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That Seductive Walden Mirage

Work Hard. Invest Wisely. Retire. That's the Way It's Supposed to Be, Isn't It?

June 06, 2004|Marc Porter Zasada | Marc Porter Zasada is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. His weekly radio commentary, "The Urban Man," will debut on KCRW beginning June 6.

In the metropolis, everyone needs a sustaining myth, and usually it's called "retirement." Here's the plan: Toil hard. Make a name for yourself. Hire a financial advisor. When you get tired, give up that hard-earned name, sell your empty nest and leave the city to live in a detached 2+2 by a golf course in an "active adult community" along the I-10 or the I-15. There, shuttling amiably between the clubhouse and the pool, you will at last have time to read those books, attend those plays, develop that backhand, take those watercolor lessons and think those great thoughts--just like Henry David Thoreau did in his little shack out by Walden Pond.

There you will be anonymous, but happy.

My mother reads a pile of glossy brochures today as I drive her to Riverside County on a scouting expedition. These run thin on details but thick with poetry: Stunningly handsome couples with shining gray highlights and high cheekbones stand confident and wind-swept above the greens. They practice tai chi in sunlit fields. They contemplate artificial ponds shimmering with waterfowl. One imagines them discovering the cosmos reflected in dewdrops clustered on well-mown grass.

"It's a place where losing yourself and finding yourself often happen simultaneously," reads a headline. In his book about abandoning the city, Thoreau puts it much better: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."

The great Transcendentalist never writes about a golf course, but he does record his deliberate encounters with placid waters and migrating birds. Like all the best myths, it's vague but perfect.

Along the I-15, my mother and I pass miles of hillsides bulldozed red for new developments, until at last we enter a realm of sprinklered lawns and faux waterfalls. We park at the visitor center, beautiful in the landscaped corporate meaning of the word. A charming 3-D model of the property rests on a table. Huge windows overlook misty fairways and looming mountains. More gorgeous images loop continuously on flat-screen monitors.

My mother, bless her heart, seems entranced. And when we tour the clever model homes, I can see she's already calculating "essential facts" such as closet space. Once you sign, the salesman points out, there's plenty more poetry. Hours can be spent with design consultants, choosing tile and cabinet treatments.

I don't tell my mother I think Walden is a tough act to pull off, that few seem to manage nonstop Transcendentalism without despair, that Thoreau himself lasted only two years in the woods. I don't make a speech in which I call dividing the old from the young a bizarre social experiment. I don't voice my suspicion that once here, one probably wrestles more with the homeowners association than with Plato; spends more time listening for return phone calls than bubbling streams. I don't recount the sad history of retirement itself: how it arose only with the Industrial Revolution, when stamina was valued over experience; nor how the "golden years" were shamelessly promoted after the world wars, when the boys came home and needed jobs.

No, I don't even say, "Surely there's a need for your talents and your big heart back in the humming metropolis. Help us make this troubling new century work." Who am I to destroy the dream of the 2+2 at Walden Pond? Who am I to trifle with what may be the greatest myth of our time? The plot to separate the old from daily life was perfected only recently, but it has been underway for centuries, and certainly predates Thoreau. It's hard to imagine escaping it forever.

I smile meekly as the salesman drives us around in his golf cart. "We recommend these for all our residents, whether or not they play," he remarks, and I nudge my mother as if to say, "What fun!" Only when we get away from the salesman and drive back through the ravaged hillsides do I summarize all my unspoken arguments into a single, carefully aimed thrust: "You know, Mom, it's wonderful, but it's a little far from the grandkids."

"I suppose you're right," she says.

A few days later, shaken by the near-miss with my mother, but still tracking the myth, I head for the superb A Noise Within theater in Glendale to see "The Miser," a 17th century play by Moliere about an old man who stubbornly holds onto the money and power in his family, refusing to "retire."

As usual, the audience includes a large number of retirees. In this and works like it, the young always have to overcome the strength of an offensive parent, often disparaged as a Pantaloon--thin legs in baggy pants. I note how the seniors laugh as the old man plots and flirts and shouts. And in the private dark of their seats, I imagine them thinking: "Gee, I'm glad I knew when to head for the pond."

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