When I Consider How My Light is Spent

Today I turn 50 years old.

There’s nothing particularly special about this milestone.  It doesn’t represent a new legal status, like turning 65 or 18.  I don’t obtain or lose any special abilities.  AARP did ramp up their mailing campaign, and the local bank welcomed me to the disturbingly cheerful New Horizons Club.  There isn’t much more to it.  Just another birthday, one more tick of the chronometer, from 49 to 50.

bryan-and-50-signBut the symbolism is a killer.

It means I’ve lived for half of a century.  A half century… I was born in 1967, and just typing that sentence plunges me into a spiral of memory, history, and nostalgia.  I was born in New York City during a Johnson administration, and reached my half-century in Vermont while Trump starts his reign.  I have experienced the first tentative years of the internet and now inhabit the first years of the world-spanning internet of things.

I grew up expecting my life and everyone else’s to be incinerated in global thermonuclear war.  As a kid I was reading more books than anyone around me, was often bullied, usually shy.  Then I got older, fell in love, become a professor, had children, saw the 20th century somehow give way to the 21st, and –

But I’ll pull back from that reflective abyss for now.  Maybe I’ll head back there in posts to come.  For now, I want to look forward, and personally.  I normally don’t get this self-descriptive here, but it’s a special occasion.  I want to peer ahead with eyes wide open.  Which isn’t easy.

Let me start off by asking: how much time have I got left on Earth?  And what should I do with it?

We can be cold and consider the statistics.  One Berkeley demographer thinks American men born in 1967 tend to expire around age 67, neatly enough. The World Bank agrees, at least for American males born in 1960. Index Mundi is more generous, putting my average expiration date at just past 74 years.  The American Centers for Disease Control is relatively cautious, determining that white males born in 1960 die around 67.4 years of age, while those decanted in 1970 expire at 68.  Taken together these demographic data give me a window of under two decades, roughly.

My father and I.

My father and I.  I didn’t inherit his skinniness gene.

These are all statistical models, of course, averages and medians, subjected to the whims and vagaries of individual health, genetics, access to medical care, lifestyle, and accident.  Some of these work in my favor.  My parents are living in their 80s, which is good for my chances.  My physician thinks I’m doing well, especially with the non-caffeine, non-alcohol thing, and getting a serious amount of exercise: also good.

However, my BMI is high (35).  I don’t see that as entirely doomful since BMI comes in for a lot of criticism, and my “extra” pounds are almost completely due to lifting weights for the past 33 years (I can only bench 280 now, alas; personal record is 320).  But neither higher weight not expanded muscle mass bode well for longevity.

More worrisome is my work schedule.  I work about 70 hours in a given week.  I don’t ever take vacations.  Between work, homesteading, and caring for my family, I rarely get enough sleep. This is not a good strategy for a long lifespan.

Some studies show personal relationships as crucial for a happy long life, and I am fortunate to have a rich world of friends.  However, I rarely see them in person.  Consider this a test of how effective virtual connections can be.

Health care is a mixed bag at the present.  I can access the American medical system, meaning advanced treatments of various kinds.  Yet this can be problematic, depending on what happens to our business and to the American health care system in this age of political and economic…. tension, for lack of a better word.  I also do some things potentially detrimental to my health, like traveling a great deal (by plane, but, worse, by car) and enjoying axes, chainsaws, and sledgehammers.

There are other factors that influence my likely mortality, as we futurists know.  Wild cards can enter play, like sudden technological advances (for my personal good or ill), or the outbreak of civil war or the onset of plague.  Trends do develop, such as incremental improvements to health care treatments and better telepresence (for staying in touch with friends).  Lifespans may simply extend.

Altarpiece detail from Valetta's St. John's Co-cathedral.

Altarpiece detail from Valetta’s St. John’s Co-cathedral.  Note the many skulls.

Taken together, let’s say I’m most likely to meet my doom around age 70-75.  Erring on the side of dismal lethality, that gives me a couple of decades to go for living and productive work.  Maybe a little more, maybe a little less, depending on how policies and incidents shake out.  Maybe a little less, depending on when biology decides to assert itself and throw my time into clinics instead of work.  If there are more years, they are a bonus, but I shouldn’t count of them.

