DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. My guest, Steve Lopez, is someone I've known casually for many years because when I was a political reporter in Philadelphia in the '80s and '90s, Lopez was the star columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was known for crafting compelling human interest stories, shining a light on unfairness and inequality, and skewering politicians with clever nicknames that stuck to them for years.
In 2001, he took his talents to Los Angeles, where he became a local institution writing columns for the LA Times. He's won a host of awards and written several books including "The Soloist" about his relationship with a sometimes-homeless, Julliard-trained musician afflicted with schizophrenia. It was made into a film with Robert Downey Jr. playing Lopez.
Lopez's latest book is about whether he should give all that up and just quit, retire. It's a big decision and a tough one, so Lopez decided to make it a reporting project. He interviewed a host of experts and lots of people who have retired - some love it, some don't - as well as some who never will because they love and are energized by their work - and because it's Los Angeles. Some of them are famous such as Mel Brooks and Norman Lear. Lopez takes us on the journey and shares his decision in the book titled "Independence Day: What I Learned About Retirement From Some Who've Done It And Some Who Never Will."
Steve Lopez, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
STEVE LOPEZ: Hey, it's so good to be with you.
DAVIES: You know, a lot of people have many jobs that are a real grind. And when they hit their 60s, they can't wait to retire. You know, you have a pretty good job (laughter), you know, doing what you do. And in the book, you say how much you love it. What made you think about retiring?
LOPEZ: Yeah, I do have a dream job. I feel so lucky especially working in an industry that has lost thousands of jobs. I mean, you know, since - I think just during the pandemic, 360 newspapers have closed in the United States. And so I did not take lightly walking away from something that I've done for nearly half a century. But the fact that it's been nearly half a century is part of what motivated me to look into this, to think about whether it was time. I mean, it's been a great run. It's been a privilege. It hasn't even felt all that much like work most of the time. But you start to think about how much time you have left. And you start to think about the things that, you know, you'd like to do or you wanted to test out, to see if that's something you want to spend your time on.
And I began worrying that I'd be one of those people - and you hear about this all the time. Somebody retires, and a week later, they drop dead, or - you know, who knows what physical or cognitive ailments might come my way. And I'd never get a chance to do those other things. So I wanted to, before I made any decision, talk to a lot of people and see - and go to school on their experiences. So that's how it all began. And I gave myself a one-year deadline to talk to enough people that I could feel comfortable with a decision about what to do in my own situation.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things about the way technology has affected journalism - and I found this when I was doing political reporting - is that there's no deadlines anymore. It's a 24-hour news cycle. I mean, if you used to - it used to be you'd probably write two columns a week. When the column was in, you were done for another three days. You could catch your breath. But now, I mean, tips come in around the clock. People react to your columns around the clock. They will nitpick something around the clock. That's kind of wearing, isn't it?
LOPEZ: Yeah, you know, that's a good point. I used to - when I wrote a column, you know, back in my days at the Oakland Tribune or San Jose Mercury News, Philadelphia Inquirer, later for Time magazine, you wrote it, and you knew you had that rest period coming up. But now, as soon as it runs digitally, you start to get the feedback. And you get the pats on the back and the kicks in the pants, and it's what have you - it's always, what have you done for us lately, on to the next one, the next one, the next one, and so much more competition because there are so many voices out there.
So, you know, that part of the - there is a bit of an adrenaline rush, I think, with the kind of thing that I've been doing, being, like, an old-fashioned metro columnist. You get an idea. You chase it down. You just sit at the computer. You look at that blank screen. You got to create something out of nothing. You get it done. And oh, my goodness. They published it. I still...
LOPEZ: I can't believe, almost a half a century later that, you know, my words are still published. And there is a rush from that. I do get a bit of a rush and wasn't so sure what the rush would be if I left this behind. I mean, what's going to give me that sense of mattering, of being relevant?
DAVIES: I want to get to some of the many people you talked to in considering this decision. But there's one other thing about your home life we should talk about. Your family situation presented you with another transition. You know, tell us about that.
