Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement

Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement

by Rodney Rothman


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Everyone says they would like to retire early, but Rodney Rothman actually did it—forty years early. Burnt out, he decides at the age of twenty-eight to get an early start on his golden years. He travels to Boca Raton, Florida, where he moves in with an elderly piano teacher at Century Village, a retirement community that is home to thousands of senior citizens.

Early Bird is an irreverent, hilarious, and ultimately warmhearted account of Rodney's journey deep into the heart of retirement. Rodney struggles for acceptance from the senior citizens he shares a swimming pool with and battles with cranky octogenarians who want him off their turf. Before long he observes, “I don't think Tuesdays with Morrie would have been quite so uplifting if that guy had to spend more than one day a week with Morrie.”

In the spirit of retirement, Rodney fashions a busy schedule of suntanning, shuffleboard, and gambling cruises. As the months pass, his neighbors seem to forget that he is fifty years younger than they are. He finds himself the potential romantic interest of an aging femme fatale. He joins a senior softball club and is disturbed to learn that he is the worst player on the team.

Early Bird is a funny, insightful, and moving look at what happens to us when we retire, viewed from a remarkably premature perspective. Any reader who plans on becoming an old person will enjoy joining Rodney on his strange journey, as he reconsiders his notions of romance, family, friendship, and ultimately, whether he's ever going back to work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743270588
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 04/11/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 781,623
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.43(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Rodney Rothman is now living in Los Angeles. He is a former head writer for the Late Show with David Letterman, and was a writer and supervising producer for the television show Undeclared. His writing has appeared in the The New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the Best American Nonrequired Reading, The New Yorker, McSweeney's Quarterly, and Men's Journal.

Read an Excerpt

Early Bird

I lost my job in January. The television show I was working on was canceled. I've been raised to believe that losing your job is a bad thing, but I am more relieved than disappointed. I've been working seventy hours a week for the better part of a decade. I've spent more time in my office chair than I have in my bed. My wrists twitch. My back throbs. My butt hurts. When I close my eyes, I see a blinking keyboard cursor. I'm twenty-eight years old, and far too many of my memories involve me sitting in my office after midnight, tasting every quarter-filled coffee cup on my desk until I find the one that is still a little warm.

Now I'm off work and I don't care. I may not be a coal miner, but work is work, and I need to stop doing it for a while. I don't know what I want to do next. Everyone says I should make lists of what my priorities are and see where that takes me. It's nice sometimes to be told what to do. I try making lists of "important things," and "life goals," and "meaningful values." I take long walks, praying for epiphany. Epiphany does not come, so I get pizza instead.

Being unemployed makes everyone around you nervous. Nobody knows what to say to you. At parties and dinners, making small talk, you're always supposed to be doing something, or at least up to something. "So what are you doing? What are you up to?" they start to ask, once a few weeks have passed.

I tell them I'm "off work" or "taking time off," terms I've come to resent because they remind me that I'm supposed to be "on." Years ago, people would call this "taking a vacation," which had a nice, assertive ring to it, but nobody I know calls it that anymore. The first place I vacationed was Florida, to visit my grandparents. It blew my eight-year-old mind. The snowstorms and school-yard fights of my typical New York February were far away. My family rented a convertible and drove around as an actual family for once, listening to bad radio like Lionel Richie. But down in Florida, I learned, Lionel Richie sounds good! I'd get sunburned, and my grandmother would call it "healthy color." I would sleep on the world's only comfortable cot, listening to the ocean through the window screen, and my head would sing: Yeah! Jambo Jumbo!

"I'm Jewish," I say to myself one day. "I'll end up retired in Florida anyway. Why not get a head start and check it out?"

My friends say the whole plan sounds neurotic. My family agrees, and also wants to know if I have a date yet for my sister's wedding.

"This is what it is," I tell my friend Jill, who I met, of course, at work — where else do you meet people these days? — when I used to be a joke writer for David Letterman, and Jill was a segment producer. "I move down to Florida and test out retirement early. I get to relax in the only place I've ever actually been relaxed. And while I'm there, I get to see what retirement is like forty years before I get there. I get to see if working hard is worth it. Maybe I meet a bunch of wise elderly people who inspire me and I somehow figure out a way to write a book about it. I've read Tuesdays with Morrie. I know how it goes."

"You're kidding me," she says.

"Everything is so accelerated lately," I say. "Maybe I've crammed a lifelong career into seven years."

"Sweetie, you go insane when you're not working," she says. "You gotta go back to work."

"I don't," I explain to her. Instead of actually doing work I can at least tell people at parties, when they ask me what I'm doing, that I'm "writing a book." Then they will say, "Oh, wow, a book, that's great." I could drag it out for years.

