Becoming History

by Dr. Dirt
September 2019

— in which Dr. Dirt muses on the end of all things, mostly himself

The unique mission of Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth is to interpret the post-Columbian evolution of a New England seaport neighborhood over time. Unlike similar “village re-enactments” such as Plimoth Plantation, Old Sturbridge Village, or Colonial Williamsburg, Strawbery Banke is not time-locked to one period of history but illustrates the evolution of this ten-acre cluster of houses from 1696 until becoming a public museum in the late 1950s. Thus, you can tour a merchant’s shop from 1705, a wealthy sea captain’s home from 1780, a Victorian politician’s manse from 1870, a Jewish immigrant family’s humble apartment from 1920, a 1940’s corner store, and so on – each furnished to its period and to its occupants’ economic status. Imagine my surprise (shock!) when I entered my own middle-class home from the 1950s: Linoleum “throw rug,” scratchy overstuffed sofa, Formica dining table, two-tub wringer washer, and a television set with a tiny curved screen, rabbit-ears, and a cabinet the size of a refrigerator. I thought, “Holy crap! I’m now history!”

The odometer keeps rolling through the numbers, on both my car and my body. In 1968 I owned a one-third share in a 1953 Chevrolet (an investment on my part of $16.67, plus gas). A major celebration was held to honor its turning 100,000 miles – a rarity in those days of leaky seals, ill-fitted parts, and homespun repairs. Today we might hold such a celebration at 200,000 or 250,000 miles: Vehicle life has doubled as machined tolerance levels have narrowed, lubricants have improved, and as we drive more high-speed miles in our daily Sisyphean commutes.
In similar fashion our human lifespans have almost doubled. From an evolutionary perspective, the design-life of the human body is around 38 years: Aging on the African savannah was severely limited. Common methods of death included childbirth (both mother and offspring), diseases without modern cures, abscessed teeth and infected wounds, starvation, and an abundance of cunning and well-equipped predators – especially other humans. So 38 years was the average lifespan. People living beyond that became highly valued cultural repositories and dispensers of wisdom.

Today our bodies last about twice that long, and if we’re lucky, our minds do too. Why so long? Statistics show much lower death rates for all the age-old causes, including death from other humans. But like a car with 200,000 miles, our aging lives are not what they once were: Hard to get started of a cold morning, more erratic operation, and more repairs and replacement parts as time goes on. Highly valued cultural repositories and sage teachers – not so much. It’s more about rectal suppositories and sage smudging.

I have a friend Walter I see once a week for lunch. His odometer hit 104 at the end of July. When asked to what he attributes this longevity, he replies with a wry smile, “I never married.” Well, I did marry, but I’m belatedly taking Walter’s advice. I have a long-term girlfriend (woman-friend?), but we keep separate housing – about ninety miles separate. As my teeth grow longer and my night vision fades, the commute is beginning to feel like a long haul. I finally broke down and bought a new used Lexus, to pass the ride-time in more comfort. The Lexus also has eleven airbags in case I doze off. (You may recall the incident a few years back when an elderly couple drove an air-bagged Cadillac off a steep section of the Mount Washington Auto Road, tumbling down a thousand feet. They walked away with only bruises and embarrassment.) Along with our bodies, our aspirations shrivel as we age: All I want is a good airbag.

As the actor Bette Davis reached her eighth decade, she wrote, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” a statement which these days appears in slightly modified form on coffee mugs and coffee-stained t-shirts worn by drooling geezers. A corollary I learned from a farmer friend with knuckles the size of golf balls is, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.” The most seriously sissifying or weakening agent, besides our own death, is the death of friends and relatives. As we gain in years, we lose through funerals. Causes are as diverse as the people. The quicker exits seem to involve the cancers: Brain, breast, prostate, pancreatic, melanoma. Then there are the more lingering ones: Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia seem to be particularly popular among the people I know. It’s very hard to watch (much less experience), and there’s little you can do to help, save simple friendship.

This was all brought home to me over the last year. I went to the doctor for knee pain: Arthritis and no cartilage left. Why? “Your age.” Fuzz in my eye with flashes of light: Vitreous detachment of the eyeball. Why? “Your age.” Abdominal pain: Diverticulitis. Why? “Your age.” Forgetting names and nouns: Memory loss. Why? “Your age.” Other vexing questions: Where is my phone/keychain? When did I take my last Tylenol/Advil/antibiotic? Why am I standing in the middle of this room right now?

The good news for me is that, so far, these problems are all pretty insignificant in the greater scheme – the Greater Scheme being Death. I’ve signed up for my first big replacement part, my right knee. As everyone says, “You’ll know when it’s time,” the right time for me including constant pain, a cane, poor sleep, and no hiking. As everyone also says, “You’ll wonder why you waited so long.” I anticipate that thought in about a month.

At the moment (and with much knocking on wood), my body is free of the serious auto-cannibalistic devastations like cancer and dementia. In this realm of innocence and ignorance, I don’t fear the Big D. I’ve had a pretty darn good life, and (so far) can intellectualize death as the final tattered satin ribbon on the package. Becoming compost even seems appealing, part of the wheel of life: From mud we are made, and to mud we return. I do fear the potential pain and deep malaise that may lie ahead. At the same time, I’ve been blessed with an ostrich-like ability to bury my head in the sand when these grim thoughts arise. Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt, and I seem to be pretty handy with it. And I figure (hopefully?) that I’ll just get run over by a bus.

So I continue, happily and blindly, to carpe my diems. Head in the sand, I try to make the most of what’s left: Travel, reading/writing, design, cooking and dining out, making love, laughing, communing with nature, and visiting with the kin and kindred spirits who still walk the planet. It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.

Phun Phact: Scientists now refer to the current geological era on Earth as the “Anthropocene Epoch,” the brief period when the dominant force on the planet was the human being.

— Dr. Dirt, a mere stripling at 33, gives a nod to his elder John Hart, dba Environments LLC, Durham NH.