LOPEZ: Yeah, I have a daughter who is 19 years old. And, you know, she came - I was 50 when she was born. I had two sons a quarter of a century earlier. And I - it meant that for almost all of my adult life, I had kids in the house. And I like that. I - you know, because this was such a blessing to have, you know, this little girl come into our lives. I was very attached. And I'd - you know, I'd loved having her around and watching her grow up. And she's a tennis player. And, you know, as she made it through the junior tennis years and then the high school years, she started thinking about college.
And that, for her, was a very exciting time. And for me, it was a very scary time because she was, one day soon, going to be out of the house. And I knew that, and I knew that I wasn't quite ready. I mean, of course, you want your kids to grow up and be independent and go off and discover themselves and the world. But I began to think about whether - if I retired, it was going to be at the same time that Caroline left for college. And would that double void be too much for me? Would it really be tough to adjust to that double whammy of, wow, I don't have a job to report to and I don't have my daughter around to talk to about, you know, this or that? And it's one of the things that, in the end, influenced me.
There's a person I went to in the book. Her name is Rabbi Naomi Levy. She's the author of "Einstein And The Rabbi." And she warned me about that. She warned me about the importance of structure and how some people who have it in their work lives lose it and can't regain it once they retire. And she warned me, too, about that double void. And it's something that I really thought a lot about. I mean, I had no choice about my daughter going off to college, but I did have a choice about whether I left work. So that certainly influenced my decision.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Steve Lopez. He is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. His new book about considering retirement is "Independence Day: What I Learned About Retirement From Some Who've Done It And Some Who Never Will." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with author and Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. His latest book about confronting the dilemma of whether to retire or not is called "Independence Day: What I Learned About Retirement From Some Who've Done It And Some Who Never Will." Well, Steve Lopez, you know, this book is called "Independence Day." And it begins on a Fourth of July. You want to just set this up for us?
LOPEZ: Yes. The book, I should say - it wasn't my idea. My agent, David Black - I think this book came about because I was writing a lousy novel. And David, who's a good friend, would ask about the novel, and he'd hear my answer. And one day we were having lunch, and I said that I was beginning to think about retirement, but I wasn't sure. And he said, oh, that's a book about identity. Ten thousand people a day turn 65 in the United States. The boomer wave is cresting. You know, there are 70 million boomers. This is a book. It's a book about work, about retirement, about identity.
And so it began - that was his idea. And I wasn't sure that I was buying in. But on Fourth of July, I was sitting in my backyard in L.A. and started writing. And I emailed him, and I said, hey, I've got an idea for the title - "Independence Day." I'll give myself a year. So that's how it got its name. And I spent one year from Fourth of July to Fourth of July trying to figure it out.
DAVIES: You're in the business of researching subjects that you want to know more about, so you certainly found new experts, but you've talked to a lot of really interesting people over the years, and you went to people whose lives and opinions you respect. One of them was Father Greg Boyle, who is the founder of Homeboy Industries. He's worked with former gang members for decades to start them on - you know, help them get started on new paths. He's quite a remarkable person. He's been a guest on this program several times. You visited him. What did you observe? What did you learn?
LOPEZ: Well, Father Greg is my age. Father Greg is a local hero. He's a saint. He redirects the lives of young men and women who have gotten into trouble related to the circumstances that they've grown up in. They go to - you know, they end up in prison, and after prison they knock on his door to try to get some job training. So I've known him for many years, and I know that he loves his job. And I went to see him and told him that I had been thinking about retirement. And he gave me kind of a strange look - like, why? You know, why? And I said, there are things that I think maybe I should try, and I've done this for a long time, and - but I'm just not sure. I'm not sure whether I'll be fulfilled in retirement.
And he said, life is about, you know, being connected to something, being connected to a loving God, feeling as though you're relevant, as though you have a purpose. And he said that in his case, he'd never considered retiring. And he said to me, I'm a Jesuit. Jesuits retire in the graveyard. And that meant a lot to me, in part because I don't do what Father Greg does. But I think that social justice, economic justice has been a big part of what I've focused on. And I thought, boy, he's sticking - you know, he's going to - he's going all the way to the end with this. And here I am walking away. I felt quite feeble after talking to Father Greg.
