In Memory of
Julia Lerner Field
1944 – 2016
I met Julia in the mid-70s in the Quaker Commune on Glenwood Road in Brooklyn, New York. She had already been living there when I sought and happily took refuge in that big, old, rambling, gorgeous house still enjoying its heydays on a wide, tree-lined street. At the time, I didn’t know where or how I fit into that magical amalgam of Quaker, Jewish, intellectual, leftist, anti-war activist, gay, theatrical, zany, and other non-generic characters, but somehow, they all cobbled themselves into something we all kind of needed: not quite a family and not quite not a family.
After the Quaker Commune disbanded, Julia and another member of the Quaker Commune, Debbie Friedman, continued their friendship, sharing an apartment, and eventually getting separate apartments in the same building. They were great friends, but more like sisters, to each other. Every pilgrimage I made back to Brooklyn usually included getting together with both of them.
Julia was charming, cosmopolitan, so well-spoken and so well-read. She was funny and entertaining, and so much of what she said was punctuated with a something that bordered on a giggle. The dictionary definition of a “gamine” describes her perfectly: a slim, boyish, elegant young woman who is, or is perceived to be, mischievous, teasing or appealing. I don’t think I ever met anyone who wasn’t taken with her.
Julia was a natural-born writer, with the gift of gab, a keen eye for observation and a passion for language. After I started my blog a few years ago, I kept encouraging her to start her own blog and to publish her writing. She sent me a short piece she’d written on retiring, and I loved it so much that I begged her to let me put it on my blog in my Guest Corner. Although the idea appealed to her, she was uncomfortable with the vulnerability that comes from exposing one’s writing. I also know, however, that she would have loved being acknowledged for this wonderful talent that otherwise might not see the light of day.
As a writer, I feel that a writer’s voice transcends their death, and in spite of Julia’s reluctance to publish her work, both Debbie and I can think of no better way to honor her memory than sharing her voice and her humor with her friends, family, acquaintances, and even new readers.
We love you, Julia. And consider yourself published, because here it is:
By Julia Field
I decided to retire when I was 64. Although I had always planned on working ‘til 70, early retirement suddenly seemed a better choice than premature death.
An increased risk of premature death is what doctors, psychologists and other health professionals calculate for every extra cigarette you smoke, every extra pat of butter you spread on your (white) toast, every extra hour of TV (even PBS!) you watch plunked on the sofa. In my case it was every budget that had to be modified twice and thrice a quarter for the same government contract, every deadline marked “Yesterday, B.C.,” every extra hour of restorative slumber forfeited to the roar of the fire-breathing, dream-snatching clock radio.
A year or so before I made the big decision, my best friend Nina gave me a fat, illustrated, spiral-bound workbook about how to decide if you’re ready to retire. It had chapters on all the relevant emotional and economic issues, including worksheets on which to calculate formulas using your personal data. Figuring out how to retire was too much like work! I didn’t know how to assume the return on all my different asset classes; I didn’t know for sure if I could find a part-time job, to what degree I might be restless or bored or lonely, what kind of volunteer work I might like to do. My head was left spinning with those Excel logical functions I’d once tried, and failed, to master: IF this equals that, then TRUE; IF this does not equal that, then FALSE; IF THIS doesn’t know that it is not THAT, then WHAT???
Clearly, any book that tries to get you to predict your future is about as helpful as a storefront psychic. It didn’t matter if my asset allocations were aligned with Jupiter; neither I nor anyone else knew that the financial meltdown was on its way, and that all the boomers who had financial plans, and maybe even financial planners, were going to go bust.
Why then, in the spring of 2009, after the financial meltdown, when the DOW was 7,000-something, did I take the plunge? Contrary to my cynical, pessimistic, depressive nature, I decided to look on the bright side. I figured that because I was 64½, not 70, my 401(k) would have those extra years to recover. Time is money, right?
Even though I regrettably didn’t have a pension, I proudly didn’t have any debt. I live in a rent-stabilized apartment and am a devout homebody. Besides, I thought, once you retire, you don’t have to save! You only have to strike a balance between spending and conserving. I was sure I could do it. I prayed I could do it. I knelt at the side of my beloved bed, and thanked God and FDR for Social Security, and the Devil for Medicare Part D.
The first few weeks of freedom were liberating and paralyzing. It was May, so taking walks along the park and spending afternoons at a sidewalk café were delightful. But something was lurking in my lizard brain: my former preoccupation with how long I could bear to work changed into the existential question of how long I could afford to live. I kept following the market, dividing my stash by a number that was an average of all my deceased ancestors’ life spans. I had become my own retirement workbook! IF TRUE: you will become a bag lady by your 77th birthday, IF FALSE: you will have to find a sugar daddy by your 76th.
What balanced these spells of anxiety was how well rested I became. Protracted Traumatic Sleep Deprivation was a thing of the past. Almost every day was a snow day. I could have breakfast at noon, I could fume and curse over the Times Crossword until I finished it with my third cup of coffee. I took up knitting and writing, started reading novels again, saw friends and movies in the afternoon. I even got a job, two days a week, through Nina. It was her way of making up for giving me that workbook.
I was smart enough, however, not to join a gym. Jumping jacks are overkill for a heart aerobically stimulated by regular doses of sticker shock.
I support two handsome, solipsistic cats and, per month, their kitty litter costs far more than a big family’s supply of toilet paper. So I started nickel-and-diming myself: I walked an extra six blocks downhill (and back, carrying the bags, uphill) to a supermarket where I could save 30 cents here, 50 cents there. I tried several brands of supermarket coffee (I know, that’s almost an oxymoron) and got used to asking for my senior discount at the stores that offered them. No Kindle for me – you had to feed it. I got myself a library card, my first in decades. I put off certain purchases to push them past my credit card closing date. (Yes, I know the monthly closing date on my only credit card.) I spend carefully so I don’t have to reduce my nest egg too often. But then I think, if I keep putting things off, I’ll have less time to enjoy them. The Money/Mortality Trade Off lives forever, it seems.
It’s a rare day that I don’t deal with some issue that poses a question of time, values, death, and/or desire. I do not have the answers, but neither does Pope Benedict, who on the issue of early retirement alone I consider a kindred spirit. But I offer this advice to every sleep-deprived sixty-something working stiff desperate to call it quits:
Be prepared to take as many months as necessary to sleep your super-annuated ass off. Even though you can’t earn money while you’re sleeping, you can’t spend it either.
(Written sometime in 2013)
Note from Debbie about Julia’s cats: Frabjous is now residing under his new nom-de-chat of “Pierre” at my friend Seth’s where he’s keeping an old kitty company. Shoeshine has been with me since the end of July. Myrna (one of Debbie’s cats) beats him up every day 😿 but then Smudge (the other one of Debbie’s cats) gives him a kiss😻
Note from Gloria on behalf of our sweet Julia: Thank you, Debbie and Seth, for keeping both Shoeshine and Frabjous (a/k/a “Pierre”) out of Kitty Heaven!
Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Debbie Friedman, including this one: