“THE RETIRED (TRY TO) STRIKE BACK, Or, How to Fight the Evil Empire of Age” comes out of today’s headlines and chronicles the emotional, roller-coaster journey of four senior couples trying to prove they’re still vital in a society that has relegated them to the sidelines for the simple sin of being old.
They decide to make a small educational video to help seniors living alone meet and form new relationships and deal with their personal and emotional issues, including health, money, sex and the belief that society would be happier if they just stayed quiet.
But as the movie progresses, the couples realize that seniors – and they themselves – are like other people. They also hunger for social changes that would improve the quality of life for their families’ future. But facing their mortality, they grasp that seniors possess special attributes to achieve this goal: a need to make change happen soon, get their last acts right, and cooperate as they now recognize that no group can have all the right answers for society. Seniors can become a new source of leadership for a polarized, divided country
A Novel In Episodes, “The Retired Try to Strike Back” grew out of a weekly column, based on real experiences, that appeared for a year in the Westchester Guardian and is authored by a national leader in social change, Allan Luks. He has had four books published, one of which, “Will America Sober Up?” was hailed as a “blueprint” for America by the Times Book Review. Luks also coined the internationally recognized expression, “helper’s high,” in his best-selling book, “The Healing Power of Doing Good.” Today he is a founder and director of the Fordham University Graduate School Center for Nonprofit Leaders, where he teaches about public policy change. He is also widely recognized as an expert in volunteerism and nonprofit leadership, and travels the country speaking on these topics.
A complimentary preview of the first four chapters are provided here. Please click “Chapters 1 through 4″ under “Categories” on the right of this page.
Bob, who directed advertising commercials before he retired, repeats again to his three friends, “You know how it was for me. The president took me to lunch and said, ‘Bobby, you’ve earned the right to rest. We want to help you.’ Perfect for advertising…the world’s hidden microphone…as our president liked to say. And what they really were thinking was: Get the guy out already. His old thinking may embarrass us with a client. We’ll also save his salary–’ Listen, we can’t forget what happened to us. And we promised we wouldn’t.”
Bob and the other men, all in their late sixties, married, friends since high school, have been meeting regularly in the late afternoons at certain inexpensive diners around New York City that they’ve learned aren’t crowded at that time. They brood over coffee and dessert for a couple of hours, discussing their frustrations, while the diner’s manager and waiters after awhile give hints for them to leave, returning to clean the table, restock sugar packets, fill salt and pepper shakers.
The men have decided that they want to develop a project that’ll give them work and prove they’re still vital, since no one wants to hire them individually. “With all our experiences, we have to be able to create something useful,” they often repeat to each other.
Today, they are in a small diner in Brooklyn, near the Brooklyn Bridge and not far from a trendy area that is attracting successful, young professionals. At this off-hour, the occupied tables have either gray-haired men and women, who look retired, or women with young children, whom they might’ve just picked up at school. The mothers represent the new residents whom the diner clearly doesn’t want to be chased away by senior men who appear to have no place to go.
“These mothers are so attractive,” says Bob. “In high school, we were picky about girls but now every woman looks beautiful to me.” He laughs. “People believe that the retired lose their standards. How we dress, how clean we look–so why not with women too?” He laughs again. “What does it matter now?”
“Wrong–we can still attract eyes,” smiles Kenny, a former high school literature teacher and occasional amateur actor, who often smoothes his thick hair while talking. “Agree with me?”
“My drugstore doesn’t sell trick mirrors,” Bob says.
“C’mon, Bob,” Kenny answers, “why can’t you loosen up–?”
“If we could return to what we’re here to discuss,” interrupts Myron, “maybe today we can finally agree on a project.”
He is a former life insurance company actuary, who usually wears a well-pressed sports jacket, like today. Kenny and Steven favor wash and wear pants but with a dress shirt from when they worked; while Bob normally just switches between several blue, worn, multi-pocket work shirts and jeans.
“You all said you’re interested in the grant proposal I emailed you,” Myron continues. He looks at the other three men and then rests his coffee cup on the table. “Because of me, you three have life insurance policies and have kept this protection with my old company. The papers I sent you are from their program inviting policyholders to apply for grants for projects to help the retired become healthier. You know my idea: we apply for funds to do a film to show the retired how to stay vital. Because, we know, vitality produces health. Bob has always lectured us about the power of movies to affect people. And the film will show our own personal vitality.”
Myron pauses. “The grants are for ten thousand dollars per policyholder. I’m not eligible but I could have influence if you three put in a proposal. Let’s apply.”
“But I told you on the phone,” says Bob. I’m possibly interested–but thirty thousand dollars is about enough money to shoot a high school talent show rehearsal. I directed a lot of commercials when I was in advertising. With so little money, we’ll make a film that no one will look at, or, if they do, will reinforce the bias that the retired can’t produce anything important and should just go away.”
