'Just Like High School'

Twenty-eight years old and already feeling burned out, comedy writer Rodney Rothman decided to escape Los Angeles and retreat to the only place he'd ever really felt relaxed: Florida, where he had visited his grandparents as a kid. So he moved into Century Village, a retirement community in Boca Raton. During his six-month stay, he explored the life that most Americans are working toward--lazy afternoons by the pool, early mornings of shuffleboard, quiet roommates with cats and shameless flirting among seniors of both sexes.

In "Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement," (Simon & Schuster) Rothman recounts his close encounter with old age. The people he meets along the way provide him with new insights into what it means to be old in America. There's Amy, who took up stand-up comedy at age 80, and 75-year-old Vivian, the self-professed "femme fatale" who shares stories of past romances with Rothman over several glasses of wine--prompting him to realize that old women can be sexy. The dalliance is consummated with an awkward peck on the cheek.

Back from Florida and working on a sitcom pilot based on the experiences he describes in "Early Bird," Rothman recently discussed his brief retirement with NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Beith. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: So, did you recover from your burnout?

Rodney Rothman: Yeah, it was hard not to--the pace there is very different ... I remember this one moment, sitting by the pool with a couple guys I knew. We were just sitting there saying nothing, and a plane flew overhead. No one really said anything for a while, and then someone just goes, "A plane's flying by." And we're all, like, "Yeah." Then we're, like, silent for another minute, and I remember thinking, "This is awesome. It's a Tuesday afternoon, it's 3:30, and we're just sitting here talking about a plane."

From the pool-group clique to the quiet roommate with pets, the community sounds so much like high school.

I think we use our families and jobs to distract us for 40 years. But once that goes, you go back to how you were when you were 17, the last time you had open time to fill however you wanted. It's just like high school: people talk about their neighbors, people form different cliques. I remember hanging out at the pool for a couple of weeks before this circle of women would let me sit down with them. Once I did, there were other newcomers--other women on the fringes of this clique--who started to resent me because I got let in so much faster than them. Within this high-school scene, I was kind of like James Dean. It was the only time in my life I'll get to be James Dean. I was this dangerous young man in town who everyone was curious about.

Ah, so that's what I need to do.

It was great. There is a certain pleasure to having a lot of women pay attention to you. Even if they're 40 years older than you.

Then of course there was Vivian.

[Laughs.] Yeah, and then there's that.

Did you have a favorite old person down there?

I developed a crush on Amy, the comedienne.

I met a lot of people who affected me in different ways. Amy was probably the most fun person I met. She's now 95 years old, and she's lived this incredibly storied life. It was new to me to have friends who had actually done stuff. None of my friends have done anything, including me. We're all fairly young, none of us have done anything that great. And if we have done things that seem great they're kind of bogus. These people had fought wars, worked to support families for 30 years, taken these great trips ... Or in Amy's case, she'd become a stand-up comedienne at age 80. She would constantly say things you can't quote in your magazine.

That inhibition is gone?

I don't think it was ever there. People have this fear that they're going to change when they get older. It's this whole cliche of the grumpy old man. What I learned is that you don't become grumpy when you get old. You were grumpy. [But] when you're 30 and you're grumpy, people call you a jerk. Once you cross 65, you're grumpy. People that are optimistic and happy become fairly happy, optimistic older people.

I loved the part about the vet who served in Iraq during WWII but admits he really didn't do anything.

Yeah, there's two forks to how I think people treat older people these days. They either forget about them or deify them. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. I met lots of great people down there who didn't have heroic stories from WWII, they just had funny stories, interesting stories or even boring stories. There are lots of boring WWII stories [but] that doesn't make the people that tell them boring. I became a sort of connoisseur of boring WWII stories because something tells me that if I was alive then and in WWII, my stories would have been boring ... I have a real affinity for that kind of person.

Many people in our generation feel sort of inadequate compared to the elderly. I mean, you burned out at 30?

They certainly didn't understand me. You try to explain to someone that you're trying to "find yourself" at age 30, and they'll make fun of you for the rest of the day. Or even if I was talking about how I want a job that I love. "Why do you have to love your job? It's just a job." Even if I was talking to them about my love life, or my criteria that I might look for in someone I want to marry, the guy next to me would be like, "Well, I just picked the prettiest girl in my neighborhood that would promise to sleep with me after we got married." You hear that and you think, "Well maybe that's smarter."

So, have you managed to bring much of what you learned down in Florida back to Los Angeles with you? Like a sense of appreciation for the little things?

I get my friends to go out and play shuffleboard sometimes. That was the whole deal with that club--I learned that shuffleboard is basically a dying sport. People who are now becoming older don't want to play shuffleboard because they think it's an old people's sport. So it's sort of like this fringe sport now among the retirement scene. They really grabbed on to me as this vessel in which they could fill me with this shuffleboard information, as a sort of shuffleboard Moses, and send me down the river. And I try to take that seriously. You also played a lot of canasta. I've tried to spread the word about canasta because I used to play with my grandparents. But people aren't going for it.

Isn't canasta great? Once this whole poker thing burns out, man, you and me are gonna be standing there with canasta.