DAVIES: (Laughter) Yeah. It's easy to feel smaller than someone who's accomplished what he has, you know? But he kind of - he did say, you know, go where life is. Find meaning, and hold on to that as long as you can.
LOPEZ: And that is such - well, I mean, I think that's the trick. That's the key. And if you can do that by continuing to work, I think that's great. And I certainly found people who have made that choice. But other people have found meaning in trying new things. And, you know, I've always had this idea that I wanted to learn language. My father's parents are from Spain. I speak a little Spanish, but have never been fluent. My mother's parents are from Italy, and I always wanted to learn Italian. I've never had the time for these things.
And I thought in retirement what I would do is get fluent in a couple of languages, maybe spend, you know, months rather than, you know, seven days in those countries on vacation. And also music - I wanted to pursue music, and I love to cook. I thought, wow, what if I were living in Barcelona, and I'd wake up and go to Spanish class and then go to a cooking class and then study guitar somewhere. That all - you know, all of that appealed. It still appeals. And I haven't gotten to that, quite, but maybe one day.
DAVIES: Yeah, well, hopefully there's time to get some years in of both. You talked to Mel Brooks, who is - what is he? - 96. Mid-90s, I think, right?
LOPEZ: Yeah, mid-90s.
DAVIES: And keeps doing what he's doing. What did you hear from him?
LOPEZ: Well, I wanted to talk to Mel Brooks and Norman Lear, who just turned 100, because they were in their 90s doing creative work and not slowing down. Now, these are exceptional cases. Of course, these are Hollywood legends, and maybe they can never really escape who they are. Their identity is pretty much set. But I did have this concern. I don't know that you could call what I do terribly creative, but you do stare at a blank screen, and you've got to figure out what to fill it up with.
And I wondered if for people like Mel Brooks and for Norman Lear, work is oxygen. And when you stop, you suffocate. And is that what's keeping them going? And is that how I'm going to be? Am I going to, you know, have the going-away party and retire, and then just, you know, start gasping, trying to figure out what I could find that's more fulfilling than what I've done? And Mel Brooks - you know, asked me a lot of - Mel Brooks sort of became my life coach. And in the end, he said, well, you like to write. You like working for the LA Times. He said he read my column. That was flattering. He said, but you want to, you know - you want to live in Barcelona. You want to do something else. Why not go to the editors of the LA Times and say, look; I want to keep doing this but not so much. Why don't you get the best of both worlds? And of course, it was pretty good advice and pretty close to what I ended up doing.
DAVIES: Right. I mean, they also - I think both Mel Brooks and Norman Lear looked at what you did and said, you know what? You may think you're going to stop doing it, but your brain is going to keep working the way it always works. And, in fact, you describe going on a little vacation to Laguna Beach, I think, with your wife and happening upon somebody there and thinking, this will be a great column. And you ended up working it (laughter).
LOPEZ: Yeah. I wonder - I do wonder if I'm wired, if there is no escaping this. And I think I want to find out. I think I want to, for a time in my life, maybe do nothing. I mean, planning is great. And it's important to figure out how you're going to be relevant and matter to somebody. But I've never been able to slow down enough to just clear my head entirely. And that's something I might like to do. What - you know, what Mel Brooks said was that he's motivated still. And it's as simple as that.
And Norman Lear, more of the philosopher, said that life is about - you're in a hammock, he said. You're swinging between what's over and what's next. And if something tugs at you, something motivates you - you get up out of bed because an idea is just burning and you've got to get to the computer and start writing - then that's life. That's - you don't need to think beyond that. You know, his philosophy of living in the moment is great for a lot of people. And I took that to heart. But, you know, I'm not independently wealthy. And I needed to make some choices. And so I wasn't so sure that I didn't want to completely break away from what I've been doing.
