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The Retired Kid

Steve Abramowitz

WHEN I WAS GROWING up, my father would drag me to his office in lower Manhattan a couple of Saturdays each month. He always claimed it was to teach me “the value of a dollar.”

He was raised below the poverty line, and felt my mother spoiled me and that I needed to learn what it meant to work. I now realize he was right, but back then I thought he just wanted an audience who he could then impress with his business exploits.

One day, I was watching him write out checks in the office, when he looked up. “Stevie, go down to the warehouse and help the boys pack up the tape recorders. You’ll get to see what real work is all about.” In my father’s world, if you worked for yourself, you were a man. If you didn’t, you were a boy.

The boys saw me coming down the stairs, and quickly broke up and put out their cigarettes. “Hey, Stevie, your dad send you down to see these Webcor Royals? They’re nice.”

“Uh-huh. He wants me to help you guys pack.”

Luther looked uncomfortable. “Well, it’s simple. Here’s how I do it. The only hard part is wrapping the pad around the inside to protect the recorder.”

Getting the Webcors into the padded box was not as easy as Luther advertised, and I had to put down my transistor radio. I turned on the Dodgers game with the volume on low and out of range of the boys. Looking back, I guess I turned a work assignment into a day by the pool.

“Hey, Stevedore, what’s going on here,” my father barked. “This isn’t Ebbets Field. It’s what brings home your bagels and lox.”

I was petrified. I should have known the Jewish Sherlock Holmes would be on my trail.

“Shut that thing off. You’re the boss’s son, Stevie. You’re setting a bad example.”

“But Dad, Robinson’s up with men on second and third. How about I only listen to the Dodgers’ half of the innings and turn it off when the Giants are up?”

 “Okay, but if and only if you pack 20 boxes in the next hour. Don’t get one of your migraines because I’m having Luther check up. Then we’ll go to Max’s for some pastrami.”

“Thanks, Dad. Don’t worry, I won’t cheat.”

My second retirement. Twenty years later, my career as an academic psychologist was taking off. I was a maverick investigator, inveighing against race and sex bias in diagnosis and psychotherapy, and against the “who do you know” charade pervasive in the academic research review process. Before turning 40, I had served as head of the university’s doctoral training program in clinical psychology and director of psychiatric research. I had already published more than 100 professional articles and was the associate editor of the field’s flagship journal.

Soon, I was playing a stealth part in my department’s research programs. I found a niche as a ghostwriter, polishing early drafts of faculty members’ manuscripts before they were submitted for publication. That role was as valuable to me as it was to the department chair. I was granted a free pass from teaching large undergraduate classes, which I dreaded because of my crippling public speaking anxiety.

My childhood introduction to partial retirement had gone well. I had persuaded my father to cut me some slack so I could listen to the play-by-play when the Dodgers were at bat. But around age 40, I discovered a wholly different and unwanted kind of retirement, when I was laid low by a merciless depression. The career juggernaut I had set in motion was stopped in its tracks, and I eventually surrendered my tenured academic position.

With that fall from grace, my self-esteem plummeted. To my father, who couldn’t understand why someone couldn’t just “snap out” of a major depression, I was still very much a boy.

After almost 20 years of intensive psychotherapy and countless futile trials with psychiatric drugs, I finally hit the medication jackpot. My illness, which portended permanent unemployment and was seemingly without end, was over. But even with extensive treatment, the road back from a monstrous depression is not a straightaway.

Back at work. At age 78, partly by game plan and partly by chance, I’ve arrived at a productive and meaningful partial retirement. I’m still the boy with the transistor radio glued to his ear. But I’m now hoping for some runs in the late innings. Bloodied but unbowed, I’m humbled by my bout with mental illness, and thankful for the income we receive from our investments, our rental properties, my wife Alberta’s fulltime private psychology practice, my pension and my remaining patients.

Before my collapse from depression, we worked ourselves to the bone and saved religiously, and Alberta continued to support our family financially and otherwise through my two-decade-long struggle. But let’s be honest here: Our parents—both Alberta’s and mine—jumpstarted our financial journey.

We also benefited mightily from luck. Too demoralized by my depression to “upgrade” our portfolio of rental properties, I avoided capital-gains taxes and recurring closing costs, points and unconscionable 6% selling commissions. Through no foresight of my own, I capitalized on uninterrupted compounding over four decades of real estate ownership.

My parents both died at age 81. I’m now three years shy of that mark, with cancer and a heart condition that are under temporary control. I can see the ceiling. Last week, I visited a friend with whom I’ve had a weekly lunch for almost 20 years and whose kidneys are failing. As I drove away from the hospital, I felt gratitude for a balanced retirement that has given me the space to revisit my life, and ponder where I want to take it from here. I’ve made some progress toward achieving peace with my mortality. But I have further to go.

Steve Abramowitz is a psychologist in Sacramento, California. Earlier in his career, Steve was a university professor, including serving as research director for the psychiatry department at the University of California, Davis. He also ran his own investment advisory firm. Check out Steve’s earlier articles.

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