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The Actuary Magazine December 2004 - Memoirs Of An Actuary

Memoirs Of An Outsider Actuary

By Terrence N. Hill

A humorous look at the information contained in the obituaries of the New York Times.

This was a very good weekend. On Saturday there were six obituaries in the New York Times and the average age of death was 88.3. On Sunday, seven obits averaging 86.2. Most days I feel a slight uplift if the average is over 75. These high–80s averages seemed cause for a celebration: I order a Canadian Club on the rocks. My companion orders bourbon.

"But isn't that quite a lot of obits?" she asks.

It is, actually. On an average day the Times will have two or three obits. Some days there will only be one. I have never yet run into a zero–obit day. This may be a Times policy based on the principle that it is generally bad to encourage a belief in immortality. I have no inside information on this, but I would agree with the policy in a general way. Things get out of hand when there is a widespread belief in immortality?witness the behavior of people in their twenties.

My thinking on the number of obits goes this way: There are only so many people in the world. They will all die sometime. None of them will die twice (except possibly Shirley MacLaine). Therefore, the number of total deaths is fixed. So, whether there are two obits on a given day or eight is simply a random and insignificant statistic. Far more important is the average age of those who die.

When did this fascination with obituaries come to me? I only know that at some point I started checking the Times obituaries with a calculator beside me and figuring the average death age of that day's subjects. Then, with that number still shining at me from light–emitting diodes, it is only four quick taps on the keys to punch in my age and subtract it from the day's average. Now there's a number to ponder.

Did all this happen before or after AARP sent me an invitation to become a member of their organization two days after my 50th birthday? (And while we're asking questions: how did they know it was my birthday?) It was sometime around that AARP letter and the subsequent arrival of my first Modern Maturity magazine that the obit bug bit me. Perhaps it had something to do with Modern Maturity's insistence on doing what I think of as obituaries of the living. You know the kind of thing I mean—articles about people you haven?t thought of in thirty years. These stories have a lot in common with those where–are–they–now pieces that have become journalistic staples. Do I really want to know what Andy Pafko's doing now? Or to find out that Connie Francis is now eligible for Medicare but she's still knocking ?em dead with "Where the Boys Are" in Best Western Lounges throughout Heartland America? Frankly I'd rather wait and find out these things when these people meet the major requirement for a real obituary.

The amateur psychologists among you have already diagnosed me as having developed an unhealthy death obsession. You've got it wrong though. This is a healthy obsession—a mature, realistic approach to the grim reaper. I am absolutely resigned to the fact of the reaper's blade eventually doing its work. I only want to evade its inevitability for as long as possible.

I approach the obits not trembling with fear like one of those crazed victims in one of the Halloween movies, nor as a ghoul. As I survey the daily obituary page (usually found in the back of the Metro section, but sometimes maddeningly cropping up in other sections), I see myself as Newton when the apple fell or as that Greek guy who overflowed his tub and cried, "Eureka!" I am looking for patterns. Because the discovery of a pattern is knowledge. But I am also looking for anomalies?the things outside the pattern. Because these things also contain lessons.

I have come to think of the obituaries as messages sent to me by the dead, using the New York Times to reveal their secrets. By noting over time, for instance, death ages in relation to vocations, I can discern patterns that are very helpful in vocational guidance. I can steer myself away from jobs and careers associated with early deaths. I've noticed that athletes seem to make premature appearances on the obituary pages. I'm not sure why this is; perhaps it's all the punishment they've given their bodies over the years catching up to them. (Inexplicably, however, ballerinas, who one would think also beat up their bodies, seem to stay on the stage far beyond the run actuaries would give them.) Recognizing this athlete pattern, I have recently abandoned my plans to become a middle–linebacker for the Detroit Lions. I set this dream aside with some sorrow because I had been quite looking forward to being the first 58–year–old linebacker in NFL history.

Another pattern lesson learned is that academics in virtually all disciplines manage to hang in there, for years and years being the mainstays at the funerals of friends in other professions.

One also spots patterns in the cause of death. This fact always appears in either the first or second paragraph of an obituary and careful attention will reward you with a list of things to avoid. Some of this, of course, is obvious: eschew heart attacks and strokes. Anyone could have figured these out without the help of the obits. But how about this one: if given the choice of a brief or a long illness as the cause of death, which would you take? You might think, well, gee, I guess I'd like to be alive for the longer period and thus take the "long illness" option. As an obitologist, I would urge you to think again. People are constantly dying "after a long illness." It seems that virtually every day some long illness or other takes its toll. On the other hand, people almost never die as the result of a brief illness. Think about it. Other anomalous early–death obits remind us never to board a small plane; avoid avalanches; and make it a point to stay unrelated to anyone named Kennedy.

A particularly useful nugget of knowledge came to me the other day in the obituary of a well–known sculptor: do not attempt household repairs yourself. The sculptor involved fell to his death at 46 years of age while working on the chimney of his three–story home. Home repairs should be assigned to professionals. Do not be tempted to clean your eaves or re–wire your rec room by the lure of saving money. Such foolhardiness can lead to a senselessly premature obit. If, on the other hand, your age is already into three figures and your wife has been nagging you to take down that old television antenna now that you've got cable, I say—go for it. I have never seen the obit of a centenarian with household repairs as the cause of death.

My companion has barely touched her drink so wrapped up in my teaching is she. But now she interrupts to ask a very logical question. "I suppose then," she says, ?that ?household repairman? must be added to that list of professions to shun?"

Curiously not. And here obviously is the telling difference between the amateur and the professional. For while I've noted a number of accidental home repair deaths among people of other professions, I have not once in my years of study come across the obituary of a handyman. Well that pretty much says it, doesn't it?

