Tag Archives: Alan Wright Smith

In which the question is taken up: When is the desire to be admired not abnormal?

 

 

 

“It seems that you must have some insecurities about your writing if you feel compelled so often to exclaim how well done it always is.”

 

“You are often harping about how great your writing is and how unappreciated it is and how jealous people are of your writing. You seem to have some illusions of grandeur and seek to dazzle whatever readers you have with your continued brilliance. “

 

“Are you the only judge of your writing? Recently there have been a number of posts in which you highly praise your own writing and intellect. Shouldn’t this be something that other people (your readers generally) evaluate?”

 

 

 

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Several relatives of mine have been critical of what they feel is my undue desire to be admired for my writing.

Like many people who themselves do not engage in creative activity, they are quick to find fault with others who do.

I can not help thinking of my father. He lived a life in the arts. He was a musician.

He loved the life of a musician. He was proud of his skills, which he exhibited at an early age and then developed and honed throughout his lifetime. He was well trained and well educated in music. Along with natural gifts, he was completely dedicated to music and highly motivated. A natural interest and innate ability drew him to music, yet he could have, at some point in his life, given it up and chosen a different, perhaps more common or pedestrian occupation, which is what many who showed promise in, say, the arts or athletics in their youth often do. At some point, they give up study or pursuit leading to a professional career.
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My father loved being able to earn a living doing what he loved most: playing the piano. It was, in a sense, hard work for him. He worked long hours and odd hours, usually for low pay. He never became wealthy. I would observe intense concentration on his face, as if the rest of the world had been blocked out (which is not to say that he was oblivious to there being an audience), and, although he usually seemed at his happiest at the piano, I would sometimes see him grimace and scold himself if he hit a wrong key.

A key thing to understand about my father — and people like him — was that his identity was piano player, and piano player was his identity. Not solely. He was also a husband, a father, and a family man. If someone asked him who he was, I am certain, he would have said, I am the husband of … (my mother), the father of … (four children), and a pianist. (Or, perhaps, a pianist, a husband, and a father, in that order.)

His ego was coterminous, so to speak, with his music making. Take that away from him, and he wouldn’t have been the Alan Smith we and the admirers of his playing knew and loved.

 

 

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Being able to perform music for emotional satisfaction — knowing it gave others pleasure — and for profit gave me father a sense of being (to use a clumsy phrase) emotionally validated, of being affirmed.

Yet, he was not a narcissist. He had a quiet confidence in his abilities, a not bashful — but not boastful either — sense of them. Only occasionally did he speak to me, in confidence, of his own assessment of his skills. He quite realistically appraised them, once telling me, for example, about his ability to transpose music on demand and on the spot. And, on another occasion, saying, “You know, I never really mastered the organ. I can get by, but I never fully learned the organ, I never learned all the stops.” (Or words to that effect.)

 

 

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And yet. (Here’s where my writing comes to mind.)

My father loved to be admired for his playing He loved to give pleasure to listeners. To be told how much they enjoyed his music. He was motivated as a professional by the love of his craft, the love of music, and, also,  love of the attention and praise it brought him. By the ego gratification he got.

It’s the same with my writing. I have a quiet confidence, or self-assurance, in my ability as a writer. I feel that I am very good, but I can make realistic appraisals of my own work. I am a perfectionist and am probably my own best critic.

 

 

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Which leads me to my main point. There is difference in the desire for ego gratification and praise or admiration on the part of creative person and narcissism or self-promotion.

Speaking from a psychological perspective, I would aver that it is normal to desire to receive and enjoy praise and admiration when it has been earned and one knows that one deserves it.

This is not a sign of overweening, all-consuming egoism or vanity.

A soloist or actor performs. They enjoy the applause and plaudits. They have worked for it. They know when they have met their own demanding expectations and deserve credit.

There is nothing psychologically wrong, unhealthy, or abnormal about this. It fact, it would be abnormal to find a person in the arts who did not feel this way. It’s a healthy exercise of one’s selfhood, of exerting oneself, in which one seeks affirmation and validation of one’s industry and talents.

One does not create in a void or a vacuum. Affirmation is crucial. It’s like saying, one can’t love in a vacuum. There must be reciprocity. One seeks someone to love (a love object), and to be loved in return. One loves others reciprocally. Narcissism is something else.

Similarly, “public” acts of creativity are an act of unselfishness, a kind of selflessness, wherein the ego both asserts itself and gives or vouchsafes the productions of one’s self, an individual, to others, expecting to receive appreciation and admiration in return. When affirmation or recognition does not come, one must accept it; it can be frustrating, disappointing, depressing, and worse, the worst case being that of the creative artist who never gets recognition.

But lack of appreciation, or not getting enough or as much as one feels one should, does not mean one should give up. Because creative activity is a fundamentally good thing, like doing other types of productive work, engaging in sports, or being physically active. And wanting others to take pleasure in it is the opposite of selfishness.

 

 

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I am constantly trying to interest other people in my writing. I often get a response along the lines of how interested they would be reading it, and then, they never mention my writing again — in most cases, they probably never did get around to reading it.

I take this in stride.

But when I do get a reader, when someone tells me how much they thought of a piece and makes complimentary remarks about my writing, it is very gratifying.

I am slaving over a major piece of writing now. I have been working on it for months. I am certain it will be good when I finally finish it.

