birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.


Lifestyle, or luck? DNA or determined choices?

We're all wired genetically, to some indeterminate degree, as to how our bodies will hold up in the face of disease, adversity and environmental challenges. Some people get a seasonal cold and are felled for days. Others shake off the sniffles and plow ahead, practically willing the virus away. Some diseases have deep histories with particular populations of humanity. Cancer, especially certain types, runs in the family for some.

But even within those trend lines, there are outliers. For every dozen 100-year-olds who ascribe their longevity to a regimen of daily exercise, meditation and non-fat yogurt, there are others who made the century-milestone while smoking, drinking, living recklessly and generally flipping their middle finger at the statistical models.

In my family, there are definitely some disturbing trend lines. On my mother's side, there's cancer (breast, pancreatic), but my grandmother lived to 92 without being felled by it. On my father's side, it's colon cancer that took out some of my uncles, and my dad has had some polyps removed. Both grandparents on that side lived to good ages and died within a month of each other.

My immediate family (dad, mom, brother) has checked off multiple boxes on the risk factor list: diabetes, cancer or pre-cancerous signs, smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease.

But personally, apart from an elevated blood pressure that's been monitored and managed with meds since my late 30s or early 40s, I've apparently played my hand of genetic and lifestyle cards pretty well. I run, I do cycling classes, I swim. I walk a lot. I adopted a pescatarian diet one year and two months ago. I manage stress fairly well.

There are aspects we can control, and aspects we can't. Would you get genetic testing if it was free and could tell you with a 40% degree of certainty which diseases you'd be likely to get? 50%? 75%? Would you decline the test even if it had 90% accuracy?

Would you inform a loved one if it was up to you to share or withhold diagnosis of a fatal disease? Would it matter what age the person was? Would you factor in how long they might have to live?

I embrace knowledge. I want informed decisions. And I'm a planner.

L joked regularly that Helen Mirren looked great and would always look great not just because of healthy living but because she replenishes with the blood of virgins. L also said often that she had a vision of herself as an elderly spinster, shooing kids off her lawn late in life. And I believe she'll make it to that age, and be healthy when she gets there.

Me, I'm not sure where my spin on the wheel of variables places me. But I'd like to push the odds as much in my favor as possible. I'll keep making those healthy choices while also living in the moment.

After my dad's heart attack a decade ago, I resolved not to squander my time. I have neglected that pledge to myself from time to time in the intervening years. And I really questioned the value of doing anything at all after my 50-year-old cousin, one of the healthiest people I knew, was felled by a heart attack while driving home four years ago. But two years ago, instead of wondering if I might have a heart attack in my 50s, I made the choice to renew that pledge. I started walking quarter miles. I built up to running 10Ks.

I hope I get the chance to keep making my own assessment again from time to time in the coming stages of life.

And if a big odds-against diagnosis comes at some point, I hope I have other choices and that I'm in a position to enact them on my terms.


All about the numbers