When you’re in Manitoba, you’re never speeding

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Something surprising happened last week: I heard a new song, and I liked it. Liked it enough to want to find out who sang it, and how I could hear more. Once, that would have been utterly unremarkable. For a good part of my twenties and thirties, I was a music junkie. I went out to see live bands—rock, mostly, in all its forms and allied genres—at least twice a week, and often more. Wherever I lived, I sought out the smaller clubs, and the music no one else had heard yet. I had my perennial favorites, of course. But as my record collection swelled to nearly a year of round-the-clock listening time, the thrill of hearing something new remained a major part of the experience.

Now, as I inch towards 50, I’m lucky if I find one new band I like in a year. But I don’t think it’s just my age, or that I’m stuck musically in some former time—I’ve largely stopped listening to music altogether, unless it’s background accompaniment to drown out less desirable noise. I’m starting to think I’ve simply saturated my music receptors, and, unable to experience the thrill of the new any longer, have moved on. Without meaning to, or really noticing as it happened, I’ve let one of the major passions and cultural experiences of my life simply slip away.

No one aspires to middle age, the broad-bottomed flyover country of life stages. Little by little the years just accumulate, until suddenly you find yourself seeking out ever-warmer pajamas, say, or noticing the absence of former passions by their occasional atavistic reappearance. And man, is it flat out here, horizon to horizon, with neither the angst and exhilaration of youth, nor the attainment and immediacy of true old age. Having dwelled in the Manitoba of my lifespan for a good while now, I’ve come to appreciate its muted, dun-colored pleasures and the modesty of its disappointments. But I’d hardly want it to go on forever.

And yes, there is a science point to all of this.

I recently happened to hear a radio discussion on the science of life extension—the idea that by tweaking a telomere here, restricting a calorie there, or reprogramming a few epigenetic methyl groups somewhere else, humanity will free itself from the iron restraints of our traditional maximum lifespan of a little more than 100 years. The author of a new book on the subject was waxing enthusiastic about the inevitability of 150-year lifespans, as the host gamely speculated along about the social and ethical implications, without ever questioning the premise.

God, it was boring. And not just because the science of “radical” life extension, which I’d been happily not keeping up with, apparently hasn’t advanced a whit since I was tricked into covering a conference on the subject way back in 2000. I remember a whiff of desperation and megalomania in the Washington, DC hotel conference room where it was held, an unpleasant blend of grave-fear and entitlement. And I remember thinking that while the biology of aging was certainly interesting, speculative leaps and wild projections from worm studies were decidedly not.

But what I didn’t understand then, couldn’t, as my journey across the great plains of middle age had just begun, was just how deluded these notions of a radically extended lifespan really are. It’s not an original thought, or even really a profound one. But if adding 50 or 100 years to a life were possible, wouldn’t it have to come in the middle? By definition, certainly, but by experience, as well: it’s hard enough to maintain youthful ambition and idealism for as long as we already do, before experience makes such things untenable. And I don’t think many would sign on for an extra half-century of end-of-life care.

No, the extra years would have to come in the middle, and that’s where the would-be Methuselahs lose me. I like driving across flat prairie as much as the next person, and I have no desire to speed the journey along to its end, believe me. But making Manitoba twice as wide as it already is? That just doesn’t sound like a good idea—especially since you can be sure there won’t be anything worth listening to on the radio.

 

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Categorized in: Health/Medicine, Miscellaneous, Thomas

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12 thoughts on “When you’re in Manitoba, you’re never speeding

  1. Well dammit, Cameron, you got straight to the point, didn’t you. Is it ironic, or just dumb that I don’t remember? I was almost immediately distracted by eight other things, and by the time I remembered to try to find out, I couldn’t remember what day or on which radio station I had heard it, or even if it was a man or a woman singing. And yes, I tried to work that into the post, but all it did was make the middle part longer and more boring — and that, I do know, would have been ironic. Or do I mean meta?

  2. This is making me laugh, Tom. Last week, I was driving down the flat road to Regina under the big prairie sky, listening to the Barenaked Ladies, and having tearful nostalgia for the days of listening to live bands after a night of studying at the library. If we could make those days live forever, or even if we could live on the beach and drink cocktails all day, then yes, bring on 150 years of life. But if it means another 70 years of feeling creaky in this landlocked place I love, watching everything I eat to make sure it’s low fat, and saying goodbye over and over to friends that die, great buildings that get torn down, and waiting for the apocalypse, then I think I’d say no thank you. Live hard, die young. Or live hard, die after a good shortish-long life. Or something.

