76 Trombones

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.


4 thoughts on “76 Trombones

  1. Joe,

    Mea culpa, mea culpa. I usually remember your birthday because, well, because it’s April Fools Day; and nothing should be read into that other than it’s a special day that jogs my memory. But this year Easter overshadowed AFD so much that Guthrie and I never even thought about it. So please accept my tardy birthday wishes, and many happy returns.
    As I’m sure you recall, mine is coming hard on the heels of yours, and is notable in my own mind as being the anniversary of two famous surrenders, Lee at Appomattox and Wainwright at Bataan. I was aware that the late Spanish golfing great, Seve Ballesteros, shared my birthday. I looked up other famous people that did the same, a bunch of nobodies, two of which made their mark in the world of porn, Hugh Hefner (well, not exactly a nobody) and some porn queen (our Supreme Court would call her an erotic artist) named Jena Jameson.
    All this is about to get me started on Robert Maplethorp, but l’ll exercise self restraint lest such comments wind up being “moderated.” And I am certain that you have no need for the above hints anyway.

    Best to Embry,


  2. Thanks, Joe. By my estimation, you have done quite well. I am all the better for having met
    you. And we shared so many good long fits of laughter, with tears dripping down our face

  3. Great post, Joe! Like you I have hit the 76 marker but I don’t really like it: I am looking forward, however, to 77 (assuming I get there in 4 months time – and if I don’t I can’t grumble – I have been dealt a good hand overall.

    I have been fortunate in retirement especially being asked to cover vacancies on the continent of Europe, and I shall be off again about the end of ~ May to do 4 weeks locum as Anglican priest in Crete. I have been twice before and it is a fabulous place to be asked to work. But I do struggle a bit when I am at home – not enough of what my father called “gainful employment” – but more recently that has been reversed with the retirement of our parish priest, so I am now acting locum chaplain which gives me just enough to keep me occupied without being too much. Geraldine, however, has had to take over as director of music until a new one is found.

    Yes, with age comes, for some of us, greater concern for the planet and especially when we have leaders who strut their stuff in their attempt to appear strong. It’s a pathetic reflection of the human race and the reverse all all that most of us stand for, and I fear for the immediate future which could be so enriching if only we would let it be. And no, that is not naive!

    But I must stop: I am getting into sermon mode, and that doesn’t really help.

    So I will sign off by saying I have now to send an email to Tes Aquilar with whom Joe and I and Anne and Flossie worked in NYC in 63, and who has just left here after two weeks in the UK. She and I had two days in Scotland, and a great friendship was renewed.



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