Sunday, January 8, 2017

Seventy-four (74)

“They say it’s your birthday!”

By Moristotle

It was about three months before his 75th birthday when my father died. The fact that he died when he was the age I am today has been giving me pause for some months.
    It was once explained to me (over half my lifetime ago) that some apparent acts of self-sabotage of mine might be stemming (Freudianly) from the “Icarus Complex.” I was reminded of the Greek myth that, when Daedalus fashioned wings for himself and his son, Icarus, so that they could fly above the mountain tops, Icarus flew too close to the sun, which melted the beeswax his father had used to bind the feathers of their wings, causing Icarus to fall to his death.
    Beware attempting to eclipse your father? No, I was counseled. The Greeks knew very well that it was colder on the top of the mountain; Icarus’s wings did not come unglued. Rather, beware imitating Icarus and undoing yourself for fear of eclipsing your father.

So, banish Icarus! I may not be a high-flyer, but I would like to live a few more years. I want to continue to feed Siegfried in the morning and let him out, make coffee for my wife & me, put out her fruit, arrange mine on my cereal, replenish the wild-bird feeders & enjoy their scramble for a perch....I want to continue to be here for our son and our daughter, our grandson and our granddaughter, for my remaining sister, nieces & nephews, friends & colleagues...for Moristotle & Co....

I am ashamed to admit what I answered, about 38 years ago, when I was asked whether I thought I had yet (at almost 36 years old) accomplished anything. I answered no, I hadn’t accomplished anything. I was ashamed, that is, when my wife reminded me later that I had, with her, in fact “accomplished” two fine children. Indeed we had, and I have never forgetten that.

Jennifer, Dale, & Geoffrey, Christmas 1976
What is the worst thing I have ever done? It was probably having our Springer Spaniel, Dale, put down (about 1987). I have never forgotten that as the vet was about to administer the injection, he asked me why I was having this done, had Dale bitten someone? (As though that could be bad enough for any dog to be put down for.) And I had said, no, Dale never bit anyone. In fact, Dale had never done anything to deserve what we were about to do. Some members of his human family had simply failed him. Among them was not my son, whom we had not told beforehand....
    I know that I have hurt other individuals by things I’ve done or said – or left undone or unsaid. I hope they can forgive me – if they don’t despise me to the degree that I myself despise, say, Mitch McConnell for his treasonous obstructions, or Donald Trump for the calamity his shameless bullying, lying, bragging, and reckless exploitation of other people’s nastiness have inflicted on America.

What is the best thing I have ever done? Not for me to say. I only hope that others can mostly agree I have been a good person and done more good than bad.

But I have already lived long enough for reality to disabuse me of my early conceits and delusions – good rewarded, evil punished, prayers answered, everything set right.
    Relieved of these fanciful expectations, I am ready, whenever the time comes – whether before my next birthday or a few years beyond – to fall quietly into the sea.

“Musee des Beaux Arts,” by W. H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Copyright © 2017 by Moristotle


  1. My father died at the age of 43 and I remember how hard of a birthday that was to get past for me. It is normal for us to measure our life's by the past, we have no other gage. Happy Birthday mi amigo

    1. Ed, I HAVE heard a few others say similar things. I wonder how normal, really, it is....

  2. What a beautiful column Morris, and what a beautiful inclusion one of my favorite Auden poems. How effortlessly you have tied mortality and achievement and the bonds of our collective human failings (and occasional moral triumphs) all around the poetry and paintings of the Icarus myth. My sister died at 44, and with every year I outlive that milestone, I note the uncountable important moments she missed, both of suffering and rare satisfaction. The important thing is to live and love and not worry that the bell will eventually toll. Happy Birthday Morris!

    1. Eric, I give my muse all the credit. The paragraphs all suggested themselves to me. All I did was write each one over four or five times, and rearrange them a few times.

      I’m delighted that we share an affection for that Auden poem.

      I haven't yet lived longer than any of my three sisters who have predeceased me, but I think I'm close to doing so with dear Anna, the mother of my nephew Steve Glossin, with whom I started this blog, in 2006.

      Live and love!

  3. Happy Birthday! Let's FaceTime today! Vera wants to greet you!

  4. Morris, I ignored your birthday on the dubious grounds that I always ignore my own. Decide that was stupid. Happy Birthday! May we have several more.

    Meanwhile, thanks for the Brueghel and the Auden. Two long-standing favorites I hadn't thought of for a while. Thanks even more for the question "what have you accomplished so far?" Not a question I've ever lingered over, as the answer has always been "not a sliver of what I'd hoped." Since you brought it up in the context of your own early middle age, I thought about what I might have answered then. Then, what I might say today. Then, what does "accomplish" mean, and why would one want to do it...and on and on. Might be worth talking about some day. Think about it is the most interesting thing I've done in a few days.

  5. Chuck, I am delighted that you discuss that question, for I considered identifying the occasion I was asked it: when Carolyn & Geoffrey & Jennifer & I visited you in December 1978. The question arose in my conversation with YOU!

    1. Huh! I don't remember the comment. I do remember the visit. It happened in interesting times. I don't know whether you remember the circumstances.
      I had recently divorced, and was living as cheaply as possible while I rebuilt my fortunes. The problem, as I saw it, was to live cheap without living ugly, so I was living in a log hovel with a trout stream at the bottom of the meadow, doing my Walden thing. You saw me at a rental house in town that I'd just bought, planning to use the basement as a crash pad when it wasn't convenient to go home at night. I remember being slightly embarassed that you'd caught me in such mean circumstances. A month later I embarked on a year's expedition to the South Pole.
      I suppose it was an accomplishment that I managed to do things so strange and interesting, rather than 9-5ing it in the 'burbs waiting to retire.

    2. I do remember (vaguely) that you had recently divorced, and were soon off to Antarctica. Whether you asked me straight-out if I thought I had accomplished anything, I don't remember. I tend to doubt it, because of your suspicions about what an “accomplishment” is. I may have somehow raised the subject myself. I might even have been embarrassed that you were about to leave for an exciting science adventure while I was unexcitingly “9-5ing it.”

      I think that whenever someone cites an “accomplishment,” he needs to define the term and explain what he means by “accomplishing” something. The lower the bar, the more we can have accomplished. Idealists may believe they have accomplished little. Most realists too, come to think.

    3. In that era I was clear on what an "accomplishment" was: scientific credentials enough to get tenure at a good research university, or equivalent. It was also clear by then that it wasn't going to happen - and alas, I was unable to think of anything else that I considered a) an accomplishment, b) achieveable, and c) interesting. So I gave up and focused on things that I would enjoy achieving, even though I thought them self-indulgent and ultimately unimportant. Wintering in Antarctica. Becoming an expert mountaineer and wilderness traveller. Becoming a decent semi-pro musician (I didn't think I had the talent to go pro.) I managed to do a few of these things, and enjoyed them very much. I had hoped to make a difference, though, and none of these things possibly could.
      The question then boils down to: must an accomplishment make a difference to the world? If, for any reason, that seems unachievable, must one settle for accomplishments of merely personal importance? And is there anything wrong with that? As I've gotten older and seen what others have or haven't achieved, I've found I care less and less. If I manage to be a decent man, to earn my own respect, and to have an inteesting life, I'll settle.

    4. Chuck, I think you have ”settled“ well, and I’ve come to the same place – although I couldn’t have said it so well.

  6. I hope you celebrate many many more birthdays dear Uncle !

    1. Thank you, dear Dawn. And thank you for your birthday CARD, which was delivered only yesterday because our snow here on Friday prevented our mail from being delivered on Saturday.
          You use BOTH online communication AND the US Postal Service – amazing!