THE BLOG
06/17/2014 11:20 am ET Updated Aug 17, 2014

The "R" Word

It used to be the "C" word. C-c-c-ommitment. Normally a young man's word. Why ever get married, settle down, have a family, limit your (sexual) options? What about freedom? Opportunity? Spontaneity? Improvisation? Living in the moment? Be here now? What about the 60s? Sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll?

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I'll tell you "what." Life is what. It has a way of catching up with even the best (free-est) of us? Leaving us older, lonelier, less and less healthy and attractive with each passing year. Maybe even sadder, wiser, but more isolated... eventually, if we don't make the effort, we collapse towards jaded, bitter, and finally... oh so... disappointed. Ultimately... as my wife likes to constantly remind me, "You're born alone, you die alone."

So then comes the "M" word. M-m-m-ariage. Happens even to the best (most independent) of us. Me? It took 54 years... before I finally relented and married a young Indonesian girl, 31 years my junior, who spoke only a smidgeon of pidgin English, and who had no idea who Richard Nixon, Bob Dylan, or Jimmy Carter were. Age, language, culture... immeasurable chasms between us. Yet... married we were. And... much, to my own amazement, it was probably the best thing I ever did... teaching me about compromise, freeing myself from the prison of my own mind, caring more about someone else than my own pitiable self, and ultimately... teaching me about... dare I say it... love. Whatever that means. Perhaps... learning how to give love, not just take it... and how be both the lover and the loved, alternately and simultaneously.

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So then... with the two... commitment and love... I learned to just carry on, working at the same pedagogical job at the same university job for the last 28 years. And living in the same rented home under the ubiquitously blue California sky in the bohemian hills of Echo Park for the last 21 years. Comfort. Stability. Routine. All in the face of unpredictable and long-suffering... life.

But now... it's time for the "R" word. R-r-r-etirement. That's right. Out of the blue... I'm suddenly... "semi r-r-retired." What does that exactly mean, eh? Well... it means that I'll teach only 3 more spring semesters, no more falls. And in May, 2017, I will be officially "r-r-r-retired" from the great University of Southern California.

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There's no one more surprised about this occurrence than myself. No, I wasn't fired. Nor was I asked to step down. I chose it. I saw my fellow artist-educator, Jim Self, who had danced with me in Chicago "when we were young" and then with Merce Cunningham in New York, retire from Cornell after 25 years. A light went off somewhere deep inside me. I wrote my good Dean and asked for this three year "phased retirement" plan. She... agreed. With grace and enthusiasm. She gave me exactly what I asked for. But you know what they say: "be careful what you ask for..."

But who doesn't want to be retired, right? That's the goal of the working life, right? Work hard, save for the rainy day, and... retire. Travel the world. Take up photography. Do whatever the hell you always wanted to, right? Even though most of my friends from high school never actually decided what it was that they actually wanted to do. So... they became doctors and lawyers and Indian Chiefs. Just like our white collar, middle class parents wanted us to. And so now, at baby boom retirement age... 66... 67... 68... we're all dropping like flies... into our retirements. Social security, 401(k)s, traditional pensions for the lucky few... but... what will we do with our time?

That's what all my esteemed colleagues keep asking me. "What are you gonna do, Trules?"

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Hell, I don't want to do anything. I just want to enjoy my days. Not work for anyone anymore. I just wanna be. Isn't that the spiritual path? What wise spiritual warriors are supposed to aspire towards? Of course, it's easier said than done. No job. No schedule. No routine. Golf? C'mon! You must be kidding. How many days a week you gonna hit the links?

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Other of my retired friends? They're just fine. They've worked hard for 40 years. Squirreled away a million bucks... or two. They don't want to do family practice law anymore. Mediate divorces between hateful spouses. They're actually doing their photography. Creatively. Happily. Moving comfortably between their three homes in New York, New Jersey, the East Florida Coast. I've never heard them so excited or... contented.

Well, that's me. Semi retired and contented. Enjoying my days. Living in the now. Tennis three times a week. I'm a lucky, privileged man. I know that. Not everyone gets the chance. I'm lucky. Except... when I'm worried about money. Running out of financial reserves and annuities... as all we well-tended, medical miracle baby boomers just keep living... longer and longer. Thinking... "Will my money run out?" "Will I have to downsize with the best of them?" "How much longer will I be able to rent this house that I don't own?"

My plan was to retire in the third world... Indonesia...

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...where I could stretch my meager retirement funds for a long, lonnnnng time. Much longer than I could in LA. Or New York. Or anywhere in America. In fact, anywhere in the first world. But... my lovely wife... doesn't want to go back to Indonesia. It's too hot. It's too judgmental. They look at the two of us and assume the worst, if you know what I mean. They assume the worst when they see her in no sleeves. In Western fashion. They assume the worst and gossip. I can see why she doesn't want to go back to the Muslim third world.

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So I'm semi-retired at age 66. I'll be fully retired at age 69. Fantastic. Horrifying. My father retired at age 62. Early retirement from the schmata business in New York City. The garment industry. He got out while the going was good. When he started losing accounts to China and India and that hungry and intrusive third world. I threw him a retirement party in my loft at 23rd Street and Park Avenue South. From where I ran my clown company. No clowns that day though. Just his friends and my mom. We were all so happy and thrilled for him.

My mom and dad managed their retirement well. They lived modestly on Social Security and were able to buy their apartment in Rossmoor, one of the earliest and best senior communities in our country. They lived a wonderful stone's throw from their bright-eyed grandchildren, my younger sister's contribution. They managed to travel to Portugal, to Yugoslavia, to Mexico. They were lucky too. They stayed healthy. Active. My mom did yoga and volunteered all over the East Bay of San Francisco. My father did pottery and swam laps every day in the senior pool. Until... my mom died suddenly... from a stroke... a cerebral aneurism... at age 78. She never knew what hit her. She was lucky that way too. My dad? He died slowly... mournfully... from congestive heart failure. At age 90. He was in and out of hospitals for five years. He lived with constant headaches, flat on his back, supine on his couch... until the hospice at the end. All the brilliant medical technology gave him no quality of life. It was a travesty.

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That's the thing though. We just don't know... how long we're gonna last. Social Security... lifetime annuities... actuarial charts? What do they all mean in the face of... death? It's coming. We all know that. We just don't know... when. So.. whataya do? Hold on for as long as possible? Parse out the money until you have to lie on a couch when the reaper finally comes along to call your name? Or... do you just... throw the dice? Live in the moment? Frugally... of course. Let's not be frivolous or stupid here. But there's the rub. You just don't know... how you're supposed to play... the end of life game?

And... is death the worst thing ever? Heaven? Hell? Reward? Punishment? Who cares about that stuff. Not me. Death... it's just part of... life. Part of the cycle. That's one of the things that the third world got right. Day of the Dead. Buddhism. Karma. Reincarnation? They don't worry about death. When it's time to go, they go. The family celebrates. It doesn't mourn. The dead come back to visit. Ancestor worship. Death is not the end. It's not this terrible thing to fear. It's just part of... like the wife says, "you're born alone, you die alone." Simple.

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Okay. I've convinced myself. I'm "semi-retired." It's a good thing. I made a bold, brave decision. I'm not gonna keep on doing the same old thing ad infinitum. I don't want to die in professorial saddle. Sure, I'm a theater prof. I've been a theater prof for 28 years. Before that I was a child, a pre-med drop out, a modern dancer, a clown, a poet, a what... ever. But soon, I will have been a theater prof... who's taught thousands of students at a great university. Hopefully they learned something of value from me. Hopefully, I planted some seeds. But soon I'll just say, "I used to teach at USC."

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OK. But now what? What's my third act, as we like to say in the theater? Every good play, every good life, needs a good third act. Something that resolves the rising action, which was the first act. Where you were born. To whom. What were the expectations? The challenges? The opportunities? Then the second act... the developing action. You had a good... or bad... run at it. Choices. Decisions. Unless you believe in fate. I don't. Just choices and decisions. Or... non choices and non decisions. Coincidence and synchronicity. Good luck. Bad luck.

But again, now what? The third act? I don't know. None of us do. As badly as we all want to. "Life is what happens while you're waiting for your plans to work out." John Lennon said that. Or maybe, he just heard it from a little old lady in Liverpool. I certainly never knew what life would reveal to me. Not one of my plans ever worked out the way I thought it would. The way I "wanted it" to. Think I ever planned to become a modern dancer? A clown? A poet? A filmmaker? Planned to become a university professor? Teach improvisation, clowning, solo performance, a class called "Bob Dylan, the 60s, and You"? That I ever planned on marrying a girl from third world Indonesia 31 years my junior who spoke hardly a word of English? Or buy property with her and build a villa on the magical island of Bali? The obvious answer... to all... "no way, Jose." It just all... happened. I just... made it all up. One choice, one decision, at a time. Full of doubt, full of worry, imperfect, unpredictable... my life.

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But now what? "What will you do, Trules?" Like I said, "I don't fucking know." I'm gonna write. I know that. At least until my memory fails me. I'm gonna fight... like I always have... until I can learn or accept that... fighting's not the best way.

But you know what?

I'm... "semi-retired."

Not bad.

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How 'bout you???

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Please visit Trules' personal blog, "trules rules" at: www.erictrules.com/blog

And his "e-travels with e. trules" blog at: etravelswithetrules.com/blog