Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Fossil Hunting in that Foreign Country of Old Age

A man I know recently dropped dead under circumstances that prompted some to observe that at least he was doing something he loved.  He didn’t die while in the field searching for fossils, an activity about which he was also passionate, though that specific thought had, in fact, crossed his mind.  A decade ago, in a piece describing a fossil hunt, he wondered how much longer he’d be able to deal with the demands of tracking down fossils given that he was then in his late 50s, and this particular hunt had proven particularly taxing.  Still, he posited, if his demise were to come on some future hunt, it would be “a wonderful way to go.”

His death has me thinking about how to carry on fossil hunting into old age because I want to skip the part where I succumb while climbing over a fallen tree to reach some secluded stretch of cliffside beach or cascading head over heels down a rocky hill, a trilobite tumbling before me, just out of reach.  As I venture into my old age, I’ve already begun a transition in how I collect and work with fossils.  There was a time that I would blithely jump into my car, head alone to some isolated beach or overgrown road cut, and spend the day in pursuit of yet another fossil shell or tooth or . . . ., all done with few thoughts about the risks being taken.  I don’t think that even then I would have wanted to reach my end out there, and I certainly don’t want to now.  So I have been modifying how I pursue this avocation.

At one level, the transition in my collecting has been a matter of a change in the sheer magnitude of what’s being hunted.  At one stage, I was thrilled to load up my knapsack with a clutch of large, heavy fossils, some in matrix, some not.  Here’s an example of such specimens; I hauled this juvenile whale vertebra back from the Lee Creek phosphate mine (and the Miocene Epoch).

But these days, as my posts on this blog in the last few years certainly document, I’ve gone small, microscopically small.  Over time the proportion of the fossil specimens in my collection that is only enjoyed under the microscope has grown until now the vast majority of my fossils are just one or two millimeters in length or often smaller.  To wit, roughly a hundred Pliocene Epoch snail shells from the Tamiami Formation in Florida populate this slide.

What has this shrinkage meant for my collecting?  Well, these days I hardly ever venture out in crappy weather in search of fossils.  No more risking hypothermia to be the only person at a site when freezing rain is falling.  No more sallying forth carrying loads of water to stay hydrated in the searing summer sun.  No, much of my fossil hunting can be done sitting at home, in my pajamas, listening to music, sipping tea, while peering through a microscope.  The hunt has come to me and under very controlled circumstances.  Indeed, much of the matrix that I have work through in search of microscopic fossils is given to me, such as that which was serendipitously found inside a fossil shell presented to me by a friend or dug up by a traveling spouse on a beach in Scotland.  By going small, I think I’ve gone safer.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that I won’t collapse at my desk, knocking the scope and slides to the floor, crashing into my computer, while the strains of the cryptic and dark song Hollow Talk by Choir of Young Believers continue to drift from desktop speakers.  No, but it may mean a boost in my chances of enjoying fossils for awhile longer.

And isn’t that the point?  Responding to the inevitable limitations of age by accommodation while still maintaining as long as possible some aspect of the enjoyment that this activity or any other might provide – that seems to me to be a worthy goal.  Sure my productivity in this endeavor will diminish and maybe even disappear entirely, but it doesn’t make it any less worthwhile to me or those with whom I might encourage by sharing my enthusiasm.

In a provocative article titled Why I Hope to Die at 75 (The Atlantic, October, 2014), oncologist Ezekiel J. Emanuel laid out his argument for cashing in at 75.  Basically it boils down to his belief that were he to reach age 75 in reasonably good physical and mental health, it would clearly all be downhill from then until his death.  Upon reaching this benchmark age, he will reject any medical intervention intended to prolong life, even to the point of skipping an annual flu shot.

Sure, he notes, life expectancy has increased in the past century and, in many countries, it extends beyond 75.  But once the gains from reducing infant mortality and the ravages of infections were achieved, all of the growth in longevity has come from increasing the duration of old age.  And, he explains, our old age has become increasingly the province of disabilities.  He walks the reader through the ravages that age will visit upon our bodies and it’s not a pretty picture.  Some fortunate folks will escape most of these slings and arrows, but most will not.  The decline in mental ability is inevitable and in some cases catastrophic (Alzheimer’s affects a third of all seniors over the age 85).  This is a foreign country of the truly aged that Emanuel has no desire to visit. It certainly helped that he was 57 when he wrote the article, giving him a full 18 years until he would reach his expiration date.

Frankly, I think what concerns him most about living beyond age 75 is that his productivity will diminish, that he will no longer be able to contribute to his life’s work or certainly not as much as he did as a young professional.  He writes, “But the fact is that by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.”  As for the other kinds of contributions seniors might make, Emanuel is dismissive, apparently because they aren’t up to the standard he applied previously in his life; he is ultimately, I think, most concerned about one aspect of living beyond 75:  “the constricting of our ambitions and expectations.”  There’s a disapproving tone when he writes about his own father who had a heart attack at age 77 which spelled an end to the vigorous, productive life he’d been leading.  In the decade since, his father has slowed down, still swimming, reading, etc., but, “[a]lthough he didn’t die from the heart attack, no one would say he is living a vibrant life.”  Emanuel notes (I heard this in a dismissive tone), “Despite this, he also said he was happy.”  It boils down, apparently, to a calculus about “whether our consumption is worth our contribution” which points to age 75 as when it’s probably not.

I reject Emanuel’s position because I think it’s born from the demands of a Type A personality who has, and is, leading a professional life that is vastly productive and fulfilling, a personality who cannot envision being anything less than, dare I say it, a super star.  The diminution of his abilities would apparently be a fatal blow to his sense of self worth.

And none of that is me.  I don’t have the drive to be as productive as I once was (even that productivity was a mere shadow of Emanuel’s) and what I find most fulfilling (something true even back in my middle age) is in my personal life – family and avocations.  So, though I might not make it to 75 or beyond, I have found some balance and peace in that constricting of ambition and expectations that has already accompanied me a bit in the aging process.  I’m okay with consuming more than I’m contributing.  Selfish of me I know, but there are still things I want to do even if they don’t balance the ledger.

So perhaps I’m the second coming of A. J. E. Peacock, an early 20th century Brit, who seems to have escaped the privacy-invading reach of the Internet.  I know nothing about him except what I recount here.  While on the hunt for stamps from the King George V period, I came across two postcards that Peacock wrote to his solicitor, Austin M. King (1876 – 1944; there are traces of King on the web) in 1931 and 1932.  The first is a postcard from the Devonshire House Hotel, London (it was a residential hotel I believe), and the second is from Cavendish Mansions in Brighton and Folkestone, a resort area south of London.  The holes in the stamps are clearly the work of some clerk who smashed each postcard onto a bill spike.  But it’s the messages that Peacock wrote in his spidery hand and sent to his solicitor that so amuse and intrigue me.  I and others have speculated, sometime wildly, about the reasons for the messages, the most prosaic being a financial trust that demanded them annually.  I particularly love the exclamation points!!

I’ve taken this to heart.  Whatever I do to accommodate the vicissitudes of aging in the future, consider it as simply “evidence of life!”

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