I can’t wait to make it public, in the hope and expectation that people will read and praise it. What in part motivates me is the desire and thought of wanting to make it good so that it and I will be praised.

If one didn’t feel this way, we would have a case of de facto solipsism.
— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019

 

 

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COMMENTS

 

posted on Facebook by Nancy Jordan Ables (a former piano student of my father)

February 8, 2019
I am thinking that a writer of any kind needs to have confidence in their abilities, especially when they publish it for all to see, and I see nothing wrong with saying “I think I did a good job.” Musicians, politicians, actors, or anyone who has their work available to the public make similar statements all the time.

 

 

 

a comment via email

Ewa Solonia

February 8, 2019

 

Thank you for your post. It was interesting. The comments you are getting are upsetting and unconscionable. I totally understand how you feel. I’ve also been doing all kinds of art throughout the years. Compliments are always appreciated because it’s art! It’s the highest form of communication with the world one can achieve. It’s not about the grandiose.

“There is nothing generic about human life.”

 

 

 

I am reading a recently published book by Kate Bowler: Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Ms. Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School. In 2015, she was unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at age 35.

The book is described as follows on Amazon.com:

Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School with a modest Christian upbringing, but she specializes in the study of the prosperity gospel, a creed that sees fortune as a blessing from God and misfortune as a mark of God’s disapproval. At thirty-five, everything in her life seems to point toward “blessing.” She is thriving in her job, married to her high school sweetheart, and loves life with her newborn son.

Then she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

The prospect of her own mortality forces Kate to realize that she has been tacitly subscribing to the prosperity gospel, living with the conviction that she can control the shape of her life with “a surge of determination.” Even as this type of Christianity celebrates the American can-do spirit, it implies that if you “can’t do” and succumb to illness or misfortune, you are a failure. Kate is very sick, and no amount of positive thinking will shrink her tumors. What does it mean to die, she wonders, in a society that insists everything happens for a reason? Kate is stripped of this certainty only to discover that without it, life is hard but beautiful in a way it never has been before. …

Everything Happens for a Reason tells her story, offering up her irreverent, hard-won observations on dying and the ways it has taught her to live.

 

 

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On pages 123-125, I came across the following passage:

 

I can’t reconcile the way that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, the gorgeous and the tragic. Except I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out. I see a middle-aged woman in the waiting room of the cancer clinic, her arms wrapped around the frail frame of her son. She squeezes him tightly, oblivious to the way he looks down at her sheepishly. He laughs after a minute, a hostage to her impervious love. Joy persists somehow and I soak it in. The horror of cancer has made everything seem like it is painted in bright colors. I think the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.

The flow of letters has slowed, but I still get at least one every day. Today I received a book in my campus mailbox about how to guarantee that I will communicate with my loved ones from heaven, and a handwritten card about scriptures I could repeat aloud to become a better conduit of God’s power. A pastor from a prosperity church has mailed me a large manila folder containing an enormous banner that reads: SEEK YE FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD AND ALL THESE THINGS SHALL BE ADDED UNTO YOU. I can’t help but think it’s a little passive-aggressive, but I appreciate the gesture. Sort of. He is asking me to employ a series of proven techniques that could help me reclaim my own health, if I would only try.

This is the problem, I suppose, with formulas. They are generic. But there is nothing generic about a human life. [italics added]

When I was little, to get to my bus stop, I had to cross a field that had so much snow my parents fitted me with ski pants and knee-high thermal boots that were toasty to forty degrees below zero. I am excellent in the stern of a canoe, but I never got the hang of riding a bike with no hands. I have seen the northern lights because my parents always woke up the whole house when the night sky was painted with color. I love the smell of dover and chamomile because my sister and I used to pick both on the way home from swimming lessons. I spent weeks of my childhood riding around on my bike saving drowning worms after a heavy rain. My hair is my favorite feature even though it’s too heavy for most ponytails, and I still can’t parallel park. There is no life in general. Each day has been a collection of trivial details—little intimacies and jokes and screw-ups and realizations. My problems can’t be solved by those formulas-—those clichés-—when my life was never generic to begin with. God may be universal, but I am not. I am Toban’s wife and Zach’s mom and Karen and Gerry’s daughter. I am here now, bolted in time and place, to the busy sounds of a blond boy in dinosaur pajamas crashing into every piece of furniture.

“Who’s my baby?” I ask him.

Zach is running long loops around the room and stopping at every ledge to run his car along it. He turns to me.

‘A boy?” he says hopefully.

“Yes,” I say, scooping him into my arms. He tolerates my tight hug for a few breaths and then squirms his way out, laughing. “Yes.” I say. “But not just any boy. You.”

 

 

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This a marvelous passage. It needs no explication, but it says so much. And, I might add, does so with a minimum of words. And doesn’t just affirm something, but shows it with details that hit the mark and resonate.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 2018

 

 

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Addendum: Ms. Bowler grew up in Manitoba, Canada. She writes: “I have seen the northern lights because my parents always woke up the whole house when the night sky was painted with color.”

This reminded me of a Christmas Eve in our house in Massachusetts at some indeterminate past time when I was a teenager. My father woke us children up in the middle of the night in great excitement. He wanted us to go to a window in the upstairs hallway and gaze out of it at a bright star. It was like the Star of Bethlehem, he said. I tried to look, but I was so sleepy I was unsteady on my legs and could barely hold my head up. I seem to recall something very bright. I believe there had been something in forecast models about an especially bright North Star during that particular month and year.

