Sunday, June 23, 2024

How to Live Forever | The New Yorker

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A friend of mine knew a wealthy man who had decided to live forever. That made him hard to be around, my friend told me, in an e-mail, because he was “always dropping to the floor to do ab crunches or running out for bottles of water or falling asleep or outgassing Chinese herbs.” Immortality is attractive to rich people because simple arithmetic shows that if they live a normal lifespan they won’t have time to spend enough of their money. Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist, has expressed interest in receiving blood transfusions from young donors, an intervention that apparently adds weeks to the lives of laboratory mice. Jeff Bezos’s chiselled physique suggests a similar concern. The longevity evangelist Bryan Johnson, who sold a company he’d started to PayPal for eight hundred million dollars, wears a device that monitors the quality of his nighttime erections.

Life extension is a trade-off, though. You have to weigh the time you stand to gain against the time you lose while trying to gain it. When Jackie Onassis learned that she was dying, of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, she is said to have regretted having done so many pushups. There’s also the discouraging fact that extra years, if any, come at the end of life, when even many rich people have begun to think about winding down. A wealthy bridge partner of mine, now deceased, told me as she approached ninety that she was already feeling a bit bored.

Einstein wrote that “the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” He presumably didn’t mean that, after death, he expected to travel back and forth through his life, as though riffling the pages of a book. Or maybe he did. At any rate, his statement hints at a better strategy, one that I myself have practiced for decades. The simplest, most foolproof way to extend life is to do so backward, by adding years in reverse.

During the summer of 1975, following my sophomore year in college, I got a job as a secretary at a book-publishing company in New York. My main task was typing letters from editors to authors. I used a typewriter, because there were no personal computers yet, and to create duplicates I used copy sets, which were sandwiches of carbon paper and thin regular paper. Carbon paper—for those too young to have any idea what I’m talking about—is paper or plastic film that is coated on one side with semi-gelatinous ink; when you press something against the un-inked side, the inked side leaves a mark. Carbon paper barely exists nowadays, except at some rental-car counters and in the etymology of the “cc” (which stands for “carbon copy”) in e-mails. At my publishing job, I placed a copy set behind a sheet of letterhead and rolled the two together into my machine. When I’d finished typing, I had an original plus one or two flimsy but legible facsimiles, for filing.

That same summer, inspired by my job, I began using carbon paper to make duplicates of my own letters. I was writing a lot of poetry at the time, and I believed that the copies would be useful to my biographers, whom I assumed I’d have someday. I gave up on poetry and literary immortality a year or two later, but I continued making carbons, and I saved letters that people wrote to me. Because of the pack-rat instincts of various members of my family, I also have the letters I wrote home from summer camp; the letters my father wrote home from the Second World War; the letters my wife, whose name is Ann Hodgman, wrote to my parents before and after we got married; the letters Ann’s mother wrote to her father when they were dating; and thousands of other letters, documents, e-mails, and texts. In recent years, I have digitized most of that stuff, so that I can search it.

When I was in high school, I tried several times to keep a diary—again, thinking of my biographers—but I was never able to stick with it for more than a week or two. This is a common problem. A dozen years ago, I found a diary that my daughter, Laura, had started when she was ten. It had a pink cover, more than a hundred ruled pages, and a lock on the front, which she hadn’t locked. The entry on the first page was about her piano lessons. It said:


Wednesday—1 min.

Saturday—8 min.

All the other pages were blank.

Soon after I had begun making copies of my letters, I realized that if I saved them in chronological order I’d have the equivalent of a diary. I eventually bought an electric hole punch and filled many three-ring binders. In the late eighties, I started another kind of quasi-diary by making a written record on my computer of funny or interesting things my children had said or done. I got that idea when Laura was three and her brother, John, was in utero, but I was able to extend the entries back to the day of Laura’s birth by inserting material from letters I’d saved. I called it my “kid diary,” and I kept it going, with several lapses, for about ten years. The completed text contains almost ninety thousand words and is, by far, my favorite thing I’ve ever written. It’s the one thing I would save if I could save only one.

Of course, most of the real work on my kid diary was done not by me but by my kids. Laura, at four: “Dave, is cheese vegetables, or what is it?” (She began calling me Dave when she was three, and John eventually did the same.) John, at almost six: “God didn’t make people, Dave. Monkeys did.” Laura’s favorite feature in the children’s magazine Highlights was the advice column, and she used to make up readers’ questions and the editors’ replies. When she was four and a half, I overheard her, in the playroom, pretending to read aloud from a recent issue:

When I go to school I have a hole in my pants near my penis. My
friends call me “penis-puh.” What should I do? Tom.

I understand how you feel, Tom. Ignore your friends and find a nice
quiet place where you can concentrate. Raise your hand if your friends
have a problem with your penis.

