Current Occupation: Retired
Former Occupation: Corporate Attorney
Contact Information: Mike Bates is a corporate attorney, recently retired to retrieve his purpose in life. He lives in the high desert of central Arizona with his wife and daughter. His work has appeared in Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Scholars & Rogues, and the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review.
The Retirement Challenge
“I met Rich Little,” I said to my wife.
We were staying at one of those first generation hotels that have graced Las Vegas Boulevard since the days when mom and dad stopped the family caravan on the Strip for a night out with the Rat Pack on the way to Disneyland. I usually avoid them if I can, but I’m boycotting Donald Trump, Sheldon Anderson, and Steve Wynn, Caesars and the Bellagio are overrated, and the themed resorts cater to a younger demographic.
This one had been purchased and renovated by one of those international hotel chains. While the location is less than ideal and they haven’t succeeded in removing the 50s and 60s kitsch from the common areas, the rooms promised all the charm of your average business hotel. The prices were reasonable, as they are everywhere in Vegas in August, and I’m a Diamond Platinum member, so I didn’t mind the two mile hike through the shimmering heat of the Mojave Desert for dinner and a show.
“I ran into him on the elevator, when you were getting ready.”
“No,” she replied in a tone I interpreted as astonishment.
I was on my way down to the Casino from the executive level when the car stopped on the twelfth floor and this guy stepped in carrying his dry-cleaning. To say that I looked at him, I guess, would be an overstatement. My senses were in their usual state of suspended animation, a condition worsened by the blitz of sights and sounds that is Vegas. Let’s just say I noticed him, as I would any individual among the thousands of strangers one passes on the Strip, the difference being we were together in the cloistered environment of an elevator.
“It was kind of funny the way it happened,” I said.
His greeting was innocuous enough, something like, “good afternoon,” unusual perhaps due to its formality. I don’t even think I would have acknowledged him beyond the obligatory nod except there was something odd about his demeanor. He was looking away from me when he stepped into the car — head down, face averted — as though he was trying to avoid recognition. And to make matters worse, I could have sworn he acted disappointed when he didn’t get it, sort of like he flinched when I didn’t go all giddy on him.
He took a position in the front corner of the elevator, I mean actually facing the corner, his back toward me, his head bowed, the crown of his head just beneath a video screen featuring video clips of Rich Little doing impersonations of Johnny Carson in the resident comedy club. It was funny stuff, seriously funny, the impersonations, I mean, but my instincts were alerted to the peculiarity of this guy’s behavior.
His clothes were nice, I guess, an oxford shirt, slacks — Dockers I believe, leather belt, and leather loafers. If I’m honest with myself, he was probably a little over-dressed for Vegas these days, at least in contrast to my shorts, t-shirt, and flip-flops. His hair had been colored a deep brunette, natural enough from a distance, but when you’re standing as close as I was, I could see his scalp beneath wisps of thinning hair.
Then the sequence on the entertainment system switched to clips of Rich Little impersonating George Burns. I look up at the screen with the change. I look at the guy again, and back at the screen, the coincidence slowly dawning on me before smacking in the gob.
Holy shit! It was him. It was Rich freaking Little.
“Weird,” she said.
“It was weird.” I agreed with her.
The guy’s an entertainment icon. If you were born mid-century, like I was, you grew up watching Rich Little at least once a week on the television. I guess it would be fair to call him the John Stewart of his era. Who can forget the parody he made of President Nixon, hair slicked back, shoulders hunched forward, both hands in the air about his displaying the peace sign as he repeats Nixon’s infamous words, “I am not a crook,” in a pitch perfect intonation, his head shaking as he speaks to emphasize the presidential jowls? He did more to bring down the Nixon administration than anybody except, perhaps, Tricky Dick himself.
“And kind of sad, too,” I added.
Why is this guy still working, I had to ask myself as I move past the initial shock, and what’s he doing working in this fleabag establishment?
