Surprised by 70

I turned 70 this week and was surprised in two ways.

First was the surprise party Champa and my daughters-in-law organized at a local restaurant. I thought she was taking me to have dinner with two friends but was stunned to be greeted by my extended family in a private room.

Some had flown in from New York, Newark or Atlanta. Others drove from Philadelphia or here in Durham. They read me speeches, poems and toasts. They sang “Happy Birthday” and cheered as my seven grandchildren helped me blow out the candles. After the party, most of them stayed on through the weekend.

I hadn’t been looking forward to this birthday. A decade ago, when I turned 60, I was still working. Five years ago, I was wrapping up my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova. But now, I was entering a decade that used to be synonymous with old age.

Then my birthday surprised me in a second way, by reminding me of how full my life is, regardless of what lies ahead. As my son Paul said in his toast: “You are constantly graduating into new and exciting chapters of your life. Now in retirement, we see you setting a great example that it’s possible to carve your own path, joining Peace Corps again, traveling the world with your beautiful wife, enjoying time with family and friends, living life to the fullest, impacting more people’s lives. And your hairline is still going strong.”

My older sister called me “young at heart and young in deed.”

I’m hardly alone in embracing this stage of life and in trying to be intentional instead of drifting — in my case, through a blend of travel, volunteering and other engagement. Large numbers of older Americans are also redefining how retirement can be “not exactly” in many ways.

Yet it still meant a lot to me to hear these descriptions and receive birthday greetings from around the world. They told me how much I have to be grateful for even after a year in which I lost several dear friends and experienced a health scare of my own, not to mention the pandemic and assorted world crises.

Five years ago. I marked my 65th birthday with a blog post marveling at how my life had turned in unpredictable directions. I ended that post by saying “I expect to remain ‘not exactly retired’ after 65 but don’t really know what will happen next. I am eager to be surprised anew. Celebrating this birthday has reminded me how rich your life can become when you let it take you places you never predicted.”

Remarkably, it has become even richer since then. I know that my good fortune could change tomorrow, and that it carries a responsibility to serve others. For now, though, I’m celebrating, and I’m giving the last word to my cousin Stephanie, who sent me this short poem:

There once was a man who turned seventy

Whose tale can’t be told with brevity

Happy Birthday to you

May your wishes come true

And your years be filled with levity

A Dozen Wonders

What’s the most amazing place you’ve ever seen?

I’ve been thinking about that since visiting Angkor Wat during our recent trip to Southeast Asia. The ancient Cambodian temple complex was extraordinary — worth the journey all by itself.

But was it more extraordinary than, say, the Pyramids? And are timeless wonders like these more compelling than newer landmarks like Hagia Sophia in Istanbul or Christ the Redeemer in Rio, or natural wonders like Mount Everest and the Grand Canyon? 

I’ve visited all of these places and have always resisted ranking them, even though it feels these days like everything is supposed to be ranked, from restaurants to sports stars. In this case, it’s like comparing a rose’s scent to a crisp apple.

The best I can do, fully acknowledging how fortunate I’ve been to travel so widely, is compile a list. Here in alphabetical order is my personal Ancient Dozen places built outside the United States, no more than one per country:

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Its architecture, art and scale are all stunning.

Chichén Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico

The temple has aged less noticeably than us since we traveled there.

Colosseum, Rome, Italy

I visited years ago, as you can see from the cars and the low-res photo.

Garni and Gaghard, Armenia

Fantastic medieval architecture near Armenia’s capital, Yerevan

Great Wall of China

It’s a tie with Beijing’s Forbidden City, which was also unforgettable.

Luxor, Egypt

Back in 1976, it impressed me even more than the Pyramids.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Jaw-dropping, even though you’ve already seen photos of it

Parthenon, Athens, Greece

The setting. The architecture. The history. They all spoke to us.

Stonehenge, England

The inspiration for many theories — and for Kentucky Stonehenge.

Swayambhou Monastery, Kathmandu, Nepal

As a bonus, the fabulous Durbar Square temples are just across town.

Taj Mahal, Agra, India

It’s exquisite, as my parents saw on a trip with us to India and Nepal

Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel

It’s just one of this city’s historical wonders for three great religions. I don’t have my own photo but you’ve certainly seen it — and maybe visited, too.

Champa and I hope to also visit Petra in Jordan and maybe Lalibela in Ethiopia. Where else should we and others go? Please share your feedback and recommendations with a comment!