Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Cicero on Friendship and Old Age

The great and wise Cato. Cicero does his voice from behind a curtain.

Cicero's writings on the subjects of old age and friendship are, in my humble opinion, constructed in some of the more difficult ways of the ancients.  They are dialogues, but by no means dramatic.  Two people come to another person, a famous and wise person, and ask the famous and wise person about a subject.  The famous and wise person then proceeds to say everything they could ever think of on the topic at hand for about 40 some pages.  The piece then closes with nothing resembling resolution, a dénouement, or even a restating of the thesis.  It ends when the guy stops talking.  The ancient Romans did not share our essay structures.

It also shows a different worldview in that if I were to use "a character" to flesh out ideas, it might very well be with the intention that I could then back-peddle and say, "I didn't say that.  That character said that."  This does not seem to be a motive in the ancient practice of dialogues.  Rather, they seem to be appealing to authority or, more precisely, emphasizing their convictions by placing them in the mouths of people that they admire. 

Again, I begin undermining my own desired position of a classics booster by placing the worst criticism I have about the work at the very beginning.  Our two topics are Friendship and Old Age, both of which I could use a little help in coming to terms with in my own life. 

I like it when the wisdom of the ancients writes me a permission slip for behavior towards which I am already predisposed.  I liked that in the Friendship section it is stated that true friendship is difficult to find and exceedingly rare, mainly because it requires two good people participating in the relationship.  Good people, as you well know, are protected by the ESA of 1973, although still widely hunted by poachers today. 

Good friendships being rare makes me feel better about not having many.  The catch to what Cicero intimates is that if you do not have good friendships, you might not immediately jump to the conclusion that there aren't any good people around.  You may want to take a gander at your own virtue. 

The section on Old Age was of tremendous value to me.  There are ways in which I look forward to aging (grey hair, looking better in nice clothing, getting a more soulful voice) but also many ways in which I fear it.  I mainly fear dying, of course.  I know I am not supposed to as a religious man, but I won't lie to you, I do fear the great unknown.  Even more I fear Alzheimer's disease.  Cicero, speaking behind the curtain as Cato, addresses these fears as well as some other common ones in reference to old age. 

First, he offers the surprisingly scientifically sound advice that the declines associated with aging are not so sharp in those who maintain a level of activity and challenge both in their physical and intellectual lives.  Modern health magazines trot out similar advice every few months as if it were something humans had only just discovered.  If you keep moving and keep your mind sharp, the effects of aging will not be as severe. 

He deflates the "closer to death" argument by pointing out that one never knows how close they are to death.  It is presumptuous to assume one will make it through the night at any age.  He also intimates, if I caught his drift, that one does not care quite so much when one is old (a sentiment which I can wholeheartedly grasp.  I am continually amazed at my capacity to recoil from the Great Unknown while simultaneously growing weary of this life.  Yes, I am fully cognizant of what Freud would make of me.)

There is also a discussion of the diminished desire/capacity for the sensual.  Cicero points out that sensuality is the "bait of vice" and that a diminished desire for it can be nothing but ameliorating to one's character.  Cicero echoes the wisdom of Solomon in expressing the good of each season of life while also highlighting that each are to be enjoyed within said season.  I instantly think of my teenage years which had some good and covetable aspects going for it.  I was in peak physical health and was able to do things I could not do at any other point in my life.  Having said that, if someone were to offer me the ability to relive High School, I would tie them to a chair, gag them, and immediately call an alienist and an exorcist.

The great orator says:
"In fine, enjoy that blessing when you have it; when it is gone, don't wish it back- unless we are to think that young men should wish their childhood back, and those somewhat older their youth! The course of life is fixed, and nature admits of its being run but in one way, and only once; and to each part of our life there is something specially seasonable; so that the feebleness of children, as well as the high spirit of youth, the soberness of maturer years, and the ripe wisdom of old age- all have a certain natural advantage which should be secured in its proper season."
I feel that is some of the best advice a human being could ever heed. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Paul Mathers on Tending

I was surprisingly encouraged to find so many people in the gardening store today.  There is a local hardware store in sight from our front porch and, the other day, their windows were painted with large letters reading "It's Time To Plant."  Which, upon noticing its appearance, I thought, "By golly, so it is."

