The title of this post, and this blog, refers to a completely innocent remark my cousin made not too long ago, when we were at a party and he introduced me to one of his co-workers. "This is my cousin Steve," he said. "He used to be a plastic surgeon."
I winced a bit as those words came out; they pierced my ego and penetrated my pride like the scalpel I no longer wielded. I felt at once demoted, compromised, almost ashamed, as my cousin's friend shook my hand and held it for a second, as if to console me for my loss.
Later, I thought about those of us who retire from whatever our chosen profession was. Were we all "used to be's"? Did we disengage from our fields so permanently that we had lost all rights of connection and identification with our former working selves? He "used to be a baseball player"; she "used to be a lawyer"; she "used to be a judge"; he "used to be a teacher", he "used to be a cop", and on and on. How odd it is to hear it said about you; much more so than if you said it of yourself.
Then again, is a retired judge really still a judge? Is a former president still a president? Is a former thief always a thief? A retired priest? Rabbi? A surgeon??
These, of course, are rhetorical questions. I don't know if I am still a plastic surgeon. I know I no longer operate. But I still know how, goddammit! I know that my back infection and herniated discs forced me to retire a good ten to fifteen years earlier than I had planned to. I know that I miss being in the operating room and taking care of patients, every day. I know that many of my dreams are set in an OR with me as the surgeon, or the assistant, or sometimes even the patient, with various scenarios and outcomes from good to horrifying. I feel that after all the studying, the work and time, and the days and nights in the hospital, that I'd like to keep the title just a little bit longer, maybe until I'm cremated, if that's OK with everyone.
One day though, when my hands are shaky, and I cannot stand upright at all, when I am too feeble to hold a fork, let alone a pen or brush, I will meet someone and be introduced thus: "He used to be an artist."