Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Strongly Influenced By (90th Birthday Tribute)

     A friend wrote to me yesterday morning to let me know that today marked the 90th birthday of a high school teacher we both liked and admired.  Harry Goldgar was one of those pivotal teachers who, through direction and indirection, gave you access to a lot of useful information as well the tools to build on what he taught you as you progressed through the rest of your education and into life. 

     Our school, which I have mentioned here previously, was a small, very traditional boy’s boarding school in Connecticut.   Single-sex education having largely gone out of style, I don’t know whether places like this even exist any longer.  Certainly, our school today (from what I know about it through reading alumni mailings) seems completely unrecognizable to me.

     The just post-Summer of Love 1960s was a fascinating period to attend a rigorous, traditional New England boarding school.  Rigid disciplinary rules were still in place and strictly enforced at a time when such rules were being questioned and contested throughout the culture, which brought any number of things into high relief.  Attending a school like this was a lot like going into business early.  If you were lucky and sufficiently practical, you learned to survive (and possibly thrive) among your peers and to identify and navigate all sorts of competing power groups.  It was a mostly good experience for me because it gave me confidence and taught me self-reliance I never would have acquired if I had remained at home with my family.  Also, our school was much, much better than the public school where I had previously been enrolled, which was crude and rough in a Blackboard Jungle sort of way and provided a comparatively desultory education.  My boarding school, on the other hand, was superficially, at least (the surface always being potentially deceptive), tweedy, pipe smoking, genteel and scholarly.  Because I was at my most energetic and educable then, I got a lot out of it and made a couple of lifelong friends.

     For some time I had been planning to write something for this space called Strongly Influenced By.  The title came to me one day during one of my usual confusion spells when I was trying hard, without much luck, to find myself on the map.   In the way they do in desert island movies and reality TV survival shows, I first tried to discern and locate some life landmarks and then after I found a few, tried to remember why they were landmarks for me.

     The teacher I mentioned, Harry Goldgar, who now lives in New Orleans, was responsible for a fairly large number of important signposts in my life and I had a good time yesterday, in the middle of some highly weird hubbub, thinking about some of them:

Bildungsroman, Robert Musil, Alain-Fournier, Carl Gustav Jung, Guy Davenport, giving Greek names to charming cats, cats in general even though I was highly allergic to cats then, Editions Gallimard and Flammarion books lining rows of shelves, Proust, Gide, Faulkner, owning complete sets of anything, afternoon cups of tea and conversation, City Lights books, bookstore and logo, the 8th Street Bookshop, Magister Ludi, maintaining good mental discipline and organization, a Master of Sacred Theology degree from the Sorbonne with the beautiful academic robes that went with it, I Ching, mixing modern and ancient things, combining appropriate respect and a healthy reverence for the past with skepticism and  healthy irreverence, taking time out and time off from all of the above, Edward Gorey, how to set type, lay out newspaper columns and pages and write headlines, my first (and last) séance. 

     Harry was much younger then but he was still one of our more senior, mature teachers and certainly, in his quiet and polite way, our most sophisticated.  At a time when youth was overvalued, he taught me (mainly by inference and subtle comments) to discern value, to be able to figure things out for myself and to have confidence in my final conclusions based on the fact that I had carefully considered, rejected and discarded many previous conclusions.

     When life feels far too slippery, it means everything to find the things that grip, that help you sort through to what might possibly make sense.

     So happy birthday today.  I’m terribly sorry to have been too out of touch.  I hope you’re well.  I’m better today than I was yesterday because of remembering and valuing these memories.


  1. I missed this, being in a shit storm at work when it came out. I first heard the phrase shit storm at Our Old School, a place you conjure most effectively and provocatively for this old boy. Read the phrase actually, since it was in Vinny McLelland's yearbook quote: "There's a shit storm coming." I don't know whether a shit storm came, but lord knows the phrase has come in handy.

    You, like John Jeffords, used French for yours. I could quote both, and many more, but will not.

    During that seance you showed disrespect for authority.

  2. Please remind me about the seance. I liked writing this and was very glad and grateful when you requested the HG birthday letter. These are incredibly good memories. Curtis

  3. It was Saturday evening. Harry's living room in Brinsmade. Present were you, me, Harry, Norm Lemcke and Carol Simms. There may have been another student, too. It being Saturday evening, the adults had consumed a few drinks. More about that in a moment.

    We got down to business. The participants did not hold hands or sit around a table, even. We were spread out in rough circular formation on Harry's furniture. You had your back to the window over the quadrangle. I was to your right, against the wall that must have had Harry's library on the other side of it. Then Carol. Then Harry, facing you. Then Norm, nearest the kitchen.

    We darkened the lights. Perhaps because it was decided in advance he would play the role, Harry functioned as medium. That is, after a period of silence he said a few things. These were not particulalrly coherent or dramatic, just snatches of impressions or memories that his relaxed state permitted. There was no follow-through.

    Afterward we sat around chatting about what had happened, which was basically nothing, except to acknowledge the effort to become "receptive." This discussion of exceptional states of mind provided a natural segue for envelope-pushing Curt to make a jocular reference to what the Dean of Students was capable of "in this condition."

    "In any condition, Mr. Roberts."

    "In this condition," Mr. Roberts repeated with no change in vocal timbre.

    This story (that's the end), come to think of it, resembles the Doug Welles story. I mean both feature Curt not backing down in the face of a powerful adversary capable of doing him injury. Except Norm, whether because he was nicer than Doug (he certainly was) or recognized you had the advantage, did not make a comeback. At least not then.

    Both stories also feature, implicitly, an impressed Roddy.

  4. It all comes back now -- the people, the positioning in the room. You have a really good memory. I thought it was a powerful experience. I'd completly forgotten about Carol Simms (she was lovely), but not about Norman Lemcke, who I really liked. I don't need seances at this point; all sorts of stuff gets stirred up and breaks through in our house. We feel lucky about that. It's just the way things are. Thank you. Curtis

  5. Thank you for triggering the memory with your lovely piece.

    Carol Simms's flush-with-the-ground headstone is near where my parents are buried in the Green cemetary, the one the school walk started from. Hers is a poignant one. Carol died young and, so I was told, embittered.

    Continuing the graveyard survey, my sister, who thought you were good-looking, is buried in the Judea Cemetary, a mile away. Her stone is about equidistant from those of Rod Beebe, Edward Buxton, and Harry Rice.

  6. Harry Goldgar was my 9th grade English teacher at Providence Country Day School in East Providence, RI. This was 1970. I was thinking about him recently. Is he alive? How can I contact him? Lewis Satloff. lesatloff@yahoo.com

  7. Lew: Hi. That's very interesting to learn. As far as I know, he is indeed alive and living in New Orleans. A friend of mine from The Gunnery is in touch with him fairly often, I believe, and I will try to get you his contact information. Thanks for including your email address. Oh -- and while you're on this blog, please look around and revisit if you like what you see. I try to keep things varied and, as I think my Harry G. tribute suggested, this blog wouldn't be what it is without his influence on me, long time past as it may be. Curtis