Americans are surviving longer and longer these days. Between the Bronze Age and 1900 — about 4,500 years — our life expectancy extended twenty-seven years. In the last hundred years, thanks to medical advancements and better home care, our life expectancy increased the same amount. Replacement body parts, the Human Genome Project. We're going to live a long time. I don't want to get ready for those final years the way I get ready for a dental cleaning, maniacally flossing for two days to make up for months of neglect, then acting surprised when the hygienist says my gums are infected. What's neurotic about being exceedingly prepared?

My first step is to somehow find a way to live in a retirement community. My grandfather tells me that it is unlikely I'll find one that will allow me to move in. Most Florida retirement communities have strict fifty-five-years-and-up policies. I ask him if any of his elderly friends have empty Florida condos I can squat in. I have always thought that my grandfather's wellspring of unconditional love is bottomless, but this request manages to scrape rock. He is nice enough, though, to set me up on a meeting with a New Jersey neighbor of his who keeps a condo in Boynton Beach, Florida. Unfortunately, she tells me, with a Dominican nurse sitting imposingly behind her like a bodyguard, that she is selling the condo any day now; it won't be available.

I join Roommate Finders of Florida for one hundred dollars. I tell them I want a roommate over the age of sixty-five. They don't seem troubled by the request. Perhaps that fact should have troubled me. A few days later, they call back and say they've found me a roommate in Boca Raton. Her name is Margaret. She is in her mid- to late sixties. She lives in Century Village, one of the largest, most famous retirement communities in the country. It caters mainly to lower-middle-class Jews from the Northeast. I've heard of it before. It's one of these fully loaded communities: swimming pools, tennis courts, a huge clubhouse full of meeting rooms and social events, and more than five thousand condominium units for retired people.

"One question," they ask. "Do you have a problem with cats or birds?"

"Not enough of one," I say.

The night before I leave Los Angeles for Florida, I throw myself a going away party at a tiki bar. A handful of my closest friends in the city show up. After two years here in Los Angeles, I'm still amazed by how few people I actually know well. It's not like it used to be, when we were in our early twenties and everyone would stay out late all the time. We'd all buy each other shots and then vomit together in the streets. Really great times. These days it seems like everyone is staying in; small dinner parties or just crashing out on the couch watching Six Feet Under. I wonder how much I'm really going to miss any of these people.

For my last night, though, we rage for a few hours like the old days. People give me AmberVision glasses, adult diapers, "Sexy and Sixty" cuff links. We drink piña coladas. Naturally, there are many crude jokes made about me romancing old women. The next day on the plane, I'm glad I got drunk at my party and I'm glad I am hungover. It blunts the edge as my plane descends toward South Florida, as I wonder what the hell I am doing, looking out over the paisley landscape and beginning an early retirement.

