Monday, September 05, 2005

The Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement

I just finished reading a book called Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement by Rodney Rothman. Rothman was head writer on the David Letterman show. When his employment as a comedic writer ended, he decided to take what he labels a "premature retirement" and join a senior citizen community in Florida. This action was based partially on fond memories of his own grandparent's retirement to Florida, where he would visit them and receive their unconditioned love, as well as the trail America takes to these sun cities as they age and leave active employment.

Since most senior communities have restrictions based on age, Rothman, at age 28, got around that provision by becoming the roommate of a
widowed woman named Margaret. Margaret remains isolated from others in the Boca Raton Century Village partially by her nature, but also by the fact that she hides two cats and a parrot: pets that she shared with her late husband. Having the animals violates the rules of her complex, and Margaret goes to great lengths to shield them from public view. Rothman cannot bear being around them, nor the oversized painting of Jesus that hangs above his bed. When he contemplates a masturbation session, he's not sure if what holds him back is the Jesus painting, or the idea of another man being in the room.

Many of the experiences Rothman goes throu
gh in the Village detail his own physical and mental failings compared to the seniors he meets. He is invited to attend and then play in a senior citizen ballgame, but when called to the field, he has flashbacks to his youth, hiding in left field. He is an adult, but he realizes that men who are 50 to 60 years older are besting him, even now. The author infiltrates the hierarchy of the "pool group," consisting of a small clique of women, with a few men who hover as adjuncts on it's edges. The men still resort to one-upsmanship, put-downs and sexual conquests, just as younger men do, and Rothman ponders whether men ever escape these behaviors as they age. It would appear not.

Rothman tries to break down the barrier between himself and his reclusive roommate, a former piano teacher. He takes piano lessons from her, and they start to connect on some level. When Rothman inadvertently leaves a pet gate open and Margaret's cats escape and are detected, she is then confronted with the condo management's order to remove them or face eviction. Rothman initiates some searches to try and help her find a new home, despite her protests that she wants to keep her animals and does not want to move. There are problems, however. Margaret lives on a fixed income in a lower to middle class development. She cannot afford many of the choices offered to her, and she is left in a true dilemma, even as Rothman prepares to depart Florida. We never do learn how the matter is resolved, nor does Rothman ever admit to her that it was his actions that put her in this difficult position.

At a senior's dance, the author is pursued by a dramatic, glamorous 75-year old woman, four times divorced, and he finds himself oddly attrac
ted to her, especially when they are dancing and holding each other in intimacy. Rothman desperately tries to hide his body's arousal from her, while the confusion of this stimulation leaves him pondering questions of age in physical relationships to each other. As a tease, he calls his friends in New York to say he has had sex with an older woman. Most of the women don't believe him. The female that knows him the best flat out calls him a "lousy liar." His male friends, however, give him kudos. One friend's response is "Dude. You totally rock." It becomes some notch in the sexual conquest hierarchy. Even after he disclaims his statement, his men friends go back to this time and time again saying, "...but you did an old woman!"

The book did leave me pondering four issues: the growing economic divide, isolation of the elderly, prejudice against the aging and the sexuality of seniors. We are rapidly witnessing the growing economic discrepancy between th
e "haves" and "have nots." This was driven home by Rothman's widowed roommate who faced so many barriers to any possible change in her situation, chiefly based on economics. I also happened to be reading this book during the week of the hurricane in the South, and you study who was left behind, not based on race, but based on poverty. We never saw images of the wealthy being stranded or left in horrible circumstances. They had the means to leave, and they had a place to go. One thought that kept recurring to me during this hurricane upheaval, and the failed relief efforts, being delayed or non-existent, was what would this country do if a true, national crisis emerged: another Great Depression. The castle walls would go up, and the moats would be filled. The widow Margaret couldn't afford to move, and she didn't want to let go of her pets who acted as a symbol of the last remnant of the life they shared with her late husband. Rothman was able to walk away from her problem, a problem he created. She was stuck with it.

Another issue I thought about was the isolation of t
he aging in our society. This is not news. In the past, families were extended and they stayed together. In modern times, they are shuffled off and removed from multi-generational life experiences. One thing in Rothman's book that drove this home to an even finer point was sports. He noted a bias against the elderly, even among the seniors themselves. The "young old," as they called themselves, were heavily involved in the tennis club and more active pursuits. The "old old" were isolated in a very small number to face shuffleboard. The author used the stigma of shuffleboard as what is truly rejected in the elderly: they cannot move with speed, they hold things up, and they are boring. The community regulars join clubs in voluminous numbers, but that doesn't mean they engage in them. The shuffleboard president at Boca Raton is a tennis player and even he, a young old, doesn't want to be caught participating in the shuffleboard tournament. When Rothman guilts him into making an appearance, his tennis playing friends tease and berate him for being seen at a shuffleboard court, that ice floe of the old old.

At one point in his memoir, the author takes Viagra to see what it is like. He escapes Boca for Miami where he goes to a Jewish dating club and meets a young woman, who he begins seeing on the side. This is a novelty to him as he has never dated a Jewish woman before. One of the senior softball players give him a Viagra pill so he can see what actually happens, but he discovers a side effect he wasn't prepared
for: he can't breathe without his nose burning. The blood vessels have expanded in his nose, and he finds he must breathe through his mouth to relieve the pressure. How do you explain to your date that you aren't a mouth-breather, but rather aroused? The notion that sexuality is a lifelong process goes contrary to the thinking of most. As a result of this thinking, the topic of sexuality and the elderly is generally avoided, and when it is discussed, it is riddled with misconceptions. Yet our society continues buying into these myths. We set internal standards within ourselves for reasonable age discrepancies, but what is "too old?" Rothman shocks himself getting an erection holding a 75-year old woman in his arms while dancing. He reports finding her very seductive, charming and forthcoming about her life. Strictly physiology, or were other factors in play?

The sad truth is, with improvements in technology, medicine and life standards, we are all outliving our usefulness. This will become even more commonplace in the decades to come. We are overstaying our welcome and outliving our budget. The bulge of the postwar generation are moving far down the snake toward
the exit, and society increasingly rewards and condones the self-serving. We are seeing a growing prevalence in our society of "I've got mine" with slammed doors for those without. What comfort would you sacrifice in your life to help another? Forget entering your senior years gracefully, with wisdom and dignity. Many are already in denial at the prospect of aging. It won't happen to me. Old age is a removed abstract. Somewhere in our futures a new fear will be establishing a beachhead: not a fear of death, but rather a fear of living too long.


Blogger A Unique Alias said...

Wonderful synopsis/review, WC. That was a great read (and, being that I haven't cracked a book in a few years, it was a good way for me to enjoy the story without having to break my illiteracy-streak.) Thanks :-)

9:38 AM  
Blogger Phil said...

That was great...although I could see the amorous overtones coming..and I cringed. Still enjoyed it, though.

3:18 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

I could feel my readers cringing as I wrote it, Phil. I almost thought about not posting it because of that cringe factor, but...


3:27 PM  
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