed the house and block where she lived. Danvers was originally an outlying area of Salem; it was known as Salem Village. The Salem witchcraft trials arose from incidents that took place in what is now Danvers.

My mother lived at 19 Braman Street from around 1920 through 1940. The house looks shabby now.

 

 

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19 Braman St., Danvers, MA

 

 

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19 Braman St.

 

 

 

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view of Braman St., Danvers

 

 

 

 

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From Danvers, I headed south, in the direction of Boston. Although my focus was mostly family history, it occurred to me, why not make a stop in Winchester, Mass., where the world famous Russian émigré sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin, one of my heroes, lived?

Sorokin, his wife, and their two sons resided at 8 Cliff Street in Winchester. (Sorokin died in 1968. One of his sons still occupies the same residence.) I was interested not only to see the residence of a world renowned scholar and writer, but also to see the house because it was famous for its grounds: a garden developed and maintained by Sorokin himself, for which he had won awards from horticultural societies and of which he was proud.

I drove up the block, which was on a steep ascent, using GPS to guide me. The GPS system advised me that I had arrived at my destination, 8 Cliff Street, on my left. I saw 6 Cliff Street, but where was number 8? Number 8 was shrouded and hidden by a profusion of flowering bushes. It reminded me of the Forest of Thorns in “Sleeping Beauty.”

 

 

 

 

Pitirim A. Sorokin residence, 8 Cliff St., Winchester, MA. Photographs by Roger W. Smith.

 

 

 

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Next, I drove to Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Mass., which was close by — a beautiful cemetery where my Scotch ancestors are buried — and photographed gravestones. This required a return visit a couple of days later because a cemetery worker suggested I have one of the gravestones, for my great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother, cleaned, at the cost of seventy-five dollars.

 

 

 

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Gravestone of my father’s paternal grandmother Jennie H. (Wright) (Smith) Simpson and her 2nd husband, Capt. George F. Simpson. Marjorie (Smith) Farrar (my father’s aunt) was her daughter. Elva Farrar, who died in infancy, was Jennie’s granddaughter.

 

 

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I then drove all the way, heading south, to New Bedford, Mass., which was a flourishing city in the nineteenth century but now has a depressing look and feel to it. My maternal grandmother grew up there. I took photographs of the house where she was born in 1894. The house is on South Sixth Street. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Wing Street in New Bedford. I intended to photograph the house, but it is no longer standing.

 

 

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120 South Sixth St., New Bedford, MA. My maternal grandmother, Annie Congdon (Hart) Handy, was born there in 1894.

 

 

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Thursday, May 25

I drove to New Bedford again early Thursday morning to visit Rural Cemetery, an old cemetery where many burials occurred in the nineteenth century. There, I located the grave of my mother’s great-grandfather, John Congdon Hart. He died in 1883. He had two wives and thirteen children. His gravestone reads “J. C. Hart / 5th Mass. Batt’y.” No dates are carved on the stone. John C. Hart was a Civil War veteran. The inscription on his gravestone clearly indicates that he was proud of his Civil War service.

 

 

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Section of Rural Cemetery, New Bedford, MA where John Congdon Hart (1829-1883), my maternal grandmother’s paternal grandfather, and his family are buried.

 

 

 

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From New Bedford, I drove to Cape Cod, a drive of about 45 minutes. I went to Cataumet Cemetery in the town of Bourne (Cataumet being a section of that town). It is a small cemetery across the street from a Methodist church where many ancestors on my mother’s side worshiped. Many of my mother’s ancestors, surnamed Handy, are buried there.

 

 

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United Methodist Church, Cataumet, MA

 

 

 

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Gravestone of Henry Thomas Handy, his wife Lydia Perkins (Ellis) Handy, and three of their children, two of whom died in infancy, Cataumet Cemetery, Cataumet, MA.  Etta H. Handy was my mother’s aunt and a close relative. Henry T. Handy pursued a career as a whaler in his early adulthood and later became a farmer on Cape Cod.

 

 

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Gravestone of my maternal grandparents,  namely Ralph Ellis Handy (1894-1946) and Annie C. (Hart) Handy (1894-1972), Cataumet Cemetery, Cataumet, MA. Also named is Clifton Edward Handy, my mother’s younger brother, who died in infancy.

 

 

 

 

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Another view of my maternal grandparents’ gravestone, Cataumet Cemetery, Cape Cod.

 

 

 

 

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Cataumet Cemetery

 

 

 

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I then drove to Pocasset, also on Cape Cod, which is right next door. I photographed the beautiful house and grounds where my mother’s uncle Robert S. Handy lived. My mother and her cousins spent many enjoyable times during summer vacations there. One can’t miss the house from the street, although it is set back and is fronted by an extensive greensward. It is a neighborhood landmark.

