Category Archives: personal reminiscences of Roger W. Smith

Mr. Kidd

 

 

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A couple of memories about Mr. Russell E. Kidd, the former gym teacher and coach at Canton High School in Canton, Massachusetts, who died this month at the age of 86.

I actually remember Mr. Kidd best from junior high. He was a phys ed instructor in both the junior and senior high schools in the early year of his teaching career.

There was always a hortatory streak in Mr. Kidd. But first, a digression.

 
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In my senior year, a neighbor and fellow student, Dave Freiday, told me after school one day: You wouldn’t believe what Mr. Kidd said about you today. Dave had been in the locker room after school, probably as a member of the track team. Paraphrasing what Dave told me (I remember it very well), Mr. Kidd had said to him: Look at Roger Smith. It’s incredible. He was the most uncoordinated kid you could imagine and now he has developed into a good athlete and always goes out for sports.

He didn’t mean that I was an outstanding athlete, but that it was wonderful how I had gone from being hopelessly inept to a student-athlete.

What nice words! Would that all coaches have such interest in and appreciation for the development of the boys in their domain.

 
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To backtrack, my first experience of Mr. Kidd was in the eighth grade. After a workout, we boys were seated in a circle either on the ground outside or on the floor of the gymnasium.

Everyone looked up to Mr. Kidd. He was handsome, had a muscular physique. He spoke well and with sincerity. He chose his words well; was forceful, clear, and direct.

He delivered a de facto sermon.

We were about to enter high school. Mr. Kidd told us, “If you go out for football, it will make you a man.”

“I’m not saying you can’t become a man if you don’t play football, “he continued, “but if you do, I guarantee you will become a man.”

Wanting very much to become a man. I took this seriously and went out for football in my freshman year in high school,

Mr. Kidd talked about himself by way of example. This was the most memorable part of his talk. He told us boys, you can make something of yourself (as he had done) regardless of your circumstances. He told us that he had had a summer job as a moving man when he was in college. “I was in some of the worst slums in Boston.” he said. In some of the apartments, he said, everything was neat and orderly. “It was so clean you could eat off the floor.”

I never forgot these indelible words.

 

 

Roger W Smith

   February 23. 2020

Joshua Prawer

 

 

 

English Society in the Early Middle Ages

 

 

In the spring 1966 semester, I took the course History 124a, “Feudalism: Medieval Society and Political System,” at Brandeis University.

The course was taught by Professor Joshua Prawer. Prawer, who was a visiting professor on leave for the academic year, was dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was an internationally known medieval historian. Books which he later published include The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem: European Colonialism in the Middle Ages, The World of the Crusaders, Crusader Institutions, and The History of the Jews in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

I took great courses and did well in my first two years of college. I had placed out of a few required core courses, which enabled me to take several higher-level elective courses.

 

 

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Despite enjoying the courses — greatly — I was a shy, inhibited person in those days, and I was unhappy with the social milieu at Brandeis. I tended to be repressed and taciturn. And diffident among other students and probably in class as well. (I can’t exactly recall.)

I recall that there was no final exam for Professor Prawer’s course, in which I received a final grade of B. There was a required term paper.

My term paper was based on the English historian Doris Mary Stenton’s English Society in the Early Middle Ages (1066–1307), which was published in 1951 as the third volume of the Pelican History of England. She was the wife of the medievalist Sir Frank Stenton, author of Anglo-Saxon England, c550–1087, Volume II in the Oxford History of England.

I recall that I worked fairly hard on the paper and enjoyed Doris Mary Stenton’s book. I was very interested in medieval history and society. I seem to recall that my paper mostly amounted to summarizing the contents and findings of the book and I thought that, on that account, it was probably not a great paper.

To my great surprise (really and truly), I got the paper back with only the following (no other comments or marks): an A+ on the top of the first page and the professor’s comment beneath, “Why didn’t you open up more in the seminar?”

