Olgas Among Us — Part 1
I was having lunch with my friend Michele one day recently when the other shoe dropped. There are stealth Olgas among us, and I was looking at one.
Michele is from the Italian island of Sardinia. If you’re into longevity research, you’ll recognize Sardinia as one of the “Blue Zones” – those incubators of centenarians scattered here and there across the globe.
Actuarially speaking, the perfect profession might be a Sardinian shepherd. It ticks all of the longevity boxes. It’s rugged and serene and exhausting and joyful. You sweat buckets in the fresh air and sunshine, trudging up and down those mountainsides, but there’s about zero stress, and you come home to a healthful meal rich in life-extending nutrients (the tannens in the wine, the anti-inflammatories in the goat’s milk) and the loving embrace of your family. Many if not most Sardinian men enjoy the added benefit of a mutation on the Y-chromosome that offers protection from much chronic disease.
That’s the hothouse Michele grew up in. He is closer to ninety than eighty. He looks sixty. He has a lot in common with Olga. I don’t think I realized just how much until Michele started talking about the life of his body.
As a boy he rode his bicycle 60 or 70 kilometres a day — mostly because there wasn’t much else to do. The exercise became a form of meditation; over the gentle hills to the sea, he let his mind wander. Later, after moving to Canada, in the late-1950s, he found it frustrating to cycle in the city — too many starts and stops.
So he took up running. He ran long distances. Nobody ran long distances at that time. So Michele was ridiculed, which he didn’t mind and actually rather liked. He never timed himself or set goals: he just floated along, that dreamy Sardinian boy again. Then came the jogging craze. When he noticed other people out there in their sweats and their headbands, that’s when he stopped. He lost the heart for doing something that other people seemed to do because they thought it was good for them. “If there is a motive behind something,” he laughs, “I’m immediately suspicious.”
(It’s not that all rules and laws must be prima facie rejected – only the ones that don’t make sense. There’s actually quite a ferocious level of discipline involved in figuring out the difference. At every turn he asks himself, is his position “beneficial”? And he doesn’t mean physically beneficial, he means spiritually beneficial.)
With his aerobic base, and his habits, and his genes, Michele could easily be another Olga, racking up world records, submitting to muscle biopsies, peeing in a cup, and just generally serving as another data point in our quest to understand what it means to age well. But to be in that game you have to join it. And Michele is not a joiner. Which is actually one of the things I like best about him.
“I suppose I am an anarchist in my heart,” he allowed. “But at the same time I’m part of a community.” Michele had arrived late to lunch because he’s on the board at the local Italian cultural centre, and he had some last-minute business he needed to sew up there. “We do the things that are inborn in us to do to benefit someone — our community – not just ourselves.”
Michele had done yeomen translation work for What Makes Olga Run?, and at a certain point, in a café, over bean soup, I passed him an envelope with some small compensation in it. His expression changed. A heaviness came over him. “It has been my great pleasure to help you with this,” he said. “But now you have taken the poetry out of it.”