Sixty, huh? What’s that? Oh. Five dozen (certainly one large load of doughnuts or the number of oysters Mike the American Picker ate on a bet). LX, if we want to go down the Roman Road. Or three score–sort of smacks of history, doesn’t it? Wait. Might be the number of the all-equivalent edges of that ol’ icosidodecahedron, with each edge separating a triangle from a pentagon (yes, that’s a real thang). Uh huh. Hold on, isn’t there an old Schoolhouse Rock song…”Six-tee, it’s a magic number…” Nope. “That’s three-ee-ee in the fam-a-lee” times 20. Maybe it’s seconds in a minute or minutes in an hour. Ha! I’ve got it…the number of marbles in Chinese checkers. Or the number of cards in Rack-O. Nah, it’s got to be the measure of the number of miles per hour a car accelerates to from rest. You know, like 0 to 60 in under 5 seconds (my much-missed Mustang) or 0 to 60 in under 5 minutes (my Honda Element). Vroom and not-so-vroom!
Okay, okay. Here, 60 is as in “years old.” Me. William Norman Boggs, Jr. I am 60 years old. It’s a big surprise, really. Well, to be technically accurate, as of today I am 60 years, 11 months, and 18 days, give or take. And yes, I planned to write this back on November 27, 2016, my 60th birthday. But here I am, waiting no longer, since 61 is so much less dramatic. And I just couldn’t surrender my verisimilitude by writing “60” at 61. Well, I guess I could have looked back at the good old days when I was 60. What is so stinkin’ significant about this event? What do I see today when I reflect? Am I healthy? Have I acquired any wisdom and do I use it? Am I having fun? Am I creating anything? Am I living well to please God? Do I love those around me well? Am I staying connected with my family and community? Do I show not tolerance but acceptance of those different from me? Do I consistently rise above the daily crud coming my way? Have I offered myself forgiveness, and given it freely to any others I believe wronged me? Am I able to avoid causing others any pain? Duty, that I know well, but what about happiness, and more importantly, joy? Any evidence of those? It’s a mixed bag to be sure. Ready? Time to tear open that bag like a not quite lukewarm sack of Orville Redenbacher Microwave goodness. Huh. Most of the kernels popped.
To begin, I guess I agree with James Thurber, who, at a similar crossroad, said, “With sixty staring me in the face, I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and definite hardening of the paragraphs.” I beg your forgiveness up front. As Ray Stevens sang, “There’s got to be a pill for this!” Let’s just put this thing in gear.
As I said, it’s an absolute surprise to me that I have lived this long. I’m completely serious. Neither of my parents made it to 50. My mother died when she was 48. An incorrectly diagnosed headache was an intercranial aneurysm. I didn’t get to say good-bye to her. My father, well, he died to me when I last saw him. I was six. His physical death came later when he was 49, but he had long disappeared from our lives. Cause? A very self-inflicted cirrhosis of his liver due to alcoholism. Beyond my parents, my extended family has seen plenty of heart disease and cancer. Many relatives never reached 60. Beyond this raw hereditary mantle, I’ve had my own close calls. Of several varieties. Here they are, in order of occurrence.
One: Jeep Doom. I was riding in a USMC Jeep from our supply warehouse to the Vietnamese refugee tent village at Camp Pendleton, California. The Jeep was loaded down with C-Ration cases and the road was rough, the terrain mountainous. Taking a curve too fast and too wide, the driver nearly drove us off a cliff. I looked down, the Jeep was teetering, and I saw the front wheel nearest me hanging in mid-air and a very long drop. After a tense 30 seconds, with me shake-leaning in a good direction, the driver regained his composure and got the thing backed up onto the road. Whew.
Two: Runway Belly Flop. The Marine Corps discharge process had me flying commercial air from Honolulu to San Diego. Two-thirds of the way through the flight, the captain notified us of an in-flight emergency. We lost the hydraulic system and were now unable to lower the landing gear. I thought I had survived my Marine enlistment only to die on the way home. Trying hard to be a tough Marine (in my dress greens), I was terrified. A belly flop on the runway planned, the San Diego airport closed awaiting us, and fire trucks, police cars, foam trucks, and ambulances on standby. In the last few minutes, they figured out how to manually lower the gear and hoped it would hold. We landed safely, stopped immediately on the runway, saw all the emergency equipment waiting for us, and got bussed from the stopped aircraft to the gate. That was the first part of one of the worst days of my life. I’ll write about that sometime. Double whew.
Three: Attack of the Staph Monster. A bad B-movie science fiction series? No. In 2003, one evening after dinner with some friends, I went to bed like normal and, wham, just like that, paralyzed from the waist down with no apparent cause. I was hospitalized and it took a team of doctors over a week to even find the problem…a vicious staph infection that settled at the base of my spine. The spinal surgeon chopped out parts of several vertebrae to manually clear the infection, then prescribed weeks of antibiotics through an installed intravenous port. No one ever identified how I got that infection. That area in my back is causing some trouble these days. They told me it would. Another characteristic of being 60…it’s easy to convert any conversation into an organ recital. Let me tell you about my bicuspid aortic valve…Ugh.
Four: Cryptogenic Organizing What? And in 2007, I managed to contract a strange form of double pneumonia. Several doctors tried to identify it and gave up. Lung cancer was mentioned. As was the Mayo Clinic. I was a project. Finally, a University of Chicago doctor ordered me into the hospital for a lung biopsy. They labeled it “cryptogenic organizing pneumonia” which basically meant “we don’t know what the heck it is.” I was on steroids and taking pulmonary tests for years following. This one really scared me.
Five: PTSD and Me. The most difficult one to share is my diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Mine came not from military combat but by a kind of combat right under my own roof. I was repeatedly abandoned by those closest to me. Beginning with my abusive, alcoholic father, to my mother (she died when I was only 20), to my then wife (several instances; I don’t blame her though. Things got rough between us at times and I wasn’t blameless. Still, there was nothing worse she could do to me; she had her own demons and thought she was doing the right thing). It simply built up until I could no longer handle it. I literally wanted to die on several different occasions, though I took no action in that direction beyond begging God to take my life. It is hard for me even today to accept love. I always feel undeserving. I can easily expect to be abandoned. Sometimes I think I subconsciously try to make it happen. It is no problem to stumble down a well-worn path. Thankfully, though I can remember the pain, it no longer controls me.
This stress-related PTSD illness came the closest to actually killing me I think. It has impacted every area of my life from childhood to marriage to family to career. The suffering stretched out over years with breaks of peace in between. I was even homeless and penniless briefly during one of those times. Felt lost often. The pain often became unbearable. I had enough sense to get help. Finally tearing loose the taut tethers of the fear of abandonment, I became a bit unhinged and unscripted, contributing to a very painful divorce. I’ve written all about that in another blog you can find here. I deeply regret the pain I caused.
Out of the Ditch. I have a good life, all things considered. With help, I crawled out of a deep, deep, mental hole dug for me by my home of origin and subsequent poor choices. Out of that hole, first, by the grace of God, second, by shear dogged determination, and third, by getting help. A big part of this help was from a counselor. He is my counselor, but he is so much more than that to me. Dr. Charles Alcorn has been my advocate and counsel for more than 20 years, helping me navigate the hard times, challenging me when necessary, and celebrating with me at every joyous opportunity. I hope the stigma that once existed in our culture about seeing a counselor is gone. I consider Charlie my friend and mentor. I’ve come to believe that seeking this kind of help is a sign of strength, not weakness. I’m very thankful for Charlie Alcorn. If you need help, just quit fooling around and go get it. Before you’re 60. Kidding. Go now. Life is too short to stay stuck.
Another part of the help I received came from learning the meaning of the word, “remember.” Mark Buchanan, in his book, “The Rest of God,” said “to remember is, literally, to put broken pieces back together, to re-member. It is to create an original wholeness out of what has become scattered fragments.” How deeply I can relate to those words. Buchanan continued, “Equal to this is the capacity to forget…Certain memories clamor for preeminence but must be denied it. True remembering gets us unstuck.” Broken pieces back together, check. Deny certain memories, check. Let’s roll, Kato. I am an originally whole man no longer stuck. Feels good. Though I still keep a shovel and some salt in the trunk of my mental-mobile.
The Green Hornet. Mentioned Kato in the last paragraph, can’t let the Hornet get left out. Finally feeling unstuck is even more reason to write about being 60, I think. So, what is true of me today? Well, I have never ever been accused of acting 60 or anywhere close. I think George Carlin said “60 is only 16, Celsius.” Perfect! My health, physical and mental, is good. I’m very active, I hate being bald, I am working on losing some weight, and I have a new hip. I’m still working at my job, acting in community theater, fixing broken things, leading a divorce recovery group at church, working on getting consistent in my boxing lessons, and appearing as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, and/or The Green Hornet for various children’s charities.