It's been a splendidly mild winter in our area.  I've been tanning a great deal so far this February.  I fear that often portends a remarkably cruel summer, specifically the likelihood of massive wildfires.  However, I feel fairly certain in assuming that there shan't be another frost this year.

Upon first glance, one might think the picture above a horrible admission of the state of a portion of my backyard.  It is an area of our yard which was, at one point, the place where I drug a huge limb that fell from one of our trees during a dry spell.  It then sort of became the catch-all for yard waste that was waiting for room in the trash bin.  Little by little I would hack away at branches and use them to fill the trash container at the end of the trash week.  Nature always finds a way and grass strangled down the odd stray branch until we had a spot where our Fraggles would go for advice.

I admit this for two reasons.  First of all, though this be madness, yet there is method in't.  I knew as I saw a small wild patch creeping in that the leaves from the branches and the moisture enclosing grass shell would create soil rich beyond our wildest dreams.  Second, as of writing this, I have almost cleared the area.  The soil, indeed, is extremely rich.  It is nearly ready for us to plant.

Off we went to the gardening center.  We plan on making a raised bed next year.  This year Laurie wisely, I think, suggested that we reign in our plans to what is practically do-able in the next week or two, lest we end up doing nothing (Laurie understands my Ent-like tendency to take on projects that will take me a decade or so to complete.  I do, usually, complete them, but it does indicate the handicap of a hopelessly archaic internal clock.)

I do not recall a time in my life without a garden and should not like to ever have such a period.  During the "apartment years," it was more often than not confined to small boxes on the windowsill.  A garden is a hopeful act.  The cultivation of flora speaks of one's belief in quiet, peaceful, seemingly inconsequential acts of good can overcome the world's flood of evil in tiny increments, like throwing so many pebbles in a lake.  It is the fulfillment of what, in the Judeo-Christian worldview, is the actual "world's oldest profession."

I have a strong inclination towards adjusting my vision to only notice the shadows in life.  I rage against the pessimism that is my birthright.  Withnail is the narrator of my internal monologue.  Gardening is one of the most efficacious therapies for my manifold neuroses that I have ever undertaken.

A garden is a thing of great beauty, producing beauty, life, and that which can sustain life and beauty.  It is also a fragile thing.  Existence and a universe ruled by entropy constantly try to get their hands around its throat.  In our own little corner, I consider the usual elements of harsh summers and insects when planning a garden.  I also take into account our yard unfenced in our perennially impecunious state: the rogue dogs that wander our streets, the racoons, the fact that on my block it's a fairly safe bet that there is methamphetamine somewhere within a stone's throw of my home at any given time and that indigents are more than likely to walk off with anything of value left outside.  We have had our tires slashed for no good reason at all and the "territorial peeing" variety of graffiti appears on walls and fences with alarming regularity. 

There is a faction within the nascent Occupy movement which has taken to guerrilla gardening.  The idea, if I understand it correctly, is to reclaim some of the common, public spaces as a force for good (similar to some of the higher philosophy behind the more elevated manifestations of "Street Art," but, perhaps, with more arguably productive results.)  They simply go to parks and set up gardens with signs that the produce thereof belongs to the people, including harvesting instructions.  I find small actions like this to be moments where I have hope for the future of humankind.  Rare, fleeting hope.

When we moved into the house, Laurie had planned to have "an old lady garden" which, to some extent, we acheived around the perimeter of the house proper with geraniums and hydrangeas.  Today, we bought tarragon seeds, beets, lettuce, and cilantro.  We have canary melon seeds and pepper seeds which we've saved.  I have a fuchsia plant that I have nursed through the winter.  My grandmother had a huge fuchsia bush next to her home (still does actually) and I have always wanted to have fuchsia in my home.  We have a grapevine which grows grapes until they are just about ready for human consumption at which point the blue jays come and eat them.  We have jasmine and lavender and some bulbs by our fence that came with the house (pink naked ladies and paperwhites I think.)  This year I am insisting on rose bushes.  There should always be roses.

A phrase which I say often in conversation is: "The world can be whatever we choose to make it... and THIS is what we've made it?!!?"