Please don’t imagine I’m gazing ahead solely with a chilly analytical demeanor.  Death haunts me, more each day.  I brood about deaths that terrify, like several cases of lingering, agonizing disintegration deep in the toils of hospitals.  Or of two friends who each lost the ability to read in their last years, which strikes me as almost incomprehensibly terrible.  Conversely, I can’t shake some demises that appeal to me, like a friend’s father who died surrounded by his beloved books.

Last year my own father came very, very close to death.  Without going into too much detail, his heart blew a gasket, essentially, and 21st century medicine alone brought him back.  In the hospital, surrounded and penetrated multiply by machines, his face was literally gray.  I’ve seen dead human bodies before, and he seemed perilously close to them.  At one point he had a tube running from his side and into the very muscle of his heart.  A specialist ran a cord through the tube and was able to adjust tissue position by tugging minutely on it.  I can still see my father’s face, ashen and horrified, as he felt his very heart being prodded around his chest’s interior.  I spent two weeks with him in the hospital, and it’s trivial – unavoidable – to imagine myself in his place.

These images of death’s approach and inescapable triumph return to my mind’s eye daily, now, as a memento mori.  Keep living, Bryan, they urge me.  You haven’t got much time left.  Do more.  Do even more still.

It’s time for an appropriate musical interlude, courtesy of Brian Lamb:

So, confronting mortality in various shapes, what should I do in this time remaining to me?

Some people recommend focusing one’s last years on what gives us pleasure.  That means connecting and reconnecting with friends and loved ones, taking time for what delights us, ensuring some level of creature comforts.  Planning and emptying a bucket list.  Savoring sweet things while one still can.

All of that sounds very sweet indeed.  I enjoy hearing friends my age and older talk about the pleasures they take in life, and of relishing retirement. I envy them, of course.   I burn vermillion with the desire to have a portion of the hours they now possess.  But at the same time I am still consumed with the desire to do more.  I still want to change the world.  

I have dedicated my career to the future of education.  I have taken various steps, some logical, some wild, to further that pursuit.  I want to understand what’s coming up, and to help other people think more fully and effectively about how education is transforming into something new.  And I hope to influence that process for the better.

Nothing dents that desire now.  That’s what I want to do, and what I love doing.  That’s what keeps me up ridiculously late, seats me on redeye flights, and hauls me out of bed before dawn and below zero.  I can’t not do this work.

I also have financial reasons to keep working full tilt.  I support a family, including one child finishing up her university degree this year, and another getting ready to start college.  My own college loans remain (and might outlast me, being transferred as a dubious legacy to the children) (do older Americans, and people from other countries, understand this?). There are also the many expenses of family life.  Statistically, I should plan on rising health care expenses for my wife and I.  Looking ahead, I’m not sure what governmental aid will actually manifest for me when I need it.  Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, various state programs – I’m sanguine about their survivability over the next couple of decades.  To be pragmatic, I have to assume little from them, and more from myself.

So I’ll keep on.  I can’t stop or slow down. But I have to do so realistically.

That means more content creation, as we say these days.  Writing, writing, and more writing.  As a kid I dreamed of becoming a published writer, and I’ve actually realized that ambition, so this is a task both sweet and practical.  Content creation also means making the futures media I’ve been doing: the FTTE report, the Future Trends Forum, this blog, and possibly more.

Keeping on also means more consulting and speech-giving.  I love doing that, and there are practical business benefits.  (Confession time: as a kid I used to imagine giving speeches to crowds.  Naturally, like all kids, I also fantasized about telling adults what to do. That’s two more childhood dreams realized.) As I move from 50 to 75, though, I might have to reduce the amount of trips I take, “post[ing] o’er Land and Ocean without rest”, especially the punishing trips – i.e., anything involving air travel within the United States.  Perhaps I should increase fees for these services.  If supply and demand are to be trusted and the fee structure is just right, that could reduce the number of trips people want to pay for while maintaining (or even growing) the same level of income.

