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Second Acts: If Not Now, When?

by Helen Zelon

What do you want to be when you grow up? The years at midlife and beyond present
new opportunities to ask that question — and an exhilarating chance to reinvent
ourselves. "The widespread recognition that we're living longer, healthier lives marks
the emergence of a new, distinct stage of life," says Marc Freedman, author of
Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life. People are seeking
deeper meaning as well as financial reward and, Freedman says, "a chance to
benefit society."

Opening a Door
For Edward Katz, PhD, teaching public school in
New York City was both a passion and a vocation.
As a ninth-grade English teacher and decade-
long leader of a probing, college-level
Shakespeare seminar, Katz's enthusiasm
continued, unquenched. A few years ago, he envisioned a new kind of Shakespeare
seminar —a workshop for "enlightened elders," Katz says. He began offering groups
in 2003, which now meet regularly across the tri-state area. A staunch New York City
native, Katz doesn't drive. He also eschews cellular telephones and such modernities
as ball-point pens.

Once a month, Katz brings scenes from Shakespeare's plays to each of his groups;
they read the scene aloud, talk through the issues, and watch a video clip. At first,
Katz says, "I didn't know I'd get one client." Now, fully booked and fully engaged, Katz
is deeper into Shakespeare and into the passions of human existence than he'd ever
imagined possible. "It's the chance to do what I could never do before — go into real
detail, real depth. We look at life issues through the lens of the plays."

Just don't call him "teacher." "What I do is facilitate the groups," Katz explains, readily
volunteering the derivation of the word from the Latin facillus, to make easy. "My aim
is to ease the effort, to open the door to Shakespeare," he says. The groups include
people 80 to 95 years old, and he's only 66. "I'm not going to teach them anything.
They're going to teach me, and they have. They've taught me how to accept aging,
illness, and death gracefully."

"Once people open themselves up and are able to enter the plays, they see
Shakespeare's greatness," Katz says. "When we read Hamlet's soliloquies that push
right up against the edge of mortality, of death — you oughta see the impact! People
you may think are entering senility — they get it, and they get it well."

Rethinking deep-seated stereotypes about aging poses a big challenge, asserts
author and broadcast journalist Connie Goldman. Slowly but surely, attitudes are
changing: "People are beginning, in some way, to embrace their own aging," says
Goldman, who began covering the aging beat 25 years ago. "There's a point in life
where we think, I want to do what's important to me, and I want to do it now."

"The desire is to go back to something we love," she says, whether that means
raising political consciousness or planting a vegetable garden. But reaping rewards
requires a willingness to take risks, as Goldman describes in The Ageless Spirit and
Secrets of Becoming a Late Bloomer. "People have to be able to say, 'this isn't for
me,' not 'I'm a failure,' if a choice doesn't work out," she says. "There are millions of
opportunities, out there in the world and inside you, both."

A Second Wave of Activism
The kind of social activism embodied by Katz is replicated in myriad expressions
across the country, and is growing, according to Marc Freedman. "This idea of
change in the world — rethinking work and redefining purpose — comes from real
grass-roots activity." High-profile work makes the headlines, but volunteering at your
local school or cultivating a community garden makes its own quiet and substantial

The seeds of changes great and small are in the figurative pockets of the millions of
boomers now cresting at midlife and conventional retirement age. "My great dream,"
says Freedman, 49, "is a powerful social movement led and carried by aging
boomers, a second wave of idealism, focused on alleviating the problems of the
country and the world, by working in schools, health care, and as social
entrepreneurs." The experts call it practical idealism and pragmatic creativity, formal
words for the blend of work and personal satisfaction that sustains the individual and
gives back to the community. Lots of other folks just call it work and thrive on what
they do, day in and day out, with and for others.