  3. Is it just music? I ask because I feel the same way about music, too. But not about books. My interest in them has had a couple of dry spells, but I always come back to them. And I still get the thrill of reading a really well-written book, just like I did in my teens and twenties (well, maybe not just like, but close, I think.) I also wonder if it’s middle age, or the particularly sleep-deprived and exhausted mind of a parent of young children. Sometimes I’m not enjoying something I used to simply because I’m too damn tired.

  4. On the other hand (from what I just said earlier), if I knew I would live until I was 150, I could read a page of War and Peace every day and feel fairly confident that I’d be able to finish it. And explore the life of the mind. There’s something wonderful in that idea.

  5. I’m in my mid-40s, and my answer to the “expiring passion” problem is to seek out new passions. If someone could find a way to give me 50 extra years, provided they were healthy years, I’d take them.

  6. Thanks for the thoughts, everyone–it’s yet another instance of LWON comments being more thoughtful, insightful and interesting than the original post.

    I probably should have included the caveat that I’ve never been happier in my life, and I’m by-and-large a pretty jolly guy. And I really do like driving long prairie roads, a lot. But right now it feels like the Great Plains are just about wide enough, though goodness knows I may change my mind quickly once I start to see the foothills popping up on the horizon. (I see life’s road trip as running from east to west, for some reason. An artifact of growing up in a culture of westward expansion, I wonder?) Anyway, @Dave, I may well join you yet.

    @Elie, I didn’t have the Weakerthans in mind when I wrote, but you’re spot on with that — Samson captures prairie nostalgia/ wistfulness perfectly. Further evidence: One Great City (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eK8x-77GqB0&feature=related), Left and Leaving (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgJ6soX18R8).

    @Apoorva, as your GoodReads friend, I have been non-stop astounded at your appetite for literature. (You should meet @Gwen, my favorite librarian.) Books have been an important part of my life too, but I read ploddingly, and as the kids have displaced most of my reading time, I’m down to work reading only, i.e. student writing and books I’m reviewing. Not bad work, but hardly reading for pleasure! I have high hopes of becoming ever-more bookish as the kids get a little older, though. You’re right of course though, the older parent of younger kids thing is surely a factor. I can easily imagine the alternative life, childless, with more time to sleep, work, think and have dreams of my own. But the drop off in musical interest happened several years before we decided to have kids – in some ways, it may even have paved the way for that decision. (Do I mean that? Maybe. It just occurred to me.)

    And @Geoff, thanks for making me feel better about not knowing what’s going on :)

  7. “Nothing to listen to?” Okay, so if I understand your metaphor, there’s nothing left in life that’s interesting once you hit fifty.
    You are depressed…possibly, I’m not a professional, nor would a pro diagnose you from just one article but saying that there’s nothing left to look forward to? Listen, I don’t care how long the “drive” is, I don’t care if it’s a hundred times as long if it gets me to where I want to be. I want to live a long life so that I can travel in space. I want to be a three hundred year old cyborg that dies on Io (or in another solar system altogether). So if someone gave you a pill that would allow you to live long enough to go into space, even long enough to not have to deal with that troublesome colonizing business, you wouldn’t take it?

  8. I’ve certainly noticed an increased level of ennui the past year or so. As I become more experienced in a work sense, it seems that not much new is popping up over the horizon. I’ve also noticed that I don’t read much fiction these days, unless it’s something from my past; I’m much more inclined to read non-fiction.
    I think most people remember the music they listened to up until the age of 30, but I was encouraged by Alice Cooper, who recently said in an interview that he still likes to listen to new brash bands, who remind him of what he used to be like. I occasionally have the experience of hearing something new and thinking ‘wow, I’d like to hear some more of that’, so I still find new bands to listen to. but rap and hip-hop only rarely elicit that reaction.
    My analytical skills are still as good or better than they ever were, but now I find it much harder to do sustained research over a long period; it feels like I run out of intellectual stamina somewhere along the way, and that frustrates me. And I no longer run between meetings…

    Michael McBain
    Melbourne, Australia

  9. I was just reading about Aubrey de Grey (Chief Science Officer of the SENS Foundation), who thinks human beings could live to be 1,000. Can you imagine calling age 500 or so “middle age?” Wow.

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