A couple of weeks ago Iris and I took an extraordinarily cheap flight up to Seattle to celebrate my grandmother’s 83rd birthday. She was born in 1929, just after the boom times of the Roaring 20s and just before the depression of the 1930s. When I sit back on occasional solitary Sundays and reflect on where my life has taken me over the past 13 years of my legally adult life, and then realize that my grandmother has lived 50 more years of adulthood, it’s almost too much to absorb.
Our trip was timely beyond my grandmother’s birthday and the rare sunny Northwest weather. We also had responsibilities of family legacy to carry out. When my grandmother moved into her lakeside cabin, resting at the bottom of a long slope of apple trees, vegetable garden, and grandfatherly pines, it was, at the time, in the middle of nowhere. This was before Boeing, Microsoft, and Amazon, when Washington State’s economy was still mostly dependent on timber and agriculture. To this day, the cabin is a retreat into the past where everything seems to be more simple and self-sufficient. But that self-sufficiency requires a lot of maintenance and energy; energy that they increasingly are without.
We visited two “assisted living communities,” which my grandmother referred to as “wrinkle farms” and which struck me as vertical cruise ships, complete with their lunch buffets and evening programmed events. I kept a straight face, but more than anything else, my grandparents seemed far too young to be living in such a place. According to the strictest calculations they are 83 and 84, but to me they’re still in their early 70’s.
As we toured the assisted living communities I came to realize that my grandparents were choosing between two kinds of freedom. They could stay at their lakeside cabin with the freedom to come and go as they please without the watchful eyes of institutional staff and nosy neighbors. Or they could move to a wrinkle farm and gain the independence of not sweeping pine needles daily, not feeling responsible for the maintenance of their property, and not enduring the conflicting recommendations of children and grandchildren who feel they know best.
It still trips me out that my grandparents have lived more than 50 years of adulthood than I. Do I want to live 50 more years of adulthood? What to do with all that time? Shouldn’t I slow down a bit?
These questions came to me this weekend after reading a Sunday NY Times piece by David Ewing Duncan about his research into the perceived ideal life span. Noting that during the next century it is expected that the average life span in the developed world will reach 100 years, Duncan puts forth a sensible question: How long do we want to live? 80 years? 120 years? 150 years? Forever?
By far the vast majority responded that the ideal life span is 80 years. Even if they were able to stop the debilitating effects of aging, few responded that they would want to live longer. 100 years is a really long time. The novelty is that in a few decades this won’t just be a hypothetical question for philosophers; we’ll actually have to choose between taking an assortment of anti-aging pills or not. Our friends that choose to take these pills might both look and feel better, while the rest of us suffer the natural effects of aging: tiredness, forgetfulness, aching joints.
There was one more research study I came across this weekend that extended my reflective mood. I finally took my road bike out for a steep trip up to the cool pine forest of Cuajimalpa with its expansive views over the Mexico City valley, and I took with me a round-table discussion with psychologist Daniel Kahneman at the London School of Economics about his best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow. At one point in the discussion Kahneman mentions his research into the correlation between happiness and salary, which found that there are no gains in day-to-day contentment in the US after surpassing an annual salary of $75,000, which is just about what I am now paid.
Which begs the question, is this as good as it gets? The ideal lifespan, the ideal salary. Not more, not less.
Also, I can’t shake the feeling that our generation marks the ideal overlap between the inextricably linked evolutions of human and technological development. We can exploit the enthralling freedoms of air travel, road trips, Skype calls and instant access to nearly all books and music ever created. But we’re not yet enslaved to boutique genetic makeups, the facial recognition lenses of Google Glasses and the mechanized monotony of driverless cars.
On my ride back down from Cuajimalpa, reaching speeds of nearly 50 mph, I concluded that this is indeed as good as it gets. I don’t want more money. I don’t want to live longer. I just want to live better, more appreciative and more mindful of every moment of every day.