What was your best experience in the field covering this story?
I didn't expect to enjoy meeting centenarians. In fact, I associated them with my own eventual frailty and the smell of retirement homes. I met 112-year-old Lydia Newton in her Sedona, California, mobile home, where she had put on a homemade dress in preparation for my visit. She greeted me by saying, "So you've heard the dirt on me?" She had 107-year-old memories she could recall with the clarity of much younger people remembering what they had for lunch. She possessed wisdom and a sense of satisfaction with her life that made me actually look forward to the twilight years. When she paused from talking, her face naturally settled into a smile. After eight hours, I got up to leave, and she surprised me with an embrace. I felt a human warmness that will forever endear me to elders.
What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?
I'd spent 19 years pitching article ideas to National Geographic, and this was my first assignment. I wanted it to be good, but problems abounded. When I arrived in Okinawa, I knew I needed to find a centenarian who epitomized their culture of longevity. But I discovered that centenarians are "national treasures" and that the government closely guards their privacy. So we had to search them out one by one by calling newspapers and retirement homes and following up on a few leads. Problem is Okinawan centenarians don't have phones; they often don't have hearing. It rained day after fruitless day. Two weeks into the three-week trip, I hadn't found the right centenarian to profile. Then my interpreter had a meltdown and returned to Tokyo. And David McLain, the photographer, said he had no good pictures.
I remember sitting in a hotel in Naha, rain coming down in marble-size drops, with no leads, no interpreter, and nothing much to show for two weeks of work. So I opened my computer to send a note to my editor for advice, and it crashed, obliterating several days of notes. I was sure I'd blown my big break.
What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?
Sardinian men are known for their sardonic, almost persnickety sense of humor, and one such man stood out: 91-year-old Sebastian, a shepherd who still gardens, raises animals, and loves to socialize. We found him holding court with a half dozen much younger friends in the village bar. Besides a few lightly etched wrinkles and greenish, plaqueish teeth, he looked to be a man of 60. My interpreter, Marisa, and I approached him and opened the conversation by asking him his age. "Sixteen," he responded, wearing a prankster's smile. Thinking we might break the ice by buying him a round, we asked him if he drank. "No, my doctor told me not to drink—milk that is." But he had a beer and toasted my health. Marisa, an attractive Italian of 39, stood next to him. I returned the toast saying, "May you always feel as young as the woman you're with." He looked Marisa up and down, turned to me, and replied, "Do I look like a cradle-robber to you?"
Further into the conversation, we asked him about his diet, looking for clues to his longevity. He admitted that he ate larded beans almost every day. "Why don't you get fat?" I asked. "Because I iron my stomach every night."