MY COUSIN MANNY

 
 
 

THE FINE ART OF RE-INVENTION, FROM AGE 40 TO 90

Ron Roel

Most everyone entering the middle ages has heard the decennial trope, “Fifty is the new forty,” which, naturally, has morphed into “Sixty is the new fifty,” as Boomers have gotten older. But few of us have envisioned how the next few decades could unfold into a life of wondrous self-discovery and renewal.

Well, folks, meet my Cousin Manny.

Manuel Avalos, who is my mother’s first cousin from the Cuban side of our family, will turn 90 in September. When you talk to Manny, you believe you are conversing with a man in his 40s–and he is not fretting over a mid-life crisis. Avalos began his career as a painter, then along the way became a farmer, an industrial chemist, a college teacher, a maker of antique-style furniture, and today, a craftsman who creates custom classical guitars–from scratch.

Now I know that getting old isn’t what it used to be. Take Christie Brinkley, the supermodel who graced three consecutive Sports Illustrated swimsuit covers in her late 20s, and then recently reappeared in a bathing suit on the cover of People magazine–at age 60. Okay, so hardly anyone can boast a body like Christie Brinkley at any age. But tens of thousands of older people are doing things today that were considered virtually impossible just a few generations ago.

John Glenn, the first American to orbit earth in 1962, returned to space in 1998, at age 77, while serving his last year in the U.S. Senate. Jimmy Carter, who took office as president of the United States in 1977 at age 53, won a Nobel Peace Prize 25 years later, and now at 91, has managed to defeat melanoma and continues to be an inexorable force for global good. In my own daily circles, there are many people I interact with every week who are in their 80s and beyond. My “Tia Dorie” Royer–my dad’s sister–is now entering her mid-90s as a prolific iPad user, surfing the Net and dishing out email with the aplomb of any Boomer.

Most people born in 1900 did not live past 50. Today, there are more than 72,000 American centenarians–those living to age 100 and older–up 44 percent since just the end of the 20th century, according to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention. Of course, much of this “longevity bonus,” as it’s known in gerontological circles, is due to vast improvements in medical technology, health practices and fitness. But what really keeps people going, as 94-year-old John Glenn puts it, is “attitude and exercise.”

Which brings me back to Cousin Manny.

Avalos has never been a marathon runner, but his life has been a marathon of a remarkably eclectic interests. Manny is what I call a serial Renaissance man, not someone who has taken on a raft of new hobbies during his so-called retirement years, but who has lived a life of vivid chapters in an epic novel. Starting out as an artist in eastern Pennsylvania, he bought a small farm (it had the biggest pig and the coldest pond I ever experienced), then went back to college in his 40s, earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and a Masters degree of biomedical engineering from Drexel University. He worked as an organic chemist for Rohm and Haas, a large manufacturer of specialty chemicals, then taught anatomy and physiology at Bucks County Community College for 44 years.

Some 25 years ago he started making Queen Anne’s style furniture. (I have a table with an inlaid marble chess board, one of five he made for my parents and their four sons). Then, after repairing a broken guitar for a friend several years ago, Manny, a long-time lover of classical music, became intrigued by the craftsmanship that went into making guitars. He decided to make a classical guitar.

The first one “wasn’t pretty,” Manny admits with a chuckle. “I had to drown it in the bathtub.” But since then, he’s made 55 guitars in his backyard shed and given most of them away to family and friends. “One of the biggest joys in life,” he says, “is making something others can enjoy.”

Not surprisingly, Manny is an inspiration to a lot of people, young as well as old. Last year, a couple of 20-something documentary filmmakers, Paul Overstrom and David Dominguez, from Philadelphia, discovered Avalos from one of his neighbors, Ray Mathis, a former blacksmith who now creates custom art pieces. “Ray said there was this guy who was making custom guitars from scratch,” Overstrom recalled recently. “We met him and immediately wanted to make a film about it.”

The founders of Upland Film Company, Overstrom and Dominguez do corporate videos, weddings, “whatever pays the bills,” Overstrom says. But their passion is making short films “that we can put our voice in, from start to finish,” he says. “We wanted the opportunity to make something in a week…to have a complete story that people could see in a few minutes.” (You can watch Upland’s 4½ -minute film of Manny on Vimeo, at https://vimeo.com/131850960.)

“We were intrigued by an older person who’s spent a few years on earth and has something to say,” Overstrom told me. “They speak without worrying what other people think.” Doing what Manny does–it’s not about money. “It’s about the sheer joy of creating and discovering new things along the way,” added Overstrom. “That’s the message: Keep your mind active, always look for something new. Never stop learning.”

That is clearly Manny’s intent. “It’s boring when everything is finished,” he said to me. “The idea is to do a lot of things, to keep busy.” Not that he doesn’t have worries: “What concerns me most is memory, so you need to keep at it, [exercising your mind] like math.”

Manny is not about to stop anytime soon. He’s taken up painting–again–mostly landscapes. And he recently decided it was time to take up another challenge: “I’m going to try to make a violin,” he says. “That’s a completely different art.”