DAVIES: You know, I'll just note for listeners, if they want to hear more of Mel Brooks' take on his life, we're going to be replaying one of Terry Gross' interviews with him on tomorrow's show. So you might want to listen to that. You know, it's interesting. I've known a lot of people who had jobs that they liked, some in journalism, who, you know, took a buyout offer from the newspaper they were working for because, you know, it was a good chance to get a little head start into a retirement or a new life.
But they figured, I'm going to keep working. I'm going to freelance for this place and that place. And then I would run into them six or eight months later. And they would discover, actually, I like spending time with my spouse and having days that I can do what I want. When you were around, you talked to a lot of different people. Did you find people who said, actually, yeah, stopping work was great?
LOPEZ: I - you know, I had some pen pals at a retirement community. When I started this project, I had been to Leisure World Seal Beach, which is just south of Los Angeles. And it's mostly a retirement community of several thousand people. And I asked them if I could write a guest column for their newspaper. And they said, sure. So I wrote it. And I said...
DAVIES: For the retirement home's newsletter?
LOPEZ: Yes. Yes.
LOPEZ: And I wrote it and said, I'm thinking of retiring. I'd like to go to school on your experiences. Please, share any wisdom that you've got. And it was across the board. It was isolation and depression. It was, I wished, you know - this has been so great. It's been better than I ever would have imagined. And these are people who had been, you know, health care administrators. And there was one woman who was a law clerk in the patent office of a toy company who so looked forward to her retirement that she'd look - you know, they threw her a big going-away party on a Friday. And she drives home - and I'm free, I'm free, free at last; Independence Day - and, Saturday, has a good day. Sunday's pretty good - Monday, wakes up with nothing to do and by the end of the first week of her retirement, called her boss and said, I think I made a big mistake. Can I go back to work? So you've got those people.
And also from that retirement community, I had trouble getting hold of a woman, who one day finally picked up. And she was on her boat off the coast of California. And she said that they had just - she and her husband had just bumped into a fishing boat. And the fishermen offered her some of the fresh catch. And she said, it's almost cocktail hour and that we're going to grill the fish on this boat. And she said to me, do not wait. Do not wait until you're too old to do these things. Retire today. So I got it, you know, across the board from those with regrets and those who wish they'd done it sooner.
DAVIES: Yeah, helps if you can afford a boat, I suppose.
LOPEZ: Yes (laughter).
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Steve Lopez. He is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. His new book about considering retirement is "Independence Day: What I Learned About Retirement From Some Who've Done It And Some Who Never Will." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I am Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with author and Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. His latest book is about confronting the dilemma of whether to retire in his '60s after a long and rewarding career in journalism. He consulted experts and plenty of people who've retired and others who won't like Mel Brooks, who's kept working into his 90s. Lopez's book is "Independence Day: What I Learned About Retirement From Some Who've Done It And Some Who Never Will."
One of them said, don't think that you're going to - that retirement will be rewarding because - trust me - it really isn't.
LOPEZ: Yes, that was, I think, a former college professor who had really been struggling with creating that new identity. I mean, when you're - he would - you know, you stand before a classroom of young people, hungry minds. And then, all of a sudden, you're at the retirement home, you know, wondering how to spend your day. He really struggled.
You know, there's another guy who, for me, stands out. There was - there's a gentleman in the book. I ended up calling this guy and his wife Ralph and Alice. They reminded me a little bit of "The Honeymooners." And Ralph had a good job for a utility company, kind of a middle manager. And there was a merger. And he took a buyout and thought, I'm set. And it was a little bit early, but he thought, I'm set. And then, the market crash really knocked him, you know, sent him for a loop. And after that, he was diagnosed with cancer. And the medical bills started piling up. And this guy who had his retirement mapped out, you know, travel the world and - he's a nature lover as is his wife - ends up applying for jobs in his 70s and having trouble getting anything. And he ended up working as a cashier at a big-box store near Disneyland.
