My friend Luigi asks, “Do you think prehistoric people were happier than we are?”
We’re standing in line at an airport food vendor called the Dogpatch Bakehouse. Our flight is on time, but my stress level is high. I took a few wrong turns driving from the hotel to the airport, then left my phone in the rental car and had to run back to retrieve it, down two long flights of stairs, down two floors in a hesitant elevator, and back to the rental car parking garage, where the phone’s recovery was very gradually accomplished.
Dogpatch advertises bold coffee and local ingredients, vibrant salads and delicious sandwiches. The line is long. When we finally get to the counter I count six vibrant salads.
We’re on our way home from a raft trip on the Colorado River. Before bedding down the first night, our guide told us about the hazards: crows (they’ll steal your stuff), red ants (be sure to brush them off, if you slap them and they will bite), scorpions (the very painful but not deadly variety), rattlesnakes (more than a theoretical possibility), and mountain lions (mountain lions!). Have a good sleep.
Here at Dogpatch, I point the server at the quinoa and kale salad and the roasted squash, asking for a scoop of each. When it’s his turn Luigi nods yes, he would like his delicious sandwich warmed up on the panini grill. In an hour we’ll be in the air. Four hours and 2000 miles later, we’ll be home.
We tend to think of our hunter-gatherer foreparents as living Hobbesian lives–nasty, brutish, and short. Their lives must have been just that, possibly even less, but how do you measure happiness? A study by F.D. McCarthy and M. McArthur published back in 1960 suggested hunter-gatherers probably enjoyed quite a lot of leisure time. In 1968, Canadian anthropologist Richard Borshay Lee, in a study of the !Kung Bushmen of Dobe, argued that those guys worked as little as 12-19 hours a week to keep the pantry stocked. Think of all that time on their hands, to dedicate themselves to their cave painting, to hunter-gatherer song and poetry and sport, and, tool-users that they were, to work on hunter-gatherer gizmos to make life a little easier.
When I get home, there are a few while-you-were-gone annoyances. A hundred or so emails, the most recent one with “Got grubs?” in the subject line. A love letter from a healthcare provider: “Contact us about your bill.” Then, when I open a door down in the corner of the basement, the one to my little wine closet, I see a puddle of water on the floor.
We have this foolish idea our homes are impermeable barriers between us and nature. Dark outside, light inside. Cold outside, warm inside. Hot and humid outside, cool and dry inside. Bugs, dirt, water–outside. When that barrier is compromised, it’s a shock, cause for alarm; in the case of water, it’s a crisis.
Evidently it’s been raining for a few days, torrential rains that make you think of the end of the world. I fetch a sponge and bucket, sop up the water. I know what I’m in for. A couple hours later the water is back, more of it. I fetch sponge and bucket, sop up the water, this time on my hands and knees.
I anticipate a couple days of sopping and mopping, so I decide to employ a labor-saving techology, a shop vac I keep in the garage for vacuuming car interiors. It’s also a water management system on wheels. I carry it downstairs, roll it to the corner of the basement, and, standing upright, vacuum the water. It works great, way better than sponge and bucket. For the next 48 hours, as the rain lets up and the seepage gradually subsides, I remove unwanted water from my wine closet. It’s a wonderful appliance. I love using the shop vac so much, I almost wouldn’t mind if it rained a little more and the water hung around a few more days.
Next day I’m on the phone with the out-of-state healthcare organization I visited a month ago. For two hours in emergency I’ve been charged $2600, a considerable portion of which, pretty good insurance notwithstanding, is in contention. I wait through the initial phone menu–if you know your party’s extension, for outpatient, for in-patient, for social worker, for lab results, for billing, for room service, for the morgue–and finally get to a person in billing.
“Will you hold, please?”
“If I must.”
It’s a long wait. I’m a motivated caller. While I wait I listen to You’re-on-Hold Radio. Right now they’re playing synthesized elevator music, a sluggish, mucky rendition of “New York, New York.” Given the current state of technology, it occurs to me they could make your wait time a lot less painful. They could patch you through to a Pandora option, providing you with some choices in music–for Frank Sinatra, press 7, for the Beatles, press 8, for Beyonce press 9, for Best of Mozart, press 10. Every 30 seconds, the music stops and I’m asked if I’d rather just put the bill on my credit card and hang up. Would I ever. But…
Finally, a person.
“This is Elsie. How can I help you?”
We talk. Her voice is calm and reassuring. I explain the purpose of my call. When she asks, I read her my insurance info: enrollee code, plan number, group number.
“Can you please confirm your D.O.B. and sosh?”
She says she has to ask. I give her my dob and sosh, thinking as I do, Do you have to say “sosh”? She thanks me and says she’ll be right back.
And I’m right back, on You’re-on-Hold Radio, listening to the elevator version of the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun.”
I know there are compassionate options to You’re-on-Hold Radio. I’ve heard them. I’ve been on hold before and actually wanted to stay there. One time I was, like, Hey, it’s The Talking Heads. Another time, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” Once or twice, when I’ve been clicked back to business at hand, I wanted to say, Can you put me back on hold for a few more minutes?
Now on the line again, Elsie says she got it. It was a Z instead of an X in my insurance ID. Human error. They had my name right, my address right, my phone number, dob and sosh right, but the computer can’t process the claim if there’s a Z instead of an X. She says she’ll submit my claim again. Can she help me with anything else?
Oil spill, building collapse, plane crash, car accident, food poisoning, computer virus–human error these day is amplified, made exponentially worse given all the people and all the tech involved. And then there’s simple ordinary life as we know it, and cumulative, pedestrian error. New York, it seems, is about to ban the use of plastic straws. Imagine, a gazillion plastic straws. Can plastic water bottles be far behind? In England, a whale that washed up on shore had 50 pounds of plastic in its belly. This summer Lake Erie will have an algae bloom that may choke off the water supply to Toledo. In some respects maybe our foreparents didn’t have it so bad.
Nasty, brutish, and short? Maybe not so short. Satoshi Kanazawa, an American-born British evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, offers a statistical analysis that suggests prehistoric folk probably lived long lives. Life expectancy numbers, Kanazawa argues, are skewed by child mortality rates. If a human being made it to age 6, or better yet, age 12, chances were he or she would live to be 70 or even 80 years old.
Brutish? Probably. But consider The Old Man of La Chapelle, a Neanderthal from France who lived some 50,000 years ago. His dental records–that is, what scientists can glean from looking at his jaw and his teeth (lots missing teeth, not a surprise, but with ample bone reformed along his gumlines)—well, his bite indicates that he must have lived to a ripe old age and maybe even had a special old-guy-with-no-teeth diet; that is, someone was taking care of him. Furthermore, skeletal examination points to evidence of old-guy complaints, such as arthritis.
So maybe life in pre-historic times wasn’t so bad, was only somewhat nasty, brutish, and short.
Then again, red ants.
And then again again, mountain lions.
Our foreparents wouldn’t have worried so much about a little water leaking into their domicile. They had more pressing concerns.
Before going to bed, I am grateful not to be sleeping on a pile of rocks. I use my electric toothbrush and Shaper Image Nose Hair Trimmer, and expect to awaken dry, bite-free, with all my limbs intact. Given the time, when the basement is dry, I may even go outside and try to find out if I do indeed have grubs in the yard.
Given the choice between grubs for lunch and grubs in the grass, I would choose the latter. We live when we live. It’s not all good. Maybe that’s the universal human condition.