Over the hill

I turned 59 years old yesterday. In celebration, I took all the kids out for dinner, and then we went home to enjoy a Carvel ice cream cake for dessert, and they all gave me their presents. Our family has a tradition, initiated by my wife, that we stage a scavenger hunt for everyone’s birthday. She hides presents all around the house, each one with a cute little card attached hinting at the next hiding place. We lead the birthday person from room to room, whipping up the excitement: “Oh, look what Ilana got you,” as we go to Ilana’s room and look for the present. “Oh, look what … etc.

We skimped on  the scavenger hunt in deference to my turning 59 and becoming ostensibly an old man. We just sat at the kitchen table and opened all my little presents which had been set up on each kid’s chair. It was kind of a joke, but really we were all pretty tired after getting home from dinner somewhat late, and we just wanted to dive into the ice cream cake.


I remember when 59 seemed ancient – and now I can’t believe that I am close to 60 and relentlessly moving on. I have become a fanatic about what I eat and how much I exercise daily. I run on the treadmill three to four days a week, work out with weights, doing resistance training one day a week and  core training once a week and am even trying Yoga to work on improving my flexibility. I go for regular semi-annual medical check-ups to monitor my cholesterol (160), my body fat percentage (used to be 15½% and now relentlessly moving up into the high twenties  in the past year), and all the other signs of health (or lack of it).

One day a week I let myself totally pig out, and I eat whatever I feel like eating — usually that means a lot of junk food like licorice, candy, and cake, but the rest of the week I am pretty disciplined. I eat only whole grains, non-fat milk, lean protein like tuna steak, salmon and skinless chicken breasts. (I do like my steak and summer bar B Q’s are always great fun). I am doing whatever I can to fight the relentless march of time.

I am fortunate, but genetically I happen to look younger than my age. My wife is similar. I think my parents were the same way, although they both died relatively young. I love asking people how old they think I am. It gives me great pleasure to hear people guess 35 or 40 yrs old. Silly, I know. I mean, it is genetics – I did nothing to accomplish that. Judaism teaches that we should value wisdom, which comes with age, and a sign of age is graying hair. Yet I am happy mine is still not gray, and it is still all there.


My obsession with staying healthy has led me to engage in considerable pill-popping. I take a multi-vitamin daily, a baby aspirin (since modern medical theory says that this is one of the easiest things you can do to avoid a stroke), two omega-3 marine oil pills (since modern medical theory says that it increases your good cholesterol and improves your overall cardiovascular health).

A year ago, my cholesterol was 201 — exactly what traditionally has been considered normal — but when I spoke to several of the top medical practitioners whom I got to meet on my biotech trips to Israel, I was told that, according to more advanced thinking, you should really be closer to 150.

One of my doctors, who is considered to be one of the top doctors in Manhattan (according to New York magazine) prescribed for me 5 mg of Crestor a day. Crestor is a statin, one of a class of miracle drugs that lowers cholesterol. Ten days after starting it — and at 5 mg, the lowest possible dose one can take — my cholesterol dropped to 150. And I have managed to hold it near there ever since.

Probably the most  amusing  thing about this birthday was my trip to the pharmacy where I went down the aisles looking for something which I never thought I would be buying – “a pill caravan.” I had always snickered when I saw people take out these long pill boxes divided into seven compartments for each day of the week. The seven snap tops come labeled with the first letter as well as the full name of the day of the week. I am not sure why they need both the letter and the day spelled out, but that’s how they make them.

The pill caravans come in different sizes. For people who take one or two pills there are small ones, but because I take four pills a day, I needed the largest. To add insult to injury, it also came with bigger lettering on the top, as if the manufacturers assume that the more pills you take, the dimmer your eye sight is likely to be. I half expected the box to come with a discount coupon for the purchase of a cane or a walker.

Buying the pill caravan affected me  and got me to stop and acknowledge my 59th birthday. It felt like an “old person” kind of thing, even though most of the pills I am taking are really for preventive care and not for illness. After all, an ounce of prevention … Still, I was left wondering how much of my pill-popping was appropriate and how much betrayed my lack of trust in God. I mean if the Almighty wants me to be well, won’t I be well? And if I am meant to be sick, will all the miracle pills in the world make a difference?

At the same time, aren’t we responsible to take care of the vessel that God has given to us, to the best of our ability? Wasn’t I doing just that?

I walked around all day wondering about my pill caravan and what impact its contents had on my health and longevity. How much my exercise would really improve my quality and length of life? Then I began to calculate: Lets say I exercised one hour a day, 300 days a year, and it all took really two hours of time (what with traveling to the gym and showering after) would the amount of time it added to my life really be significantly more than the actual time spent?

I began to worry that I did not spend enough time doing good deeds to merit a long life, especially that now I was no longer working full time for a charitable organization. I had led a very charmed life, and I always attributed that to the fact that I was immersed in doing God’s work all day long. I worried now that perhaps I would lose that grace. If I died tomorrow, would my life be fulfilled? Would I have done enough? What would people say about me at my funeral?

But as I sat there at the kitchen table waiting for the cake, I realized that I had accomplished quite lot while working as a Rabbi and that was truly meaningful. I felt good about that. I looked around at all my beautiful children and my beautiful wife as they brought the ice cream cake into the room. I huffed and puffed and blew the candles out. One came back on. Oh well, so much for my strong aerobic capacity.

To heck with all this worry. I dove into the cake and forgot about calories and cholesterol and just enjoyed the moment, the family, the beautiful smiles and the delicious vanilla and chocolate cake with the yummy sprinkles.

About the Author
Irwin Katsof has authored three books, and is currently working on his fourth. In 1998, he co-authored with Larry King, Powerful Prayers: Conversations on Faith, Hope and the Human Spirit with Today’s Most Provocative People, which was ranked the tenth best-selling religious book of the year according to Publishers Weekly. His second book, How to Get Your Prayers Answered, was published in 2000 and reissued in 2002. His third, The Words Can Heal Handbook: How Changing Your Words Can Change Your Life helped launch the national Words Can Heal Campaign spearheaded by Goldie Hawn. His fourth book – entitled A Time of Living Dangerously: Trying to Get Rich While Staying Connected to God – is in progress. As he turns 59, and reflects on his journey from student radical at the Jesuit Loyola College to Rabbi, to twenty five years of working as a Jewish educator to businessman since 2005, and the past two years in a combination of Jungian analysis and core energetics therapy, he is now blogging on “The Middle Passage: finding meaning and joy in the swamplands of the soul.”
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