Pluses, minuses, and a little perspective on a major milestone

The following piece is taken from a longer essay that can be found on Freund’s Web site,, together with samples of his music, photography, and writings.  

Some weeks ago, I was at home finishing up my lunch when I got a call from my friend Ed. “I’ve been waiting at the restaurant for an hour,” Ed said, more regretfully than in anger – “I guess you’re not coming.”

I slapped the heel of my hand against my forehead. Oh, God, I’d completely forgotten about our lunch date. I stammered out words of chagrin to Ed, who accepted my apology gracefully. We made a new date for the following week.

An hour later, I was talking on my cell when Ed rang back on the home phone. “Jim, I’m afraid I have to change that date we just made.”

“No problem,” I replied. “But Ed, I’m on the other phone right now. I’ll call you back in five minutes, when I get off.”

At 7 the next morning, I awoke to the startled realization that I’d neglected to call Ed back. Damn, I chastised myself, this is doubly terrible. I have to call Ed right away to apologize again and make the new date. Well, maybe I should wait until 9 a.m., so as not to wake him

At noon that day, Ed called to say, “We never connected again yesterday …” There it was – my third lapse in two days.

I begged his pardon once more. He reassured me, and we picked another date. As we talked, I wrote the new day on a yellow Post-It note that I stuck on the tip of my nose – determined not to shower until after the lunch finally took place.

Then Ed said, “By the way, Jim, since we’re both turning 75 this year, I have a question for you. I still remember the enjoyable article you wrote back then about turning 50. Are you going to do another one this time?”

“Yes,” I replied without hesitation, “and I’m going to kick it off with the story of our lunch-date fiasco.”

A little perspective  

In contrast to other landmark birthdays that engender voting privileges and the right to buy a drink, inaugurate Medicare and Social Security payments, etc., nothing much happens the day you turn 75. I’m not aware of anything you become eligible for, nor can I think of any activities from which you’re precluded.  

But let's face it – 75 is a hell of a lot of years. Try this for historical perspective: Someone who was 75 the year we were born (1934) would have been born in 1859 – a year before the Civil War began!  

But forget history – let me put this in personal perspective.

That piece I wrote upon turning 50 was very upbeat. I was feeling young and doing youthful things. No wonder – I had recently met my exuberant baby-boomer wife-to-be, Barbara Fox, and was (in my words at the time) “dancing to her beat.”  

The year we all turned 60, my Princeton class asked me to address the topic at our annual dinner. But 60 didn’t come as easily as 50, and in the face of assorted aches and pains, I had to struggle to find a glass-half-full theme. The motif I came up with was, “Hey, we’re entitled!” We’ve made it this far – now we’re entitled to stay in the shower an extra few minutes in the morning, take a day off at the races, forget someone’s telephone number or address, and so on.  

The high point of that evening came after I opened up the floor to comments. A dozen volunteers rose to complain about some sign of age that was bothering them – a cacophony of geriatric whining. Then my mother raised her hand to be recognized. Marcy Freund got to her 87-year-old feet, surveyed the superannuated crowd, and uttered this memorable put-down: “To me,” she said, “you’re all children!”

The years of turning 65 and then 70 passed without my feeling the need to publicly note the events. But 75 is a special kind of milestone, and I do believe it’s an appropriate time to take stock.  

The big plus/big minus

There’s one indisputable plus to turning 75 for me and my chronological compatriots: We made it! Seventy-five exceeds the biblical three score and ten by half a decade.  

This achievement is underscored by the disturbing reality that a growing number of our brethren haven’t made the cut. Each February, I’m reminded painfully of this at a Princeton memorial service honoring alumni who have departed during the prior year. I’ve been told that the aggregate number of classmates succumbing doubles between the 40th and 50th college reunion. I don’t even want to know what the mortality percentage is from the 50th to the 60th.

So survival is the big plus. There’s also one indisputable minus to turning 75: Psychologically, it sucks! How did we get to be so old? Where did the years go? The very number is awesome, creating a problem in our heads and making us conscious of our mortality.  

My contemporaries will recall how old Gen. Dwight Eisenhower seemed when we were kids. Well, a short while back, I saw an article about the replacement of the top U.S. Army general in Afghanistan. There he was – the new commanding officer in this major war zone – and he’s 20 years my junior! Oh, and another piece ran recently, profiling the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court – I’ve got about 20 years on him also. And that’s not even deigning to mention my disparity in age with the kid who currently occupies the White House …

Once you get beyond the indisputable concepts of mere survival and psychologically-it-sucks, it’s harder to generalize about where things stand at 75. Even for a single individual, there’s a host of competing factors. What makes it tougher still is that each of us arriving at this juncture has a quite personal response to the event. I’ll offer you my own take on things, but while some may share these views, others undoubtedly are sprinkled all along the reaction spectrum.

Four key considerations

In reflecting on this disparity of viewpoint, I’ve come to conclude that much depends on how an individual stands in four key areas – health, family and friends, finances, and work/retirement/interests.

Healthwise, I’m pleased to be able to say (knock wood) that I’ve made it here in pretty good shape. I still play tennis – singles more than doubles – although on hot days we take some extra time at the water cooler when changing sides. My wife and I ski down steep trails each year. I exercise regularly, although (according to Barbara) consistently failing to work up enough of a sweat. There are minor aches and pains, but nothing hurts too much or is disabling or particularly worrisome.

Obviously, this isn’t the case with everyone, and I’m well aware that your viewpoint on turning 75 has to be colored in substantial part by what kind of physical shape you’re in. Still, even for those with a myriad of health issues, it beats the alternative.  

The second element is family and friends. I feel really blessed in this regard – a wife for all seasons, terrific sons, adorable granddaughters, and a mother who remains alert and insightful at 101. There’s a lot of additional good family on both my side and Barbara’s. I have a legion of friends who help make life special. Others not so fortunate in these regards might well have a different take on three-quarters-of-a-century.

The third factor is financial. I can well understand how it would be hard to feel positive about “the golden years” when you’re under a lot of financial pressure. This past year, of course, has been especially trying to many people in that respect. Barbara and I have endured those recent financial shocks to the system like everyone else, but as my good friend Fred likes to say, “It’s not how much you’ve lost – it’s how much you have left.”  

The fourth element has to do with work, retirement, interests, and such. My hat’s off to those of you my age – and I can think of many examples – who (unlike me) are still working and love what they do. Conversely, I feel for those still working who aren’t loving it, but who either need to keep going for financial reasons or are fearful of retiring and finding out they have nothing to do.

Pros and cons of retirement

At 75, most of us are either retired or facing up to whether and when to retire. When you get right down to it, there are only two good reasons to retire voluntarily (other than for matters of health or to move onto another career) – either you no longer get a kick out of what you’ve been doing, or there are other things you’d much prefer to take on. The best case for retirement is when both these reasons are applicable, as they were in my case. If neither apply, you won’t (and shouldn’t) retire.

I left the practice of law relatively early and now have been retired for more than a dozen years. I’ve managed to fill my time with a number of mostly pleasurable and gratifying activities, such as playing the piano, taking pictures, and writing short stories. Other retirees I’ve encountered run the gamut from enjoyment to satisfaction to boredom to unhappiness. I’m convinced that retirement is a “package deal,” a balancing of positive and negative factors.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of retirement is giving up voluntarily the one thing you’re best at and most known for. Let’s face it – very little adulation, even for past glories, comes your way in retirement. This can be a major jolt that definitely tests your self-esteem. I’m as receptive to acclaim and sensitive to criticism as the next guy, but I’ve tried hard not to fall into the trap of letting my self-esteem be dependent on the praise or positive reaction of others. At 75, we should be able to judge for ourselves how well we’re doing. Or as Shakespeare put it, “Go to your bosom/ knock there/ and ask your heart what it doth know.”

Retirement activities

The way I’ve coped with these negatives – and heartily recommend a similar approach to others– has been by engaging in activities that fall into four major categories:

• Having fun  

• Doing something that calls into play the skills developed during your working years  

• Spending time in the public-interest area – giving something back after so many years of receiving  

• Taking on one or more challenging activities – something that can be done on your own, involves a degree of skill, requires effort, rewards improvement, and hopefully produces something to be viewed with pride and perhaps shared with others  

Many of the retirees I know who appear the most satisfied with their lot manage to do something in each of these four areas – as well as having the good fortune to be reasonably affluent, in good health, and part of a supportive family.  

I like being among people of my age group and older, such as in the weekly sing-alongs I conduct in senior-citizen centers. But it’s also important in retirement to have some meaningful contact with young people. You can feed off their energy and enthusiasm, while being in a position to offer words of wisdom from time to time. One of the things I missed most when I retired from my law firm was mentoring younger lawyers. Nowadays, I’ve replaced some of that through interacting with the youngsters involved in the fellowships we sponsor (more on that below). For those of us who are halfway up the septuagenarian ladder, it makes good sense to seek out situations and activities involving young people.

Some 75-year-old negatives

Well, at this point you may be thinking that, after my initial lapse of short-term memory, I’ve been pretty positive about turning 75. It’s time now for some of the negatives. I’ll tell you one of my biggest bugaboos – a seeming inability to locate specific possessions of mine at the time I want them to appear. Nothing – I repeat, nothing – hasbeen the object of more self-flagellation in recent years. The objects in question rarely are lost, usually turning up hours or days later, when they’re no longer in such immediate demand. But if someone out there has a surefire panacea for this, please let me in on it before I go over the edge.

Have you noticed – or is it just my problem – how everything seems to take a lot longer to do nowadays? I’m not talking about major projects – just mundane stuff, like getting ready to go play tennis in the country on Saturday morning. Another thing that really bothers me: For years now, I’ve wanted to shed about 15 pounds, but can’t seem to do it. I start on a diet, succeed briefly, and then fall off the wagon.  

How about memory? Well, notwithstanding the dramatic events that kicked off this essay, my sense is we overdo the significance of those memory lapses that are such a common source of complaints in our senior years. Most of us can remember what’s really significant (like the name of our spouse), even if our minds take a hike on phone numbers and whether or not certain small bills have been paid. Now, to be sure, if you find yourself coming into work without trousers, or mistake the conference room for the men's room, it might be worthwhile to have your situation diagnosed …

When you’re 75, you ought to be realistic about what lies ahead. Here’s a good example. I help run a public-service foundation sponsored by my Princeton Class of 1956. The foundation awards one-year fellowships, funded by class members, to graduating Princeton seniors who devise a public-service project they’ll undertake for a deserving but needy organization that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them. We also do some significant work in inner-city high schools, priming kids on the value of a college education and helping them to apply. We’re quite proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in these areas over the last decade. But we also realized that if we wanted our achievements to survive into the future, we needed some help from younger hands – a partial passing of the torch, so to speak.

So last year we linked up with members of the Princeton Class of 1981 (the graduating class the year we had our 25th reunion, whose own 25th coincided with our 50th). We renamed our organization Princeton ReachOut 56-81, brought the ’81 people into key positions in the organization, and have been functioning together ever since. We’re also hopeful of including the Class of 2006 in this partnership, for a full 50-year span that will guarantee our longevity and ensure that these good works won’t cease with our demise.

Final reflections

One thing I’ve become acutely aware of in later life is what I call “sheer happenstance.” It’s amazing to me how many coincidences and other events outside of my control have had to occur in order for fateful encounters (like meeting each of my wives) or new beginnings (like attending Princeton or signing up with Skadden, Arps) to occur. So much of my life (and I bet this is probably true with many of you) partakes of this chance character. I don’t mean to wax philosophical or religious, but let me just put it this way – if a superior being is pulling the strings, he or she works in some mighty mysterious and complex ways.  

In a piece for our 25th college reunion yearbook on what I’d learned since graduation,

the first of my 10 commandments was, “Don’t assume the accuracy of your current perspective.” “Let’s face it,” I said, “we’re all like blind men fondling an elephant. It’s not easy to stand back and assess where things stand.”  

While I’m sure many of us are still in denial about something or other, I think that most 75ers are prepared for the twists and surprises of life – for boom and for adversity. In general, our eyes are open – we know ourselves pretty well and can assess competently where things stand. In other words, this rope-like object I’m hanging onto is simply the tail, and there’s a truly mammoth beast standing just a few feet in front of it …

I’m convinced that a prime reason I have a positive youthful outlook on 75 is that I’m poised in space and time between two strong women, both of whom I love dearly. At one extreme, there’s my remarkable mother. Let me tell you, when you hit 75, you can really appreciate 101 … I mean, how can I feel old when this woman (who banged pots and pans together on the fire escape to celebrate Armistice Day of World War I) recounts scenes where I’m the only male infant (“… and with two different-colored eyes …”) in

the 1934 hospital nursery? Then there’s my wife, many years my junior, whose multiple activities and energy make me strive constantly to keep up. Neither of these tenacious ladies allows me to feel elderly for a minute.

In facing up to aging, I recommend these words of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, which my mother introduced me to some years ago as representative of her philosophy of life:

“People grow old only by deserting their ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up interest wrinkles the soul. … You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubts; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair. In the central place of every heart there is a recording chamber; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer and courage, so long are you young. When … your heart is covered with the snows of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, then and only then are you grown old – and then indeed, as the ballad says, you just fade away.”

My favorite song on the subject is Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” which closes with these stirring lines: “May your hands always be busy / May your feet always be swift /

May you have a strong foundation / When the winds of changes shift / May your heart always be joyful / May your song always be sung / And may you stay / Forever young.”

So what’s my final word? Maybe it all comes down to a matter of expectations. If, for example, you expected plaudits and loud huzzahs, then their absence (which is virtually guaranteed) will disappoint you, causing a negative reaction. If, on the other hand, you’ve long dreaded the date, and then it comes and passes without any negative consequences, you may feel pleased. And if, like me, you had expected to be able to ski free (as used to be the case), get over it – just go claim your paltry senior discount and fork over the big bucks.

And by the way, I’m still waiting in vain for one of those ski-lift or movie-ticket sellers to demand a birth certificate from this youthful-looking 75-year-old guy before agreeing to chop a few dollars off the fee. Won’t somebody card me, please …

Jim Freund ’56 was for many years a senior partner at the Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP law firm, participating in many significant merger and acquisition transactions. In recent years, he has been serving as a mediator of business disputes, writing articles on mediation, and presenting seminars on negotiating. He is the author of seven books on such topics as acquisitions, lawyering, and negotiating, including his most recent book of short stories and commentary, Smell Test – Stories and Advice on Lawyering, published in 2008 by the American Bar Association. A native of New York City, where he lives with his wife, Barbara Fox, Jim served as a member of the University board of trustees and as president of his class.