Commentary

Emeritus


 

“So what do you do all day?”

Everyone asks that, right after they ask, “How do you like retirement?” I tell them I like it fine.

Dr. Alan Rockoff, a dermatologist in Brookline, Mass.

Dr. Alan Rockoff

Asking what an emeritus does all day sounds fair, but the question is harder to answer than it sounds. Last year, I asked Dave, who was already retired. He took a day to think about it.

“Sometimes I sit on the back porch and watch the birds,” he said.

Dave has long been an avid bird-watcher. Along with golf and Facebook, watching birds is a pursuit that really engages many people, but I never understood it. I still don’t.

Over the years, I’ve met people whose experience of retirement has ranged from, “I’m so busy, I don’t know how I had time to work!” to, “I miss the gang and I’m bored,” to everything in between. Before I (semi-) retired, I made a plan to not make plans, at least at first: No new hobbies, cooking lessons, or anthropology courses. I figured I would figure it out.

So I am figuring it out. No rush. After a lifetime of rushing, not rushing is part of the point.

One hobby I cultivate is napping. I always get up early, no alarm needed. By late morning I am sometimes inclined to lie down for a bit. Taking a midmorning nap has always struck me as one of life’s great pleasures, though one I could rarely enjoy, unless you count dozing off standing up while a patient described an itch that started 17 years before, on a Thursday.

Now I can shut my eyes for half an hour and wake up refreshed, ready for the rest of the day.

During which I will do ...

An older friend of mine, now long gone, wrote a witty essay on being embarrassed to work at home. He refused to answer the phone during the day and hid from the postman. Contemplating retirement, I was afraid I would also feel that way, picturing myself a pitiful pensioner shuffling abroad at mid-day, looking for a park to poison pigeons in. That of course was before “working remotely” became a goal for cool young strivers. You see them around at all hours, with things sticking out of their ears, talking urgently to no one you can see.

Now I also walk the streets proudly at 11 a.m. or 2:45 p.m. I may get one of those earbuds that stick out at 45 degrees, so people can think my ear fungus has grown branches. Maybe they’ll imagine me a mastermind of an international CBD cartel. What they think doesn’t really matter.

One thing that I actually do all day is wonder why I spent so much of my career worrying about what other people think. Dr. Smith used to refer patients. No longer. Did I fail to meet her expectations? Mr. Trelawney came in weekly with itches and pains. No more. Did I roll my eyes too obviously?

Questions like these used to trouble me. Now I can’t recall why. Instead I worry about more important things, like who will play right field for the Red Sox this year.

Though I never signed up, I am an enrolled Baby Boomer, that navel-gazing cohort now passing from the scene while pretending it won’t. I never understood my generation when it was claiming to overturn the universe in the 1960s. Now its members write and read books with chirpy titles like “Amazing Aging!” as though – because we are so wonderfully special – age, infirmity, and decline will repeal themselves just for us.

Well, anyone can dream.

I go into the office a couple of half-days a week, when I’m in town. I like bantering with the gang and chatting with old patients. They wish me well and hope I’ll refer them to someone worthy when I hang them up for good, as many of their (and my) doctors already have.

Here is one thing I don’t do all day – manage human resource issues in the office. What’s to miss?

Now and then, with lessening frequency, I muse, “Well, if I do get bored, I can always spend more time in the office.”

Time for another nap.

Dr. Rockoff, who wrote the Dermatology News column “Under My Skin,” is now semi-retired, after 40 years of practice in Brookline, Mass. He served on the clinical faculty at Tufts University, Boston, and taught senior medical students and other trainees for 30 years. His second book, “Act Like a Doctor, Think Like a Patient,” is available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Write to him at [email protected].

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