Me, when John was two and a half:

My mother was reading John one of his dinosaur books and leaving out
occasional paragraphs, so that she could get him to bed quicker, but
he caught her. “You did not say ‘fleet-footed,’ ” he said.

Me again, when John was in kindergarten:

Yesterday, John sat at the kitchen table writing ransom notes, with
spelling provided by Ann. One of his notes read “INQUISITIVE PERSON.
1,000,000 DOLLARS.” To write his notes, he put on snow boots, knee
pads, and non-matching mittens.

Laura, when she was four:

Why am I not a grownup? I’ve been here for so many years.

And so on, for three hundred and fifty typed pages. I’m now keeping track, on a smaller scale, of funny or interesting things that my grandchildren have said or done. Alice, the eldest, when she was three: “Mom, I’m just going to relax and ring this bell.”

The final stages of Alzheimer’s disease have been described as living death: if you can’t remember your life, can you truly be said to be alive? I worry about that, of course, but I also worry about perfectly ordinary memory loss, which shortens a life more subtly, by allowing great swaths of it to leak away. My memory works pretty well, but writing things down has made it work better, and many of my favorite moments from the past forty years exist only because I kept a record. My kid diary has lengthened my life just as surely as rolling back my biological age would have, and it has done so without ab crunches, pushups, or erection monitoring. It has also lengthened the lives of Ann, Laura, and John, as well as reminding Ann and me that our children’s childhoods didn’t go by in a blur, as parents often feel when they look back. A friend told me recently, “If G.P.S. had existed from the time I got my driver’s license, I would have lived an entire second lifetime with the time I’d have saved not getting lost.” That’s the same idea, more or less.

Preserve too much, though, and you’d recreate the dilemma that Jorge Luis Borges explores in his story “Funes the Memorious,” from 1942. The title character is a young man who, after being thrown from a horse, discovers that he now remembers literally everything. “Two or three times he had reconstructed a whole day; he never hesitated, but each reconstruction had required a whole day,” the narrator explains. Funes “knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on the 30th of April, 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding he had only seen once.” He’s so entranced by his new ability that he doesn’t realize it has impaired him. “To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions,” the narrator reflects. “In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.”

Funes is a fictional character, but there are real people with a similar ability. One of them is Jill Price, who can remember her life, from childhood on, in extraordinary detail. In her autobiography, “The Woman Who Can’t Forget,” she writes, “My memories are like scenes from home movies of every day of my life, constantly playing in my head, flashing forward and backward through the years relentlessly, taking me to any given moment, entirely of their own volition.” Price was the first person to receive a diagnosis of hyperthymestic syndrome, later renamed highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM. Both terms were coined by James McGaugh and his colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, where, starting in 2000, Price was studied extensively. Researchers would mention a news event, and without hesitating she would give them the date and the day of the week it occurred, or they would give her a date and she would give them an event. “And she was flawless,” McGaugh told me recently. He asked her if she knew what had happened to Bing Crosby. She said that he died on a golf course in Spain on Friday, October 14, 1977, when she was eleven. She remembered because his death had been mentioned on a news program she’d heard on the car radio that day, as her mother was driving her to soccer practice.

Price has been, at times, an obsessive journal-keeper, and some people have wondered whether she had simply memorized the entries. But she abandoned her journal on several occasions, once for years, then changed her mind and filled in the hundreds of missing days retrospectively, entirely out of her head. She makes the journals to tame the flood of her recollections, which she views as a torment. “If I didn’t write things down, I would get a swimming feeling in my head and would become emotionally overwhelmed,” she explains in her book.

McGaugh and his team eventually identified about a hundred people with HSAM. One is the actress and author Marilu Henner, who starred on the television show “Taxi” and was fired by Donald Trump on “The Celebrity Apprentice.” Henner, unlike Price, revels in her ability. “It’s something that makes me feel really good, and I can’t imagine not having it,” she told me. “My siblings will say, ‘Come on, Mar, do a week from our childhood.’ ” Henner’s book “Total Memory Makeover,” which was published in 2012, is an effort by her to help the rest of us develop what she refers to as our “brain muscle”—a desirable goal, since she agrees with me that memory can be a powerful time-expander and longevity-increaser. “By really exploring your past, or remembering it in some way, you get a piece of your life back,” she said. “Your life becomes longer and richer, and kind of stretches in the middle.”

Henner describes a good autobiographical memory as “a line of defense against meaninglessness.” For those of us who, unlike her, can’t do it all in our heads, old letters, diaries, and photographs are indispensable aide-mémoire. On Presidents’ Day in 1988, Laura came home from nursery school and said, “Abraham Lincoln was shot!” I said, “I know, honey,” and she said, “But I’m keeping him alive in my thoughts. Emmy is keeping him alive in her thoughts, too.” She and Emmy, a classmate, were three years old at the time, so they probably wouldn’t remember today that they had taken on that chore if I hadn’t written it down.

My mother will turn ninety-five in June. She was my family’s principal historian until I took over the position. She made two photo albums for me as I was growing up. The first covered my birth through sixth grade, and the second covered junior high through college. She invented analog image-enhancing techniques that anticipated, by decades, digital tools that are now standard: using nail-scissors and glue to replace my brother’s frowning face with a smiling one in our Christmas card from 1966, when he was four; using an X-Acto knife to give me a haircut and to slice an uninteresting background from a family photo a decade later; eliminating red-eye with a black Flair pen. I studied both my photo albums so often over the years that they began to fall apart. I have now preserved them by extracting the original pages and placing them in individual sleeves in large archival portfolios.

For many people, documenting family life in this way is no more appealing than doing pushups or ab crunches. But I don’t think of it that way, and neither did my mother. “I have been pasting my scrapbooks,” she wrote to Ann and me in 1980. “I get more fascinated with them every day. I don’t know when I’ve had a project I’ve enjoyed so much.” For her, documenting the history of our family was an immersive hobby, like making quilts (my sister), photographing birds (my brother), or gardening and playing ice hockey (Ann). By the time I graduated from college, my mother was mainly researching genealogies, writing reminiscences, and organizing ancestral photographs, documents, and ephemera. I’ve relied on her work several times when researching things that I’ve written, most recently an essay about her own family.

Nowadays, producing and saving images is so easy that few people bother with paper prints, photo albums, or even cameras. They hold up their phone and click away, hoping to end up with something decent, which they then post on Facebook or Instagram or whatever. But a digital camera roll containing thousands of unsorted, unedited, contextless images is not an intelligible narrative of a life. Turning the pages of a physical book is a different experience from swiping a finger across a screen, and, if you don’t store your memories on paper, you allow your past to be held hostage by a potentially obsolete digital format or by Google’s unpredictable commitment to the cloud.

I’ve made dozens of physical photo albums, first by gluing paper prints and other mementos into the kinds of blank scrapbooks my mother used, and, then, since 2006, by uploading images to companies that produce paper photo books. (My favorite is Mixbook.) In addition to making annual family scrapbooks, I’ve documented vacations, visits by grandchildren, moments from the life of a friend who had just died, two years that Ann and her parents spent living in Germany when she was a baby and her father was a U.S. Army doctor, the history of the place we visit every summer on Martha’s Vineyard, the wedding of our guinea pig and one of our dogs, and trips that my father’s parents took between the nineteen-forties and the nineteen-sixties. The project that I’m the proudest of is a hybrid: two eleven-by-fourteen volumes containing the complete text of my kid diary, illustrated with several hundred corresponding snapshots.

At some point during COVID, I realized that I could create a truly comprehensive chronicle of my life if I consolidated all the best parts of my hoard of digitized text into a single document. The result is a million and a half words long, and it grows by roughly five hundred words a day. My goal is to come as close as I can to a day-by-day record—but not one like Jill Price’s, which consists mostly of brief mentions of things like the weather, the names of TV shows she watched, and what errands she ran. I’m trying to do what Elmore Leonard said he tried to do with his novels: leave out the parts that readers skip. I’m the only reader so far, and I may be the only reader ever, but I don’t want even my own interest to flag. I haven’t added photographs yet, but someday I will.

One of my richest sources of material in recent years has been a small e-mail group that my wife and I are part of. It began around 1996 (no one remembers exactly when), and currently includes ten participants. We’re all within ten years in age: the youngest were in their thirties when we started; the oldest are in their seventies now. All but one or two of us are self-employed. Most are writers. In the early months, I often worried that the others would lose interest and disappear, but the group has never been in serious danger of disbanding, and the lineup has barely changed. No member has died yet, although one spouse died last year. Two children and eight grandchildren have been born. Several children have married. All the parents who were alive when we started have now died, except for Ann’s mother and my mother. Despite our long history, the ten of us have never all been in the same room at the same time, except online. The first full in-person gathering, if there ever is one, will probably be a funeral.

Ten people who’ve spent almost three decades getting to know one another turns out to be the ideal configuration for a social network; it’s the scale at which Facebook and X would feel like life-enhancing communities of human beings, rather than ego-driven, soul-destroying, democracy-undermining time-sucks. Our e-mail exchanges are the kinds of conversations that people who have worked together for years sometimes have over lunch or cocktails—and our exchanges are mostly coherent, even grammatical. I used to brood that civilization had suffered a huge loss when people switched from sending paper letters to sending e-mails, but I now think the real loss occurred when people switched from sending e-mails to sending texts, which young people in particular tend to fire off in bursts of unpunctuated sentence fragments. E-mails are actually superior to paper letters in many ways, because they easily accommodate thoughtful, extended multi-user back-and-forth, in real time.

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