 

 

 

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The late Robert S. Handy’s residence, County Road, Pocasset. Robert Handy (1881-1972) was my mother’s uncle.

 

 

 

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Front yard, Robert S. Handy residence, Pocasset.

 

 

 

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From Cape Cod, I drove to Dorchester, Mass., to the section known as Mattapan. Dorchester is part of Boston. It took me a long time navigating local traffic to find 67 Woolson Street in Mattapan, a modest house where my father, Alan Wright Smith, was born in 1917. I had never seen the house before.

 

 

 

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67 Woolson St., Mattapan (Boston), MA. My father was born there in 1917.

 

 

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67 Woolson St.

 

 

 

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I got lost and stuck in Boston traffic on my return and had to call it a day.

 

 

 

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Huntington Avenue approaching Symphony Hall, Boston. (Photo taken from my car window.)

 

 

 

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Friday, May 26

Friday was a total change of pace: the American Literature Association (ALA) annual conference at the Westin Copley Place hotel in Boston. I attended a few lectures and the annual meeting of the International Theodore Dreiser Society.

Attendance at the Dreiser Society meeting was sparse, but I was very glad to be able to participate. I had the opportunity to meet noted Dreiser scholars such as Thomas P. Riggio, Renate von Bardeleben, Yoshinobu Hakutani, and Miriam Gogol, all of whom I already knew (not necessarily well) from prior acquaintance. Professor Hakutani made some very interesting observations comparing a work of Richard Wright’s (he is an authority on Wright), Black Boy, to an autobiographical work of Dreiser’s. I made a mental note to purchase and read Black Boy.

Other scholars present include Ashley Squires, a professor from Moscow who gave a fascinating presentation on the reception of Theodore Dreiser in Russia, where he has been for a long time — and is still — very popular. Being seated right next to her, fortuitously, I struck up a conversation. “For a Russian, you speak awfully good English,” I said. It turned out that she’s one hundred percent American and grew up in the heartland. It just so happens that she is teaching in Moscow.

I had a very enjoyable conversation with a graduate student from Oklahoma who delivered a paper on Dreiser. It was a pleasure to experience for a few minutes her sincere commitment to her studies and enthusiasm for them. A male companion was with her. They are both rabid baseball fans and were very excited about the prospect of attending their first game ever at Fenway Park that evening.

In the afternoon, I had an enjoyable get acquainted chat with a noted American literature scholar, Jerome Loving, a biographer of Whitman, Twain, and Dreiser. He was interested in talking with me about the Chester Gillette murder case, upon which Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy was based. I have done extensive research on the case.

 

 

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Saturday, May 27

On Saturday, I went back to Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett and photographed the gravestone of my Smith Scotch ancestors, which had been cleaned.

 

 

 

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Gravestone of my Smith ancestors, Woodlawn Cemetery, Everett, MA. They included Thomas Smith, my father’s great-grandfather (who was born in Scotland); Thomas’s wife Jane (Gilchrist) Smith (also a native of Scotland); their son Thomas, Jr., my grandfather’s  father (also born in Scotland); and Wlliam G. Smith, an uncle of my grandfather. (He was born in Boston just after his parents emigrated in 1872.)

 

 

 

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I then drove to Cambridge, Mass., where I lived until age twelve. I photographed the house on Mellen Street, a ten or fifteen minute walk from Harvard Square, where we lived. The house is in excellent condition and looks the same, except that the back yard where we used to play has been paved over. Lesley College (now Lesley University) bought the house from my father in the 1960’s, and the section of Mellen Street on which the house stands has been made into a private way and renamed.

 

 

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27 Mellen Street, Cambridge, MA. I lived there from birth until 1958.

 

 

 

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27 Mellen St., Cambridge, rear view; the fire escape is still there.

 

 

I went over to the next block, Everett Street, where my best friend, Francis Donlan, lived. I photographed the apartment complex at 11 Everett Street where he lived. It looked the same, which is to say it sort of “reemerged” into my visual memory/consciousness — I had forgotten. Francis’s father was the janitor there. Parking in Cambridge must be notoriously difficult. Everett Street was one way, and restricted/no parking signs were everywhere.

 

 

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Apartment house on Everett St. where my best friend Francis Donlan lived.

 

 

 

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My last stop in Cambridge was Oxford Street, where I photographed my old elementary school. I walked right past it. Remembering the order of the streets, I was sure I had missed it, but how? I was looking for the familiar old building and schoolyard. I asked a middle aged man in a playground with two children, “Is there an elementary school near here?”