I should also shift work to more virtual events, like the Forum and using telepresence robots.  I can only do this when I have fine broadband, so this will require exiting Vermont, given the state’s refusal to provision high speed internet.  Ending our homestead practice, while heartbreaking, may be good for my health, as it could free up time currently spent tending animals, cutting and hauling wood, weeding crops, etc.  The exercise and fresh air is splendid, so I’ll need to make up for that.  Wherever we end up, it needs a gym and/or room for me to swing some axes.

Speaking of fresh air, I also need to spend time with friends.  With you folks, dear readers (and viewers, and listeners).  I don’t do enough of this, so I have to track you down in your nations and cities.  More social events are called for, more parties, dinners, hangouts, and games.

Where does this leave me?  Working like mad into my second half-century, striving to learn and share what I find with a growing audience around the world through an emerging set of venues and channels.  The future beckons, as do grinning skulls, and living friends.  I’m fulfilling several childhood dreams,have welded a business to my desires, and am making the most of the light left to my eyes and brain.   Sounds like a plan.

Liked it? Take a second to support Bryan Alexander on Patreon!
This entry was posted in personal. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to When I Consider How My Light is Spent

  1. Tatiana Goodwin says:

    I am curious if your desire to change the world is towards a particular end or simply to leave a mark. You want to change it but to what, specifically?

  2. saraminh says:

    I absolutely adore this post (says someone rapidly approaching a half century herself). As usual, you inspire many thoughts that whirl and collide in the brain where they will steep until I can somehow make sense of them through sound or food or writing. Yas, living.

  3. Paul says:

    Two thumbs up for the Shatner. That disc is a masterpiece.

  4. ARTiFactor says:

    I too hope to make a difference and plan to “make something world changing” this year. Being born in ’49, I am now 67. I hope my life span is longer than the odds you mentioned. Time to get busy.

  5. Peggy Kay says:

    Happy Birthday!! The fifties are the new thirties. (At least that is what I’ve told myself since turning 50).

    Have a great day,

    Peggy Kay, PMP
    Assistant Vice President, Technology Customer Experience
    Pacific Technology
    Office: 209.946.7358
    Cell: 209.662.4738

  6. These questions haunt us all. It was a shock to go from full tilt boogie as a full time college instructor to retired with only one online class. Suddenly Rumi’s words became more important for me to consider going forward, “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love, it will not lead you astray.”
    You are listening to that strange pull.

  7. mpelzel says:

    Yes, I remember getting that AARP card when I turned fifty (some seven years ago).
    We are very excited to get to see you at Austin College in a few weeks…let’s do some celebrating then. Happy birthday!

  8. I am all for being aware of one’s mortality and living life accordingly. But the life expectancy calculations you list are average life expectancy at birth. Just by virtue of making it to 50, you have significantly beat the odds and improved your chances. Any calculator I’m aware of would indicate that if you have already made it to 50, your average life expectancy would now take you to your late 70s if not your 80s – like your parents. You get roughly three decades, not two.

    Don’t get me wrong, death comes for us all and it’s important to think about. I just imagine it might feel good to know you have more time than you think.

    • mkt42 says:

      Yes, I was going to make this same comment. In statistics “survivor bias” can be an important cause of faulty results, and one that may be hard to detect or be aware of.

      But in this case survivor bias works in Bryan’s favor; he’s already made it to 50 so we now know that he’s not going to die of some childhood illness or die in a teenager’s car accident (unless some other teen’s car hits him). All of those are the events that caused his 1967 cohort to have a 67-year life expectancy — and which no longer are risk factors for him.

      I haven’t looked at the numbers recently but even my wild stab is the same: an American male who’s currently 50 surely has a life expectancy of close to 80 and probably higher.

    • loveofallwisdom says:

      There are tremendous advances being made in medical science now that are likely to increase lifespans significantly. The decline in antibiotic resistance is an important concern, of course, but I would be startled if it didn’t at least come out a wash. Overall we still have reason to expect that life expectancies will continue to grow in the coming decades as they have in the last.

      • mkt42 says:

        That’s my guess too, that the race between medical research and drug resistance is still in human beings’ favor.

