Thaao, at age 80, the world's oldest condor died in captivity at the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Magnificent in his ugliness, I would regularly see this bird alone in his large cage when I would take my kids to the zoo, who would prefer to play tag with the free-ranging peacocks--seeing if they could get one of the males to fan open his vaingloriously beautiful tail.
The beauty of virtually flightless peacocks--they can jump into a tree--pales when compared to a sight of a soaring condor with a 10 foot wingspan floating thousands of feet over Andean crags and cliffs--searching, I'll concede, for carrion. A natural hang-glider that soars on thermal currents, Charles Darwin wrote he observed one fly for a half-hour without once flapping its wings.
It's easy to anthropomorphize these things, so I'll submit to temptation, and plunge right in. Did Thaoo, well past the age of social security eligibility, recall his pre-capture, early years of Andean freedom where the Incas believed that condors (which means gold coin) were a kind of combination Zeus and Apollo--ruler of the heavens and god of the sun?
The people at Beardsley, as reported by the Connecticut Post, agreed with me about his lack of cuddliness. This is a bird beautiful mostly from a distance, and this condor preferred it that way.
"Thaao wasn't the sort of animal who would cuddle up to you," zoo director Gregg Dancho said. "He's a top-of-the-line predator and scavenger, and he'd never shy away from protecting his turf."
The keepers "always had to be aware that they were dealing with an animal with a 10-foot wingspan, enough weight to knock you over and large talons. He always had an attitude. In the morning, he'd give you a grunt."
Was even a grunt more than his jailors' deserved?
Did Thaoo think his longevity was the best of a bad bargain? That he would have preferred the normal lifespan of condor in the wild of a mere 50--supping on dead deer and other large carcasses in the Andean valleys?
How about some thought experiments about longevity not being all that its cracked up to be?
Would you like immortality if it meant being a cog in a clonal colony like the Mediterranean sea grass--Posidonia oceanica---reputed to being 100,000 years old?
Or perhaps you would prefer to be a 5,000 year old single organism--a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine-named, what else? Methuselah?
You would have to be an addled animal rights activist to believe that Methuselah had much more consciousness than a rock.
What's the point of living without consciousness?--we humans are likely to ask.
So would you settle, perhaps, for a level of consciousness without the human gift and curse of self-conscious, and be a 200 year old bowhead whale singing your love songs down the centuries?
Or would you rather be a Homo sapiens, one who dies at 20 or 10 fully aware of human joy and pain?
These musings are prompted not only by Thaoo, but also by the long-term residents I meet in my often dismal trade as a psychologist in nursing homes-humans who are old, yet in captivity. Some of them greet me with no more than a Thaoo grunt. But the day after the report of the bird's passing, I encountered more than a grunt from a human also 80--like Thaoo.
Pick only one.
In my work, I get to ask questions from the Geriatric Depression Scale like, "Do you think that most people are better off than you are?"
The 80something, I asked this of said, "No, not most, particularly some of the other people around here, whose minds are totally destroyed," the fairly common response from many who still have a mind that always reminds me of the first line of Ginsberg's Howl, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness"-a line appropriate to the most garden variety of nursing homes.
I'll call him Mr. Jones. He was a long-time, semi-prominent classicist who forsaking Herodotus--I told him I could barely finish the first book of The Histories, in English--now lies in bed when he's not in his wheel chair, mostly watching TV. A Yankee fan, he's happily waiting for the first spring training game only weeks away.
"If only I kind walk," a refrain I've heard scores of times over the years, "my life would be so much better."
But Jones, unlike some others or possibly me in the future, is making--pick your platitude--the best of a bad bargain and playing the hand fate dealt to him.
Jones told me that, like Thaoo, perhaps, he never expects to leave the nursing home.
"I recognize I can't live on my own. My son says its an ordeal just to take me for a car ride. But my friends still visit."
On his nightstand, I see a copy of a journal I never heard of, Classical Philology, so I know that there is more than the Yankees on his sound mind not in a sound body.
Sometimes I spin a fantasy of me in the nursing home catching up on my reading---like Burgess Meredith in that post-apocalypse Twilight Zone library--except my only pair of glasses don't break. I leave out of my fantasy the incontinence, the arthritic pain, the Parkinsonian tremors, the door to my room always open, while I'm cared for by strangers young enough to be my great-grandchildren but who have no problem calling me "Ira" or even "Sweetie"--never "Doctor."
Yesterday, I was at another home waiting for Mrs. Smith, who was in the bathroom moving her bowels--and for some reason this sticks in my mind's ear like a worm---when one of the aides in attendance exclaimed for all to hear, "She gave birth to two baby boys!"--meaning the turds. And just to make sure we all heard it, said it again and again. No Wonder Mrs. Smith was not happy to see me, and told me to go away.
In a nursing home, sometimes the only autonomy you have left is to say, "No," or "Go away."
Say it too many times, and they'll refer you to me as a case of clinical orneriness.
But I sing of cummings' "Olaf glad and big," who "does almost ceaselessly repeat ‘there is some shit I will not eat.'"
Mr. Jones was no Olaf, and was merely doing the best he could-that best of a bad bargain thing.
Although he admitted, who wouldn't? that he'd like the sound body as well as the sound mind, but he'll settle for the mind.
"Not like some of the other people here."
Perhaps that's Thaoo's calculation too, in captivity like Mr. Jones never to fly again--still dreaming of the thermal currents above Annapurna-pearched pitifully low, for a Condor, above the feckless peacocks.
Autonomy means only a grunt for your keeper.
And thoughts are forever free, or, at least, until you die.
Click here to read the first chapter of my book, Nasty, Brutish, and Long: Adventures in Old Age and the World of Eldercare (Avery/Penguin, 2009). It provides a unique, insider's perspective on aging in America. It is an account of my work as a psychologist in nursing homes, the story of caregiving to my frail, elderly parents--all to the accompaniment of ruminations on my own mortality. Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking calls it "A book for policy makers, caregivers, the halt and lame, the upright and unemcumbered: anyone who ever intends to get old."