"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 25, 2018

A Life Expectancy of Thirty-Five–A Young, Beautiful Society Without Old People

The Water Inn is a resort on Carter’s Creek, one of the many inlets emptying into the Rappahannock River, and from there only two miles to the Chesapeake Bay.  In its earlier days guests were almost exclusively from Alexandria and Richmond, descendants of Southern aristocrats, Virginia cavaliers, and the First Families that settled the Tidewater and the Northern Neck in the 17th century.  The Inn was itself a place of Southern gentility and manners – gentlemen dressed for dinner, the maître d’ greeted every family personally, with a smile for the children and an arm for their grandmothers.  The waitresses were all descendants of freed slaves who had never left the region after Emancipation, and all had been at the Inn for at least twenty-five years.  The management treated them well, they served with care and respect, and were paid well.

Chesapeake sunset

The food was Southern – roe cakes and spoon bread in the morning, peach cobbler in the evening – the view over Carter’s Creek panoramic thanks to the high promontory where the inn had been built in 1920, the drawing room sedate and well-appointed, a fire in the fireplace during the cold, and rooms with balconies that looked over the water to the small marina where the River’s watermen returned after collecting the day’s catch of oysters.  The days of artisan oyster farms were far in the future, and throughout much of the Inn’s history, the watermen dragged the river for ‘natives’, large, succulent oysters that often grew to twice the size of the farmed variety.

The River Inn in the 50s and 60s had been a family resort; but other than croquet on the lawn and board games in the drawing rooms after dinner, no special attention was paid to children.  They simply accompanied their parents, ate meals with them, sat on planters’ chairs overlooking the water, and rode with them on the Miss Laura, a teak and brass antiquity built in 1904 as a ferry from Richmond down to the Northern Neck.

In the years since those very Southern days, the Water Inn changed little.  The rooms were brightened, the curtains changed, new upholstery on the armchairs in the foyer, and younger staff; but it was fundamentally the same place it had always been.  For that reason older families kept coming down and spending long summer weekends, Thanksgiving, and Easter.  New management was understandably concerned about the age profile of the Water Inn – the old patrons would no longer be alive; and unless some effort was made to attract a younger crowed, the resort would have to sold to a developer who would radically change it – but the holding company thought the Inn still had enough cachet and quiet appeal to attract a less aristocratic but still conservative and tasteful crowd. 

Chesapeake sailing

Yet the only young people who came to the Water Inn were the adult children of guests who had been coming to the Northern Neck for 50 years.  For the most part, the Inn was a place for very old people, people who needed help getting up the steps, getting plates of oysters and roast beef from the buffets, and who went to bed very early.  The Inn was still pleasant, attractive, and welcoming, but it had become geriatric and depressing.

William Robbins was one of those old people who had been coming to the Water Inn for thirty years; but rather than feeling at home with those of his generation, he felt disoriented and irritable.  Why did we live so long? Not only were old people changing the character of the country by their very numbers, their votes were increasingly influential; and Congress, dutifully aware of demographics of their constituencies, awarded them with the tax breaks, the benefits, and the overall use of public monies which favored them.

Why indeed? What purpose did old people serve?  Adding wisdom and good counsel?  On the contrary, most older people became more hard-bitten and resentful of change the older they got.  Their sage advice was to return to the days of their youth when society was saner, more respectful, and more dutiful and to warn of forgetting its lessons.

Was the value of old people a living link to family history, an oral tradition where stories were told at Christmas time about ancient relatives? What inherent good was that?  What other than passing genealogical interest were those stories worth?  Wasn’t there far more for children in Uncle Joe’s stories of space colonization, time warps, black holes, and the post-human generation than in Uncle Bob’s tales of the poverty of the Mezzogiorno and life on the Lower East Side?

Didn’t old people simply get in the way?

What was it like to have lived in a society where few people lived beyond thirty-five? No wonder why the human body was so admired in Ancient Greece and Rome, why Marathon, the games, and displays of physical ability were so popular.  Beauty, youth, vigor, and style were perennial and permanent.

Yes, but what about early death?  Thirty-five was but a fraction of what human longevity could be.
On the contrary, early death simply meant a different death.  Death from an infected toe at 35 was no different from a glorious death on the battlefield, but certainly less valorous.  In today’s risk- and casualty-averse age, it is impossible to imagine the Battle of Borodino when 70,000 Russians and French soldiers died in a single day.  Tolstoy captured the ordered chaos of war better than any other.  In the midst of cannon fire, horrific injuries, and almost certain death, men were happy – a final camaraderie, death as it should be, not as it most often miserably was. It is only those who have a long life expectancy who worry about dying early.  It is our right to live a span extended by modern science and medicine; but it is the fate of the long-lived to have time and means to consider death and consider it unhappily.  Longevity makes old-age even that more unappealing.  Not only have old people outlived their usefulness, they are walking reminders of the inevitable.


Of course those who lived a millennia ago were just as conscious of death and dying as we are today, but attuned to a very different philosophical barometer.   At age sixty today, one must consider the traumas and extended miseries of thirty more years; and thirty more years of what?  No glory, no recognition, no parades – just a long, slow, and progressive descent into disease and senility.   At at age 25 in Ancient Greece, a short, happy life was the ideal, to be led with equally happy, beautiful companions.  The end of life was closer, more abrupt, less protracted, and less noticed then.  Death was more a part of life than it ever is today.

Of course for most citizens, Platonic Greece was just as Hobbes described it – solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short – but that did not deny the  prevailing culture of youth and beauty - the ideal, the highest expression of culture passed on down to us.


So what to do with us old people today?  We are society's legacy, for better or worse.  Few of us ever thought that the technological advances of the post-WWII boom would lead to this.

Of course we are not that much of a bother and for the most part stay out of the way.  We teach each other in adult education classes, volunteer together, and socialize together and turn up for holidays. 

Only in the distant future will technology finally figure out how to do away with aging, old age, and old people.  Perhaps a society of forever 35-year olds is in the cards, a return at long last to the days of Greece and Rome; but for the time being we are in it for the long haul, a slow march to the end of the tunnel, hoping for epiphany, knowing better, clinging to what we know and hopelessly unprepared for the final reckoning.

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