This is S.M. Park’s inaugural column in his series Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In this first column called “The Late Show,” Park shares insights into technology, improving with age, and telomeres.
I have an old friend from high school who was an active and healthy 70-year-old until struck by a violent seizure last year. A cancerous growth was discovered in her brain and after six months of surgeries, chemo and radiation she passed away recently.
And what, according to the surgeons, was the cause of her calamity? Cell phone use. They claim it’s the most frequent operation they do now, and the alien mass is invariably located above the right ear. I can’t vouch for the veracity of that—recent studies suggest otherwise and my friend, to be fair, did do enough chatting for three people—but it made me glad I’ve never owned a cell or smart phone (or whatever they call them now).
It’s not a philosophical stance, really (unless you count Luddite) … there’s just no reason for a guy like me to carry a phone around. I’ve never received a call that couldn’t wait until I got home, and if I ever get in a bind everyone around me has one of the damn things, anyway. I estimate there’s maybe once, twice a year when I could use a portable phone, say when I’m looking for someone at a crowded airport. (Then I remember I’m 6’6” and just stand there: eventually they’ll find me.)
And those “apps”? Years ago my brother Ben gave me an iPad 2 for Christmas. I had a wireless transmitter installed and even bought an iPad 2 For Dummies book. But as I flipped through it the point of the device eluded me. I’ve tried Kindle a few times, and it seemed like a useful enough tool when traveling, but the rest of those applications and functions … what happened to the human race? When did we get so needy?
So years later the only thing I use is Pandora Radio (the soundtrack to my cartoons). As for social media I’ve never seen a Facebook page either. I do my networking with Christmas cards. When I first drew one, back in 1984, there were four recipients; this year there were a hundred and twenty. That’s a whole lot of messages and addresses and, more importantly, original ideas to come up with for a holiday I no longer celebrate myself. Every year’s card is going to be the last one, then November rolls around and I remind myself that everyone should have at least one tradition.
I also design and mail cards to friends and family to acknowledge births, death, graduations, marriages or other significant events. I’ve done this since I was a kid because—if you’re not a commercial artist—what else do you do with cartoons? I certainly don’t draw them for my own amusement. I’ll watch a documentary on R. Crumb, for instance, and be astonished at the amount of time he devotes to idle sketching, to the scrupulous perfection of his craft. That ended for me when I was ten years old; in the interim I can’t remember a line that wasn’t object driven. I’d remonstrate with myself over this, except (1) how can I pretend to love cartooning as much as Crumb does, when—from ages twenty to forty—I quit drawing altogether? and (2) I’ve noticed lately that I improve whether I practice or not.
The same is true of my writing, which wouldn’t be noteworthy if I weren’t a septuagenarian whose been stoned for a half century and the victim of numerous concussions and brain diseases. When does the CTE and/or dementia kick in? I’m as superstitious as the next guy, so I hate to tempt fate even writing such things down, but come on; one of the ways I rationalized my destructive behavior as a youth was telling myself what a burnout I’d be if I lived. Now decades have passed and my mind seems clearer than ever.
It reminds me of being at an outdoor memorial with Ned Gumbo a few years ago. The deceased was an alcoholic so the family asked that no one bring booze to the ceremony. The other two hundred attendees abided by the request but not, of course, Gumbo, so when he showed up with two cases of wine all the non-official drunks swarmed him. I was off to the side, smoking some of my homegrown and watching, when I felt a tug on my arm. I glanced down to see a short woman with a vaguely familiar face.
“Hey!” she said. “Aren’t you Wilson High?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I’m Nancy. Nancy Jansten? I used to live in the Stonehedge house?”
“Oh right,” I said. “I haven’t seen you in what? Twenty or thirty years?” (She looked like she’d been riding the crack pipe since.)
“Something like that,” she said. “Now listen, do my eyes deceive me, or is that Ned Gumbo over there?”
“The one and only.”
“You’re kidding! How could he possibly look like that?”
“So good!” she sputtered. “He looks fuckin’ good! That’s an outrage! He should have been a corpse when I knew him, and now he looks better than ever!? Where’s the justice in that!?”
I have ex-friends who’d be similarly disgruntled to know I’m still breathing. Which is one of the reasons I had my telomeres checked last year. You’ve seen the website ads? You send in your blood, they measure the telomeres on the ends of your DNA, then compare your cellular age to your actual one. I’ve always claimed my mother has “telomeres like ropes” and—besides wondering whether I’d inherited them—I was curious about my future. If I had a few years left I could enjoy my meager savings, otherwise I’d need to be more prudent. (Which was ridiculous on the face of it, of course … with pot available at the corner store I’m broker than ever now.)
So a month later the results come back and, according to my telomeres, my body thinks I’m 45 years old. Which means I’m screwed, that I likely have twenty or thirty years left. Even as my centenarian mother calls me weekly, begging for the mercy of death. I sympathize with her, certainly, but she’s healthy and lives in a luxurious rest home that my farmer brother pays for. There’ll be no roof over my head at that age; I’ll be lucky to find a bush to sleep under. I should have stashed more of the drug money but what were the chances I’d enjoy a sentient old age?
So if I had it to do over again I wouldn’t have had my telomeres checked. It wasn’t just hope that died that day, but my abiding philosophy, the notion of living like there’s no tomorrow. Now (barring an accident) I’ve a ton of them left.
Maybe it’ll force me to grow up and act my age. That’s a scary thought. In the meanwhile I told my friend Tony, who worries about death and has taken assiduous care of himself over the years, that he ought to try the telomeres site. That was a few weeks ago and yesterday he called back.
“Hey, High,” he said. “I took your advice and sent my blood to those telomere guys.”
“Oh yeah?” I said. “How’d it go?”
“Well, you eat like Trump and were what? 25 years younger than your actual age?”
“So your buddy Tony? Who hasn’t had an unhealthy meal since we went to Evergreen State together? Who’s pretty much worked out every day since? I’m five years older than my real age! I’m 65 … and my body thinks I’m 70!”
“Oooooh,” I said. “That’s not good.”
“Goddamned right it isn’t, Einstein! I’m fucked! I’m dead meat! I’ll probably stroke out right here on the phone! Why’d you tell me to have my telomeres checked, High?”
I paused, took a long hit on a Sour Kush joint. “Well,” I said finally, “I am in your will, aren’t I?”
“Not anymore!” he yelled, and hung up.