“Yes,” he replied, “the Baldwin School,” pointing in the direction which I had come from. The school, which I had inadvertently passed, was a block away.

The school when I attended it was named the Agassiz School. I always liked the sound of the name; it sounded distinctive. It was also hard for an elementary schooler to spell.

The school was named in honor of Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807-1873), a world renowned Swiss-American biologist and geologist who was a professor of zoology and geology at Harvard University. The school’s name was changed to the Maria L. Baldwin School in 2002, due to objections to the theories of Agassiz, which have been characterized as racist. Maria Louise Baldwin (1856 -1922), an African American educator and civic leader, was principal of the school from 1889 until 1922.

I didn’t recognize the school building, and the playground where I used to play kickball was gone.

 

 

 

Maria L. Baldwin School (formerly Agassiz School), Oxford St., Cambridge, MA. Photographs by Roger W. Smith.

 

 

 

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Oxford St., Cambridge, MA

 

 

The theories of Agassiz that have led to his being discredited are based on polygenism, the idea that races were created separately, that they could be classified on the basis of specific climatic zones, and that they were endowed with unequal attributes. It appears that the attribution of racism to Agassiz is not such an open and shut case. He did not support slavery, for example. In general, the renaming of buildings and monuments to conform to changing views makes me uncomfortable. A couple of former classmates whom I have mentioned this to feel, on the contrary, that the change of the school’s name was entirely appropriate.

 

 

 

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Leaving Cambridge on Saturday morning, I drove as fast as I could to Oak Grove cemetery in Falmouth, Mass., on Cape Cod, wishing to arrive there before the cemetery supervisor, who works a half day on Saturdays, left. I got stuck in a traffic jam of holiday travelers crossing the Bourne Bridge, which spans the Cape Cod Canal.

At the cemetery, I found quite a few ancestral graves in the same section. I never would have found them without the cemetery supervisor’s help. My mother was born in Falmouth. Her maternal grandparents are buried there, as are several of their ancestors.

 

 

 

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Gravestone of William Hewins (1801-1893) of Falmouth, MA and his wife Love (Handy) Hewins (1804-1884), as well as two of their sons. William and Love were great-grandparents of my maternal grandmother Annie C. (Hart) Handy on her mother’s side.

 

 

 

 

John Swift 2nd gravestone (2)

Gravestone of John Swift, 2nd (1806-1864) of Falmouth, MA. He was my maternal grandmother’s great-grandfather on her mother’s side.

 

 

 

 

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Gravestone of Frances Lincoln (Weeks) Swift (1807-1868),  wife of John Swift, 2nd, my maternal grandmother’s great-grandmother on her mother’s side.

 

 

 

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Gravestone of Llewellyn Russell Hewins (1834-1908) of Falmouth, MA. He was the grandfather of my maternal grandmother, Annie (Hart) Handy, on her mother’s side. The birthdate on the stone is off by a year.

 

 

 

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Gravestone of Arabella F. (Swift) Hewins (1834-1868), first wife of Llewellyn Russell Hewins of Falmouth. She was the grandmother of my maternal grandmother.

 

 

 

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From Falmouth on the Cape, I turned around and drove right back, heading north and west, to Arlington, Mass., a town adjacent to Cambridge and only six miles northwest of Boston. It was practically a second home town for me in my youth. I photographed the big, stately house on a hilltop on Cliff Street in Arlington Heights where my paternal grandparents, T. Gordon and Esther (Whittredge) Smith, lived in the 1930’s and ’40s, which I remember visiting.

 

 

 

Views of 18 Cliff St., Arlington, MA,where my paternal grandparents lived during my early childhood, and of Cliff Street itself. Photos by Roger W. Smith.

 

 

And, the house on Wellington Street, near Arlington Center, where my grandparents lived in the 1950’s and ‘60s. I used to take the streetcar from Cambridge to visit them at the latter residence.

 

 

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37 Wellington St., Arlington Heights, MA

 

 

 

It was adjacent to Spy Pond, which I photographed, and there was a baseball field across the street where I would sometimes watch games with my grandfather. I photographed that too.

 

 

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Spy Pond, Arlington, MA

 

 

 

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baseball field adjacent to Wellington St.

 

 

 

 

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I then drove to East Boston, where my Smith Scotch ancestors lived and where my paternal grandfather, Thomas Gordon Smith, was born and raised. My great-great grandfather, Thomas Smith, settled there in the 1870’s after emigrating with his wife and children from Scotland. I found the house where my paternal grandfather was born and the house he moved to with his widowed mother and siblings when he was about ten years old. I found the residences where his grandfather, my great-great grandfather, lived at 606 and 635 Bennington Street. They are in good condition. The latter residence is owned and occupied now by the Salesians of St. John Bosco, a religious order.