        It is true that in the last year or two we’ve become aware that US life expectancies have not been growing much and for white Americans I believe they’ve fallen slightly. We’d have to look at the actual data but IIRC the increased mortality has been due to opioid abuse and overdoses. 33K deaths in 2015! That’s approaching the number of deaths due to automobiles (and guns too for that matter).

        So if Bryan stays away from heroin etc. then his life expectancy is probably above average, or at least not among the group of people who’ve been dragging down the average.

        Related to the above, though wandering away from Bryan’s original topic: I’ve been looking at national survey data on college students’ health, and at least a couple of national surveys show very low usage rates of heroin and other opioids by college students. This seems inconsistent with the headlines about an opioid epidemic. Can it be the case that college students are relatively “immune” to the opioid epidemic?

      • loveofallwisdom says:

        I don’t think there’s any need to speak of it as an “immunity” when prosaic sociological explanations are more easily available. The opioid epidemic has been pretty clearly marked as one of the troubles hitting the working-class (i.e. non-college-educated) population. The epidemics of heroin and crack in (poorly educated) black inner-city areas followed periods of deindustrialization, and the ensuing poverty and hopelessness; (poorly educated) rural white people are now experiencing the same thing with a different variety of drugs.

        In the 2010s, people with college educations have hope. (Debt, but also hope.) People without college educations have hard drugs instead.

  9. Having recently retired I am still trying to work into some sort of routine. However, I still don’t miss the daily grind of commuting, teaching, grading, hold office hours. I have always felt I could have been more productive in my life but I am for the most part at peace with my efforts. Looking forward to the Great Backyard Bird Count this coming week. May you continue to enjoy life and please continue to share your observations with us.

  10. CogDog says:

    I like Amod’s thinking. The older you get to be alive and blogging, the longer you got. I’m gonna live to 128.

    Keep on doing Bryan stuff. It’s hard to reach for a musical reference after hearing Shatner “sing” (mentioning Joey Ramone, ZOMG!), but you don’t have to work on Maggie’s Farm:

    “Well, I try my best
    To be just like I am
    But everybody wants you
    To be just like them.”

    Just be like you am.

    And never give up your space to swing an axe.

  11. Bryan – As a 1968-izen myself I can relate to so many things you have written here. Thank you very much for sharing such a brave, insightful post. Here is to making meaning and living life for every day that we get.

  12. tonzijlstra says:

    My friend Peter wrote about you here “Others at 50” https://ruk.ca/content/others-50

  13. macurcher says:

    Great post, made me pause for thought (as a 55 year old) –

  14. emdalton says:

    Just turned 51 last month myself. I am right there with you (except for the axe-swinging part.) I am determined to finish my dissertation this year, which is all about trying to make a difference in education, and continue on to try to positively influence education through research and (one hopes) wise use of technology. Carry on!

  15. VanessaVaile says:

    Belated Happy Birthday (and maybe midlife whatever). I meant to get here sooner to toast a digital post. Interesting to note near miss intersection points along the way. I was living in NYC when you were born (also the same year and place my son was born). No telling if our paths crossed then (or in an alternate quantum universe). Eventually at least the digital ones did.

    We share many interests. Lack of professional involvement, when/if that comes, won’t dampen those.

    Pushing up against rural dis/connectivity myself, I understand better than most what you are up against. Professionally, it’s even more of an issue for you than it has been for me. Even so, I suspect re-locating is part of this general where do I go from here life shift. The right place in I’m still plumping for Colorado (central enough to access travel hub but far enough from Denver to avoid traffic and higher housing costs) as someplace that might suit you.

    Soon enough you’ll be able to refer to books you read over half a century ago. Startling but rather fun too.

    PS Is the spent light Milton, Ezra (A Lume Spento/i>) or both?

  16. Pingback: When I consider how a friend’s light is spent | Bryan Alexander

  17. Pingback: Four years in: under the hood of my consulting firm | Bryan Alexander

  18. Thanks for finally talking about >When I Consider How My Light is Spent | Bryan Alexander <Liked it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *