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Taking early retirement to extremes

June 08, 2005|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

For people who grow up in the Northeast, life can feel like it's been planned out by a Florida real estate marketer. You go to work straight out of school, get married and wear yourself out trying to provide for your family, buy a nice house you can't afford near good schools for the kids and then after 45 years or so you cash it all in and head south. Boca Raton, maybe. Fort Lauderdale. Someplace warm, where in January you don't need the ice scraper for the car or salt for the sidewalk.

You know: paradise, and the siren call of retirement.

Rodney Rothman decided to jump the line. Rothman was accustomed to spending as many as 80 hours a week working first for MTV, then as a writer for "The Late Show With David Letterman" before he moved to Los Angeles five years ago to write television sitcoms. When Fox canceled "Undeclared" after its single 2001-02 season, Rothman, then 28, decided it was time to check out retirement, if only temporarily.

"I was curious," Rothman, 31, said recently over a grilled-cheese sandwich and fries at a Beachwood Canyon diner near his apartment. "When I work, I get consumed by my job.... I just genuinely was curious about going to see what was at the end of all that work. That was the question I posed to myself -- where does all this work take me?"

It took him to Century Village in Boca Raton, a condominium community of mostly working-class and middle-class retirees from New York, where Rothman spent six months testing the waters of idleness for his recently published book, "Early Bird." He also worked up a television pilot based on his experiences for NBC -- it was filmed at Leisure World in Orange County's Laguna Woods -- but the show didn't make the fall schedule. Rothman and his partners are still hoping to land the project somewhere.

The concept has comic overtones -- the character Kramer retired to Florida briefly during the 1997-98 "Seinfeld" season -- but Rothman was driven more by curiosity than comedy. He was rewarded with small epiphanies about the elderly and how people get there, the persistence of personality and the fallacy that wisdom comes with age. Structured as a series of vignettes in loose chronological order, the book is a personal tour of the future, not quite a farce but not a sociological tract either. It's more an exercise in immersion journalism.

"I see myself as somebody writing first-person accounts of real experiences," Rothman said. "I compare myself more to a documentarian than a journalist, in that I'm documenting real things and often I'm part of the story the same way a documentary crew is part of the story."

In a sense, the book is a bounce-back project for Rothman, who achieved a small level of notoriety when it was discovered he had made up some details in his "My Fake Job" first-person article for the New Yorker's Nov. 27, 2000, issue. Rothman showed up at a dot-com firm in New York's Silicon Alley, describing himself as a "junior project manager" from the "Chicago satellite office" and spent 17 days pretending to work.

He wrote of having wide access -- including getting a massage -- without being challenged or found out. Problem was, his mother had worked for the firm, which gave him more of an "in" than he let on. And the massage didn't happen -- Rothman put his name on the list but made himself scarce when his turn came.

"I was nervous about taking things from this company that hadn't hired me," Rothman said. "When I was writing, I kind of said to myself, well, I signed up for the massage, and they were looking for me, I could have gotten the massage, so what's the harm in it? It was stupid.... I was naive about it."

The sin didn't rise to Jayson Blair levels, but the backlash was severe as the New Yorker repudiated the article and Rothman was pilloried as a fraud.

"It was certainly no fun," Rothman said. "I made stupid choices. I think it got way overblown, by the way, but I also see how my own actions created the problem. I learned from it and moved on."

Rothman insists that everything in the new book happened, and with a television writer's optimism sees the silver lining in the cloud that still shadows him.

"I did everything I could to go into this with a clear conscience. That said, I derive a certain amount of pleasure that, given all the stuff that had happened, I kind of have come back a few years later with something 20 times as long."

Rothman went into the project expecting to spend two or three months in a retirement community, reprising his youthful visits to his retired grandparents. "It was the last time in my life I've been relaxed, when I was down in Florida visiting my grandparents," Rothman said. "I think there was, you know, that component of me wanting to go write some gonzo journalism in some place relaxing."

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