Copyright © 2005 by Rodney Rothman

Reading Group Guide

Early Bird by Rodney Rothman: Reading Group Guide
1. Rodney's first and earliest impressions of South Florida are some of his happiest childhood memories. "I remember when I used to come down and visit them here, they'd always go out of their way to make me feel comfortable and relaxed, and to introduce me to everyone." Did Rodney anticipate having a similar experience this time around? Why do you think Rodney really wanted to go down to Florida? Is it for the reasons he claims?.
2. In a conversation with his friend Jill, Rodney explains that he will begin telling people at parties that he is writing a book that will explain the reason for his decision for making such a lifestyle change. How important are and how attached are we as a society to, job titles? How obsessed are we with working in general?
3. At the start of his new life in South Florida, Rodney often finds himself trying to fit in amongst the retiree social circles. First with the Pool Group and later with the senior softball team. How does Rodney eventually make it into these groups and what are his general observations about joining retiree social networks?
4. When Rodney moves in with his new roommate, Margaret, whom he discovers through Roommate Finders, he starts off feeling on edge much of the time due to her jittery and hermit-like manner. Many of the community members also felt her to be strangely antisocial. Why do you think Rodney began defending Margaret to the Pool Group?
5. Throughout the novel, Rodney's empathetic and sometimes not-so-empathetic ways help him to continuously develop relationships with a number of elderly people. He also meets Christina, a 24-year-old woman with whom he ends up spending many of his last days in Florida. How do these new relationships shape Rodney's ideas and beliefs about growing old and what it means to be young?
6. While Rodney takes time out to observe Century Village, he explains many generalized habits of its senior members such as: a need to sleep less, up early, and socialize with others in groups. What do you think is the one observation he overlooked that he later faced when dealing with his good friend Shirley? Explain.
7. In creating new friendships Rodney quickly bonds with the women. He says, "I am trying to spend even more time with elderly women. Natural intuition would tell you that young men and old men would make better buddies, but this hasn't been my experience." What does Rodney gain from his relationships with women? Why do you think he finds it difficult to bond with men his age?
8. Rodney often takes a lighthearted approach in dealing with women who at times seem very set in their ways. Margaret, his roommate, is antisocial. Amy a fellow comedian, is 94 and raunchy. And Vivian is a sultry femme fatale. What qualities about Rodney do you think these women find interesting?
9. After spending time trying to understand how exactly to fit in with the Pool Group, Rodney often spends time interacting with many of the women. He goes to them for advice and asks to learn new things, such as the game Canasta, which they are very reluctant to teach. Why were they so reluctant to introduce him to their recreational activities?
10. Most of the male senior citizens that Rodney meets in Florida are World War II veterans. "It's humbling to talk to them about those years. I hear a lot of heroic stories, the kind that have already filled numerous books written by television news anchors." How does Rodney make light of these veterans' stories? Do you get the impression that he lacks respect for their experiences, or that he is so humbled he has to poke a little bit of fun?
11. Rodney is not surprised to find that a large number of retired males want to become police officers. He concludes that the transition from breadwinner to doing nothing is difficult. He goes on to quote Successful Aging, which says, "leaving their job deprives men of a major source of stimulation. They need to find it in other ways." What other coping methods are used by many of the retired men in this book? Is it harder or easier for men to retire than women?
12. Rodney is often very obliging and ready to lend a helping hand when it comes to the relationships he developed with some of the elderly women. With Margaret he agrees to start taking piano lessons to keep her busy, and with Amy he tries to keep her actively performing her stand-up comedy routines. What does Rodney learn about these women and himself in the process?
13. Throughout the book, Rodney continually makes reference to the book Successful Aging, which was written based on the findings of a MacArthur study that differentiated "successful agers" from "bad agers." What were some of the qualities that Rodney discovered about good agers? How would you define Rodney's aging process? Do you think that you're a "good ager" or a "bad ager?" Do you know any bad agers?
14. Rodney has come down to South Florida to check out retirement early. Much of his time is spent at Century Village, where he admits he would never live. "I probably wouldn't want other people on top of me quite so much, though in some ways, it's not that bad." He's figuring out how we would want to retire. Have you thought about how you would want to retire? Has reading Early Bird given you any new insight into it?
15. Do you think older and younger people interact enough in our society? How has the elderly migration to Florida changed America's attitudes about the elderly?

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Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
JoeVaughan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Kind of a fun book. Lots of meaning for those of us who live in a retirement community. It reminds one of retired people shown in TV shows like: The Odd Couple and Seinfeld. Caricatured people, but pleasantly done. I read this book over and over.. at least the first part.. but I don't know if I'll ever finish it. Even though I like it, it loses me.. surely some fellow senior citizens can't be so rude.. or so dumb!
lefty33 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was an interesting insight into the world of retirement and elderly people. Rothman spends more than six months in a retirement community to get a feel for what retirement is like. The book made me feel empathetic towards the elderly, allowing me to glimpse life from a new perspective. I liked getting to know the cliques within the community as well as the individuals who formed the cliques. Rothman's writing style is casual, allowing for a personal account of the time spent in the retirement community. It was an unexpectedly good read.
Othemts on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book starts off with a 28 year old Rothman losing his job as a television comedy writer and deciding to "retire early" to a senior community in Florida. The premise reads like the plot of a dumb sitcom and the cornball style of writing in the early going of this book almost made me put it down. Somewhere along the way the book changes its tone. First, Ro thman finds himself unable to leave after the joke has played out and second he begins to see the humanity of the elderly people living in retirement in South Florida and even makes some friends. He also makes some wry observations of the cliques and petty gossip in the community that should disabuse anyone of escaping these things with the wisdom of old age. Overall, its enjoyable book with some funny bits and some insightful bits that makes it just good enough to barely overcomes its weak start.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
You know, I liked it, BUT it was a little to planned out. I would have enjoyed this much more if it was written as an afterthought. Looking back and finding humor and obsurdity would have been better. Knowing up front that the book was the plan, he spent too much time looking for the humor, instead of just letting it happen to him and reflecting on it later.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Rotham wrote a truely entertaining book. I think every 20 something to 30 something should read. Especially those in the workforce.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book is a layered perspective that is so clearly a reflection of this segment of the population...and within this story is comedy and pathos...a real telling of the dynamics, characters and nuances of this age group...just so powerful......
Guest More than 1 year ago
absolutely loved this book. It is a humorous and touching take on retired life from a twenty-something point of view. AMAZING!!!! A must read.