This morning David Brooks of the New York Times asked his readers over 70 for a gift. He asked them/us to send him brief “life reports” on our lives so far, an evaluation of what we did well, of what we did not so well and what we learned along the way.
He plans to write a couple columns around Thanksgiving using the “gifts” that show up. I thought about it all morning and couldn’t resist the challenge. Here’s mine:
My wife and I were drinking lattes in a Saigon coffeehouse when we read your column requesting brief life reports from people over 70. My first question was how could I possibly write a brief report on 74 years of careening around the globe? The answer is I can’t but I’m willing to take a crack at it.
All in all I feel very satisfied with my life. I would like to have made a bigger difference in the lives I’ve touched, but I’ve come to accept that positive change comes in small increments like compound interest over the long term. It’s never a straight line and there are often serious setbacks, but in the big picture sense I see myself as a long term optimist but a short term pessimist. For the past 2 ½ years I’ve been working in Saigon for East Meets West Foundation, a humanitarian aid NGO that is working to improve the lives of disadvantaged people in SE Asia. This is on the heels of a jagged career path that included being a Marine Corps fighter pilot, lawyer, Pan Am pilot, restaurant owner, lawyer again, non-profit manager and now development director at EMW. My parents would likely have said I can’t hold on to a job, but I’ve loved the path that took me from Seattle to Quantico, Pensacola, Orange County, Berkeley, Los Angeles, New York, St. Tropez, San Francisco, Berlin, Miami, Sun Valley, Salt Lake City and back to Seattle before taking on this job in Saigon. Some of the changes and places were volitional and some were dictated by health, furlough, or other circumstances, but, as I’ve told my children, “keep your eyes and ears open; you never know where the next opportunity is going to come from.”
Family has always been important to me, but my choices have created some chaos. I had a brief marriage when I was still a child myself and then I was married for 25 years to a smart and talented artist who was a good mother to our kids but my restlessness did us in too. I love and am proud of my kids, but our relationships have been strained at times and I’ve come to believe that you can never truly know or understand either your parents or your children. You just love them and hope that in their hearts they know it. 13 years ago I reconnected with a childhood friend, we married, and now she is sharing this adventurous life. We’re both in our 70’s and know that life is fragile and can’t be guaranteed. We’re both still healthy and try to live as fully as possible with good friends, family, adventure bike travel, good books, good food, and some good works thrown in.
Faith is a tough one. I flirted with evangelical Christianity in college, Buddhism in mid-life and the smells and bells of the Episcopal church later on. Fundamentalism is spoiling the stew for everyone now, but I will continue to observe the faith as an Episcopalian because it’s in the mainstream of my Western heritage. If I were Eastern or Middle Eastern I might honor the mystery in another way. It might sound wishy-washy but I think it’s important to acknowledge and honor the mystery and as someone from the West this seems the best way for me.
Self-knowledge? I can’t say for sure, but I think I know myself better now than I did when my wife and I met at age 10. I’ve always been pretty independent and not been guided by other people’s needs, desires or expectations. I’ve experienced joy, caused pain, shared the wealth, stayed engaged and been very, very, lucky. I have never given much thought to retirement. I’m wrapping up my full time work in Saigon and next year I will only spend one or two months in Vietnam. I’m excited to have time to devote to other interests, but I don’t think of it as retirement. I’m sure I’ll be actively engaged on a number of fronts. 2 ½ years ago a friend of mine in DC told me “Jack, you’ve found the secret to a fulfilling retirement – another good job.” That’s my story.
This is our picture taken in April.
Sidebar: We wanted to meet you at the Sun Valley Writer’s Conference in August. We were volunteers at the Pavilion and excited to hear your presentation. We bought your book, but I’m not much for standing in lines and you were swamped when you finished. We’re died in the wool liberals but read your column religiously. We think you must be the last real conservative in America. It must be lonely.