"What about writers?" she asks with touching concern. You see, I am a writer.

Writers show a bi–polar pattern. They tend to go early or late. On the one hand you have the Keatses, the Shelleys, the John Kennedy Tooles, the Plaths; while on the other are the George Bernard Shaws and Anthony Powells. Off the top of my head I?d say the average age of a writer's death is somewhere in his forties or fifties. And yet almost no writer dies in those decades of his life. So the lesson seems to be, I tell her reassuringly, that if as a writer you can make it through your thirties, you have a good chance of scribbling on into your seventies or eighties—no guarantees of quality however.

My companion offers a toast to "writers beyond forty."

I'm willing to drink to that because I am currently in the category. But the truth is I'm thinking of changing my vocation. I am laying plans to become an outsider artist. Not a regular artist, mind you, for that is a shockingly dangerous occupation: think Haring, Basquiat, Schiele or even van Gogh and Warhol. No, it is in the sub–category of "outsider artist" that I intend to hang my shingle. The determination to make this switch came about because of the arrival of two related bits of random information in the very same week. These almost simultaneous arrivals struck me as a coincidence so fortuitous as to demand the classification of destiny.

The first packet came in a New York Times story telling me that the 100–plus age category is the fastest growing in the country. Between the 1990 census and the 2000 census, the number of centenarians increased by 23 percent! Even more encouraging, demographers (I wonder what the age expectancy of a demographer is?) project that by 2050 there might be close to a million Americans who've seen at least a full century. In the year 2050 I will be 106 years old. This story was more of a lift than those high–80s obit death–age averages.

While still basking in the glow of this story, I happened to go to the annual Outsider Art Show at the Puck Building on Lafayette at Houston here in New York. At first casually, but then with real purpose, I started noting the life spans of a number of the artists represented in the show. Probably the best known of these artists is Anna Mary Robertson, better known as Grandma Moses. Her work and her fame pre–date even the term and classification "outsider art." What struck me, however, was not her work, which has just a bit too much over–the–river–and–through–the–woodsiness for my taste, but rather the dates of her life. Born a year before the Civil War started, she died a year or so before we got really serious about showing those North Vietnamese who's boss. One hundred one years old at her death.

The current King of Outsider Art is a man named Bill Traylor. His works, many of them pencil drawings done on shirt cardboards in the most rudimentary of artistic styles, now sell in the mid or upper five figures. The highest prices go for the ones in which Bill broke out a second colored pencil or even added a touch of watercolor. I don't think I'm going out on a limb at all by saying that any of his drawings selected at random, would sell today for a figure amounting to more than Bill earned in any twenty years of his life combined. Unfortunately, he didn't live to see this bonanza—but he tried. His dates are 1852–1949. He kept on until he was 97!

Other outsider luminaries include: the Reverend Howard Finster (1916–2001) 85 years old at death; the weird Henry Darger (1892–1973) 81 years old; Pearl Blauvert (1893–1987) 94 years old; and Aaron Birnbaum?my personal hero?(1895–1998) 103 years old. Well, as Dylan once said, you don?t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. This was clearly a vocation with a future. Having just read and been encouraged by the New York Times story saying there were 1,787 centenarians in New York City with a population of roughly eight million, you can imagine how impressed I was to find four artists who lived to a hundred among the thirty–five or forty ages I noticed in the Outsider show. Among New Yorkers then, one in four thousand lives to be a hundred. Clearly, by becoming an outsider artist, you could increase your chances to one in eight or ten. Well I made my mind up right there.

As I was going through this last part, my companion had brought up the question of whether I had the talent and training necessary to become an outsider artist. I must admit this had also troubled me a bit until I looked into the issue. In the first place, outsider art is defined as art by artists who have no formal training! In other words, my total lack of art training was, in fact, the one essential credential I needed to be welcomed into the fold of these enviously–aged artists. Outsider art is a unique professional niche; I cannot think of any equivalent in other jobs. I mean, imagine the problematic nature of "outsider airline pilots" or "outsider gynecologists."

The question of talent didn't bother me much. Nor do I think it would trouble anyone who has had the opportunity to see any of Bill Traylor's work. This is clearly an equal opportunity profession. I also pointed out that I'm not entering the outsider art field to make a million dollars. It is not necessary for me to be a good outsider artist to achieve my objective. I only want to be counted in their number, join their union if they have one, perhaps attend a few of their tax–deductible conferences in Bermuda or Aspen or wherever they have them. it's sort of like flight attendants choosing their job because of all the free travel opportunities it affords. They had no intention, as must be obvious to anyone who's flown on a plane lately, of actually being good at their jobs.

My companion, who had followed all of the obituary discussion with perhaps slightly quizzical, but still respectful attention, had shown signs of rebellion as I spoke of my change of career. So I was prepared for a bit of resistance when I asked what she thought of my plan.

"Let me get this straight. You really intend to become an outsider artist to increase your life span?"

Yeah, what do you think?

"What I think is that you're nuts. Just out–and–out, certifiably, around–the–bend nuts."

Now for most people who have just taken someone shepherd–like through a fairly tightly reasoned argument with a logically defensible conclusion, her pronouncement might have come as a bit of a dark cloud. For me, however, it had a possibly very silver lining. You see within the category of outsider art is a further sub–category called the art of the insane. I'm hoping in the next few weeks to research exactly what the life expectancy of these insane artists is relative the outsider category as a whole. I'll get back to you on this soon.

Terrence N. Hill lives mostly in New York City. He became a free–lance writer five years ago after more than 30 years in advertising. This is his debut performance in The Actuary.