Exploring subjects from the challenges of retirement to an array of travel adventures to reflections on the vagaries of daily life, author Zoya Schmuter presents in her book a collection of essays and stories that capture personal moments, but also make insightful connections that link universal experiences.
The essay "Retirement Coming" addresses the concerns of many professional people fearful of the retirement proposition and who are challenged by the necessity of restructuring their life. "We Borrowed Grandchildren for Swiss Vacation" shares a funny tale of a warm and fulfilling relationship during a two-week vacation trip to Switzerland of the grandparents with their grandchildren, ending with unusual adventure caused by flooding in the Alps. "The Bavarian Castle" tells a romantic story of Schmuter's week in a beautiful castle in Franconia where the underground path led her to the professional encounter with ancient mummies.
From New York to Florida to the Poconos and beyond, Walk of Life offers a plethora of stories that explore both conflict and epiphany.
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Walk of LifeA Collection of Stories and Essays
By Zoya Schmuter
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Zoya Schmuter
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRetirement Is Coming!
By the end of summer 2007, I started frequently thinking of my retirement. After all, I was approaching my seventieth birthday in October. My husband Sam was telling me that, in his opinion, it was "indecent" to continue working.
"At seventy, no woman works as a medical examiner," he said. "Do you know one? It is time to retire. If you do not retire yourself, they will make you very soon."
The deputy of the chief medical examiner in charge of the Bronx office, Dr. G, was a decent person with a good attitude toward me. I thought I owed telling him in advance, if I indeed decided to retire as of January 2008.
I really began agreeing with my husband that a woman of seventy had to retire, considering my present position as a medical examiner and my years of work. But retire to do what? This I did not know as of yet. Soon, I noticed that with all these thoughts, I was losing interest in my work. I still had an excellent and—well-trained memory and continuous interest in medical literature and periodicals, considering our broad professional exposure to different medical fields; however, the routine office work was becoming less attractive, if not boring. And I did not like this new feeling of boredom.
Our conferences, for one, started to look like uninspiring formalities. I had a feeling that discussions of complicated and questionable cases gradually disappeared and were replaced by the demonstration of cases that had already been discussed and approved by the boss. The same topics of one-hour lectures were repeated on and on every month by the same doctors for a changing audience of residents and students. I heard these one-hour topics again and again for more than twenty years.
The neuropathologist, the third during my tenure, kept presenting the same topics, because every year the four new fellows had to hear and learn them. But we, the staff, were not new and always present, and it was anything but "new" for us. Of course, sometimes other doctors from various agencies were invited for lectures and presentations, and that was a welcome relief.
I remembered how at the beginning of my work in this office, we had quite different conferences with discussion of the unusual, ambiguous cases that were always present in our practice. More than once I presented some difficult or complicated cases that provoked different opinions of the others. Now it was different.
I really started to think that many people in their seventies had to retire. Recently, when I wrote this retirement essay, I heard Placido Domingo, the famous tenor who still did not have plans for his retirement, had unprecedented professional longevity and recently prolonged his career by switching to become a baritone. Good for him to be able to change his voice! I did not have another voice, however; therefore, I thought it was my time to leave.
And why not leave? I had earned a pension from the city and my social security. I was healthy and retained full interest in a diverse life. My first book, a memoir titled From Russia with Luck, had been published by a self-publishing printing house. My second small book, We Borrowed Grandchildren for Swiss Vacation, was also published by another self-publishing house, and I was about to finish my third book, Tales of a Forensic Pathologist, which described many interesting public cases from my career as a medical examiner.
I continued writing essays and short stories that might never be published, but I could read them for my satisfaction at the many writing courses of different levels that I was finding and attending. Or, conceivably, I could publish them again through one of the self-publishing companies that continue multiplying as mushrooms do after the rain.
It was perhaps normal that I had all these thoughts that I did not have before, justifying steps toward the next stage of my life. I found that the very process of announcing my retirement, and the unpredictability of my future life, was challenging and exciting by itself.
At the end of September 2007, on the spur of the moment, because I still was not sure when to announce my retirement, I ran into the office of Dr. G and announced my new decision: "I shall retire by January 1, 2008!"
He did not look surprised whatsoever; he might have expected it, and the only thing that he said was: "May I tell the boss?" He meant the chief of the Office of Medical Examiners.
"Of course you may," I responded.
In early winter each year, our boss issued a memo to all doctors asking of any pending retirements or possible relocations, because he needed positions for his four new fellows whom he trained every year. When he managed to help them with jobs, the next year's fellowship positions became more desirable and attractive for good candidates. We were all easily replaceable, and with full understanding of the reality of life, it still was painful and seemed tactless.
