Friday, July 29, 2016

A Place to Lie Down

-- By Tom Phillips

New York is a great place to make money, and art, friends, and trouble -- a place to write and talk, to compete in the marketplace of ideas.  For all these reasons, it's not a great place to die.  To die in New York -- this is my fantasy -- is to feel like a loser, a dropout, a runner falling by the wayside while others speed on.

Most of my working career was spent at the New York headquarters of CBS.  There, high-powered executives duked it out to become president of this or that division, and ultimately the whole company.  The game was to destroy your enemies and cultivate your allies, until the winner stood atop the mountain, the jewel they called the Tiffany Network.  There, of course, he became the target of vicious attacks until he too fell by the wayside.

Only two men ever survived at the top -- William Paley, the company founder, and the current kingpin, Sumner Redstone.  And the price of their survival was the delusion of immortality.  A biographer quoted Paley in his late eighties, in failing health, demanding of a friend: "Why do I have to die?"

Redstone goes further.  According the The New York Times, this 93-year-old bare-knuckle billionaire -- though he can barely stand up or speak -- plans to live forever.  This is the premise of his fight to keep control of the company.

I was never president of anything bigger than our co-op apartment building, and while that job failed to kill me, it did not grant the illusion of immortality.  Life will end -- I just don't want to feel like a failure when it does.  So I'm looking for a place where dying is part of life.  Lest my friends despair or my enemies exult -- I'm not expecting to die, or even move, any time  soon.  Still, at 75, one needs a destination.

In recent years, our three youngest daughters have all moved West -- two to Seattle, one to the San Francisco Bay.  Up to now I have spiced our visits with cranky observations on the landscape and the culture.  Contemplating the mountains, the forests, and the seas, I complain that the water is too cold, the trees too tall, the mountains forbidding.  You can't swim in Puget Sound, or climb a giant redwood, or walk up Mount Rainier, without elaborate gear, and even then you risk your life.  Not to mention the earthquakes and tsunamis everyone agrees will devastate the scene, maybe tomorrow.    Out there, nature engulfs civilization, makes human endeavors look puny. This is a shock for one who has always given precedence to culture, for whom civilization is where we live and move and have our being.

There's culture in a city like Seattle, of course, but nowhere in the world does it have the density of New York, where it seems to spring from every crack in the sidewalk.  Art and intelligence move through the air, in bursts of overheard conversation, in arias from unseen sopranos warming up in their apartments.  The other night we went out to dinner and then walked over to Riverside Park, intending to watch fireflies, but instead we heard music and stumbled into a free jazz concert by Grant's Tomb.  We wound up watching dancers on the pavement, venerable dudes from Harlem showing off the moves they'd perfected in a lifetime of lindy-hopping, perfected and yet were still refining, re-inventing with every phrase of music. This is New York.  It makes you love humanity so much that you can't bear to part with it.  Heaven will be a bore.

For all these reasons, the Pacific Northwest seems a better place to die.  New York honors and celebrates the humanities, shows us what our human race is capable of.  Even the natural grace of Central Park is of human design.  Out West, God is the creator, and people are spectators, gawkers and piddlers around the margins of creation.  Every step out the door reminds you that this is not your home, just a campground on the verge of eternity.

I came to these conclusions as I contemplated a wedding photograph -- our daughter Zoey marrying a great outdoorsman, Ryan Dunne, in the great outdoors of Kitsap County, Washington.  I was there when it happened, but so focused on the ceremony that I forgot to look up.

Henry David Thoreau marveled that while in most of the world you'd be eaten by a tiger or something, "the traveler can lie down in the woods at night almost anywhere in North America without fear of wild beasts."

So that's how I'd like to die, just taking my ease in the western wilderness. Vultures can take care of the remains.  OK, girls?

Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips
Photo by Catie's Photography


  1. Beautiful and thoughtful, as always!

  2. Very beautiful. It's good to contemplate dying, and what better way to contemplate it than by considering where you'd most like to do it. You only get to experience death once, so what experience is to be more treasured...

  3. not be here with the art and culture that feeds us? really?

  4. At a certain point, one stops feeding and begins fasting. Not yet, but some day ..