And when I went to see him, there he was. I mean, he had one of these jobs where it's the self-checkout but there needs to be some monitoring, and somebody needs to hand you the bag that you just bought for a nickel. And that's the guy. And he was standing there. And he said that his foot hurt and he had to see a doctor. And he did not look very happy. This is not the picture of, you know, his golden years that he had in mind. It reminded me so much of something my mother used to say - the golden years are not so golden, necessarily.
DAVIES: Yeah. Gosh, you know, it reminds me of my father who lost a job in his early 50s and just never found his feet again and ended up - last time I saw him, he was working a shift at a 7-Eleven and died at age 59. You never know where things are going to take you. But family sure helps if you have people that you love and count - and you can count on.
LOPEZ: My parents' experience was very much a part of my decision-making process. They both ended up - I mean, they lived into their 80s. But the last, you know, 10, even 15 years were difficult with physical issues, with cognitive loss. And that influenced me quite a bit especially because I appear to be on the same health care calendar as my parents. Things have happened to me that happened to my parents when they were, you know, the same age. And, you know, they both had this cognitive loss. My last conversation with my mother, she didn't remember who I was or my sister was. And I thought that, you know, I don't have many years before I'm her age. What am I going to do with this time? And I also have the heart issues that each of my parents had.
DAVIES: You know, as you mentioned, one of the things you need to consider when you're trying to make this decision is, you know, how many years do I have? And how many healthy years do I have? And, you know, you have an interesting profile here because you almost bought the farm once. You know, tell us about this moment.
LOPEZ: And I am back from the dead. It's a small club, and I'm in it. I went in for a knee replacement about 10 years ago and, in post-op, went into cardiac arrest and flatlined, had to be resuscitated. I remember, you know, waking up and looking at - wow, that's a lot of nurses and doctors. What's going on? And they said, you flatlined. I knew I had an arrhythmia just as my parents both had arrhythmias and, you know, gradual heart failure. I didn't know I was in such - you know, such bad shape that I would go into cardiac arrest. And I left the hospital with both a pacemaker and a knee replacement.
And that's - you know, that is a real slap in the face. It's that - you know, that mortality wake-up call, and you just realize it could happen any time. And given my parents' heart issues and, later in life, their cognitive issues, I thought I'd better really figure out whether I want to do something other than write columns, which I've already done for several decades.
DAVIES: You mentioned that in order to get a wider view of retirees, you wrote a guest column for the newsletter of Leisure World, this retirement center. It had a lot of interesting things that people said. One of them, a woman - I think the name was Lillian - said, make sure you are 100% ready. What was she getting at?
LOPEZ: Well, I think she was getting at what happened with that other woman from Leisure World who looked so forward to - could not wait for her retirement party and a week later called and was scratching at the door, begging to get her job back. You do need - you know, you do need to think it through. I thought that Nancy Schlossberg, in her 90s in Florida, who's learned so much about retirement and the difficulty of the transition that she's written a few books about it - I mean, Nancy said that, you know, you got to think of ways in which you will still matter.
And it doesn't mean that you matter in the sense that you're going to change the world. Maybe you matter to the dog who needs to be walked or to the grandchild who needs orthodontia or to the people at the nonprofit where you're serving as a mentor, or maybe you're on the board. But you got to build that life of mattering, the thing that, you know, Greg Boyle, Father Greg Boyle has found. So I think, yeah, you need to - it can't be just a willy-nilly decision, I'll figure it out. Those are the people, I think, who end up sitting on the sofa, reaching for the remote, wondering what to do next.
DAVIES: You spoke to an analyst and a rabbi. And it seems like they gave you sort of parallel advice. What did you hear from them?
LOPEZ: You know, both of them - I still hear their advice echoing for me. One thing that the rabbi, Naomi Levy, said to me was that, you know, she had a guy who came to her, he was a member of her congregation, and he said that he was really struggling. He was kind of OK Monday through Friday, you know. Go to work, and, you know, get up the next day, and do it again. And then on weekends, he just felt kind of lost. And the more she talked to him, the more she realized and he realized that he needs structure, and there was no structure in his life on the weekends. And she said people underestimate what structure can mean.
She also had this great advice, which was - and I've taken this to heart. She said, it's a good idea if you can carve out the time, with an extra week of vacation or a month of vacation or a sabbatical, to test the dream. You have all of these people thinking about retirement, and they tell you what they're going to do. They're going to learn how to fly an airplane. They're going to, you know, learn how to knit rugs, or they're going to - whatever it is. And then they finally get there and realize, I don't really care that much for this, or I'm afraid of flying. And, you know, and I'm tired of knitting rugs. And she said, it's a good idea, if you can, to sample the dream.
And one of my dreams has been to get my dusty guitar out of the garage and start playing it again. And I've played, thanks to Rabbi Naomi Levy, every day, you know, averaging about an hour a day for a year. And so I'm sampling the dream.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here, then we'll talk some more. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Steve Lopez. He's a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. His new book about considering retirement is called "Independence Day." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Steve Lopez. He's a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He has a new book about considering retirement. It's called "Independence Day: What I Learned About Retirement From Some Who've Done It And Some Who Never Will." You talked to a lot of experts, people you know, people you didn't know. But there are those two people that are really important - I mean your wife, Alison, and your daughter, Caroline. One of the things you write that they both said is, you need more friends. Are they right?
LOPEZ: (Laughter) And can I add, they're not very nice about this when they say it to me.
DAVIES: No, it sounded rather sternly spoken, actually. Yeah.
LOPEZ: No, it's like, what's the matter with you? You know, don't you know how to socialize? Does nobody like you? That's how it comes off to me. You know, that's part of what this was about for me. There are things I've missed in life because I was working too hard. You know, I've sacrificed friendships. And I've also moved around a lot in my job, which meant that you had to start all over, building those friendships. And they're right. I mean, I do need to socialize more.
But I think that it's hard to develop that when you're doing the kind of work that I do, which is - you got to keep thinking. It's like - I wake up in the middle of the night still, thinking, did I blow that column that's about to run, and what am I going to do next to redeem myself? So my head has been so caught up with work that it's kept me from developing and holding on to friendships. And that's something that I really do want to work on as I find that I've got, you know, more leisure time. So Alison and Caroline are right. I need more friends. Anybody available?
DAVIES: I think there would be a lot of people available. You know, as I hear you describe it, it strikes me if anybody has the kind of job that would enable you to make social connections, it's you. I mean, you - you know, you don't just write columns about important people and elected officials and corporate leaders. You talk to people. I mean, people that - who are not boldface names all the time. And lots of people love your work and would love to hang with you. And, you know, you and I don't know each other well, but I've always - you know, there is a way in which you don't - maybe you're not so terribly approachable. I don't know.
LOPEZ: People think because of the cage-rattling columns that I've written, the - that I'm - I don't know - maybe I'm a tougher character than I really am. I'm kind of just a softy. I think that everything that I've experienced in life has been about, what is the column here? And I think it's gotten in the way of me developing friendships with people who I really respect and admire and would want to be friends with. It's just that my relationships with people have been about work. And maybe that's my fault, that I haven't been able to step away and keep my work life separate from my private life. And maybe that's what Alison and Caroline are getting to. I got to work on making friends.
DAVIES: Your wife, Alison, is a freelance writer. She works at home, and she's a few years younger than you. She's got an active career going. And, you know, you've made it clear she doesn't want you hanging around at her elbow all day. Your daughter had a kind of a more colorful way of describing the prospect of the two of you together in the house. Do you want to share that?
LOPEZ: I think Caroline's words were, you'll kill each other, when I first told her - what did she think about me retiring and, you know, being in the house there more hours each day. You'll kill each other. She was kidding, of course. But, you know, you do have to, I think, in many cases, find your own lives. You know, even if Alison were retired and didn't have things to do while I was sitting there, retired, you know, wondering when she could - you know, when we can go and do this together. Alison said something - I'm not going to be your play date buddy. I'm not going to be your - you know. So figure it out. Find some things to do. That's part of - that's a big adjustment for a lot of people. A lot of people, when I was researching this book, had those issues with how do you - you know, you've got a whole - the day is now a clean slate. You don't have to be somewhere from 9 to 5 and then worry about what you did from 9 to 5 from 6 to midnight, and wonder if you did OK and what you're going to do next. So I do think that these are the kinds of little adjustments that Nancy Schlossberg in Sarasota, Fla., told me that every retiree faces. OK, what now? Everything is different.
DAVIES: Yeah. She was the psychologist who, when she retired, kind of made it a business to become an expert on retirement, wrote a lot of books about it.
LOPEZ: And what was interesting about that, she did that because she hadn't thought it through. And she was a psychologist who had focused on transitions. But that was one big transition that she had not given enough consideration to. She - and, you know, she made the point that it's a mistake, maybe, to plan out every day of your retirement. And Nancy said to me, you need to learn how to embrace ambiguity because in retirement, it's kind of like life. Things come at you that you don't expect. There are small victories. And there are devastating losses.
She lost her husband and never thought it would happen. But she met another person. And she lost him. And when I was interviewing her on the phone, there was a beep. And she excused herself and came back to say, that's my boyfriend calling. I've got to take this. You know, Nancy's in her 90s. And she certainly has embraced ambiguity. And, you know, retirement is not - you don't get this prescription on here's how you do it. You got to roll with it a little bit. And I learned that from a lot of people I talked to.
DAVIES: So you began this quest on an Independence Day, on a July Fourth, gave yourself a year. And as that year - the end of the year approached, the LA Times was offering buyouts to senior employees. So there was an opportunity there. What did you decide?
LOPEZ: Well, that - there was a little wrinkle in that, too, because my longtime editor, Sue Horton, who's a little bit younger than I am, was considering taking the buyout. And, I mean, buyouts, what a - (laughter) I probably shouldn't say this. But buyouts, what a gift. I mean, you're paid to not work. It's a way - you know, many companies use buyouts to thin the roles a little bit. In my case, I could have walked away with pay for, you know, like, nearly a year. I went with Mel Brooks. I went with the Mel Brooks plan. I went to the editors at the LA Times. And I said, I'd love to keep doing this, but I need to scale back. And the way we set it up was - and they were on board with that.
And maybe it works for both of us. I mean, they shed a little bit of salary because I raised my hand and said, I'll take a pay cut, you know? Give me a 25% pay cut and I'll work nine months out of the year instead of 12. And they said, OK. And then I completed the first year. And there's the possibility of going down to two-thirds and then to one-half. So it's like gradual - it's like I'm on training wheels, headed into retirement and not sure when I'm going to fall off the bike. But for now, it has worked because with that extra time, I got to go and see Caroline play tennis in college and spend more time with her and with Alison's (ph) mother, Nancy (ph), in Pennsylvania and see my son, Andrew, in Connecticut a little bit more. So it's not bad. I do have, as Mel put it, I think, the best of both worlds.
DAVIES: Well, Steve Lopez, good luck in winding down. Thanks for speaking with us again.
LOPEZ: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.
DAVIES: Steve Lopez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. His new book about considering retirement is "Independence Day: What I Learned About Retirement From Some Who've Done It And Some Who Never Will." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews "Foster," a novella by Irish writer Claire Keegan. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORACE SILVER'S "OPUS DE FUNK")
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. "Foster" is a 2010 novella by Irish writer Claire Keegan with an unusual publishing history. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says the long wait for "Foster" to be available in book form in the U.S. is finally over. Here's her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: In terms of productivity, the Irish writer Claire Keegan is the anti-Joyce Carol Oates. Since 1999, when her first short story collection "Antarctica" appeared, Keegan has published only one subsequent story collection and two novellas. But the accolades for her writing far outweigh its sparsity. Keegan's 2020 novella, for instance, called "Small Things Like These," was shortlisted for the Booker Prize at 116 pages, the slimmest work of fiction ever to be nominated. Size matters, but wallop matters more. So far, the only thing lengthy about Keegan's work is how long it's taken for "Foster," her first novella to be published in book form in the United States. "Foster" first appeared as a long short story in 2010 in The New Yorker, and then was published in Great Britain. It's already been canonized as one of the top 50 novels of the 21st century by the Times of London. Now, at last, Grove Press has published a standalone edition of "Foster" here. It's a classy hardback that's oddly bulked out at its end by the first two chapters of "Small Things Like These," the kind of teaser that's usually attached to the end of paperback thrillers. Then again, Keegan is a writer who revels in the suspense of the unspoken, the held breath. "Foster," in fact, ends on just such a petrified moment.
The events "Foster" chronicles are small in scope. One Sunday after Mass, a young girl, who remains nameless, tells us she's taken by her father to a far-off farm. The girl's mother is pregnant, and there are other children in the family, so she's sent off to live for the summer with strangers. My mother's people, she tells us, a couple called the Kinsellas. We readers only get the girl's limited perspective. None of the adults explains much to her, and the girl's father, especially, is a man of few words. The ones he does speak are cutting. Driving off from the farm, he bids farewell to his daughter by saying, try not to fall into the fire, you.
Fortunately, the Kinsellas, though reserved, are gentle. The woman, whose name we later learn is Edna, bathes the unkempt girl, gives her clean hand-me-downs to wear and teaches her how to do things. Together, they embark on a repetitive round of daily chores - pull rhubarb, make tarts, paint the skirting boards, take all the bedclothes out of the hot press and hoover out the spiderwebs. The girl begins to relax. Her reflexive flinching eases.
The austere style and measured pacing of "Foster" are perfect. We readers may wonder about the presence in a closet of those hand-me-down children's clothes. But another chore always awaits, deflecting attention. Occasionally, the news intrudes on this timeless round. One of the few markers that ties this tale to the early 1980s is the mention of the death of a hunger striker.
Weeks pass. Then the Kinsellas have to take the girl with them to a neighbor's wake. Recognizing that the crowded house with its kitchen centerpiece of an open casket is no place for the child, they gratefully accept when a woman they know named Mildred offers to bring the girl back to her house for a while. Mildred whisks the child away, and "Foster" arrives at the kind of signal moment that distinguishes much of Keegan's fiction; that is, a scene in which the cunning humiliate the kind.
The girl tells us that upon leaving the wake, Mildred strides on into a pace I can just about keep. And as soon as she rounds the bend, the questions start. She is eaten alive with curiosity. Which room did they put you into? Did Kinsella give you money? How much? Does she drink at night? Does he? Does she put butter or margarine in her pastry? The girl is frozen into fear and silence. Frustrated, nosy Mildred lashes out at her, saying, that must have been some stone they rolled back to find you.
Keegan has a sharp ear for mundane meanness, but she has an even keener appreciation for kindness and its complications. The girl must return home at the end of the summer to parents who haven't once been in contact. Is it a gift or a shattering cruelty to expose a child to a better life when that life may only be temporary? As Keegan knows, only the Mildreds of the world will have a ready answer to that and all the other moral questions this matchless novella raises.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Foster" by Claire Keegan. On tomorrow's show, we'll hear from Mel Brooks. He wrote and directed "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein," "High Anxiety" and "The Producers," which was adapted into a Broadway mega-hit that included the hilarious Busby Berkeley-style production number "Springtime For Hitler." His memoir has just been published in paperback. I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN")
GENE WILDER: (As Dr. Frederick Frankenstein) Ladies and gentlemen, mesdames and monsieur, damen und herren, from what was once an inarticulate mass of lifeless tissues, may I now present a cultured, sophisticated man about town? Hit it. (Singing) If you're blue and you don't know where to go to, why don't you go where fashion sits?
PETER BOYLE: (As The Monster) Puttin' on the Ritz.
WILDER: (As Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, singing) Different types who wear a day coat, pants with stripes and cutaway coat, perfect fits...
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