I own a surfboard, a unicycle, and a motorcycle. I have juggling balls, juggling rings, juggling clubs, six squirt guns, and seven yo-yos and I know how to use them. I’m a dji Phantom 4 drone pilot, with air time over Canada, Tennessee, Indiana, Kansas City, Oahu, Maui, and Schaumburg. I created a toilet that plays the Beach Boys when the lid is raised and added a bidet so you can “catch a wave.” Then there’s that zebra named Zeke and that buffalo named Elvis. In my 60 years, I have done high-speed wheelies on a motorcycle, driven in a demolition derby, became a Marine Corps Rifle expert, owned a costume rental shop, earned a BA at Indiana University, managed a toy store, jumped into icy northern winter waters to join the Polar Bear Club some seven times, got to join Mensa, celebrated my left-handedness, finally embraced my Appalachian American roots, flown a Piper Warrior airplane from takeoff to landing, penned a chapter in a college communication textbook, earned an MA at Purdue University, written pages of toys, sporting goods, auto parts, and industrial supplies catalog copy and umpteen goofy blog posts, laid down a song track in a recording studio with me on the banjo, sat in a truck bed in the middle of a 200-head buffalo herd, and done my best to have a royal blast every time I get to be with my grandkids. This last one included the first and only International Chocolate-Covered Cricket Eating Contest with Grandad and grandkiddos participating and spectating from the US and Canada. Yum. It was a tie. Three each. I just wasn’t that hungry that day. Think Nestle’s Crunch with little legs. You feeling it? Listerine helped.
Year 60. By the end of this year, I’ll have completed at least five 5K races, performed in three different plays (one with a serious role), and tried to love others well. Got to see four different Elvis tribute artists; concerts by Ray Stevens (think “Gitarzan”), Old Crow Medicine Show (think “Wagon Wheel”), and the Henhouse Prowlers (think, well, “Homegrown Tomatoes”); I performed “on stage” at my wedding reception with two former members of the Henhouse Prowlers, two of my sons, and a grandson; got to celebrate Christmas with my entire family together; had lunch with my best and longest friend, John Eisenhutt—we first met around age 9 and had lost contact years ago; surprisingly got reconnected with my cousin Terri Green (she and I were pals as kids and lost contact right after high school); and spent two amazing weeks on honeymoon in Hawaii. Went to see the stunning play, “Hamilton” and still stand in awe of that man’s story. Yet not all is a victory in year 60. I’m certainly not where I’d hoped at this stage in my working life and I’m just trying to hang on. And in some moments, I still feel way too much guilt and shame. The difference is now, I have the tools to change course quickly. At 60, I’m no longer calling myself a writer, though writing, acting, and other forms of creativity have really helped me deal with career disappointments.
Writing is an important part of me for sure, but I am more of an “edutainer.” I define that as someone who communicates information, delivering a message in an exciting, engaging, and entertaining way. That covers many of my activities, from writing to acting to teaching. As I review my 60 years, it’s a common thread. This is something I will keep in mind as retirement gets closer. You may already know my personal mantra, “It’s never too late to enjoy a happy childhood” (Tom Robbins). Yes, I do try to live a very happy childhood. It’s not always easy. You see, as I said, duty I know well. Happiness? Well, it and I are just getting acquainted on a more regular level. And yes, some days I do feel my age but I know I’ll never surrender to it. I am thrilled to be 60, still thinking, creating, and in constant motion.
Legacy. At this milestone, I am very thankful for the good relationships I have with all four of my children and their spouses. And I dearly love my ten, count ‘em ten, grandkids. I’m saddened only by how far away most of them live from me. I can never say this enough. I am so proud of all four of my children. I want the world to know these wonderful, loving, and wise adults with hearts of gold, all well-educated and each chose to give some time in an under-developed country to help those less fortunate. They continue to live their lives that way and teach their children to do the same. I look at my Valerie, Benjamin, Jonathan, and Bradley with amazement and pride. Pride in them, though given my past, I most often think they turned out great despite me. Each of them chose perfect spouses. They all have amazing kiddos. I’m so blessed.
The truth? My children have a mother who dearly loves them and a father who dearly loves them—as parents, we did our best given our own struggles and lack of good examples. Our children truly represent the best of us, the grand reward of our union. By the grace of God, I am a very blessed and proud father and grandfather.
Because of my children, flawed as I am, I will leave the Boggs name and legacy infinitely better than I received it. An incredible blessing I surely do not deserve in view of my many mistakes. This has long been my greatest desire. I am humbled by what I see as I observe them living their lives well. And of course, I’m absolutely delighted when I see some important truism I imparted to my kids now passed on to the next generation. Like the classic song, “Jesus Loves The Little Children of the World.” With slightly broader lyrics in my home version, ’cause I’m just a “big picture” guy. One day in the car, I heard a little grandson in the backseat all of a sudden bust out with, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, green and blue, Jesus loves the Martians too.” What!?! If there happens to be a Martian out there, my theology is clear…Jesus would love the Martian, too. I didn’t teach Brayden that version. Not directly. I did teach his father Ben that. Of course, hearing this burst forth unprompted just made my year. Could not have been more tickled.
Welcome, Patty. And in year 60, I got another incredible blessing. I welcomed a grand surprise to my life. Almost one year ago exactly, Patty Kelly Boggs became my wife. She single-handedly does battle with all my former PTSD challenges effortlessly, just by being her kind, gracious, and loving self. I admit I had to adjust my brain to accept her love, care, devotion, and generosity. My natural response is I don’t deserve it, but her positive force is relentless. I love her and I’m daily learning to accept her selfless, giving heart.
Patty has stood beside me in the toughest of challenges…like doing the Superhero 5K race dressed as Elasti-Girl/Mrs. Incredible and marching in a 4th of July parade together as Daniel and Rebecca Boone. To say Patty is a great blessing and partner to me is a massive understatement. After all, she bought me the unicycle and gave her approval to the buffalo and the zebra. She is on the fence, as it were, about me leaving Milk Bone dog biscuits in our backyard for the skunks and possums. Still, the other day she did bring home a fresh, new box of critter treats. Pumpkin flavored. From Trader Joe’s. I threatened to try one. Patty loves me. No doubt.
At 60, Well-Lived. Since I did not expect to be on this planet at 60, I try to see every day as a gift. Though I still battle demons daily on several fronts, I try to maintain that gift perspective. Henri Nouwen said it well, “How much longer will I live? …. Only one thing seems clear to me. Every day should be well-lived. What a simple truth! Still, it is worthy my attention. Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will be many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.”
Yes, I do so want that true of me. Still, along with Nouwen’s words, I think the greatest lesson I have learned in my 60 years is to be a vessel of grace. I have personally felt what it’s like to receive magnanimous, undeserved grace and what it’s like to feel the searing misery of grace withheld. I no longer take even a simple greeting from an old friend for granted. It often brings me close to tears. May I never withhold grace from any person. This is a key piece of my acquired wisdom. I’m sorry it took me so long.
Débrouillard. A word I hope describes me at 60 is “débrouillard.” Of French origin, it means “skilled at adapting to any situation; resourceful; a resourceful person who can act independently or cope with any development.” It’s a lot like the Marine Corps saying, “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.” In my 60 years, I have had to adapt and become resourceful regularly. Very little has come easily. I love what Henry Ward Beecher said, “We should not judge people by their peak of excellence; but by the distance they have traveled to get there.” The distance indeed. May I offer that insight to others as I internalize it myself.
On to 61. So, in the coming days, I want to make each day well-lived. I want to live with fun-filled, playful creative purpose. I’m going to try to draw an icosidodecahedron, do my job wholeheartedly, get ready for the Chilly Chili 5K race coming up, go see my dear granddaughter Grace in her first community theater play, “Anne of Green Gables,” get my battery-operated 1964 Gaylord the Dog working, prep my motorcycle (and find my long skivvy drawers) for a likely very cold USMC Toys for Tots Motorcycle Parade in downtown Chicago, make kids smile as the Green Hornet, and celebrate my 61st birthday. Thanks, God, for yet another bonus year. May I fill the next one with unbridled love and grace. And more banjo, more ukulele.
“How can they say my life isn’t a success? Have I not for more than sixty years got enough to eat and escaped being eaten?” Logan Pearsall Smith.