 

 

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606 Bennington St., East Boston, MA.  The family of Thomas Smith, my great-great grandfather, lived their briefly in the 1880’s.

 

 

 

 

Photos of 635 Bennington St., East Boston. My great-great grandparents lived there for over 20 years. Photographs by Roger W. Smith.

 

 

 

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I left East Boston at around 7 p.m. on Saturday evening and drove northward, hoping that I could perhaps reach Crane Beach on the North Shore before it got dark. The beach is located in the town of Ipswich. I remember going there with my parents in the 1950’s. My mother knew the beach well. It is said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Massachusetts.

 

 

North Shore 7-49 p.m. 5-28-2017

View of countryside, Essex County, MA, near Crane Beach. Photograph by Roger W. Smith.

 

 

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Crane Beach, Ipswich, MA. Photograph by Roger W. Smith.

 

 

 

 

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Crane Beach, Ipswich, MA. Photograph by Roger W. Smith.

 

 

Indeed, it is.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 2017

 

 

 

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Addendum:

 

A main objective of mine on this trip was to photograph ancestral sites and graves. Graves are very difficult to find; it is like looking for a needle in a haystack. But, I succeeded beyond my expectations. Not only in finding graves, which are invaluable as genealogical sources, but also in finding and photographing ancestral residences and streetscapes and, most importantly, the houses, hitherto unknown, where my father’s father and mother’s mother and also my father were born.

I decided to share this information with as many descendants as I could, emailing them photographs with commentary.

Their response, in most cases lack of response, was much worse than I could have anticipated — disappointing, and in, a couple of instances, not just disappointing, but inconsiderate and mean spirited. Hardly anyone bothered to acknowledge having received the photos.

Worst of all was the response of some of my relatives (I shared photos and pertinent information only with descendants of the ancestors whose graves and houses I had photographed) who actually COMPLAINED, saying that because I emailed the photos and information to them, they found it to be a nuisance. It had taken me about to week to go through the photos, select the best ones, tweak them, identify them correctly, and write commentary so that my relatives would know whose grave or house it was and how that individual was related to us.

I wrote back to the disgruntled respondents, my relatives, merely saying: “This has involved a great deal of time, effort, and expense on my part.” I mentioned, in replying to them, the time, effort, and expense merely for purposes of comparison: what went into the project versus what would be required for someone to open emails, read them, and download what was perhaps a total of 25 photos. (I do not recall the exact number.) Considerable effort over several days (not counting the spade work, planning, organizing, and dissemination of the materials) versus a few minutes of one’s time for each email.

Regarding the supposedly great inconvenience of being bombarded with emails, what the pros and cons are, it’s not worth discussing here, but I would have thought that someone could have overlooked this (despite whatever their preferences are) in consideration of receiving hitherto unavailable photos and information that were obtained at great effort and considerable expense, and which were available nowhere else, that they would never have known about or had access to otherwise. I am talking about things such as gravestones and homesteads of people such as my nineteenth century ancestors, my ancestors from Scotland, the houses were my father and two of my grandparents were born, and so on. (When, say I “my,” I mean also “their,” that is, our relatives.)

I felt it incumbent upon me to share these materials with as many relatives as I could think of contacting and had the email addresses of, hoping that they would disseminate them among their children and grandchildren. I thought they would be appreciative of this and was taken completely by surprise.

It seems to me that it’s a matter of weighing in the balance what one would rather have: the “inconvenience” (as they conceive it to be) of having a few additional emails (of course, they will say, “what do you mean, a few?,” as if they were greatly imposed upon, put out, inconvenienced; choose your participle) within the space of a couple of days in their inboxes, and having to download a photo or two with a simple click, versus the thought, which does not seem to occurred to them, of what goes into ascertaining the facts thorough prior research (such as, where was such and such ancestor buried? where were my father and grandparents born? where in Boston, at exactly what address, did my great-great grandfather and his children live?). Using those facts to locate materials, planning such a trip, driving to various locales not necessarily close to one another, locating the actual graves and houses, and so on. It would seem that the favor and services done for them far outweigh the “inconvenience,” as they perceive it. But, people seem to take things for granted. The last thing they would ever do is look up such stuff themselves. When it is handed to them on a silver platter, they don’t appreciate it but instead complain, vent, and find cause for fault.

I enjoy such projects and find them rewarding, despite the effort involved. And, it is my credo that such materials should be disseminated as widely as possible among parties to whom they would not, presumably, be of no interest or relevance. But, I have experienced such lack of appreciation and inconsiderateness in the past. From persons who have made inquiries of me and requests for information and materials related to scholarly or genealogical research. I always go all out to respond and share what I have. It is incredible how often people don’t even bother to acknowledge receipt or say thanks.

My Father’s Career as a Musician

 

 

A message from someone who read a post on this blog, asking about my father’s career as a musician, prompted me to respond as follows:

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 2016

 

 

 

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re my father (Alan W. Smith):

 

Thanks for asking! To respond to your queries:

My father was a pianist.

He also played accordion occasionally.

Plus, he was a church organist and choir director.

And a piano teacher.

He had a music degree from Harvard.

He was not famous.

He started working professionally in his teens while still in school.

He did all kinds of gigs — everything from musicals and ice skating shows to bar mitzvahs.

He played piano for years as a regular at a restaurant on Cape Cod. People loved him. He loved to meet people and socialize. Knew every tune.

He loved his work. He would frequently say to me, “I never worked a day in my life.”

 

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addendum:

 

In response to further queries from the same individual, I have added a little bit more about my father’s musical career:

I was always proud to be able to say that my father was a musician. He didn’t have the same type of job as most of my friends’ fathers did. He hated the thought of a 9 to 5 job.

My father performed with a few famous people, once or twice. I believe he made a demo record with Dinah Shore. And, he was proud to say that he performed once with a backup band behind Cab Calloway.

He hardly ever talked about it, but he played the trombone in high school. Early in his career – when he was still quite young – he performed with the Harry Marshard and his Orchestra in Boston. It was the Big Band Era (1930’s and 40’s). He may have played some trombone then.

He worked with guys from all walks of life and educational levels, ranging from cultured and highly educated (Ph.D. in one case; a bass player who used to accompany him) to crude, uneducated guys who liked to swap dirty jokes. Many of his fellow musicians moonlighted  as musicians while pursuing careers such as dentistry and academics. He learned from this how to get along with people from all walks of life and from various educational and cultural backgrounds.

My father was in the Army during World War II. I don’t think his role was as a musician — in fact, I’m certain it was not. He was proud of his military service. (He did not see combat.)

Marquess of Queensberry rules for arguments (my personal views on the subject)

 

 

A full downloadable Word document is below.

 

 

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Marquess of Queensberry rules for arguments

by Roger W. Smith

 

 

My List of Virtues contained at first but twelve: But a Quaker Friend having kindly inform’d me that I was generally thought proud; that my Pride show’d itself frequently in Conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any Point, but was overbearing & rather insolent; of which he convinc’d me by mentioning several Instances; — I determined endeavouring to cure myself if I could of this Vice or Folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my List [of virtues], giving an extensive Meaning to the Word.—I cannot boast of much Success in acquiring the Reality of this Virtue; but I had a good deal with regard to the Appearance of it.—I made it a Rule to forbear all direct Contradiction to the Sentiments of others, and all positive Assertion of my own. I even forbid myself agreeable to the old Laws of our Junto, the Use of every Word or Expression in the Language that imported a fix’d Opinion; such as certainly, undoubtedly, &c. and I adopted instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or so it appears to me at present. —When another assert’d something that I thought an Error, I deny’d my self the Pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some Absurdity in his Proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain Cases or Circumstances his Opinion would be right, but that in the present case there appear’d or seem’d to me some Difference, &c. I soon found the Advantage of this Change in my Manners. The Conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos’d my Opinions, procur’d them a readier Reception and less Contradiction; I had less Mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail’d with others to give up their Mistakes & join with me when I happen’d to be in the right. And this Mode, which I at first put on, with some violence to natural Inclination, became at length so easy & so habitual to me, that perhaps for these Fifty Years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical Expression escape me. And to this Habit (after my Character of Integrity) I think it principally owing, that I had early so much Weight with my Fellow Citizens, when I proposed new Institutions, or Alterations in the old; and so much Influence in public Councils when I became a Member. For I was but a bad Speaker, never eloquent, subject to much Hesitation in my choice of Words, hardly correct in Language, and yet I generally carried my Points. –

— Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography, Part Two

 

N.B. – The Junto which Franklin refers to above was a club for mutual improvement which Franklin established in Philadelphia. The club’s purpose was to debate questions of morals, politics, and natural philosophy; and to exchange knowledge of business affairs.