If I may say so without bragging, what this seems to show is that a good writer can write well at any time about almost anything, and under constraints and deadline pressure. It must have been my writing that impressed Professor Prawer. I don’t recall that the paper was otherwise remarkable.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    January 2020

Sixth Avenue on a rainy afternoon; Herman Melville

 

 

 

Sixth Avenue 4-23 a.m. 11-30-2018

Sixth Avenue, New York City; Friday afternoon, November 30, 2018

 

 

I took this photo of Sixth Avenue on my way home on Friday afternoon.

It’s been raining a lot in the City this week.

Rain can be a slight inconvenience, like other weather phenomena, but I never really minded it. It can be “nice.”

When I was very young, my mother took me once to my eye doctor, Dr. Johnson, in Boston on a weekday. We went by subway.

The appointment lasted a long time. Going home in the late afternoon, it was dark and rainy. I didn’t mind. I loved having my mother all to myself. When we got home, she put me to bed. She was so kind. She kept saying that I was cold and wet and that I must be very tired: it had been such a long day and we got home late.

Re this photo of Sixth Avenue, this street scene, it reminds me of Herman Melville’s words (in Moby-Dick): “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.”

Thanks to the Good Lord that it came upon me once when I was first living in NYC to read Moby-Dick, in a library copy. What a book!

THE Great American Novel.

 

 

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Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; CHAPTER 1. “Loomings.”

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

when knowledge (and learning) can prove to be useful; the pleasures of pedantry

 

 

“We all know that as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (an address delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837 before the Harvard Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society)

 

 

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I am reading Henry David Thoreau’s essay on walking.

From a recent exhibit at the Morgan Library, I learned that Thoreau, who some moderns may think of as a sort of proto hippie, was very studious and had a very good education in classical and modern languages.

In his walking essay, Thoreau uses the Latin phrase ambulator nascitur, non fit.

After a moment’s hesitation, the meaning came to me: the walker is born, not made.

A curious person as he goes through life acquires all sorts of knowledge. Someone once remarked to me that it is very pleasurable to be able every now and then to USE those scraps of learning.

It was pleasurable to me to think I have retained a little bit of my high school Latin from over 50 years ago, including present passive verb endings.

Back in my high school days I was in a bus station in Boston once, using the men’s room. Some French sailors wearing funny hats with tassels were there too. They were in high spirits. They were teasing one another, joking and laughing. They couldn’t stop laughing. One jest led to another.

They noticed me and seemed friendly. We exchanged glances. I thought, I’m taking French. I can come up with something to say to them. I said, “Vous êtes de la marine française?” They nodded with smiles and seemed to be pleasantly surprised that an American teenager was speaking French to them.

It was very edifying to actually be using the French I had been learning out of a textbook.

 


–Roger W. Smith

September 30, 2017

 

 

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AN UPDATE

 

On Friday, March 2, riding on the subway, I saw the following advertisement:

 

“LE SALVÉ LA VIDA A MI AMIGA”

Encontré a mi amiga desplomada en la cama. Se estaba poniendo azul y no podía respirar. Corrí a buscar mi naloxana y se la dí. Creí que estaba muerta. Cuando volvió en si, no sabía lo que había pasado ni por qué yo estaba llorando. Me alegro de haber tenido naloxona; le dio una segunda oportunidad.

La NALOXONA es un medicamento de emergencia que evita la muerte por sobredosis de analgésicos recetadas y heroína.

 

 

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I was very pleased with myself in that I understood it completely, every word, in Spanish.

It seemed to me again that a little learning can be a good thing.

 

 

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I have been reading the charming novel Good-bye Mr. Chips (1934) by James Hilton. The following passage struck me:

A pleasant, placid life, at Mrs. Wickett’s. He had no worries; his pension was adequate, and there was a little money saved up besides. He could afford everything and anything he wanted. His room was furnished simply and with school­masterly taste: a few bookshelves and sporting trophies; a mantelpiece crowded with fixture cards and signed photographs of boys and men; a worn Turkey carpet; big easy-chairs; pictures on the wall of the Acropolis and the Forum. Nearly everything had come out of his old house­master’s room in School House. The books were chiefly classical, the classics having been his subject; there was, however, a seasoning of history and belles-lettres. There was also a bottom shelf piled up with cheap editions of detective novels. Chips enjoyed these. Sometimes he took down Virgil or Xenophon and read for a few moments, but he was soon back again with Doctor Thorndyke or Inspector French. He was not, despite his long years of assiduous teaching, a very profound classical scholar; indeed, he thought of Latin and Greek far more as dead languages from which English gentlemen ought to know a few quotations than as living tongues that had ever been spoken by living people. He liked those short leading articles in the Times that introduced a few tags that he recognized. To be among the dwindling number of people who understood such things was to him a kind of secret and valued freemasonry [italics added]; it represented, he felt, one of the chief benefits to be derived from a classical education.

Reminded me of the pleasure I have always taken — when boning up on literature or classical music, doing research, traveling watching films, etc. — in the knowledge I have obtained of several foreign languages, without having mastered any of them.

Know what I mean?

 

— Roger W. Smith

   March 5, 2018

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)

 

good neighbors (in a metropolis)

 

 

 

 

 

Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

— Matthew 22:31

 

 

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I have lived in New York City since early adulthood.

New Yorkers cold and impersonal? Too busy to be Good Samaritans?

I have often experienced instances of just the opposite.

 

 

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On Wednesday afternoon, January 3, a bitterly cold day, I was headed home and was waiting for a bus.

No one at the bus stop. I guessed that I probably had just missed a bus and that another one wouldn’t arrive for at least ten to fifteen minutes.

It’s a bleak neighborhood, but there was a “gourmet deli” right there.

I entered and ordered a large cappuccino. There was one customer in front of me. Two young women were behind the counter. I paid $3.95 for the cappuccino.

Through a window, I saw my bus, the Q39, pulling up at the bus stop.

“How long does it take to make a cappuccino?” I said to the woman who had taken my order. “My bus is here.”

I left without a cappuccino or the $3.95. The bus was at the curb, about to leave.

I got on. There were only a couple of other passengers. The driver shut the door.

Then he opened the door again for a “last minute passenger.” A young woman boarded (whom I realized after the fact was the cashier) with cash in hand, arms extended. She dashed to my seat and said, breathlessly, “here’s your $3.95”; handed me the money with a big smile. Then she darted off the bus before it left.

New Yorkers are NICE.

 

 

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When I first moved to New York (to take a job) after graduating from college, I was overwhelmed by the immensity and seeming impersonality of the place. The anonymity was refreshing and liberating, in its own way. But, the City seemed like an awfully cold place. (And, besides its sheer size, all those high rise buildings intimidated me.)

I went to Eighth Street in Greenwich Village once, when interviewing for the job, and asked a couple of young people if there were any like minded types hanging out there, as I had experienced on Boston Common. “If you walk over to St. Mark’s Place, you will find some,” they said kindly.

On Sundays, I would hang out in Central Park, where Sixties types would congregate, perhaps listening to a guitar player singing folk songs, hoping that I would vicariously feel a sense of belonging or companionship.

One day in a subway station, I asked someone a question of some sort. They answered politely and helpfully. I told a friend of mine from college, Sam Silberstein (son of concentration camp survivors), who had grown up in Flushing, Queens, about this. “Someone was actually nice to me in the subway,” I said.

“New Yorkers are people, too,” Sam replied.

 

 

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Yes, New Yorkers are nice. I wonder if it’s the same way in Paris. I don’t think so. Parisians seem to be cold and abrupt. But, I can’t really say, having been to Paris only briefly a few times.

“Even with that sprawl of humanity, New York can be lived as a small town, familiar and compact,” in the words of New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer.

What accounts for this? I am thinking particularly of the way New Yorkers treat one another.

I think there are several factors. People like myself live in a metropolis like New York because they like being amidst other people. They don’t want to live in an ivory tower or, God forbid, a gated community.

