Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Every two weeks, I go to philosophy class here at Terwilliger Plaza. The class is taught by Hugh Harcourt, an elegant, erudite, eloquent retired professor of philosophy who encourages class discussion of philosophical topics by giving us snippets of famous philosophers to read and by being graciously willing to take any side of any argument to keep class conversations going. He is generous with his deep understanding of the people he introduces to the thirty or so of us who gather very fortnight. The class, titled "Inquiring Minds", is one of the highlights of my time here.

I joined the class as we were discussing Thucydides. We've done several weeks on Plato (whom I liked and am reading "Plato at the Googleplex" to get more about) and several more on Aristotle (whom I found rather distasteful with his "take everything apart" approach and "ethics as community median" ideas of how to live).

But today's class was exceptional. We are talking about the Stoics, reading Cleanthes' Hymn to the Sun and a couple dozen excerpts from Epictetus. Toward the end of the class, we started talking about the Stoics and death. Epictetus compared life to the experience of a ship's passenger who has debarked for a bit to wander around on land. He advised the passenger to keep always one eye on the ship, awaiting the Captain's call to reboard, lest the passenger be trussed up like a wayward sheep and carried back against his will when the ship again set sail.

The underlying idea was to keep the idea of death always before you so that when your time comes, you are ready to accept it. Someone in the class cited "Thanatopsis", the poem by William Cullen Bryant, as agreeing with the Stoic view:

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which move
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

Someone else cited Dylan Thomas on the other side:

Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And someone asked, "If we're going to end up dead in either case, what difference does it make?"
This led to a discussion of the idea of a "good death", which in turn led to remembrances of the recent
death of someone many people in the class had known, and how his death had been a good death.

This is a wonderful place, where people for whom aging and death are not mere theory can talk 
about what it means to have a good death, citing great literature amid consideration of great thought.
This is a place where I can learn how to age and how to die without the lessons being in the least
morbid or sentimental. Moving here was definitely a good move.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Way to go, Pineapple Express!

And having complained about the orange box polluting my view, I now find that the windstorm we're in the middle of has blown it to the foot of the hillside behind some ground cover. It's still very orange, but it's no longer very visible.

This is apparently an extraordinarily lucky event. Earlier this week, I was complaining to one of my neighbors on the sixth floor that I didn't hear any of the thunder that was forecast a couple days ago. (I like thunderstorms. They are one of the few things I miss about St. Louis, where I went to high school.) He responded that nothing ever happens around here. "All hell can be breaking loose all over Portland, and we get nothing," he said with a smile.

We're huddled up against the east face of the hills, and I guess they serve as a shield against most weather, which tends to come from the west, swoop up over hills, and not come down to earth again until a few miles away.

But the Pineapple Express, which is currently soaking northern California, comes at us from the south, so the windstorm came right through. Electric and phone lines are down, light rail is on-again-off-again, tree branches are being blown into the streets, but my orange box is gone.

Thank you, Pineapple Express!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Orange Box

It may not yet be December 21, but my hillside is pretty much into its winter visage. A few sere brown leaves are still on the big leaf maple branches, but I can clearly see the half-dozen or so grey stalks that aspire eventually to be tree trunks with their finger-thick branches splayed out in all directions. The dark brown-gray stone of the hillside is visible again, beribboned with ferns. There are a lot more of them this year than last, which is great visually, though it makes me wonder whether the ferns have found more places where water is seeping through the rocks, which, in turn, makes me wonder whether I will awake some night to the roar of the hillside crumbling into the side of my building. Small rockfalls are restrained by long veils of fencing that the maples and ferns grow through, but if the whole shebang comes down, the fencing will come with it.

The only discordant note to the dour winter color scheme is a bright orange box that someone tossed over the side from the street above. It might have held Dunkin donuts or fried chicken or Reese's peanut butter cups if someone decided to eat 16 or 24 of them as he walked up the sidewalk. The orange is a color not found in nature except perhaps for a few days each year in satsuma groves. I think the box is waxed or otherwise rendered resistant to moisture because it is not fading. At all. The glue that held the box into its rectangular shape is rapidly giving up its hold, and the box itself is moving a bit down the hillside from day to day, but it's found a relatively stable place at the base of several maple trunk-lets, which puts it almost exactly where my eyes fall when I gaze out the window. It offends the Thoreau in me -- a sign of decadent civilization amid my big leaf maples and basalt hillside! -- but that's a bit silly, since my sense of being in touch with nature happens through double-glazed windowpanes from a heated room with my computer and Christmas chocolates easily within reach. So I guess I will just be glad there's only the one bit of trash to remind me of fallen human nature and go back to admiring the ferns.