It’s not the biggest venue on the Strip, or anywhere near the swankiest. It’s not even close to the action, unless you consider a view of McCarron International Airport and the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign the Sin City equivalent of Comedy Central. And they’d put him on the twelfth floor, no less, among the riff raff flown in on cheap charters from the UK, Australia, and China for fast women, cheap beer, and photo-ops in front of not so convincing replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and the Great Pyramid of Giza and made him pick up his own laundry to boot.
“It is sad,” my wife offers up.
“Can you imagine how far he’s fallen?”
“That you run into Rich Little, and the first thought you have is negative.”
Okay, so the story isn’t about Rich Little, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it is not all about him. It’s also about me, how I reacted upon running into him, where my thoughts went in that instant of recognition, and what that says about my own situation.
It’s one thing to experience celebrity on the television, or even on the video screen of a Las Vegas elevator, but it’s another thing altogether to come face-to-face with it in real life. There is a human dimension to celebrity that we often ignore, a person behind the persona, and very often that person is just like us.
You see, Rich Little and I have a lot in common. We’re both relics of another century. Sure, he’s got a couple of decades on me, but I’ve got enough years under my belt to share some of the same expectations about the proper course of life, about the progression of a family and a career and that dream of riding quietly someday into a well-earned sunset.
Bear with me a moment, and I’ll bring it back to Rich Little in due course.
I retired — early I might add — some years ago. I enjoyed my work, but I’d started to wonder whether the skills I’d learned as a corporate attorney would translate to the real world outside the artificial culture of my employer and worry whether I might be missing another act somewhere in the theater I call my life, you know, before the curtain finally comes down.
It wasn’t a difficult decision, and I haven’t regretted it for a moment. The company wanted to eliminate a level of management, voluntarily of course, and they made it worth my while to leave. I was caught between a strong manager, one I admired, and some strong subordinates, many of whom I’d helped to train, and I figured it was time to go before someone asked me to go. I was going to travel and write, and my wife had it in her mind after chasing me on the corporate junket for twenty-five years that we were going to find a little slice of heaven not to far of the beaten path.
I went back for a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities since retiring, creative writing with a minor in social psychology. It’s sad, I’ve found, the beautiful things about art and critical thinking at the cutting edge of culture our education system teaches each of us to ignore when it’s cranking out fodder for the corporate economy.
I’ve published a few pieces of short fiction and some creative non-fiction. We’ve travelled a lot, the wife and I, to some pretty far-flung places. That slice of heaven has had to wait as our daughter prepares to put down her own roots, but I have to say it’s been a joy to be a part of her life the last several years, as she’s gone from girl holding onto her childhood to a woman anticipating her future, something that never would have happened had I stayed in the corporate world.
The financial implications of retirement are nearly cliché by now, at least if you’re paying attention to advertisements on the television from Wall Street investment types that probably don’t make a hell of a lot of sense to anyone who doesn’t already have a significant investment portfolio. I spent a few sleepless nights at first worrying about money, whether I’d put away enough to enable a comfortable lifestyle for thirty or forty years without a regular paycheck, particularly with a daughter preparing to start college.
Nothing prepared me for the nightmares, the restive nights as my subconscious cycles through the dissonance of dreams about work years later when I should have known somewhere deep down that I’m not supposed to be there. I’ve started to think of it in terms of addiction, or withdrawal perhaps, not from the routine of work, but from the adrenalin rush it induces, the big deals, the intense negotiations, the power plays against attorneys with long names and longer pedigrees that have you walking on egg shells while you were in the thick of it and leave you feeling exhilarated when they were completed.
It’s like chewing tobacco for any of you who have had to overcome that particular addiction. You’re dreaming at night that you have this great big, unsavory wad in your mouth, and you’re working furiously to get it out, pushing it out with your tongue, digging it out with a finger, even rinsing it out with water, never quite able to rid yourself of it until you wake up suddenly spitting with all your might to get that foul taste out of your mouth. Except, when I do it, it’s foul taste of work I’m attempting to expel.
