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Jewish World Review Feb. 8, 2001/ 15 Shevat 5761

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Consumer Reports

Age is mostly a function of attitude --
FOR THE PAST couple of years, I've been flirting with a full-blown midlife crisis precipitated by the rude regularity of birthdays, always stubbornly ascending, combined with glimpses in storefront windows of an older woman wearing my clothes and walking beneath a thought cloud that says, "Surely that's not me!" C'est moi.

Predictably, I've traveled the usual psycho-routes: Considered trading my practical dog-and-compost wagon for a sporty roadster; imagined dumping the cluttered family home for a sleek, feng-shui flat; questioned whether vanity isn't undervalued and cosmetic surgery isn't really a Zen vehicle for self-realization.

That was all before last weekend when I attended the 80th birthday party of my stepfather, Mauricio, and realized that he at 80 is younger than I am at (bleep). He is proof that age is mostly a function of attitude and, in his case, wholly irrelevant.

Beginning his eighth decade, Mauricio is a fully-employed practicing psychiatrist, as he has been all his adult life except for two years when he mistakenly thought he should be retired. He was 77, after all. According to American culture, he was supposed to kick back and enjoy the golden years.

There was just one problem. Retirement was stultifyingly boring, the gateway to the great existential vacuum he'd been treating patients for all those years. After all, if you are what you do, what are you if you do nothing?

Maybe that's not a fair question for people who enjoy leisure activities, but Mauricio's pleasure has always centered around his work. Even as a young child in Mexico, he followed his father-physician on hospital rounds.

By the time Mauricio was 16, he was a medical student. By 21, he had moved to the United States on a medical fellowship and was a U.S. citizen and psychiatrist by 30. It isn't surprising that he found retirement an alienating experience. He could no more be a retired man than he could have been an idle boy.

Nine months ago, he returned to work. His new job is in another city 82 miles away. He drives down on Mondays and home on Fridays. Every other weekend, he stays away as the on-call doctor. How's it going? "I love it," he says. "I've always been a physician."

To be sure, not every 80-year-old is up to Mauricio's rigorous pace. He's a driven achiever, disciplined mentally and physically. He has always risen before the sun, exercises at the beginning and end of each day, eats lightly, fixes a mean Margarita but only sips as the chef tastes his soup for seasoning, and turns in early. You'd never guess his age by his appearance. His mind is a machine that has always operated with a scary precision.

Even so, there are bound to be lots of other Mauricios out there, "elderly" Americans whose minds and spirits aren't yet exhausted, but whose required retirements rob them and us of who knows what wealth. It seems such a crude waste of talent and intellect to herd our so-called senior citizens off to pasture, often to be ignored or forgotten, when they've still so much to offer.

Youth, they say, is wasted on the young. Maybe retirement is wasted on the "old." Our enemy, meanwhile, isn't time but our assumptions about age. Without the specter of retirement and the cultural message that we're finished at 65 or so, a midlife crisis is superfluous. As Mauricio has proved, there's still plenty of time to get the job done, though I still like the idea of a sporty roadster.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.


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