“I’m not creative, I’m an actuary, a number’s person,” argues Myron. “But Bob, give this idea a chance. There are like forty million people over sixty-five. Many are widows and widowers wanting to date again. We’d have a huge audience. Many have to be nervous about how to meet someone new, how to discuss the health and financial problems they may have now.”
Myron pauses, looking at a few notes he’s scribbled on his napkin as he’s been talking. “I can see a film that encourages and guides seniors on going out and finding a relationship. A film that shows them–and everyone—that seniors are still very vital. We’ll portray how by connecting to someone, the stress that people living alone have would decrease and their health improve. I think we can win a grant to do this film. Bob, you’d be our director, and the film wouldn’t have to be slick–just honest. I already have a name: The Retired Person’s Dating Film.”
“I like it,” Kenny says. “In the film, we could act out issues that the retired who live alone have in making relationships.”
“Mr. Former Amateur Actor, if we do an animated film,” says Bob, “would you still favor this under-funded movie project–?”
“Bob, I don’t think Kenny’s not talking about promoting himself,” interrupts Steven.
A former social worker, Steven usually protects a friend being criticized, which the others recognize as Steven’s way of showing himself that his social work knowledge is still needed— And Bob now offers a smile to Kenny, and Kenny replies with his own smile to Bob, each smile feeding the other.
“Since the film will be dealing with establishing relationships,” Myron says, “that also includes advising the lonely retired about the right way to return to sex. How quickly and what’s expected with a new partner? Discussing sex never hurts the sales of any film. Bob, this video could be big and again, we need you to direct it.”
“I understand the actuary in you already counting a few dollars from making the film,” says Bob. “That’s numbers. But sex and the actuary?” Bob smiles at Steven.
“Maybe I now want to see myself becoming more than an actuary,” laughs Myron. “Crazy? But don’t the three of you also still think of being something new, more? At least, a little? Be honest. And that’s not really promoting ourselves, agreed?”
“So do we request money for the film?” Myron waits. “Me, the short, uninteresting, retired actuary. I’ve overheard too many people say that. But now, all of us, maybe, with the film, are being given a chance to strike back.”
Kenny laughs. “ Except if we don’t do the film soon, we’ll become too old to remember whatever lines we write for ourselves in the script.”
“We should strike back now,” adds Steven. “I mean, if we really think we have a chance.”
(Chapter 2 under “Categories” to the top, right of page)
Under Myron’s supervision, the friends apply to their life insurance company’s grant program, explaining that they want to make an educational film that will give advice especially to the great number of the retired living alone–the fourteen million widows, widowers and those who are separated–on how to establish new relationships, including dating again. The four friends tell themselves that the film also will demonstrate their own vitality.
They’re letting themselves become enthusiastic–with Bob still not completely convinced–and are meeting this afternoon at a diner, which, they believe, this week gives seniors a fifty percent discount. Except Myron, who told them about the discount, didn’t hear the radio commercial say it was only for dinner.
They unsuccessfully protest to the waitress that the ad wasn’t clear, their Danish and coffee should be covered, with Myron first removing his hearing aid so the waitress can’t accuse him of faulty hearing. The victorious waitress leaves, and they’re silent–
Bob resumes his worries about the film, even though the proposal has been submitted to the insurance company. “I know I’m repeating myself. But the biggest grant we can get is $30,000. I’ve told you, that’s far too little. I see us–if we get the money–ending up with a film that everyone expects from the retired: plain and dull. And I’ll be the director. I still have a mirror that tries to get me to look into it. And it’s not like handsome Kenny’s. I don’t want to make it even harder for me to look into it.”
He smiles at Kenny, who speaks, without looking at Bob, “When I taught literature in high school, I consulted on educational films, which were low budget but still came out interesting And a big reason was that the teachers were the actors, and they were believable. It’ll be the same with us.”
“Kenny, we’re not talking about a film to teach how to read great books,” Bob replies, “but how to successfully bring together real people, including the when, where and how of sleeping with each other.”
“Advertising made you cynical,” argues Kenny. “You need to try new clothes.”
Bob’s face shifts again into its smile: “Kenny, if we do the film, are you thinking you’ll be the main actor, because of your acting experience? You’ll be the one who’ll show how to correctly meet and romance a woman who’s in her sixties or seventies? And then Hollywood will finally notice you for a romantic lead?”
Kenny touches his thick, just slightly gray hair that crowns his still good-looking face, though recently he’s gotten thin—“not on purpose, not because I’m thinking I can still get a small TV or movie role,” he tells people.
Kenny now says, “Bob, why do you still wear your work shirts from your directing days? I say you really want to direct a film, but you don’t want to admit it. Sort of protection in case our dating film flops. You never really wanted to do it. But Bob, our little movie will be great. I feel it.”
But Bob’s smile continues: “Imagine a scene in the film of a retired man and woman, who’ve just met and are wondering what’ll happen in bed and whether they first should reveal any performance problems they might have. This is sensitive, it has to be right. They’ve entered a bedroom. Kenny, you’re our male actor for this scene. We’ve all seen your skills as an amateur actor with clothes on. But now you’re undressing, just partially, but our viewers–if anyone ever buys the film–see your little sagging stomach and rear. Can we make this a tense scene that’ll hold viewers or do they look away from the not very appetizing bodies?” Bob continues to smile–
Steven replies, “Retired people aren’t expected to have everything about them still in attractive proportion.”
The others have nicknamed Steven, The Social Work Defender, and he continues, “Bob, you’ve complained so often about the phoniness of the commercials you used to shoot. Being without job pressures now, we’re free to make the most truthful movie. Our aging bodies are the truth, right? Our film can be attractive in its own, honest way.”
Bob stays quiet.
“Bob, keep an open mind,” adds Myron. “I’ve started collecting information about the retired who live alone, so we can use real data to shape the film if we receive the grant. It’s the actuary still in me. Listen: The retired closely watch their dollars. But many are confused about whether they should spend more freely when they first meet someone to prove that money worries don’t control them. Our film can offer important advice in this uncertain area, a lot of areas—if, of course, we can agree on the answers.
“I found surveys saying that seniors can be sexually active into their eighties. But what if one or the other is physically unable to do it? When do they admit this? Bob, we’re not talking about you directing a short commercial under sponsor pressure. But a film that can help a lot of people change, give them the confidence to enjoy life more.”
Bob waits. “My doctor likes to tell me not to read long books, that I should switch to short stories. That’s his joke for older patients. Should I now tell him I may make a film, if we get the grant, that’ll show seniors living alone how to live happier and better? Except I’m starting without any idea how long our group of amateur friends will need to make the movie. After I leave his office, will my short-story doctor laugh?”
(Chapter 3 under “Categories” to the top, right of page)
The friends are excited, including Bob, at least slightly, who repeats, “It’s no joke now. We have to make sure it doesn’t become one.”
They received the grant.
They meet at a new diner today, continually rotating locations, since waiters make it clear that they don’t enjoy having a table occupied for a couple of hours, even though the men meet in the slow afternoon hours and believe that their tip is generous since they order just coffee and dessert.
Today, a manager approaches, after the check has been on their table for over an hour, and says, “Don’t be offended, but my customers see four older men sitting around, and think this is a place where the retired with nothing to do can come and not order very much. That’s not good publicity. If you could finish soon, I’d appreciate it.”
As the manager walks away, they take turns complaining: “He’s stupid. When we complete our film project and if it’s successful, there could be news stories that’d name the different diners where we met and did our planning. . . . All diners have down times–which is when we show up. They should want to attract the retired who are planning
projects. . . You think there are a lot of seniors like us who’ve actually started projects? . . . Maybe.”
Kenny says, “Seniors receive plenty of info on exercise, nutrition, seeing a doctor, but so little on how to successfully meet each other. Bob, with you as director, we’ll produce the best how-to educational dating video for seniors. And let me tell you, since I’m the only one of us who’s done acting, even if they were amateur productions. I’ve had some partial clothes-off experiences on stage. If there has to be a little nudity when we deal with the sexual relationship part, I mean, like taking my shirt off, and I’ve said this before, that won’t be uncomfortable for me–“
“Hold it, hold it,” says Bob. “Yes, O.K., we’re going ahead with the film, and we know, Kenny, that acting’s always been your dream. But Kenny, after we all retired–had to retire–you were the one who said that each of us should write down the dreams that we never accomplished. Then we should get together and tear these papers up. That’d show ourselves we shouldn’t feel badly that these dreams never happened. But we never did that and look what’s happening: You’re now straining to be a half-naked actor wanting to finally get noticed and maybe go to Hollywood? I’d hate for our video to be nicknamed by critics ‘Ridiculous Dreams of the Retired.’”
“Lay off Kenny,” says Steven. “Our film could get publicity and keep your movie directing dreams alive too.”
“No more big dreams for me,” answers Bob. “The world needs cynical realists. That’s my specialty now.”
“You’re happy being cynical as a senior?” asks Steven.
“Do you think our little film will breathe oxygen into your dream of helping people in a new, big way?” Bob replies quickly–
“C’mon, stop,” interrupts Myron. “But Bob, I keep reminding you, the numbers are on our side. With millions of widows and widowers and divorcees and the never-married living alone. If our movie is just minimally good, a large number of seniors will meet each other because of its advice. And I bet all four of us will be at least slightly noticed by the media. Whether we care to be or not.”
“If,” says Bob in a low voice.
They’re silent for a moment–
“Myron, I do have a numbers concern,” says Steve. “It’s from the data sheets you gave us. There are far more senior women than senior men our age who are concerned about dating. That obviously makes it harder for women to meet someone. I’m saying this because we’re four men making the movie–“
“Mr. Social Worker, that’s why we love you,” Bob interrupts. “We don’t have an outline for the film, what advice will be in it, and we just have a thirty thousand dollar grant. Yet you’re already worried that our film won’t be politically correct?”
“No, accurate,” Steve replies.
But Bob shakes his head at Steve. “Yes, The Retired Person’s Dating Film. Oh, to be retired and think we still have a chance to do something big and to do it right, so if we can just understand ourselves and others like us. While we hear our clocks ticking. While we can still hear the ticks.”
“Bob, doing the film perhaps will peel off some of your cynicism,” argues Myron. “But what does annoy me is the insurance company, my old bosses, telling us that if we bring in revenue over thirty thousand dollars, we have to donate it to the different senior centers they listed. I mean, don’t just look at us as fans on the sidelines. We want money too.”
“Cynical Bob agrees,” says Bob. “We have to change how the world sees us. Get everyone open and honest. Why not directly call the film: How My Friend Stopped Being A Short, Old Actuary And Is Getting Ready to Fight Back? Honestly.”
Bob offers his smile to Myron, who just stares back.
(To be continued…)
They rent the meeting room in the back of a diner in downtown Manhattan, where they’d previously occupied a booth in the busy front section. The men pay for this private room to prove to themselves that they’re moving ahead, they’re doers. It’s their first grant expense.
They also enjoyed seeing the face of this manager, who used to stare at them when they entered the diner, smile and nod to them when they asked about renting space.
“I have a great idea,” says Kenny. “A long time ago when I took acting classes, we’d be given a conflict situation to discuss. We’d break into different groups to write down our feelings and shape them into a very short play about people trying to deal with that conflict. The class would vote on how well each group’s play revealed the thoughts and emotions people would have in such a crisis. We called them our Feeling and Thought plays.
“We should do this acting exercise now. What if one of us lost a wife? Horrible. But we can imagine that and discuss the thoughts and emotions we think we’d have about going out to meet someone new, or if we’d be too nervous to try. We can write down our responses. We also can interview friends and speak to people at senior centers about different issues. This way we can prepare a script. But, and this is important, we also want ideas from our wives. And I’m going to repeat what Steve has said: We need to involve our wives in preparing the script and to act alongside us.”
Myron answers, “We’ll obviously act for free, and I realize we also wouldn’t have to pay our wives to act, and I understand our need to hold down costs. But, just as a starter, the film will deal with issues like sex. The data shows most retirees believe sex is important. People over sixty and even seventy say they have sex two, three times a month. Do we believe that survey? I’m not asking any of you to reply. But being friends, how honestly can we and our wives openly discuss personal issues in the film?”
“Myron, you’re in charge of the film’s budget,” Kenny argues, “you’ll have free female as well as male actors and script writers–“
”Kenny,” interrupts Bob, “I wonder if your motivation to use our wives, instead of searching to hire inexpensive but professional actresses, is that you’ll be the only experienced actor in the film and have the best chance of getting noticed. If critics for educational videos actually look at our film.”
“I disagree, Bob,” says Steven. “If our cast is four real couples, it’s a selling point that could get the film publicity. Reality shows are in. I’m not a film critic, obviously—but as a social worker, we’re always wanting to use real life examples to teach.”
Bob shrugs. “Our film won’t be much of a success, if viewers see our wives or any of us as reluctant actors, looking away from the camera or having to be in shadows. I’m not directing a film that’s a failure from the start. So I guess we’re split two-two on asking our wives. Kenny and Steven for and Myron and I against.”
“People say when they see older couples alone in restaurants,” insists Steven, “they often aren’t talking. Like they’ve by now talked themselves out. We used to discuss that in social work counseling for older couples. I think being in the cast with our wives, having to talk together about the film, will help our own relationships.”
“How’s this?” Bob replies. “If Myron agrees, we’ll tell our wives we need female actors in the movie. Don’t emphasize, of course, that one reason is they’ll work for free. Describe all the possible scenes for the video, including physical relationships, which probably just means exchanging kisses. But still, tell them. And if our wives reject us–well, there are plenty of retired women who are frustrated actors who’ll work for free or at a minimal cost. Although will we as couples then have even less to say to each other in the restaurant?”
Bob sits back in his chair, watching his senior friends wondering about their own and teaching about relationships. Then Myron says, “O.K., let’s ask our wives.”
(To be continued…visit this page often for information on publication date of novel)