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Cracker Barrel: The wedding guest

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At a wedding my wife and I attended recently in Fargo, North Dakota, one of the guests was a white-haired woman in a wheelchair who, we found out, was 107 years old.

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Though we didn't have a chance to talk with her, her presence nearby prompted dozens of peculiar thoughts to rise, unbidden, in my head. I list a few of them in no particular order of importance.

• What makes some folks live twice as long as others? I know the easy answer is genetic inheritance, followed by diet and exercise. But we all know of people from seemingly sound stock who died at an early age, and others who, having taken poor care of themselves, lived on and on and on.

• Are the living cells of a centenarian made of purer, less polluted material than our own? In the hundred plus years since the wedding guest's birth, billions of tons of pollutants have been dumped into the environment, finding their way into the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we inhabit, the air and the water we breathe and drink.

Might a person born before this onslaught benefit from having a cleaner start? Since the body replaces all of its cells on a continuous basis, the answer is probably no. But you have to wonder.

• What sort of songs play around in an older person's head? For people of my generation, early rockers and the Beatles head the list. For someone born in the first decade of the previous century, the list would be much different.

Regular commercially licensed radio broadcasting didn't start until 1920, the year our wedding guest became a teenager, so her list of "golden oldies" started after that.

• Who were her heroes and heroines? Heartthrobs and hunks? What of her secret desires and unspoken dreams? And what about actual accomplishments?

Was our dignified guest the proud mother of children, grandmother of others, great- and possibly great-great-grandmother of still more? If she¹d gotten married at age 17, her oldest kids might now be approaching 90.

Or did she share the heartbreak of so many parents of her generation as her children succumbed in infancy to one of the many diseases prevalent then?

Later, thinking about how many changes the world has seen in the past 107 years, I found myself drifting into ruminations about The Good Old Days - and made myself stop.

I believe that when we romanticize about times past, and paint those times in gentle shades of innocence, what we're really referring to is our own childhoods.

I've come to doubt whether, back in the fabled past, life was actually much different than it is today. I suspect the percentage of people who act foolishly or cruelly or caringly or kindly doesn't vary much from generation to generation.

What does change is our awareness of what's going on around us. If we compare yesteryear with today and find yesterday preferable, it may be because of intervening disappointments. Life is hard!

People born a century ago faced all sorts of challenges and temptations and opportunities, just as today's young folks do. Some of the friends of our wedding guest no doubt grew up to be excellent folks - and a

few of them probably didn't.

While today's youth may be faced with a wider range of enticements, their need to make sensible choices is no different from that of their forebears.

In fact, the case can be made for the idea that the world is getting better, not worse, as the centuries roll on.

In his book "The Better Angels of Our Nature," Harvard professor Steven Pinker charts the reduction in violence world-around from biblical times to our own, and argues that human behavior is gradually growing kinder and gentler.

Which, come to think of it, might explain why our wedding guest seemed to be of such good cheer.

Or was it because of the yummy cake?

Collections of Craig Nagel's columns are available at

www.CraigNagelBooks.com.

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