 

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The Gospel According to St. Matthew

2:1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, 2:2 Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 2:3 And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 2:4 And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ should be born. 2:5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written through the prophet,

2:6 And thou Bethlehem, land of Judah,
Art in no wise least among the princes of Judah:
For out of thee shall come forth a governor,
Who shall be shepherd of my people Israel.

2:7 Then Herod privily called the Wise-men, and learned of them exactly what time the star appeared. 2:8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search out exactly concerning the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word, that I also may come and worship him. 2:9 And they, having heard the king, went their way; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 2:10 And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 2:11 And they came into the house and saw the young child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and worshipped him; and opening their treasures they offered unto him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 2:12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

the importance of professionalism (as seen by a writer)

 

 

Last winter, I emailed a relative with the following comment: “Largely because of having had professional experience, I know I’m not fooling myself when I say my stuff is good, unlike a lot of people who fancy themselves writers or poets.”

A few months later, we were having a discussion about various matters, including my blog. I came from a very literate family and have three siblings, all of them gifted writers (as were my parents). I emailed my relative again, saying: “I am ahead of the rest of our family in one key respect: I have had professional writing experience (plus a journalism degree) and have written for publication in scholarly journals, reference books, major newspapers.”

My relative seemed to think I was bragging, was guilty of puffery, for no reason, and, besides, what was the point of making the comparison, which it appeared to my relative was an invidious one, but which I thought was worth mentioning. “I am not questioning your writing credentials, which are very strong and give you more knowledge of and experience in writing than anyone in our family,” the relative wrote back. “But I do not understand why you are comparing yourself to your family in this regard. There is no family writing competition.”

 

 

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I did not intend, did not mean, to disparage anyone, or to exalt myself. I merely wished to make a point. To wit: that professional experience is crucial for anyone who wants to master a craft.

I was thinking when I made the observation to my relative, and have often thought in the past, about my father in this regard. My father was professional musician: a pianist, church organist, and piano teacher. He was born with musical talent. His mother was a church organist and attended a music school in Boston for a couple of years (of which she was very proud). It was said that her mother (my father’s maternal grandmother) played and/or conducted choir music in a church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where my grandmother grew up.

My grandmother recognized my father’s talent and encouraged him. He began piano lessons at a very early age. By the time he was a teenager, he was moonlighting as a musician with bands in the Boston area. At a young age, he was hired as a piano teacher in a studio in Boston, where he worked for several years before becoming an independent piano teacher. He appeared on radio programs in the 1930’s, playing and discussing music.

His experience was extensive. After serving in the Army in World War II, he went back to college and got an A.B. degree from Harvard College in music. In his senior year, he took five music courses. One was a course in composition with the renowned composer Irving Fine. He told us children that on the final exam, Fine said: “You have been studying composition all semester. Your requirement for the final is to write a four-part piece.”

My former therapist, discussing my versatility in writing, once brought up the actor James Cagney during a session with me. He quoted Cagney as once having said, “I could always play any part, any type of character, they asked me to.” He said that this was a significant statement. My father was the same way. He played in nightclubs, on a pleasure boat making daily cruises, at ice skating shows, briefly in a burlesque house orchestra, with back up Big Bands, as an accompanist to singers such as Dinah Shore (who was making a demo record early in her career), at functions such as wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs, as a church organist, and for many years as the entertainment in a restaurant/lounge. He played the accordion when required (e.g., on the excursion boat) and the organ in a Unitarian church. He told me, “I never mastered the organ,” explaining that to really do so required mastering the pedals and stops. This admission by him was not a sign of weakness. It showed the kind of awareness that professionals have of what their true strengths are, as well as their limitations. Similarly to my father’s case, I know that I excel as an essayist and writer of scholarly articles, and have reportorial and research skills. At the same time, I know that I can’t write fiction or poetry.

 

 

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My father once had a revealing talk with me, which I never forgot, about his technical skills and expertise as a pianist. It wasn’t braggadocio, it was a matter of actual fact.

For years, my father was the pianist at the Chart Room, a restaurant bar in Cataumet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. He would play there six nights a week for around six hours each night. People came to hear him play.

My father told me something that might have seemed trivial or not worth noting, but that I found quite significant for what it said about him, and his self-awareness when it came to professional capabilities. He would take a 15 to 20 minute break after a set. During the break (when he was probably enjoying a drink at the bar and would be chatting with customers), someone, it seemed, would always get up, sit down on the empty piano stool, and start playing. My father had no problem with this.

As my father told me, they would play simple tunes and enjoy emulating him, encouraging customers to sing along. My father pointed out to me — this was significant — that they would always play in the key of C. To my father, this distinguished the amateurs from him. He could play in any key that was required and was proficient at accompanying vocalists and singers because of this. And, by the way, my father had perfect pitch. One of my siblings would be practicing piano in the living room when my father was in the dining room. If they hit a wrong key, he would say, without leaving his chair, “E flat!” or “G sharp!”

 

 

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Like my father with the advantages of not only being born with musical talent but also of having had professional experience — where he honed his skills and kept developing and refining them — professional experience in writing has been invaluable to me. One learns certain lessons as a professional that are crucial to one’s development. And, then, as was true in my father’s case, and was also true in mine, there is formal education.

What seems to be the case with most people (athletes are a good example) is that there has to be inborn talent — one has to have the “genes,” endowment, or makeup for achieving the highest levels of excellence in writing/verbal expression, music, or sports — but then one will never reach that level without rigorous training and professional experience. This often means formal training, such as a good writing instructor(s) or education in general, or a professional level coach. Some writers and athletes seem to be naturals who do not get that much formal training. But think of all those who do. Writers such as Thomas Wolfe and James T. Farrell come to mind. They started out as writers in college and graduate school. Similarly, my writing instruction began in the “writing workshop” (writers’ boot camp?) of my high school English teacher, Robert W. Tighe — where we wrote almost every day, and were trained to do so “on demand,” on any given topic, in class — and continued with a superb education in the humanities in college and as a postgraduate special student taking college courses in languages, editing, and translation.

My point is that some would be athletes, musicians, writers, and so forth never progress beyond the amateur stage. In the playgrounds and parks of New York, there is a plethora of amateur athletes who exhibit great talent — basketball players, say — but who, at some point, never progressed beyond achieving distinction on sandlots and in playgrounds.

 

 

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From professional experience, which means writing for pay and actual publication, I have learned:

— to become less fearful of criticism and failure as a writer

— to be able to write to specs, adhering to a specific word limit (not to be exceeded under any circumstances; I found out that 600 words means 600 words, not 625 or 650; your editor does not want to have to do the work of cutting your submission to achieve the right length); and how to “shoehorn” in ideas and information that you want to include in a piece — within, so to speak, a tight space

— becoming hyper attuned to the actual editor who you turn your work into, and to the “editor in the sky,” and thereby to become more vigilant and careful in trying to avoid errors, having the final, published piece and how it will look always very much in one’s consciousness (a rule of thumb I learned when working as a freelancer for a daily newspaper: if your pieces go into the paper virtually unedited, that means you are meeting expectations and can consider yourself a success)

— continually engaging in fact checking as one writes (the way a copy editor does) and not relying on someone else to do it for you — in short, having a hyper sense of responsibility when it comes to accuracy. (A good writer knows that when one is sloppy about facts — as well as about grammar, for that matter — the whole piece is likely to be called into question.)

— being very alert to one’s audience — that is, readers — and cautious about making assertions or stating facts that might be ambiguous or questionable.

Regarding the “inner editor,” I notice that nonprofessional writers — good ones, well-educated ones — frequently make the same mistakes repeatedly because they lack professional experience. For example, a professional writer working in a newsroom or for a publishing firm knows where a period or comma goes: inside or outside closing quotation marks. Some basic style points have never been learned by amateurs who are otherwise excellent writers. The same thing with spelling. I never really learned to spell until I wrote professionally. An instructor I had in journalism school (a longtime New York Times reporter) told the class that there was zero tolerance in the newsroom for stories submitted with any errors whatsoever, including typos. Another way of putting this is that any professional (including writers) learns at the outset of his or her career some common mistakes to avoid. But you can spot the amateurs because of the obvious errors (small but nevertheless “impermissible” ones) they make.

 

 

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I worked for four years in the publishing industry before getting my first freelance writing assignments. My job was writing advertising copy for scholarly/technical books and textbooks. The job and subsequent ones enabled me to acquire an essential skill: how to process and digest information for rendering, so to speak, in publishable form.

Someone hands you a prospectus — often no more — of a book about to be published. One of the first I ever wrote advertising copy for was a textbook on neurology. From a professor’s dry summary of a few paragraphs (often leaving out key points that would be relevant from a sales point of view), I would come up with a cogent, readable advertising brochure. I faced similar challenges early on as a freelance writer for reference book publishers and as a freelance reporter for a daily metropolitan newspaper and a business magazine. One has to dig for information and quotes, weigh them, verify them, then do the best one can with what one has by way of facts/information and quotes. Until one has worked for a daily newspaper, I doubt anyone realizes how difficult it can be to get good quotes. To get an interview. To dig out information and verify its accuracy. I once wrote a routine article having to do with an elementary school. I was at my cubicle in the newsroom for a good part of the evening calling a source again and again to make sure I had all of the school personnel’s names spelled correctly and got other facts about the school (from the picayune to what some of the major issues were) right.

The editor of the business magazine liked my writing and had me writing a couple of stories every month, including cover stories. When you are a beginning writer, you are thrilled to get any sort of assignment.

The editor asked me to write an article about cooling systems (e.g., fans) used in commercial buildings, which ones were most cost and energy efficient and so on. It was not a topic of interest to me, but it was to businesspeople in the area, and that was what mattered to the editor. Needless to say, I had zero knowledge, but I interviewed building managers, asking them not only which systems they preferred but also to educate and bring me up to speed on the subject.

I pulled it off a la James Cagney.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    June 2018

Roger W. Smith letter to Rev. Paul Gallivan, December 6, 1989

 

 

 

imageedit_1_7710755523 (2)

 

I wrote this letter to Father Paul Gallivan, a Roman Catholic priest, on December 6, 1989.

Father Paul delivered a eulogy at my father, Alan W. Smith’s, memorial service in Bourne, Massachusetts on November 17, 1989.

 

 

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See also my post:

 

Father Paul Gallivan

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/04/21/father-paul-gallivan/

 

Although my father and Father Paul were of different faiths, they were close friends and meant a great deal to one another.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    June 2018

 

left vs. right brainedness; and, CREATIVITY

 

 

An animated discussion with an acquaintance the other day got me to thinking about the concept of left vs. right brainedness (known by scientists as lateralization of brain function) and how it affects people. Clearly, it is a fact of one’s makeup that is extremely important. There is much to be contemplated by the layperson trying to understand himself or herself. It seems to affect us so profoundly.

No doubt, the terms are often used loosely, and while I am not an expert, there seems to be much confusion, with concepts getting tossed around by people who feel that this or that trait is dominant in their makeup.

My wife is right brained. I am left brained. My entire nuclear family — parents and four children — was thoroughly left-brain predominant. I am so “left brain” it isn’t funny.

My acquaintance acquainted me with a chart summarizing the key features of the two types of brain dominance, which is very helpful. The key distinctions are that the left brain is dominant in speech and language, logical analysis and reasoning, and mathematical computations, while in the right brain spatial awareness, intuition, facial recognition, visual imagery, music awareness, art, and rhythm predominate. This is a very useful schema, heuristically, but as is true of much that is written and spoken about in human psychology, facile explanations and distortions are all too possible.

I have zero expertise and cannot do more than speak from experience and my own speculations: my experience as it seems to corroborate the basic ideas; my speculations about what this might say about creativity.

 

 

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My Left-Brainedness

 

I am totally left-brained, as noted above, and knowing this and what its implications are has helped me greatly to understand myself. This is very true in terms of defects of mine in perception that stand out. I am very poor at learning and perception when it comes to spatial relationships. Give me an aptitude test of verbal ability and I will excel. Give me a test (as has happened) in which there are pendulums and pulleys, and one has to figure out which way a wheel will rotate if another wheel is rotating in the other direction, and I am helpless. I have no mechanical ability. If you give me directions in words, I’m fine. Show me a map and I am confused.

Facial recognition is a right-brain dominant strength. Being left-brain dominant, I am very weak at this. I used to have the embarrassing experience occasionally at my workplace of failing miserably at facial recognition. It would happen in the following manner. I would encounter someone who did not work in my department and perhaps worked on a different floor, but whom I knew and would see fairly often. I would encounter them at random so that the encounter was not foreseen. Suddenly, I could not think of their name, which caused me great consternation. I knew I knew them well, but I could not match the face with a name. I would say something like, “Good morning, how are you?” —leaving off their name — which the other person could perceive as being insulting. A few minutes later, after the encounter, the name would come to me, too late.

I am very good at remembering names of persons known to me in the present and in the past. I remember names of persons from way back whom I met but did not become closely acquainted with. So, there is a storehouse of names in my left brain. The problem, which used to cause me near panic at work, is that facial recognition somehow fails me, and I can’t connect the face with a name, even though there is a storehouse of names ready to be recalled in my left brain.

This is a significant fact of my experience, but it may not be that important. A more important fact is that I am at weak at thinking which is said to predominate in right brain types: holistic thinking, getting the big picture. I can reason and parse a problem with something bordering on brilliance, but sometimes when I have to make a decision and the facts are staring me right in the face, I have trouble seeing the solution clearly.

 

 

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My Right-Brained Genius Friend

 

I had a friend in college who influenced me greatly intellectually. We used to have deep discussions (called bull sessions back them) that went on and on, often late into the night.

I recall when I first met him in our residence hall. He almost seemed like a hayseed and didn’t seem that smart. My college roommate, being informed that we had talked, said of my new acquaintance (the soon to become close friend and bull sessions partner) that he was brilliant. Really?, I thought. Several years later when reading a biography of Herman Melville, the words of Sophia Hawthorne (wife of Melville’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne) about Melville (in a letter to her mother) reminded me of my college friend:

He has very keen perceptive power; but what astonishes me is, that his eyes are not large and deep. He seems to me to see everything accurately; and how he can do so with his small eyes, I cannot tell. They are not keen eyes, either, but quite undistinguished in any way. … When conversing, he is full of gesture and force, and loses himself in his subject. There is no grace or polish. Once in a while, his animation gives place to a singularly quiet expression, out of those eyes to which I have objected; an indrawn, dim look, but which at the same time makes you feel that he is at that instant taking deepest note of what is before him. It is a strange, lazy glance, but with a power in it quite unique. It does not seem to penetrate through you, but to take you into itself.

My friend was like this in that he seemed to be mentally lazy, to not be that inquisitive or attentive at times. (This was actually NOT the case, as I was to discover.) He did not exhibit verbal brilliance; his conversation was not scintillating on the surface. (Actually, he was extremely insightful; I just didn’t see it.) He didn’t come off as an intellectual. But, I discovered over time, through sustained acquaintance, that he was a near genius and exceeded me intellectually in many important respects. He was a right-brained, big picture guy with great insight into people and human relationships. (He became a psychiatrist.) He was highly capable of original thought and coming up with brilliant formulations of his own that were couched in plain, homespun language.

We were briefly postgraduate premedical students together. I petered out. He excelled in the premed program and was accepted by an excellent medical school. We were both working then and attending classes in the evenings. We would meet after lectures. Everything would have been digested by him and stored in his brain for exam time. He barely had to study or look at a textbook, it seemed. He has gotten all the essential lecture points down pat. That is why I perceived him as being intellectually lazy; he never seemed to be making an effort (usually, I should say; this was actually not always the case).

My right-brained “genius” friend was not well read (although he did well, to the extent he made an effort, in English and humanities courses and helped to introduce me to James Joyce by encouraging me to attend a lecture on Joyce’s story “Araby” with him in my senior year in college). He had totally plebeian tastes in music; he was unacquainted with classical music. He could occasionally be unobservant about fine points of things and human relationships, making him appear insensitive. He was helpless at foreign languages. I stayed up all night once translating a paper into French for him that he had written, for a French course, in English and caught a bad cold. He barely thanked me.

 

 

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My Wife and I; Right Versus Left

 

 

My right-brained wife excelled at geometry. She is better than I am at fixing things.

My wife has an excellent grasp of big picture issues. She often helps me unravel things — often when they concern human relationships — making clear what is plain as the nose on one’s face, but which I missed.

Early in our relationship, I thought to myself, she’s the math major and I’m the writer, she probably can’t write well. I was wrong. I am a more polished writer, but her writing (such as in student term papers she showed me and in communiques such as work related memos and emails to me) is well organized and clear. I came to see that (as illustrated by wife’s writing) the left brain/right brain distinction can be misleading when crude measures or yardsticks are applied. It’s basically a question of APPROACH.

An illustrative example will help to make clear what I mean by this.

When disputes arise that my wife and I can’t seem to resolve, I will often find myself giving her a long lecture, a “sermon,” trying to convince her that my viewpoint is right, segueing from minute point to minute point, with corollaries and ancillary points. Only if all my points have been made, fully and clearly, with illustrative examples and supporting “evidence,” do I feel entitled to say: I have proved my case.

You can see her eyes glaze over. All she wants to know is: what is (are) your main point(s)? But, from my point of view, this almost ensures defeat, because she didn’t agree with me in the first place.

What I think this shows — what thinking about left- versus right-brain thinking seems to indicate — is that there are elemental reasons why my wife and I often can’t resolve disputes. We approach mentally perceived things differently.

 

 

 

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Creativity

 

In the chart below, what we see is:

Left Brain Functions: Speech and language, logical analysis and reasoning, mathematical computations.

Right Brain Functions: Spatial awareness, intuition, facial recognition, visual imagery, music awareness, art, rhythm.

This is a problem with psychology extracted from science. It often becomes pseudoscience.

Which is not to say that the schema is unsound, or that the scientific findings (and I am not a scientist) are unsound.

But, someone who glances at the chart may think, left-brain people like myself are nerdy, pointy headed analytical types who don’t have pizzazz and are too uptight, too straightlaced to be able to be spontaneous or creative. Whereas right-brain types are intuitive persons into music, art, and rhythm who are much more creative.

A lot of people think that being logical means one is inhibited and incapable of creativity and to be creative you have to be kind of nutty like a Salvador Dali. This is a superficial, misleading view.

I believe that this is a fallacy, a serious one, and that it can lead to a profound misunderstanding of what creativity involves. To repeat, it’s not the schema that’s at fault. It’s that misinformed people don’t interpret it properly. As a matter of fact, the internet posting indicates that “It is possible to be analytical/logical as well as artistic/creative and many people are.” (What is not said, which is a serious oversight, is that most creative people are analytical/logical.) The posting also indicates that it is not true that analytical people cannot be creative.

Note that the internet posting indicates that typical right-brain occupations include politics, acting, and athletics. “Acting,” one might say, “that’s creative. Proves my point. Right-brain types are creative.”

Two of the occupations listed, politics and athletics, are not in the creative category. And, actors, while they may have a lifestyle one associates with creative types, are not creative people. It is the playwrights, screenwriters, and directors who are creative.

The posting indicates that right-brained types are “intuitive,” whereas left-brained types are “logical.” Meaning that poets are right-brained? How about writers in general?

I’m not sure about poets, because I am not knowledgeable about poetry. But, I do know literature and great writing. Most writers — I will go out on a limb and assert it — are left brained.

Think of a writer such as Milton (poet!), Tolstoy, Melville, or Joyce laboring to produce a great work of art. Take the example of Joyce. A genius at language. Who labored about four years over Ulysses and seventeen years on his final novel, Finnegans Wake. The sequencing, the choice and order of words, were all. It is a master of language engaged in the most challenging exercise of exposition imaginable, drawing upon all his left-brain resources.

The schema associates right-brained people with musical talent. Perhaps at strumming a guitar or enjoying acid rock. But, this is very misleading; nowhere in the schema is there any indication that left-brained people may have a capacity for music. But, it is noted that left-brained people excel at mathematics.

It has been known for a long time that people with innate intellectual ability when it comes to abstract mathematics are often great appreciators of classical music. And, what’s more important, I am certain that most of the great composers were left-brained. Think about Beethoven endlessly revising his compositions. Working out the inner logic of his symphonies until it (the “musical logic”) seems preordained and inevitable. That is left-brained thinking, unquestionably.

People use words like “creative” and “intuitive” too loosely. Left-brainedness does not preclude creativity, far from it.

My mother provides an example. Her biggest intellectual strengths were reading/writing; communication/conversation. She was left-brained. She loved literature. She wrote very well. She remembered the books she read in great detail, as she also did conversations, incidents, and people she knew from the remote past. And, she was highly intuitive. It was the type of intuition a poet might have. She was great at picking up on subtleties, as poets (and also novelists) do and noticing or recalling little, telling details, in contrast to what is seen in “big picture” right-brain types.