Retirement is something everybody should be lucky enough to try once before you actually retire. You learn pretty damn quick that the personal myths you’ve built around your identity, your professional good looks — just kidding, your killer negotiating skills, your keen sense of human motivation, and your ability to carefully balance risk and rewards to capture shareholder value, not to mention your importance to the organization and your relationship with co-workers are not entirely true. The world goes on just fine without you, and it can feel sometimes like you have all but disappeared.
That might be beneficial to the young lions out there, the ones who believe their poop doesn’t stink right out of college. A colleague back in my corporate days used to call them instant experts, the people who claim to understand an entire field from a single experience. But it can be frightening when you’re facing the prospect of starting all over, unless, of course, you’re one of those instant experts, and I suppose it’s only natural that you hold onto some of the dreams while you’re building a new identity.
Lately I’ve noticed something new creeping into my experience, something that just popped up over the past couple months, years after I retired. We recently returned from five weeks in Greece, my wife and I, and I just can’t seem to get into the routine of real life anymore, not since we got back.
Those of you who have been to Greece will tell me it’s reasonable to feel a little let down after the spontaneity of Greek culture. Ordinarily, I’d agree with you, but this has been going on for weeks now, and I just can’t bring myself to find much satisfaction in the little pleasures of life — a steak, a good glass of wine and a stunning sunset — not the way I used to.
There is this essay I read, from Lee Gutkind, to the effect that the writing life is all about waiting, for inspiration, for a publisher to reply to your query, for that letter of acceptance, and ultimately for that publication to appear, and my problem is I don’t get as much pleasure anymore — dare I say, actually feel a growing sense a disappointment –with each opportunity to publish. Gutkind suggests that the ability “to publish great work is what makes all the rest of the waiting worthwhile,” but I’m not so sure. I have it on good authority from other artists — well, maybe one or two other artists, and painters at that, no work is ever complete.
I mean, we are talking the human condition, aren’t we, writing and publishing no more than other vocations, and retirement no less than any other stage of life? We’re enamored with novelty, and it takes more with each new experience to get us excited. Lately it seems, I’ve turned inward, living more in my thoughts than my senses, waiting for something big to happen, anything really — good or bad, and my problem is I don’t have as much foresight anymore into what the next big thing might be – or I have too much of it, I can’t decide which — or any confidence that I’m going to find as much pleasure in it.
Anyway, that was kind of my mindset standing there behind Rich Little. I wasn’t exactly present in the moment. I’m struggling with my identity a little bit, as a retiree, that is, and a writer. I’ve been feeling a little, shall we say, numbed to my prospects, and I projected my own dissatisfaction onto him.
So shoot me.
I had the pleasure of studying human development as part of my minor in social psychology, and it turns out there has been a lot of speculation on the topic of life stages. I say speculation, because psychology was addressed until quite recently as a branch of philosophy.
That’s right, folks, those minds that history acknowledges as great contributors in the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis, Freud, Jung, and Erikson among them, they told us how the mind works at various stages in our development based entirely upon how they thought from their own ruminations it should work. Other have attempted to introduce the scientific method to the study, but the people designing the experiments aren’t usually the type who had have a wealth of practical experience, not when the subject is aging, and if you’re like me you don’t take a lot of comfort in statistical analysis intended to define the norm.
Freud gave us the Oedipal complex. Jung gave us the collective subconscious. Erik Erickson, bless his heart, gave us the identity crisis, from infancy to old age, with the conflicts one must resolve to successfully pass from one stage of life to the next, and it’s those stages I want to discuss, particularly the last one.
Erikson theorized that each of us go through what we hope has been a period of sustained productivity — as opposed to stagnation — from our mid-thirties to roughly our mid sixties, at which point we enter a sustained period of reflection during which we face a crisis of sorts between what he calls “ego integrity” and “despair.” Apparently, we’re supposed to use the time available to us in that final stage of life to piece together the story of our lives, our successes and failures, in an arc that allows us to live out the rest of our lives with a sense of completeness or closure if we want to avoid the curse of despair.