 

 

 

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This is an essay about how one should, ideally, engage in an argument which involves a disagreement about personal views. Such a dispute may arise from:

a disagreement between spouses — Often, it seems that spouses, when they are young lovers or newlyweds, experience smooth sailing. Then, once they have set up a household together and have started a family, they find that they disagree on many fundamental issues, such as issues related to child rearing, money management, household management, or in-laws. Often, they find themselves to be incompatible and constantly bickering;

sibling rivalry – It happens all the time. Under the surface, there can be petty jealousies, old resentments, grudges over current or past slights, and so on;

conflicts between parents and children – It seems that children would not be normal if they didn’t fight with their parents over all sorts of issues as they mature;

disagreements with someone you thought was your best friend – But, guess what? As you grow older, you find out that there are fundamental differences you weren’t aware of that threaten to torpedo the relationship;

issues with coworkers, a boss, or a subordinate;

issues with someone you can’t avoid (e.g., a neighbor, someone else’s friend whom you barely know) who takes issue with something you have said or done and won’t let it drop.

And so on.

 

 

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I grew up in a very verbal and articulate family. Everyone had an opinion. This was true of my nuclear family and my extended family. Dinners and family gatherings were often quite pleasant because of the high level of conversation, but sometimes the conversations that took place were not pleasant because of arguments. However, it was not a zero sum game, as far as I was concerned. I was observing and learning how to become not only a good conversationalist but a good arguer myself.

By nature, I don’t particularly like disputation. I prefer conversations where you and your conversational partner share views and enlighten one another, by which process insights are achieved and surprising new things are learned; where your interlocutor might introduce a new thought or idea and you welcome it. But, over the years I have learned how to engage in discourse — a colloquy or argument—when there is disagreement or when matters need to be thrashed out and (hopefully) resolved; and, though I sometimes get very angry, I have learned how to not totally lose my mental bearings. I guess what one would say is that the experience of living in a verbal family skilled in the art of colloquy taught me how to think on my feet.

I am impressed by how well most politicians, particularly those in high office, can do in give and take with a political opponent and in situations where they are pressed to explain their views. Clearly, they can think on their feet – they seem to always have cogent answers for the toughest questions. (Which is not to say that they do not dissemble; it seems to be habitual.) But, when I speak of colloquies and arguments here (the desired behavior for each), I am thinking mainly of one on one discussions between two people in a close or intimate setting, not in public.

What are the “rules,” if any, for such exchanges?

 

 

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There is an academic extracurricular activity, namely, debating, which is sort of like belonging to an athletic team, except that it’s a verbal skirmish. I was on the debate team in high school. It did not particularly appeal to me. This kind of verbal sparring is not what I have in mind in using the word colloquy (nor is it what the word means).

There are gonzo freewheeling discussions on TV and radio talk shows which are somewhat like pro wrestling matches. I do not consider them to be colloquies or argumentative discussions by any measure. There are basically no rules; it’s a free for all.

What I am thinking about is a situation where you are in strong disagreement with someone, usually someone close to you.

Let’s say it’s your spouse. You do or say something which you think is harmless or does not require comment. Your spouse feels otherwise and lets you know it. It may be the case that not only does your spouse disagree in principle. Perhaps they strongly disagree and/or object or were offended to hear that you feel that way.

Or perhaps you are a youth or young adult engaged in, or on the verge of engaging in, some behavior or activity that your parents strongly disapprove of. They tell you so, and an argument ensues. You’ve matured, you feel that they shouldn’t be telling you what to think or do, and — you know what? — when you were younger you idolized your parents and thought they could do no wrong. Now you think they are totally off base with respect to their views and perhaps their lifestyle as well. You may, at a certain age, be in a state of almost perpetual war with your parents, issues wise. Perhaps you take pleasure in this, enjoy getting their goat and being on the outs with them.

So, disagreements arise, and before you hardly know it, they can become very bitter. It seems like the ones with your intimate circle are the most painful.

Say I go to a bar. Someone tells me they are supporting a candidate I detest or that they don’t like some ethnic group (though they don’t want to be thought of as prejudiced) or perhaps expresses an asinine view the stupidity, vapidity, or callousness of which offends or annoys me. I may or may not get into it with them. But, I will go home shortly thereafter and forget about it. The other person was a jerk, was ignorant, was a racist, whatever. It doesn’t really affect me.

 

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I have had problems lately dealing with situations in which people I know well have subjected me to criticism and expressed strong disagreement with my views and sometimes with my actions. I have tried to defend myself. This had led to heated discussions that have often ended up deadlocked, in “verbal gridlock.” I seem to find myself (to my dismay) getting into arguments all the time over matters big and small.

Sometimes the “other side” seems so intractable that I have thought to myself, just what is fair and what is not fair in an argument over views, behavior, morals, opinions you may hold of others (views that your interlocutor does not share), and so on? How should one conduct oneself when one feels cornered by an attack being made on them verbally? Is there such a thing as a standard for engaging in such verbal skirmishes?

After all, athletes have a rulebook and ground rules for a given sport.