On October 8, our extended family (my two sons and their wives, our three grandchildren, my in-laws, and, of course, Sam and I) got together at a good Italian restaurant to celebrate Sam's seventieth birthday. We also celebrated my birthday, which was actually three weeks later but coincided with our overseas vacation. I felt very good, both because of this celebration and in anticipation of our trip to Italy and Israel. It certainly helped me overcome my fear of having already voluntarily committed to retirement.
What scared me a little was the unusually constant presence of Sam, who already, not so voluntarily, had been retired for a year. For him, the retirement came "easier," because he was pushed by circumstances after his project was completed and his position was eliminated. As a corporate professional of his age, he decided not to waste time looking for a new job.
Both being professionals who had worked our entire lives, we were not prepared to be with our loved one 24/7! Well, I was thinking that our marriage had been strong so far, and I had my "philosophical" credo about marriage survivability: in young people, marriage is holding on by instinct; in old (golden age) people, marriage survives by wisdom and compromise. People usually agree with my assessment of the second part but argue about the first.
The Farewell Party
In January, after New Year's Day, the Office of Chief Medical Examiner hosted a party for me at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan. I did not really want such a party. After seeing the movie All about Schmidt, I became seriously disillusioned by the contrast between raised expectations of the retiring person during the party and the following reality of life after the celebration. Thanks to Warren Schmidt, played by the brilliant Jack Nicholson, I saw how all the participants of his party immediately forgot about his existence. That was also exactly as it was after my party. But the party was surprisingly well prepared.
The speeches were beautiful, but what deeply impressed me was the Power Point presentation diligently prepared by Dr. G. He was, I thought, the only person who really appreciated me and had good feelings about me and my twenty-two years of work in the office. He definitely spent a lot of time putting on the Power Point presentation of my life from some old photos that he secretly obtained from my husband. He had created an impressive show of my life in three counties and cultures and my transition to this new country and new life. The show, complete with professionally manufactured slides, was full of humor, showing me wearing Monica Lewinsky's hat with President Bill Clinton, wearing a swimsuit in bed with James Bond (Sean Connery), and playing chess with the famous Bobby Fisher. And it introduced my recently published book, From Russia with Luck.
I really was grateful to Dr. G. and also to our secretary, Nancy, who was the only person who contacted me after my retirement. All of the other medical doctors, whom I had worked with for so many years, did not call me or show any interest in my life after the retirement. Of course, they were all very busy people.
Honestly, I was not surprised or upset, because all those years I felt lonely in an office that was otherwise full of doctors. All of my relationships with them were always polite, coldly friendly, and never fully and intimately open. On the contrary, my relationships with all other staff in the office—secretaries, technicians, detectives, and medical investigators—were friendly, open, and warm. Why? I thought that perhaps American medical doctors were too competitive and cautious during their professional lives. It started to be a habit.
Well, I was already a grown woman and understood that my life had turned in a different direction and had entered the next stage—retirement. Now what? Of course, it was not the first time that I thought about what I would do after I had retired. I watched, talked, and raised questions with people who were already retired.
I watched TV programs and soon noticed how quite a few famous people in their advanced age and diminishing power tried cautiously to avoid this imminent reality of their lives. This question bothered both famous and everyday people. Examples of General Colin Powel or the late Walter Cronkite were not for me. Larry King and Judge Judy, who were thinking and playing with this issue but had not retired yet, made very cautious remarks and would not express willingness to give up voluntarily. But they were not good examples for me either. Former President Jimmy Carter's example of writing after his retirement was fascinating. So, I decided that writing seemed to be the best treatment for someone with a suddenly empty schedule and the status of not being wanted by anybody.
I made my first "original" conclusion: I should look at people of my professional and economic status and their ways of retirement. This would reveal a more realistic and practical way for me. Some of my friends, particularly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, were actively helping with their grandchildren and were busy, tired, and satisfied. But my three grandchildren were already teenagers and more interested in dealing with their friends than my supervision. Besides, they lived with their parents several hours from us. We were devoted inhabitants of Manhattan and had decided not to change our lifestyle or location after the retirement.
I watched and sometimes talked with women at 92stY center where Sam and I were members of more than twenty years. I was amazed by some of them, who were fresh and energetic and, after swimming every morning, discussed performances, shows, movies, and exhibitions.
"Are you going to entertainment every night?" I asked one of these women of my age.
"Not only every day; sometimes twice per day. And I also published a couple of books, and I am a member of a few boards. In fact, I am in a hurry to get to a lunch appointment right now," she answered
"Wow! You are really a very busy person."
