49 Years, 2 Months, 4 Days ... and Counting
By Gary Howe | Dec. 18, 2021
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year — we're all going to die. Someday. I hope you find comfort and inspiration in this finite fact.
At least, that's the motivation behind Tom Urban's Life Calendar. The writer and illustrator introduced the tool in 2014 on his website, Wait But Why. I came across it shortly thereafter and built my own Life Calendar in a Google Sheet. So, now, when I'm in a reflective mood, I revisit, update, and give thanks. I'm still here.
A Life Calendar is a visualization of one's life. It's a grid, 52 boxes wide, representing each week, from birth to the end. The number of rows is the number of years in your life. Urban's original provides 90; the life expectancy in the United States would call for 79. According to one life expectancy calculator, I have a 75 percent chance of living past 74, with a slim chance of hitting 83. Of course, as my doctor says, I could add a few years if I lost 10 pounds. I recommend the original 90 — aim high.
On Jan. 1, I'll start my fiftieth row. I've already shaded the rows of boxes for each previous row. The colors represent life changes — beige for elementary school, red for university, light blue for buying a house.
My first row begins on the 42nd box, 10 weeks before the end of 1972. I was born in Owosso and lived there for the first three rows of my life. My first memory is of cresting over the hills south of Traverse City sometime after we moved up north. I've marked a time for when I peered over the front seat of the Old Man's station wagon and ogled at West and East Bays. I don't know the exact date, but I know it was in 1975. I've labeled it as one of the first imprints of home, and I've shaded those rows a Lake Michigan blue.
I've reconstructed my life by shading and marking new schools, big moves, and various jobs. I chart the dates for meaningful relationships, deaths, and events in individual boxes. I identify both the personal and global. For example, I've logged the presidential eras, 9/11, and the 921 Taiwan Earthquake. The latter was a 7.7 earthquake 100 miles south of my apartment in Taipei. I lived there from 1999 to 2001 (three rows shaded bright red). That night, a 24-story building on my block fell on its side. Anything that shakes up your life deserves to go on the calendar.
The power of the Life Calendar visualization is in zooming out. The details fade away, leaving only the colors and marks of different times for each week. For me, that's 2,564 boxes at the time of writing this column. Some rows show more activity than others. For example, rows 22–30 were the exploratory years I moved between the United States, China, Taiwan, and Australia. In that time, I learned Chinese — check that off.
One extra item I've added to Urban's original concept is a yearly satisfaction review. For the early years, I went back and assigned a ranking from 1 to 10, with 10 being outstanding. My first two years were definite tens; those troubled teen years, not so much. The result of these 49 entries is a life satisfaction number. I can live with the current outcome of a 7. The years with dogs in my life indeed increased the average score.
Give life calendaring a try. You can even buy a blank poster from Wait But Why. But, since 2014, several creators have expanded on Urban's original idea. A quick search will help you find the right approach. For example, the Life Calendar app helps track your life on your phone. Also, Felix Kraus created a shareable Google Sheet like the one I use.
Other online tools are inspired by the Life Calendar's ability to present the idea of one's mortality. When seeing the blank rows representing the rest of my life get fewer and fewer, I find it easier to manage the rough spots. It's a healthy reminder to stick to what and who feeds the positives in life.
One app to help you maintain that perspective and focus on what matters is the Chrome extension, Ambition Life Calendar. Each time you open a new tab during your all-critical deep dive into the interwebs, it asks, "What will you do that's worth remembering?" Then, it plots your life against a notable figure of your choosing. My current choice is Benjamin Franklin, who didn't have an endless supply of memes to distract him.
However, we want to measure our lives, there's value in purposeful reflection. When I'm not feeling satisfied, I look back and check on my life satisfaction score. I can be proud of that score or work harder to raise it with the time I have left. I can also zoom in and revisit those life achievements responsible for higher scores and redouble my efforts to achieve more of them before I shade in that last box.
What's on your Life Calendar?
Gary L. Howe is a photographer and advocacy and communications director at Norte. He has also been an avid coffee drinker since September 1991, when he took an 8am chemistry class — it's on his Life Calendar.