 

 

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The following is my own list, my Marquess of Queensberry rules, for arguments over personal matters and views. Many of the “rules” – i.e., principles for argument and discussion – that follow were promulgated by my parents. For example:

speak calmly and deliberately;

don’t raise you voice;

don’t interrupt; listen … wait your turn;

try not to show anger;

don’t shout or lose your temper;

don’t make it personal … avoid slurs and personal insults;

points made by the other side which are valid must be conceded (a point often honored, sadly, more often in the breach than the observance);

one must be willing and capable of admitting it when he or she has been proven to be wrong;

never argue about a fact.

“Never argue about a fact.” This last rule was stated in these exact these words to me by my mother, quoting her father. When you think about it, it’s obvious.

You say the president immediately preceding Abraham Lincoln was James Buchanan. No, I say adamantly, you’re wrong. It was Franklin Pierce, and an argument ensues.

A totally pointless argument, as stupid as it would be to argue over who pitched the first perfect game ever. It is said that bars used to keep reference books behind the counter to resolve such disputes and keep them from ending in a barroom brawl.

 

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My own thoughts about what is “fair” and “unfair,” “reasonable” and unreasonable”; what is and is not counterproductive — in short, what is desirable – when it comes to personal arguments:

You must argue in good faith. You should not do it if what underlies the dispute is pure malevolence or the simple desire to taunt, vex, or annoy the other person.

You have to make a sincere effort to see the other person’s point of view. This rule is ignored so often it is beyond belief.

Both sides should have a chance to make their points and to respond to points made by the other side. Often, you will find this “rule” being broken, with one side browbeating the other verbally and constantly interrupting or cutting the other side off before they have had a chance to make a counterargument (or stomping off in a huff mid argument).

One must be able to get outside of oneself and put oneself in another’s shoes. Is this asking too much? I don’t think so. Because if the conditions are such that this cannot occur – speaking, let’s say, of heated arguments over painful or contentious issues – a successful conclusion of the argument will not occur. In my experience, I have found that this “rule” is often violated when the other side can only think of one thing: their own self-interest in prevailing; and abhors the thought that they might “lose” an argument. (Perish the thought!)

If you can’t establish common ground — identify areas of agreement, things you DO agree on (which can serve as a starting point) — you will not be able to make progress. I have often tried to achieve some progress or headway in an argument, some “daylight,” by trying to see if my interlocutor and I can find some areas of agreement, which would allow us to put them aside and get to the main points in dispute. To my consternation, I’ve found that some stubborn people are not willing to do this. They seem to think if they grant, acknowledge that they agree with me on a point or two, they might be weakening their own case somehow, and perhaps making themselves vulnerable to “defeat.” As a tactic in argument (and to adhere to the principle of fairness), I would advise that you point out and acknowledge areas upon which there is common ground (on which you can agree) so that the areas of legitimate disagreement can be seen clearly; acknowledge up front what you can agree on, to clear things up a bit and make some headway, before getting to the most contentious issues. Great, if you can!

You should be willing to at least acknowledge, hard as it may be, and make a sincere attempt to see that, while you may be in total disagreement, you can see why someone else might think differently (if you can honestly tell yourself this).

You should be agreeable in principle and in conversation to have a give and take, ideally a civilized one, an exchange that, though it be in earnest, is not a winner take all contest, a pro wrestling bout or mudslinging match.

You should not let yourself be intimidated into giving up deeply held views, but neither should you be pigheaded.

You should give serious consideration to the views of your opponent, presuming they are worthy of such consideration. By this I mean that, while you may think absolutely the opposite, you should acknowledge views that have intellectual legitimacy and are sincerely held and cogently expressed. An example might be a cultural or political liberal and someone at the opposite pole: a conservative. Both sides have developed and articulated informed and well thought out views over the centuries. One can learn a lot from the other side!

Not only that, but it can be a productive intellectual exercise to be able to look at things from a totally different point of view — one you had not considered before — for the sake of testing your own views and perhaps rethinking or maybe refining them. Which is not to say that you have to give up your views, but it can help to kind of sift and weigh them, to examine them from different perspectives, including ones that would not ordinarily have occurred to oneself. You may find yourself modifying your own views and, if not, such an intellectual exercise may help you nevertheless to better articulate your views in future discussions by seeing where and how they are distinguished from contrary views. By seeing how one’s views may or may not be amenable to modification or amplification, one can deepen one’s own understanding. And, viewpoints or opinions that at first might seem strange can lead to new insights and developing an ability to look at things from different angles. Open mindedness is a virtue to be sought after; it is not an indicator of intellectual weakness.

You should not get angry at someone just for holding an OPINION you disagree with, no matter how much you disagree. Personal insults are one matter. But, opinions sui generis should be tolerated, no matter how offensive, contrary, or misguided they may seem.

