Upon Turning 77

I just learned that 77 is actually a sacred number, which leads to a serious blog post. No fake news today.

Seventy-seven years ago at something like 12:15 in the morning I was born on April Fools Day in Saint Thomas Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. According to my mother, it was all Roosevelt’s fault—one of his many–for putting in daylight savings time. I have suffered ever since from being an April Fool.

Not really. In fact not at all. As I look back, as I suppose is natural for someone beginning a 78thyear of life on the planet Earth, I can’t help reflecting upon what it all means. What I can say is that I am profoundly grateful. I have been, as they say, blessed. Blessed for having a strong marriage to a strong woman, two children who make me proud (and their spouses!), four grandchildren, who exceed grandparent superlatives (like all grandchildren I suppose, but no, ours are special!) and deep and lasting friendships. These include first cousins, nieces, nephews and other friends we are close to. I mention these blessings first for a reason: they are what are most important.

Right up there near the top of the list , of course, is health. I have often said that life is a matter of inches, meaning an inch here or an inch there, and the story would be very different. My first “inch” had to do with the year I was born, 1942. If I had been born in, say, 1900 my life expectancy at birth (white male) would have been 47.  We take so much for granted in 2019, but just think: penicillin was not discovered/invented until 1928. Before that infections and infectious diseases often meant a death sentence. And just think of what it must have been like to have a tooth pulled in the early part of the last century.

 In my case I would have been dead by my early 20s had it not been for a new operation called a “spinal fusion,” developed only a couple of years earlier to correct severe curvature of the spine. In1952 I had had a pretty severe case of polio, which due to paralyzed stomach muscles resulted two years later in a backbone that looked like the letter “C.” If I had been born a decade before, my parents would have watched in horror knowing that my organs were getting all mixed up, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Few in this condition would have survived past their early twenties. Close call. Another close call was in my forties when I  “dodged a bullet,” words of my dermatologist, when he removed a melanoma mole, just before it spread to my lymph nodes. Let’s hear it for medical advances that have made such a difference in years lived and quality of life! My guess is that most of us who have reached the ripe old age of 77 have had our share of close calls. That we got past them is reason for thanksgiving.

Perhaps due to my polio experience and being on the sidelines for a long time during my youth, I have been a bit of an exercise fanatic my entire adult life. I was a serious runner—not very good but very serious—through my forties and mid fifties; and when knee issues began in the mid 90s, I became a serious walker and lap swimmer. Now with a new knee I am walking long(ish) distances again and am grateful for that. I am also grateful for the running partners I have had over the years. Generally speaking my health overall has been pretty good, probably exceptionally good when you take into account the fact that a large percentage of polio victims have experienced “post polio syndrome,” often resulting in paralysis which they thought they had left behind years earlier.

I recall in my fifties receiving a letter from a research organization asking me whether I had enough problems to qualify for a study on post polio. I responded by saying,  “Absolutely. I have cut down my running from five miles a day to three and now play tennis only twice a week.” I realize now what a crude and insensitive remark this was and can only say that I am grateful that I dodged the PPS bullet. I was not selected to participate in the study. 

Over the course of 77 years it is impossible to get by without experiencing hardships, disappointments, and for too many in our world, real suffering. Such is life on this lonely planet. For Embry and me the loss of our first child, Katherine, just before her first birthday was cause for much sorrow. She was born with a heart defect and did not survive what we understood was supposed to be a “routine, relatively low risk” heart operation in Chapel Hill in 1969. 

Nor is it possible to get by without making mistakes and doing really stupid things. All I can say about this—and there are way too many to begin to list here—is Lord have mercy.

There are so many other things to be thankful for. I think first of work. Think about how much of our lives are spent working. Think about how many people work very hard for very low pay and others who have bad jobs or jobs they hate. Think about those who want to work but can’t find jobs. Think about the difference between a job and a career. I was lucky to stumble upon a career that I loved: a professional in the field of real estate development with a specialty in developing seniors housing and affordable housing. I proudly consider founding and keeping Howell Associates going for 20 years a personal accomplishment, and being able to actually sell the company when I was in my late fifties is nothing less than de facto proof of a benign deity. I loved the work and the many wonderful people who worked with me at Howell Associates. I am also grateful that I am still able to keep an oar in the water by serving on several nonprofit boards that develop and own seniors or affordable housing.  While doing some of the same work, I write checks rather than receive them but only occasionally ask what is wrong with this picture. I am glad I have this opportunity.