"Yes, I am," she said, "but if you ask my sister-in-law, I am doing nothing."
* * *
I made a big, healing discovery for myself, something that other people had probably discovered a long time ago. If you have a bad mood early in the morning that some people may call a depression, and for me early could start at five or six o'clock in the morning, you should not fight it in a passive way, such as by reading. Instead, go immediately to the health club or any other place to swim or work out or simply walk for an hour or more. The streets of Manhattan or trails of Central Park are the best for prolonged walking. Your mood will change, your perspective on life will brighten, and the released adrenalin will miraculously renovate the body. Reading during these early hours will not change anything. It will make you more depressed facing a seemingly useless time of the day.
This was exactly what I did on such days during my first summer of retirement. It was unbelievably hot, especially at the end of July and August. We were in New York the four days of the first week of August for our class of six ballroom dances on Thursday. Sam also had tests for his enlarged prostate problem, and I had a blood test for cholesterol after I had started Crestor three months earlier. We also managed to see one of the series of Rome on DVD and Dinner for Schmucks at the theater. (In my Jewish family during my childhood in Ukraine, the word schmuck was very bad and was prohibited by my parents.)
Rome was very good, and we will watch the last of it soon; I will definitely miss the beautiful music at the start of every episode. Dinner for Schmucks was funny, but Sam and I usually don't like comedies without particular reason. Our long life together—more than fifty-two years—probably made us have similar tastes, but not always. I, for example, like all movies recommended by our grandson Jake. I have similar tastes, because I did like the sci-fi and mysteries such as Harry Potter, The Matrix, Inception, and Avatar. Sam, on the other hand, did not like them much; he preferred Winds of War, Europa, Europa, and Walking on the Water.
My Writing Classes
I began looking through the 92stY booklet of writing classes, attempting to find an appropriate way to share my professional experiences with the general public. I found something that definitely did not fit with the forensic stories but had much more harmony with my love for travel. Ben Downing would be teaching the six-session course on the art of travel writing. It might be interesting; after all, I always wrote something during my multiple travels because the new countries, people, and free time raised my suppressed desire to write.
Ben Downing promised to discuss works of good travel writing and encourage us to write ourselves. The prerequisite note that "the travel experience is not necessary" sounded a little strange, but who knows, some people liked to read about travel sitting in a comfortable chair with a cozy table lamp covered by a soft blanket while listening to quiet music. They did not need travel; they were traveling with the author. So, I went to the poet's center in 92stY, and a young lady there, whom I had not seen before, enthusiastically described Ben and his future class, mentioning his teaching experience at Columbia University. This discouraged me a little, because the 92stY writing center was not Columbia University, and I was not an inspired student striving for a degree. Rather, I was a professional close to retirement who was nourishing a hobby, and young Ben might be too much for me.
"He is in his forties, and he knows that the Y is not a university," the young lady reassured me. When I cautiously raised my credentials, mentioning the upcoming publication of my book From Russia with Luck, she further reassured me that I would be in the "right place with an interesting experience."
I did not elaborate to her that this upcoming publication was from Vantage Press, the subsidized (or self-) publishing house. But I also mentioned about my recently finished travel story We Borrowed Grandchildren for Swiss Vacation that was now in the hands of my hired editor. This information made her even more enthusiastic about my participation in the class.
The most amazing thing for me in this country was absence of age discrimination where the classes were concerned. This gave me the opportunity twice, at the age of sixty-four and sixty-five, to enroll in a beginners' ballet class with a professional ballerina, a little overweight but still beautiful and gracious, as they all usually are. I quickly recalled my childhood ballet school experience from Russia and amazed other participants with my knowledge of positions and ballet movements. But, of course, most participants were much younger and more flexible and did pirouettes that I could not imagine doing. So, the travel writing class it was!
Excerpted from Walk of Life by Zoya Schmuter Copyright © 2012 by Zoya Schmuter. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsRetirement Is Coming!....................1
The Farewell Party....................4
My Writing Classes....................8
Umbria and Venice....................17
Israel and Old Friends....................23
We Borrowed Grandchildren for Swiss Vacation....................34
Diving into the Heartland....................50
"Flooding in Switzerland, mountain rocks falling ..."....................60
A Rainy Day....................95
Once at Rosh Hashanah....................103
Sarah's Neighbors and Elevator....................114
Motorcycle and Arnold....................127
New York Short Stories....................132
They Were Hungry....................135
My Dog Is Mexican, Are You?....................137
The Couple from Chicago....................164
What's Good There?....................173
A Fun Trip on the Auto Train....................183
From the Author's Gallery....................210