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The Amazing Gift I Got for My 65th Birthday

It wasn't retirement, a cruise or a watch. It was something even better.

posted by John Stark, September 30, 2013 More by this author

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John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle.  Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.


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I turn 65 in a few days. Far out, as we used to say.
 
I could also invoke clichés, like “Where did the time go?” “I can’t believe it!” or “Wasn’t it just yesterday that I turned 30?” But I won’t.
 
There are, throughout our lives, milestone birthdays: 16, when we get our driver's license; 18, when we become adults; 21, when we can legally drink; 30, when we officially lose our youth; and 40, when we have our midlife crisis.
 
Further down the road comes 65, when we retire.
 
That’s how it used to be. That's how it was for my grandfather and my father.

(MORE: The Best Way to Simplify Your Finances in Retirement)
 
Growing up, I’d always heard that 65 was when you took your Social Security and pension. Your employer had a retirement dinner in your honor, where your boss would give a speech, thanking you for years of devoted service. Then he’d hand you a gold watch.
 
The next day you headed off for an Alaska cruise.
 
Sixty-five, I was led to believe, was a magical number.

A Not-So-Golden Age?
 
But now, for most boomers, it’s just another birthday. The age at which you can receive your full Social Security benefits keeps getting raised. For me, it’s now 66. For anyone born after 1960, it’s 67.
 
But I’m not complaining. I have big plans for my birthday.
 
I’m seeing a lawyer. I’ve formed a business, along with some friends. A whole new career awaits me. As an owner of the company, I’ll be working like a dog.
 
Well, maybe not my dog, who’s sleeping in her bolstered, orthopedic bed right now.
 
“What horrible things did we do in our past lives that we have to keep working and others don't?” my friend, Lisa, recently asked me over dinner.
 
I don’t know the answer. But I do know this: I don’t want to retire like my parents did when they were my age. They moved to a remote, gated community in the Sierra foothills, where they played golf and bridge every day. No, thank you.
 
At 65 I’m in a better place than I’ve ever been, even if I can’t afford to take it easy.
 
I wasn’t conscious of why that is until the other day.

Back to the Future? No Way
 
I gave my freshman students at Boston’s Emmanuel College, where I teach a course in First Year Writing, an in-class assignment. “What is your biggest fear?” I asked them. “Write a short essay about it.”
 
An hour later I got their results. Their papers told me a lot about them. I hadn't realized just how anxious they are about the future, of what lies ahead.
 
Many were afraid of disappointing their parents. Some didn’t know how they’d survive losing them. Others worried about choosing the wrong career path. A few couldn’t stand the idea of being alone or not finding the love of their life. One feared dying young. Another said he was afraid of getting stuck and not knowing how to ask for help.

Their papers told me a lot about myself, too. Like why, despite my arthritis and gray hair, this is the richest time of my life. My students — most are 18 — are consumed with scary prospects and projections. I'm not, though I once was.
 
I’ve so been there. And I’m so not anymore. I'm not afraid of life.
 
Why wouldn’t I want to keep working?

(MORE: The 10 Best Cities for Getting Older in the U.S.)

From Graveyard to Bathtub
 
Yesterday, at twilight, I took my dog for a walk in the cemetery behind my condo. In New England, fall boldly announces itself. The leaves are already changing colors. The air was chilly enough that I had to wear my faded leather jacket with the holes in the pocket.
 
When I got back home I did something I rarely do. I took a bath.
 
Built in 1885, my condo has its original, claw foot tub. I’ve used it only on a few occasions over the last decade. I’ve always taken showers.
 
But last night I decided to fill it up and soak my old bones.
 
While in the tub I had time to think about my upcoming birthday. Should I throw a party? Go to dinner with friends? Or maybe just spend a delicious evening by myself. 
 
Sixty-five may not come with a gold watch or a cruise anymore, but it still has its gifts. There’s Medicare and all kinds of senior discounts.
 
The most beautiful gift of all, though, is earning the right to do as you please.
 
Like take a leisurely bath.
 
Start a new career.
 
And be happy.
 
Far out.
 
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