All of which is why I think when my life is over, one of the nouns I would like to have connected to what I did with my time on Earth would be "Gardener."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Falstaff Coat of Arms

Laurie and I have declared a few nights a week our "project night."  They are usually Tuesdays and sometimes Thursdays as well.  It is a night in which we do not watch movies or sit around refreshing Facebook after work but, instead, work on projects.  Sometimes it is as practical as moving furniture and laying our floor.  Sometimes our projects are more along the art project line.

The other night we watched Verdi's opera Falstaff (a Royal Opera House production from the early 1980s with Renato Bruson in the title role.)  The action is loosely based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. There was the scene in which Falstaff finally gets alone with Mistress Ford and he said/sang:
"T'immagino fregiata del mio stemma, 
Mostrar fra gemma e gemma
La pompa del tuo sen."
Which is to say that he was imagining his own coat of arms somewhere in the general vicinity of her décolletage.

Which led me to think, "I wonder what Falstaff's coat of arms looks like."

Which led me to think, "I should design a coat of arms for Falstaff!"

What I've done above is to suggest a few elements of Falstaff while hopefully preserving the spirit of a coat of arms.  There is a stag which, of course, suggests the more libidinous side of his character.  The horns, of course, remind us of the cuckold motif in The Merry Wives as well as Herne, the Hunter.  On his antlers, of course, is a bunch of grapes, which should be fairly self-explanatory.  The rearing up before the crown is intended to suggest both knighthood and aspirations toward royal favor (as seen in Henry IV.)  

The inscription at the bottom is Latin for Falstaff's well known and probably most oft quoted line "The better part of valor is discretion."  His turn of phrase is a defense of cowardice.

This is what I do for fun.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Frogs, by Aristophanes

The odds were firmly stacked against my liking The Frogs, in spite of my previously well reported love for the Sondheim play based on the same material.  The supposed problem was with the author.  Whole books have been written about the complex relationship between Socrates and Aristophanes; indeed, even up to the point of suggesting that Aristophanes' satirical view of Socrates in his plays may have placed a bit of Socrates' blood on the great comedian's hands.  Readers of my joint blog with my wife know that Socrates is my spirit animal and I felt, as I was beginning to read this piece, I would be fellowshipping with darkness, as it were.

But then, as it turned out, I loved the piece unequivocally.  It was the piece in all of the Harvard Classics which I have most enjoyed reading.  I actually laughed out loud at one section.  I do not expect that to happen again in the 42 volumes I have left to read.  I found many comedic conventions employed which still have yet to be improved upon.  In this, it is difficult to imagine a more concise definition of a comedic "classic."

We have a very different view of the gods in this piece, especially of Dionysus who goes from a chaotic murderer in the previous piece to a slapstick, foppish goofball.  Dionysus is grieved over the death of the tragedian Euripides and, taking a cue from Heracles, decides to descend to the Underworld in order to bring Euripides back from the land of the dead.  In fact, Dionysus goes seeking direction from Heracles dressed in a lionskin, just as Heracles did.  This gives opportunity for more visual humor:

I was amazed at the sophistication of the satire and meta-narrative.  Aristophanes, in having Dionysus praise Euripides at the outset, sets him up to be mocked and roasted as the action unfolds, all without, presumably, delivering offense to those Euripideans in the audience.  In the first few moments of the show, Xanthias reveals that the characters are aware that they are in a play (also referenced later in Hades when the audience is referred to as some of the more ignoble damned.)  The section in which Dionysus judges between Euripides and Aeschylus to decide which he will bring back from the dead acts as a sort of Christmas tree on which Aristophanes gets to hang jabs at each of the playwrights.  The part that elicited genuine, vocal laughter from me was when Aeschylus interrupts Euripides' prologue recitations with "... and lost his little flask of oil" at moments where the phrase fits perfectly while reducing the verbal image presented to absurdity.  It is a form of humor that we still practice in "That's what she said" or when we add "...in bed" to the end of fortune cookie fortunes. 

We as a society.  Not we as in Laurie and I.

This piece, placed between The Bacchae and Cicero in our series, was a much needed respite.  I would love to produce this play (direct actually.  Or play Dionysus.  I think the character, at least in this piece, is within my type-range.)  I think the placement was an inspired stoke on the part of Dr. Eliot.  We have the basis of understanding the material by this point, we are then given the opportunity to play with it.  I feel that this is one of the great and important functions of education, specifically a Classical one.  One must needs understand the rules, as they say, before one proceeds to break them.