Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Story I'd Really Like to Stop Seeing

The world's oldest man has died. The now-former titleholder, Alexander Imich of New York City, died at age 111 on Sunday.

Now, let us not denigrate the achievement of living that long. It's a heck of an accomplishment, and I certainly wish condolences to Imich's survivors. But I'm fairly certain that it's not a thing that needs to be bellowed to the heavens every time it happens, as has been the case for a long time now. The thing is that it happens so danged often. Imich held the title for only two months after Arturo Licata of Italy, well, vacated the position, and Licata had held it only since September of last year after the death of Salustiano Sanchez-Blanquez of New York, who himself only lasted three months as the oldest after the death of Jiroemon Kimura of Japan (who managed to set the all-time men's record by making it to 116). And we haven't even gotten into the matter of the overall record, which usually is held by a woman- currently 116-year-old Misao Okawa of Japan. The men's record now passes to Sakari Momoi of Japan, who's just one day younger than Imich.

I'll save you further chronology and point you to Wikipedia.

This is just not a record you hold for very long. Since 1955, as far back as they're able to see a recordholder, only three people have lasted as long as three years as the overall oldest, while 21 of them have lasted fewer than 180 days. At the risk of sounding obvious, in order to become the world's oldest person, you first have to live long enough for everyone on the planet older than you to die. By the time you hit that point, you don't really have much time left on the clock to enjoy being the oldest, and there's a good chance you're not enjoying it at all. Not only has literally everyone you grew up around died, here comes the media all of a sudden to revel in how so very old you are and how soon you'll probably be joining them, at which point, well, you get major news organizations to write your obituary, which is nice, but your life and all you've seen and endured over the years- and you've seen a lot- is reduced to this lighthearted piece chucked at the end of a broadcast.


These people aren't interested in your story. Not really. They're interested in your record, and the second you die, off they go to pre-obituary the next name on the list. Who are they? What of their lives? Who cares? They have the high score! Even if they really don't because some countries don't keep track of ages that well, leaving people to just tack on however many years they want to represent how much they think they've seen in life, the better to stake a claim as tribal elder! All you have to do is claim your age as higher than all-time verified record holder Jeanne Calment's 122 and someone's bound to do a story on you!

I claim to be 34,972 years old. CNN exclusive, please.

Obituaries, when the families don't write their own (and most of the time they do), are often assigned to greenhorn writers just starting out in the journalism industry. The veterans who work the obituary beat for a living are few. But anyone on the beat quickly learns to make each and every obit special. Often they work directly with the families. Rookie or veteran, they all know one thing at all times: they had better get it right. Tasked with summing up a person's life, and knowing it will be printed shortly after the subject's death, they know they only have one chance to sum up the person's life properly. There is no chance to make a correction later, and if they get into that kind of position, they will- WILL- have an angry, grieving family to explain it to afterwards. And they don't really get to cherry-pick who they write about, saving themselves for the more interesting or prominent life stories. They have to write about everyone the families don't handle. Everyone. And they have to care. You can't do that kind of thing and not care.

If the AP and the BBC and the Independent and WGN and the Atlantic and the like are running stories about our global elders without even bothering to get their ages verified first, just for the sake of recording a high score or even claimed high score, how much do they really care about the person's life?

No comments: