Ocototem: What My Dad Taught Me About Retirement

Ocototem Art Display

By Eric K. Curtis, DDS, MA
Reproduced, with permission, from Inscriptions, the Journal of the Arizona Dental Association, December 2019 issue.

My dad, Kay D. Curtis, DDS, graduated from the University of California (now UCSF) in 1957. He deferred the Korean War draft by attending dental school with a commission in the U.S. Public Health Service, and he completed his active duty requirement after graduation by spending a year in the Seattle USPHS hospital and two more at a Coast Guard air station in Port Angeles, WA. He mustered out of the service and bought a practice in downtown Phoenix but sold it after a few years when a back injury convinced him that he wouldn’t be able to spend his life hunched over hot mouths. He took a position teaching crown and bridge at his alma mater. But after a few years his back felt better, and in 1964 he returned to private practice, far away from the hippie haven of Haight Ashbury, in rural Safford, Ariz. He walked out of the office and took his name off the door in 2018. That makes a career arc of 61 years.

It happened just how he planned it. Even as a teenager, I remember him saying that one of the advantages of private practice was having the ability to arrange his own schedule, even down to arranging the lack of one. He had always thought he would taper off as he got older, and he did. My dad actually stopped working in stages over a period of about 15 years. First he stopped doing endo. Then he stopped doing complex crown and bridge. Then he stopped doing anything but removable. Then he stopped.

Or, more accurately, he started doing other things.

Through much of his career, my dad did his own lab work. He waxed, invested, and cast metal. He stacked, stained, glazed, and fired porcelain. He set teeth and flasked dentures. He embraced technology and was an early adopter of computers and digital radiography, but he eschewed digital prosthodontics, I think mostly because he welcomed the technical and artistic challenges of completing those painstaking processes by hand. Along the way, he also spent years creating gold and silver jewelry. While he retired on his own terms, he also kept working to help me, doing lab work and denture repairs as he stopped seeing patients.

My dad never stopped making stuff. Now he builds ceramic sculptures that he calls “ocototems,” a portmanteau jamming together “ocotillo” and “totem pole,” which feature whimsical, brightly colored clay tubes stacked on strands of steel rebar into arms that snake out of a weighted concrete foundation like the branches of that desert plant. Although my dad has poured lots of cement in his life—talk about a hobby! — the weight these days is too much, so my son Tristan and I construct the sculpture’s base, and we help with assembly. Neighbors and visitors never fail to comment on the ocototem planted outside my dad’s front door. A Tucson art gallery has asked him for a supply.

I took a strong message from my dad’s plan: you can’t just retire from something. You have to retire to something.

The prospect of disentangling from work’s sticky tendrils may be liberating, but it can be equally frightening. So sometimes, even as we get to a certain age, we just put it off. For one thing, planning requires both forethought and drudgery, both of which typically generate some amount of stress.

Another reason dentists may postpone retirement is to delay the hassle involved. Exiting one’s own practice can be a chore that takes some owner-dentists years (and a few never do find the right buyer). Because the move is complicated and fraught with legalities and financial pitfalls, the prospective retiree has to enlist experts, including attorneys, financial planners, and practice transition specialists.

There may be pecuniary reasons that dentists resist retirement—the recession of a decade past still haunts many. (For a quick calculation of your ability to support yourself post-active income, apply the 4% rule, which says you can count on drawing 4% of your savings each year to live on. If you want $150,000 per year in retirement, divide that $150,000 by .04 — or multiply by 25 — to figure out that you will need to accumulate a nest egg of $3,750,000 before you hang up the drill.)

But there may also be a host of emotional factors that give dentists pause. One is preservation of identity. My dad never tells people he used to be a dentist. He says simply, “I’m a dentist.” Without the status, supporting structure, and sense of performance that a professional identity provides, some people fade and shrink. Lack of workplace productivity may even present a health hazard. My wife Tonka is convinced that people get sicker when they stop working.

Still another issue is spousal management. According to Forbes (“These Are Retirement Numbers All Couples Should Plan On, But Don’t” By Joseph Coughlin, October 29, 2019), retirement inflicts significant strain on domestic partnerships. Couples go from spending a few hours or less together each day to as many as 16. Forbes counsels that retirement arrangements should include relationship preparation and longevity planning.

And there is at least one more roadblock to retirement: fear of the void. You can stay busy, but how do you stay happy?

Eighteen holes of golf every day may sound like heaven, but a surprising number of my retired patients report that after a year or two (or in one case, only six months) on the links, without a range of other activities to vary their routine, they get bored.

It shouldn’t be shocking that languor can ooze into the cognitive engine when familiar routines crumble, but the condition is still surprisingly disorienting. I had lunch last month with a 50-something dentist who reported that for the first time in his life he feels psychologically adrift. “My kids moved out, and I’m lost,” he said. “I don’t know what to do with my time.” He likes to ski, but that’s seasonal. He likes to shoot, so he tried putting together a gun from a kit, but it was too easy. He contemplates retirement — his wife is already wishing they could move somewhere else — but the thought of long days filled with puttering fills him with dread.

These days, many older dentists are deferring retirement. According to the ADA’s Health Policy Institute, dentists currently retire, on average, at 69, four years later than they did two decades ago. Departing later produces its own tensions, not least, it seems, in the form of intergenerational friction. My dad came under some criticism for his reticence to leave the office. I hired an associate who grumbled that Dr. Kay wouldn’t get out of the way and let younger folks — namely, the associate — take their rightful place (and my dad’s patients) in the practice hierarchy.

The young doctor’s irritation apparently ripples across his cohort. A recent USA Today article, “Young workers to baby boomers: Will you retire already?” (Paul Davidson, November 9, 2019, P.1B), notes that as many older American workers refuse to give up and go home, “There’s a multigenerational traffic jam on … America’s career ladder.”

At the point my associate raised his complaint, we had five generations — maybe six, depending on how you count them — working under the same roof: my dad (Silent Generation), me (Baby Boomer), assorted assistants and front office personnel (Boomers and GenXers), hygienists (an older Millennial and a younger one), the new dentist (younger Millennial), and a high school gopher (Gen Zer).

“This is the first time ever that five different generations are in America’s workforce at the same time,” USA Today reported, quoting a LinkedIn career expert. “It’s no surprise that there are some growing pains.”

Growing pains mean growing fears. It is said that everyone fears change, but I don’t think that’s quite right. We welcome the changes we perceive as additions to our life. What we fret over are the changes that take something away. Our fear is not change, but loss.

 

I’m not going to leave practice without taking a leaf from my dad’s book. I’ve been making a concerted effort to strengthen my emotional well-being by engaging with a wider world. Way before I take down my shingle, I’m experimenting with stimulating ways to spend those out-of-office hours.

Experts say that one useful strategy for exploring interests is to make a conscious habit of developing more curiosity. According to Ian Leslie, in his book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It (Basic Books, 2014), curiosity is a combination of intelligence, persistence, and desire for novelty. Leslie says curiosity can be learned, as if it were another form of knowledge, by paying attention to details, practicing asking questions, getting used to feeling uncomfortable, and embracing the unexpected.

Another way is to cultivate hobbies. Right here, let me stop and rehabilitate the image of pastimes. In the 19th century, spirited amateurs accomplished important advances, especially in science and education. But work-frenzied modern Americans tie their self-worth to career so tightly that other interests get dismissed as trivial. Even the word hobby sounds piddling. Yet hobbies are as good for us as vitamins. They build creativity and confidence. They put work in context. They help reduce negative life stress. They often increase social contacts.

Here are the suggestions I gave my bored lunch partner for choosing a hobby. One, brainstorm your childhood. What did you like to do when you were 8 or 10? Two, decide what you want to change about yourself. Write it down. (I describe my personal process for blueprinting emerging aspirations in ”Resolutions? I’ve Got My List,” Inscriptions, January 2018.) Three, think of the last thing that made you forget to eat. Maybe it’s time to get back to it.

I update my own interest inventory at least once a year. Recently added: land sailing and making ramen from scratch. I also think I’ll make an ocototem of my own. I’m pretty sure I can do it. I’ve been watching my dad.