The diversity of New York’s population acts as an elixir, a tonic. Immigrants in particular bring vitality and a palpable sense of community to the City. One might think it could be otherwise, that perhaps immigrants would cloister themselves in ethnic enclaves. Perhaps to an extent in the outlying boroughs, but, for the most part, I have found that it’s the opposite: The newcomers, and the recently arrived, or those who have not always lived in New York (which includes a large segment of the population) are full of enthusiasm for everything (and an inherent ingenuousness), including getting to know other people. And the tourists have the same attitude.

 

 

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When I go into retail establishments, restaurants, and the like, the staff seems to be for the most part friendly, eager to relate with you, the customer. (Perhaps a bit less so in chain stores.) I seem to get a welcoming reception and a friendly hello or goodbye over half the time.

If you are in distress, incommoded, or someone perceives they can help you, it’s quite remarkable how often people are ready and eager to do so. When I tripped and fell flat on my face crossing Third Avenue a couple of months ago and within seconds several people were clustered around me, helping me to get up, asking if I was okay, and (one woman) offering to call for medical assistance.

When I was taking photographs on Fifth Avenue near 59th Street last summer and someone with a foreign accident, a man who seemed to be Hispanic with several children, noticed that I had dropped my wallet on the pavement and alerted me to the fact. (I was already walking away and was halfway down the block). Same thing if one drops something or gets up and leaves one’s hat or gloves or one’s MetroCard on their seat on a bus. People including myself swiping their MetroCard for someone who needs a fare, and frequently giving handouts.

And so on. I could cite numerous examples.

 

 

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Re niceness. Of people in general, that is. And Good Samaritan-ship (aka altruism). I prefer to encounter it “in the raw,” so to speak, spontaneously, from average people whom one encounters ad libitum. To witness it bubbling up from the ebullience of good hearted types. Prefer this to organized charity and welfare, to do goodership of the institutional form.

 

 

– Roger W. Smith

   January 5, 2018

the effervescent (sometimes typographically challenged) pedant

 

 

I am blessed to come from a family that is very verbal, that delights in oral and written exchanges and expression and in word play. It seems as if they always put things just right, and often they amuse or provide a pleasant surprise with verbal ingenuity.

When I was in college, my brother and his wife gave me a book as a Christmas gift: Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Oxford History of the American People. On the flyleaf, my brother wrote an inscription: “To the effervescent pedant / With love”

I thought of this because of an email exchange I had with my brother this morning.

In the email to my brother, I quoted from my post

 

“her” instead of “him”; Ms.; and what else?

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/12/20/her-instead-of-him-ms-and-what-else/

 

as follows: “The PC types are all for conversation (of the wilderness and the natural environment). Why do they want to tear asunder our language? Like nature, it should be conserved, which does mean embalmed or ossified.”

 

and, in the email, said:

See any problem with this?

The PC crowd does tend to be loquacious.

 

 

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My brother responded as follows:

Cute typo.

Reminds me when you confused “martial relations” with “marital relations,” an apt malaprop that sent Mom into gales of laughter — loving laughter because in part she was enjoying your early advanced vocabulary.

 

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I wrote back:

All very true, Pete.

Aptly described.

Your memory is impressive.

I had forgotten how I used to get “martial” and “marital” mixed up.

Sometimes, I would make words up, which amused Mom … I used to say, “It’s just the INTRACITIES of life.”

Once I wrote Mom a letter using several big words I had just learned. I said that if she had no objection, I would DESCANT upon a few things. (To descant means to talk tediously or at length.)

She wrote back a letter beginning with, “So, cant me no descants.” She loved word play.

 

 

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This was brilliant usage by my mother. The intransitive verb cant (the meaning of which I did not know) is defined thusly:

1: to talk or beg in a whining or singsong manner

2: to speak in cant or jargon

3: to talk hypocritically

I’m trying to remember in which work of literature I first encountered the word descant.  I usually don’t forget such things.

It will come to me.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 22, 2017