A key, as is also true of my wife, to categorizing the mental or intellectual “cast” of person such as my mother is not to apply an adjective such as instinctive, intuitive, or artistic to that person from an a priori vantage point and then attempt to make it fit. It is, rather, to ask, how does that person habitually cogitate, communicate, and so forth? My mother excelled at writing and conversation. She was a born writer who never became one professionally. My father, to give another example, was a professional musician who showed talent from a very young age. Did that make him right brained? The answer is, definitely not. His writing demonstrated where his strengths lay. He wrote beautifully, whenever it was required of him. He had a gift that seemed remarkable for exposition, for making things clear, and for presenting his thoughts cogently, which is to say logically, both in conversation and writing.

My own career as a writer illustrates some of the above points. I was blessed with innate ability when it comes to language and exposition and raised in a family where these attributes were customary and essential. Yet, I slaved for years to hone my skills, beginning with rigorous writing instruction as a student and continuing with professional writing.

As a beginning professional writer, I often despaired of getting things right, meeting deadlines, being able to write to spec, and so forth; and labored for much longer than anyone might conceive to write short pieces for publication. What I have found over the years as I have become more skilled and my productivity has increased, is that there is a still a process which I go through in most cases. I start out with an idea for a piece of writing, I get some ideas down on paper. Leaving aside the question of research, which is a major undertaking in itself in the case of most expository pieces, I begin writing and it usually goes reasonably well. I am able to make a start (and am much more adept at this than in my earlier years as a writer when I labored over leads). Then, there is a long process of building upon that initial stab at a piece, of incremental additions, of qualifiers, rewriting, rearranging and recasting of thoughts, and of trying over and over again to get it just right, to get the words and sentences to cohere. It’s sort of like completing a jigsaw puzzle. (People think creativity means inspiration. Yes, it does, and no, it doesn’t. Meaning that most great works were produced after prodigious labor and endless refining — leaving aside the extended apprenticeship, years of study of models of excellence and of beginning or trial efforts, that a creative genius must undergo before achieving mastery. And, the works themselves do not just spring like rabbits out of a hat. Endless toil and labor go into producing them, during which the artist is not sure of the outcome. The best insights often come when you’re thinking hard, which means working hard, to perfect a piece, and they often come near the point of completion.)

For a while, one’s writing seems muddled, but it begins to take shape. Still, one knows that it’s not anywhere near completion, to being in finished form. One experiences frustration. But, the subconscious continues to work. One goes back to the piece, and on the tenth draft or so (literally) — if not the fifteenth or sixteenth — one feels the piece beginning to cohere and to have an inner logic: that it works. One has gone from becoming a logician of sorts (a logician of words and sentences, trying to work out their desired sequence) to an “artiste” (used sardonically), a creative writer, as they say. One experiences true creativity, which is very pleasurable. But true creativity is not possible without careful preparation and planning, without drudgery. This is not just true of a Roger W. Smith, it was also true of James Joyce, Gustave Flaubert, and Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. Didn’t I already say it? I belong in distinguished company. I’m left-brained! As were they.

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017

 

 

 

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Appendix:

 

 

Left Brain vs. Right Brain

 

http://www.diffen.com/difference/Left_Brain_vs_Right_Brain

 

 

 

Left-brained people are supposed to be logical, analytical, and methodical, while right-brained people are supposed to be creative, disorganized, and artistic. But this left-brain / right-brain theory has been refuted by a large-scale, two-year study by researchers at the University of Utah. In other words, it is untrue that logical people predominantly use the left side of the brain and artistic people predominantly use the right. All people use both halves of the brain. However, the stereotypes associated with being left- or right-brained persist and continue to arouse curiosity.

 

 

Comparison chart

Left Brain versus Right Brain

 

Left Brain Functions

Speech and language, logical analysis and reasoning, mathematical computations.

 

Right Brain Functions

Spatial awareness, intuition, facial recognition, visual imagery, music awareness, art, rhythm.

 

Left Brain Traits

Linear thinking, sequential processing, logical decision-making, reality-oriented.

 

Right Brain Traits

Holistic thinking, random processing, intuitive decision-making, non-verbal processing, fantasy-oriented.

 

Left Brain Perceived personality traits

Analytical, logical, pay attention to detail

 

 

Right Brain Perceived Personality Traits

Creative, artistic, open-minded.

 

 

Left Brain Overall Thinking

Linear, detail-oriented — “details to whole” approach.

 

 

Right Brain Overall Thinking

Holistic, big-picture oriented — “whole to details” approach.

 

Left Brain Thought Process

Sequential; verbal (process with words).

 

 

Right Brain Thought Process

Random; non-verbal (process with visuals).

 

 

Left Brain Problem-Solving

Logical — order/pattern perception; emphasis on strategies.

 

 

Right Brain Problem-Solving

Intuitive — spatial/abstract perception; emphasis on possibilities.

 

 

Left Brain Strengths

Mathematics, analytics, reading, spelling, writing, sequencing, verbal and written language.

 

 

Right Brain Strengths

Multi-dimensional thinking, art, music, drawing, athletics, coordination, repairs, remembers faces, places, events.

 

 

Left Brain Difficulties

Visualization, spatial/abstract thinking

 

 

Right Brain Difficulties

Following by sequence, understanding parts, organizing a large body of information, remembering names.