Second, I think of extracurricular pursuits.  For me this includes writing, photography, sailing, and traveling. I still think how fortunate I was that after receiving five rejections from potential publishers of Hard Living on Clay Street, the last shot, Doubleday, came through; and the book has been in continuous print since 1973. I was not so lucky with Civil Rights Journey, which I ended up self publishing, but I am still proud of the book and the reception it has received. Photography remains a passion as may be apparent since you are reading this blog on my photography website, and I am still cruising  and racing a sailboat after all these years. You can’t find better sailing waters than the Chesapeake Bay, and also owning a charter boat in the Sunsail fleet in the British Virgin Islands has allowed Embry and me and friends to cruise in fabulous spots all over the world—the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Puget Sound, the South Pacific (Tahiti) and the Adriatic. 

Travel has also been an important activity, and all the credit goes to erstwhile travel agent and companion, Embry Howell. She plans. I tag along. But I have truly enjoyed these adventures in some 50 plus countries around the globe. The around-the-world adventure-no-airplanes, was probably the best, and you may have followed us on this website for this trip and some of the others.

So on my 77thbirthday, I think I can honestly say that I could not have asked for much more. I am also aware of the fact that the pathway I have followed was prepared by a lot of people ahead of me.  I am aware that compared to a lot of pathways mine was pretty smooth. Others can be–and often are– pretty steep and rocky. I was born into a loving family. I am aware that many privileges come from being white. I live in a wealthy country. I was able to attend terrific schools. I had mentors to follow. I have not had to worry too much about financial security. All these factors made for a pretty easy path to follow though not without a few hills and rough spots along the way. But make no mistake: we humans are what we are because of a lot of factors that we are not in control of, not just because of what we do on our own.

But even as we  77ers are in the countdown stage our lives, I can’t help thinking about the future. Those who have been following my blog know how much I hate Trump. However, Trump is not so much  a cause as a symptom of something out of kilter that goes much deeper. Globalization has created winners and losers, and the losers are angry and are fighting back. Trump has exploited this phenomenon, and nobody really knows how we will get through it. And it is not just a U.S. problem. The whole world is affected. Turkey, Poland, and Hungary have all turned toward dictators, and Brexit looks to me like a suicide wish by the Brits. Inequality in wages and income persists and is getting worse, not better.

And lurking over all of this is climate change, the number one issue for us  humans on the planet Earth. Scientists tell us that by 2050 if we are not on a solid path to significantly reducing carbon emissions–not just reducing the rate of increase– we are looking at sea level increases of 30 to 40 feet within the next century or two. And let me tell you: 77 years goes by pretty fast. Two hundred years is a mere blip on the human history timeline. By the turn of the century the planet could be spiraling out of control, and no one will be able to change its course. My grandchildren will probably still be alive then. What will happen to them and to their children? 

But this blog post is mainly about looking back, not forward. It has been a great 77 years. I was born before World War II was over but remember nothing about it. My father, who was aboard a Navy LST most of the time, survived. America prospered and became the dominant country on the planet. Since then we have fought wars, but they have been far away. Following the Vietnam War, the wars were all fought by volunteers. But I can’t help asking why must wars continue. And we tend to forget that lots of countries have nuclear weapons. We have the ability to destroy life on Earth as we know it in a matter of seconds.

A lot of changes occurred during this time, some good, some not so good. I put the Civil Rights Movement right up there at the top, and to be able to be part of the this movement is one of the parts of my life I am most proud of. The Women’s Movement and Gay Rights Movement have also changed our society for the better. But my generation also has suffered through the assassination of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King. And we are now in the era of Trump.

When I was born there was no such thing as a television set or a jet airplane or even a simple computer. The idea of sending a man to the moon was unthinkable. For my birthday, Embry gave me an Apple Watch. Dick Tracy, baby. Who would have ever thought…?

Though our history has been mixed, the last 77 years has been a good time to be alive. The short time allotted to me has been good.

Some call this luck. Certainly I am one of the lucky ones.

Others call this by the grace of God. I am certainly a beneficiary of God’s grace.

Whatever you want to call it, I am grateful to be alive and grateful for the 77 years I have had (so far) on this small, blue planet located in a run-of-the-mill galaxy in a universe of billions of galaxies and trillions of stars. 

7 thoughts on “Upon Turning 77

  1. Happy birthday Dad! Grateful for you, and for your eloquence which seems only to be increasing with the years. Beautiful piece.

  2. Joe, thanks for these reflections on turning 77. Makes me think that I should do something similar. Enjoy our 78th year! Doug

  3. Joe,
    As I sit here reading your reflections on beginning your 78th year, I am thankful for people like you in this world. I agree with your son, your eloquence increases with age. Looking forward, have a joyful 78th year. Happy Birthday!

  4. So much of this things a bell with me – thank you for being you, and reminding my generation of the daily wonders that surround us.

    Email to follow!

  5. I agree you HAVE been very lucky in important ways. And so have we, the people whose lives you touched. You passed on very generously an important part of your blessings, not least of all your ability to make us laugh and feel good together.

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