An argument (of the type I am expatiating on here) should not be a grudge match. Yes, arguments may get personal, often do. But if there is too much underlying animosity, let alone hatred, if someone is out to settle scores, or to let someone know how much they dislike not only their interlocutor’s views, but the person himself or herself, then the argument should not be continued.

 

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This may seem counterintuitive, but the goal in an argument is not simply to WIN (though you would like to). Your goal is to make your points, consider and respond to those of the other side, make counterarguments, and so forth, and to see what results. The goal is to play “the game” (a colloquy or personal argument) fair and square and to make your points to the best of your ability. If your mentality is win at all costs, you won’t be likely to observe the “rules” I have promulgated above — to “hear” what the other side has to say, for example, or to acknowledge the other side’s good points.

 

 

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Then, there’s the “if the shoe were on the other foot” angle.

My interlocutor will say, “How would you feel if it were you?” (who is being subjected to criticism). Personally, I have been subject to people trying to get me to see another point of view by introducing this line of thought. I will be defending myself, presenting my point of view, trying to explain myself and perhaps justify my actions, and someone tries to get me to consider how I would feel if the positions were reversed, if I were on the “other side.”

It usually — or at least often — is the case of an emotional or behavioral issue with interpersonal content, so this may not apply to abstract discussions.

But, it does apply sometimes. To make a counter point, I might say to my interlocutor, “You don’t feel I should be criticizing you or objecting to _______ [their  actions or opinions]. But, how would you feel if the situation was reversed, and it was me?”

I am surprised how often this seems not to work — the other person can’t bring themselves to entertain such a possibility.

Yet, when others have used such a tactic on me in discussion or “debate,” it has caused me to reflect and reexamine my own assumptions/presuppositions.

 

 

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A final thought. It has occurred to me — from reading about and occasionally watching rancorous political debates over the past few months, and experiencing disputes arising from politics within my own family circle — that the issue of politeness is pertinent here.

The above is intended to be an essay about personal arguments, not public or political debates. Yet, arguments between individuals — friends or family, say, and other people whom one encounters in the workplace or on social occasions — often arise over political issues, and then, of course, there are contentious encounters in various settings (such as a lecture on a college campus) in which a heated exchange occurs. Politics often seems to be the catalyst.

I would like to merely state that the issue of politeness is not irrelevant on such occasions. Politeness is often seen as a sign of weakness, snobbery, elitism, and so forth. Actually, I feel that it is a boon to society — to social intercourse — and can help people to avoid unpleasant, rancorous discussions that lead nowhere. I feel that this holds true in the public arena as well as in the case of non public arguments and discussions.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     September 2016; updated May 2017

 

 

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Addendum:

 

 

The dictionary definition of colloquy is (1) a conversation, dialogue; (2) a high-level serious discussion (such as might occur, say, at the United Nations).

A colloquy is serious discussion, not a lightheaded one, and it is one that is entered into by two sides eager to resolve an issue or a dispute.

Hopefully, such discussions will lead to agreement. But, often, what starts out as a colloquy turns into a dispute.

An argument can, and hopefully will, involve a colloquy of sorts, but an argument is more personal and disagreement is a given, whereas the two sides in a colloquy might start out actually being essentially in agreement while needing merely to clarify and resolve a few points.

 

 

 

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Addendum:

A clear, helpful treatment of the topic of arguments — how to avoid getting into them and how to manage them — is provided in Part Three (“How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking”) of Dale Carnegie’s best seller How to Win Friends and Influence People:

 

 

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See also:

 

“How to Argue Fairly and Without Rancor (Hello, Thanksgiving!),” by Christine Hauser, The New York Times, November 16, 2016

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/11/17/health/how-to-argue-fairly-and-without-rancor-hello-thanksgiving.html

A brief article which makes very similar points.

 

 

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Acknowledgment:  Thanks are due to G. Scott Milnor, who suggested that I write this article based on a discussion (not an argument) we were recently having.

 

 

Continue reading

a note from my mother

 

 

Mom’s note to Roger, 1964

Wed. –

Dear Rog –

Sorry we let you get off without even discussing clothes with you. Had such a good weekend with you —

Rog – I enclose check for $10. – which is very little I know, but will you please buy 2 pairs permanent press chinos? This will be a start, and I’ll try to send more soon –

Must to hospital — Feeling pretty well today –

Love — + luck —

M

Board of Selectmen to Elinor H. Smith, November 5, 1969

 

My mother, Elinor Handy Smith, had requested permission to hold an antiwar rally in Canton, Massachusetts. Below is the Board of Selectmen’s response.

 

 

Board of Selectmen letter to Mom 11-5-1969.jpg