The Walden Mirage
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The Walden Mirage<br> Part 1 of 2 on "Urban Myths of Retirement"<p> IN THE METROPOLIS, we all need a myth to keep us going, and usually it's called "retirement." Here's the plan: Toil hard. Make a name for yourself. When you get tired, give up that hard-earned name, sell your empty nest and leave the city to live like Henry David Thoreau in a 2+2 by a golf course. You'll find it in an "active adult community" out along the I-10 or the I-15. There, shuttling amiably between the clubhouse and the pool, you will at last have time to develop that backhand, take those watercolor lessons, read Plato and think great thoughts -- just like Thoreau did in his little shack out by Walden Pond. <p> There, you will be anonymous, but happy. <p> Today, my mother reads a pile of glossy brochures as I drive her out to Riverside county on a scouting expedition. The brochures run thick with poetry: stunningly handsome couples with shining gray highlights stand confident and windswept above the greens. They practice tai chi in sunlit fields. They contemplate artificial ponds shimmering with waterfowl. One imagines them discovering the cosmos in the dewdrops clustered on well-mown grass. One headline reads: "It's a place where losing yourself and finding yourself often happen simultaneously." In his book about abandoning cities, Thoreau puts it much better: "I went to the woods because I wished to front only the essential facts of life," he writes. "I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life." <p> The great Transcendentalist never writes about a golf course, but he does record his encounters with shimmering waters and migrating birds. Like all the best myths, it's vague, but perfect. <p> Back along the I-15, my mother and I pass miles of hillsides bulldozed red for new developments, until at last we enter a realm of sprinklered lawns and faux waterfalls. We park at the visitor center, a place beautiful in the landscaped corporate meaning of the word. A charming 3D model of the property rests on a table. Huge windows overlook misty fairways. On the walls, flat-screen monitors loop through more gorgeous images: dappled sunlight, bubbling streams. <p> Once you sign, the salesman points out, there's plenty more poetry. Hours can be spent with their design consultants, choosing tile and cabinet treatments for your 2+2. My mother, bless her heart, seems entranced. <p> Me, I behave myself. I don't tell her I think Walden Pond is actually a tough act to pull off, that few seem to manage nonstop Transcendentalism without despair, that Thoreau himself lasted only two years in the woods. I don't make a speech in which I call dividing the old from the young a "bizarre social experiment" or "a plot by the real estate industry." I don't voice my suspicion that once here, one probably sees more of Oprah than migrating geese; wrestles more with the homeowners association than Plato; spends more time time listening for return phone calls than bubbling streams. <p> No, I don't even say, "Surely we need your talents and your big heart back in the humming metropolis. Help us make this troubling new century work." <p> Who am I to destroy the dream of the 2+2 at Walden Pond? Who am I to trifle with what may be the greatest myth of our time. <p> No, I smile meekly as the salesman takes us around in a golf cart, and I nudge my mother as if to say, "What fun!" <p> Only when we're driving back through the ravaged hillsides do I venture a single, carefully aimed thrust: "You know mom, it's wonderful, but it's a little far from the grandkids. <p> "I suppose you're right," she sighs, and we make our narrow escape back to the city. <p> Copyright 2004 by Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved. This commentary is excerpted from a longer piece which originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine. <p>
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