 

 

Background

 

The theory of right brain vs. left brain dominance originates with Nobel Prize winning neurobiologist and neuropsychologist Roger Sperry. Sperry discovered that the left hemisphere of the brain usually functions by processing information in rational, logical, sequential, and overall analytical ways. The right hemisphere tends to recognize relationships, integrate and synthesize information, and arrive at intuitive thoughts.

These findings, while true, serve as the basis for the now-disproved theory that people who are logical, analytical and methodical are left-brain dominant, and those who are creative and artistic are right-brain dominant.

A study conducted at the University of Utah has debunked the myth. Neuroscientists analyzed over 1,000 brain scans from people between the ages of seven and 29. The brain scans did not show any evidence that people use one side of the brain more than the other. Essentially, the brain is interconnected, and the two hemispheres support each other in its processes and functions.

 

Lateralization of Brain Function

The human brain is split into two distinct cerebral hemispheres connected by the corpus callosum. The hemispheres exhibit strong bilateral symmetry regarding structure as well as function. For instance, structurally, the lateral sulcus generally is longer in the left hemisphere than in the right hemisphere, and functionally, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area are located in the left cerebral hemisphere for about 95% of right-handers, but about 70% of left-handers. Neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Roger Sperry has contributed significantly to the research of lateralization and split-brain function.

 

 

Brain Process and Functions

The left hemisphere of the brain processes information analytically and sequentially. It focuses on the verbal and is responsible for language. It processes from details into a whole picture. The left hemisphere’s functions include order and pattern perception as well as creating strategies. The left hemisphere controls the muscles on the right side of the body.

The right hemisphere of the brain processes information intuitively. It focuses on the visual and is responsible for attention. It processes from the whole picture to details. The right hemisphere’s functions include spatial perception and seeing possibilities in situations. The right hemisphere controls the muscles on the left side of the body.

 

The Stereotype

People who are analytical and logical and who pay attention to detail are said to be left-brain dominant, i.e., they use the left side of the brain more than the right side. Basic characteristics of left-brain thinking include logic, analysis, sequencing, linear thinking, mathematics, language, facts, thinking in words, remembering song lyrics and computation. When solving problems, left-brained people tend to break things down and make informed, sensible choices. Typical occupations include being a lawyer, judge, or banker.

People who are creative, artistic and open-minded are said to be right-brain dominant, and the right side of their brain is more dominant. Basic characteristics of right-brain thinking include creativity, imagination, holistic thinking, intuition, arts, rhythm, non-verbal, feelings, visualization, recognizing a tune and daydreaming. When solving problems, right-brained people tend to rely on intuition or a “gut reaction.” Typical occupations include politics, acting, and athletics.

 

 

What’s True

There exist personality types who are predominantly more analytical than artistic.

It is possible to be analytical/logical as well as artistic/creative and many people are.

 

 

What’s Not True

Analytical people cannot be creative (or the other way round) because only one part of their brain is dominant.

 

Strengths and Difficulties

Left-brained people are supposed to be good at mathematics, reading, spelling, writing, sequencing and verbal and written language. They may have difficulty with abstract visualization.

Right-brained people are supposed to be good at multi-dimensional thinking, art, music, drawing, athletics, coordination and repairs. They remember faces, places and events. However, right-brained people may have difficulty understanding parts if they can’t see the whole. They may also struggle with sequencing, organizing a large body of information and remembering names.

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.

 

 

Cataumet Methodist Church.jpg

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.

 

 

 

Huntington Ave, Boston.jpg

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.

 

 

 

grave of William and Love Hewins et al..jpg

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.

 

 

 

 

Frances L. Swift gravestone.jpg

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

 

 

 

Llewellyn R. Hewins gravestone (2).jpg

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.

 

 

 

Arabella F. Hewins gravestone (2).jpg

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.

 

 

37 Wellington St, Arlington.jpg

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.

 

 

Spy Pond.jpg

Spy Pond, Arlington, MA

 

 

 

baseball field in park adjancent to Wellington St.jpg

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.

 

 

606 Bennington Street.jpg

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.

 

 

Crane Beach 8-03 p.m. 5-27-2017.jpg

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

 

 

 

 

Crane Beach 8-02 p.m. 5-27-2017.jpg

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.

reflections about my Dad as a pianist

 

 

 

 

 

The following is the text of an email of mine to family members (plus, note audio file above):

 

 

I have been sort of in the dumps today.

Wanted to listen to some light music.

I am listening to Dad’s private mini concert for Marge, from 1981.

I haven’t listened to it in years.

I am surprised by how much I am enjoying it.

He starts out the first piece pounding away, and it doesn’t seem like a good quality recording, but the recording quality gets better for the remainder.

I just listened to Dad’s rendition of “Lida Rose.” Not bad.

Now, he’s playing “New York, New York.” He should have gotten a job at Yankee Stadium!

Now he’s playing “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

Old chestnuts.

He has a predilection (too much) for boogie-woogie.

I can see why people liked to hear him play, how much enjoyment they got from it, and how it must have relaxed them after a day’s toil.

I think a factor would be how much he enjoyed playing — playing for other people, that is  — and, though he could be a bit of a showoff, I guess (what musician isn’t?), his playing is anything but ponderous. He just wants you to enjoy the music as much as he does.

At least, that’s the way it seems.

 

— Roger W. Smith

     November 13, 2016