My wife picked up the book, Travels with Epicurus, A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life, before our trip to Greece. She didn’t get around to reading it, beyond the first few pages, I guess, and gave it to me upon our return to help me out of my funk. Imagine my surprise when I opened it to find it is less about the Greek islands than it is Western culture, and less about a fulfilled life, measured in terms of the entire life cycle, than a fulfilled old age.
The author, Daniel Klein, studied under Erik Erikson as a philosophy student at Harvard, and in his book, he attempts to reconcile the Epicurean ideal of seeking pleasure with Erikson’s notion of ego integrity. It was Epicurus after all who said, “It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.”
The problem with the modern world, Klein says, is that we’re fixated on what he calls the “forever young” mentality. We’re compelled to seek eternal youth, the notion that we can prolong that youthful vigor through cosmetic surgery, hormonal therapy, fitness and a bucket list full of life goals we need to accomplish well into our golden years, what Klein calls “old, old age.” The definition of ego integrity is doing what comes natural to us, and I gather from Klein that acceptance of the aging process is the most natural thing we can do.
The inflection point for Klein was the suggestion of his dentist that he undergo dental implants, as opposed to fitting himself with dentures, to compensate for the loss of bone density in his jaw. He questioned the wisdom of using weeks, if not months, of the time he has left to undergo the procedure and painful rehabilitation when all he would accomplish was avoid the inconvenience and embarrassment of dentures. Instead, he retired to a Greek island, his suitcase full of books, to contemplate the great questions of our time, like the importance of memories, companionship, of play, of spirituality, and the best way to inhabit the life he had left to him.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I just don’t think giving into the temptation of ennui is the cure for it, not in my case. I’ll get those dental implants, keep my regimen of fitness and diet, and continue tick off items from my bucket list, even if I might pass on cosmetic surgery, erectile dysfunction drugs, and testosterone supplements. I have loved a man who gave up early in life, and another who fought to the bitter end, and while the one lived just as long as the other, the other lived better with the time they both were given.
For me, I guess, it comes back to those words from Lee Gutkind. “To publish great work is what makes all the rest of the waiting worthwhile.” They make for good metaphor, for life at least, if you supplement them with the corollary, no great work is ever complete.
So I got on the Internet after my wife went to sleep, to see if I could claim some redemption from our conversation. I expected to find some indication that Rich Little had stumbled somewhere along the way, and that this show of his, the one I called sad, is a desperate step backward for a man who has to work.
As it turns out, I found, Little has enjoyed a productive career since the days we used to laugh with him in front of the television, even if I haven’t exactly followed him since that time. He lives in Las Vegas, and his current show, the one I ridiculed, is a continuation of a long and successful run on the Strip.
No salvation there, I’m afraid, but some wisdom perhaps in the example of his life.
He is on record as saying he has no plans to quit performing, not as long as his health and voice hold up, and as I continued reading I started to understand he motivations. Cary Grant once said to him, ‘You have no idea what you do to people. You make them forget all their problems; make them laugh … and that is a rare thing to be able to do.’” People often comment on a particular sketch he’s done, he says, “they remember it for the rest of their lives, and that’s a pretty amazing feeling.”
And what of my encounter with the man? How did it end, you’ll want to know.
The elevator continued without stopping after he got in, all the way down to the casino level. The door opened to a throng of people waiting to go back up, and I have to say he exhibited the same curious behavior. He lowered his head in what I interpreted as an attempt to avoid recognition, and he seemed to flinch when he wasn’t recognized.
I caught up with him after a few quick steps along the corridor adjacent to the casino floor, so that I was walking next to him, almost shoulder to shoulder.
“Rich Little?” I asked.
He stopped and turned toward me.
“Yes,” he said without hesitation or any apparent reluctance.
“I’m a fan of yours.”
I held out my hand, and he took it in a firm grasp.
“Thank you,” he said.
We went our separate ways, but I remember thinking what a refreshingly pleasant man he is.
And my biggest regret from the experience? I still don’t remember actually looking at him, even when I shook his hand.