So what is it like to turn 76? Not much different than turning 75 except with a new knee replacement I am actually in better shape than I was a year ago.
So the next question: does 76 mean I am getting old? The answer is yes. I was pleasantly reminded of this recently on two occasions when someone in his forties (in both cases a friendly, African American man) smiled and said, “So how are you doing today, young man?”
It turns out that in 2018 the average life expectancy of a male in the U.S. is 76.4 years old. Five months to go and I will beat the average.
It is worth noting that people who are old are revered in many countries. In our 2015 trip around the world we were treated with deference and respect in many countries. China stands out the most. Toting a large suitcase each, whenever we were faced with climbing or descending a steep staircase in a train station, we would find the suitcases mysteriously disappearing from our hands and waiting for us as we reached the top or bottom of the stairs. Whoever the Good Samaritan was, he was nowhere to be found. How may times would that happen in the U.S. ?
The biggest challenge for me in old age is seeking to find a balance between purposeful and productive activity without overdoing it and also finding time for relaxation and enjoyment of life with friends and family. That has involved some adjunct teaching at GW, a lot of nonprofit board and church work, and returning to my passion for writing and photography. Nor have I given up my love for sailing and plan to compete in close to 20 races this season. Lunches and get-togethers with friends are also an important part of the routine.
I have been especially fortunate to have been able to stay close to family. We see our daughter, Jessica, our son-in-law, Peter, and their two children (ages 10 and 12) almost weekly since they live in the area, and our son, Andrew, and his wife, Karen, who live outside New York City, and their two children (ages 9 and 10) at least five or six times a year. Staying close to children and grandchildren is surely one of the most rewarding benefits of old age.
And most important of all is my fifty-two years of marriage to Embry Martin. I never cease to be amazed by her energy, her values, and her concern for others and am deeply grateful to have been married to such a strong, compassionate, and supportive person. We have been through a lot together, having lost our first child, Katherine, just short of her first birthday, the summer of 1966 working on the front lines of the civil rights movement, our year on Clay Street, and our many travels together. When we got married, there was no such thing as a feminist, but that all changed, and little did I know that I would be married to one. But I am grateful for it and proud of her for all she has accomplished in her career and in her life, and grateful for her being a great mother to our children, and sticking with me during all these years.
I sometimes hear people say that they have never been happier than in retirement when they no longer have to work and are free to spend all their time on the golf course, playing tennis, hanging out at the club or “doing nothing.” Not so for me. I loved my work; and like so many of us Type A Washingtonians where your job/career establishes your identity, giving up my career was hard. However, because of all my seniors and affordable housing board work, I find that I still am able to keep an oar in the water and am grateful for that, even if it means that I have to write checks instead of receiving them.
So upon turning 76–I suppose like many my age–I am most of all reminded of all the blessings that I have received. I often find myself using the metaphor of how we have no choice other than to play the cards in the hand we have been dealt as best we can. Some of us have been dealt better cards than others. Some have not played their strong hands very well, and others who have received very weak hands have played them extraordinarily well. You must know people in both categories. I surely was dealt a strong hand, for which I am profoundly grateful. In the end how we play our cards is how we will be judged.
In some cultures we old folks are considered fountains of wisdom. I suppose that is because we have seen and done a lot and certainly must have learned something from experience. There is a question in my mind, however, as to whether this is true or whether our personalities just become a little more exaggerated as we age—for the better and for the worse. In any event I do not feel all that wise myself though I think I know enough to be genuinely concerned about the fate of the planet Earth if we continue along the path we are on now. Climate change and global warming are at the top of the list, but not far behind are our weapons of mass destruction and our ability to snuff ourselves out. Also high on the list are inequality and the uneven distribution of wealth and power. My generation had our shot at tackling big issues, and we have a mixed track record. The Civil Rights struggle–at least for me– was our finest hour; and other gains have been made—certainly in technology, which has changed our lives, often (but by no means always) for the better. But we are leaving behind a world of problems, which our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren will have to solve.
But isn’t that the way the world has always been and always will be? We are a small, lonely planet. It is up to us humans to protect it and make it a better place. With something like two billion stars in our galaxy and two billion galaxies in the Universe, surely there are other planets out there with life on them, but they are too far away to get to any time soon. We as a planet have been dealt a hand. We need to play those cards better than we have been doing during my short, 76 years on this planet.