Remember when you were in your twenties? Who could forget those old geezers who groaned every time they rose from a chair? Observing them through the illusion of eternal youth, those oldsters seemed like a different species. I’ll bet you never thought you’d be one.
Neither did I.
But these days, creaking bones and aching muscles have become a routine part of my morning. I begin each day by tentatively evaluating my discomfort, and often it’s a matter of degree. Perchance my low back is tweaked, but at least my knee feels okay. My right pinky toe hurts, but my hips and ankles are holding. Now and then I still spring out of bed, pain free, but these days are becoming rare. Ten years ago, I may have been tight from working out, or a little sore from overdoing it, but ricketiness had not become a chronic condition. Recalling the passage of time, I go to a dark place—if this is what sixty feels like, what will seventy or God-willing, eighty bring?
I turned to Jane Fonda, who may have coined the expression Third Act in her 2011 book, Prime Time, an instruction manual of sorts for the over-sixty demographic. In a nutshell, Act One (age 0-29), “a time for gathering” includes the formative experiences of childhood, adolescence, self-image and gender identity. Act Two (age 30-59), “a time of building and in-between-ness” is characterized work and family relationships as they shift and evolve over time. Although Fonda explores the first two acts, The Third Act (age 60 and beyond) is the heart of her book.
Prime Time opens with Jane’s personal reflection at a turning point in her life. On the cusp of her sixtieth birthday, she begins to grapple with “the issue of time—the inexorability of it—pressing in on me.” I identify with Jane’s inertia, her sense of foreboding, and I am struck by her humility and courage.
She begins a soul-searching life review, examining family memorabilia, taking a humble look at the little girl or teenager smiling (or not) in family photos. Her process continues as she pieces together pivotal experiences, poring over her fifty-nine years. As if traveling back in time, she relives the joys and heartbreaks that have shaped her. Letting go and “becoming whole,” she is free to move forward into her Third Act.
Emerging from her life review, Jane hits the ground running. With her trademark vivacity, she steps up as spokesperson and champion for the chronologically challenged. Urging boomers to get off our lazy backsides, she crushes late-life stereotypes, coaching us to live “full tilt to the end.” The exposition is well-researched and prescriptive, providing concrete directives, a recipe for success if you will, with “eleven ingredients for successful aging.”
Here are Jane’s big eleven: Don’t abuse alcohol, don’t smoke, get enough sleep, be physically active, eat healthfully, keep learning, be positive, review and reflect, love and stay connected, give of yourself, care about the bigger picture. These sensible suggestions resonate with me. I cannot disagree with logic. Still, Jane’s recipe leaves me vaguely disquieted, as if I’m failing.
Those if us in our third act (60 or better) have learned a few things. For instance, when we thumb through magazines, ogling glossy airbrushed photos of flawless folks, we no longer compare ourselves to these images. We know better. We understand this kind of perfection is both simulated and humanly unattainable.
Jane’s “full tilt” life is like an airbrushed pic. Compared to her, I will always come up short. My inner cynic quips, who wouldn’t look fantastic with a team of surgeons, trainers and nutritionists? I remind myself of her celebrity status, wealth and entitlement and it’s easy to dismiss her, writing her off as another self-appointed “expert” wielding her fame. Alas, I am not superhuman. I will never be Jane. Who cares? Who needs soul-crushing perfectionism? Pass the pizza.
Yet, as I close Jane’s book and reach for a cheesy slice, I’m hit with an unexpected twinge of guilt, or perhaps shame. Maybe it’s all the wasted hours I’ve spent binge-watching re-runs on Hulu, that third glass of wine. Could it be the dark chocolate that keeps mysteriously disappearing from my cupboard? I glance down at the book jacket, Jane’s all-knowing eyes looking back at me. At that moment, I contemplate her legacy. Whether you love or despise her, Jane is a force. She’s inspired many, including me, as she continues to evolve and reinvent herself. An accomplished actor, controversial political activist and legendary guru of fitness for more than six decades, at 79, her vitality is undiminished. These days, Jane is busy lighting up the screen with Lily Tomlin, eviscerating so-called older women’s traditional roles, in the groundbreaking, irreverent, smart and wickedly funny hit show Grace and Frankie. Unlike the endless parade of vapid, pretty people in the media mainstream, I cannot dismiss her.
I pick up the book, studying her face. What do you want from me, Jane? Must I eat more kale? Must I lift weights? Learn Italian? Perhaps I am losing my grip on reality, because I hear Jane’s response. She reminds me that my choices are my own, but whatever I choose, to live with intention.
I exhale noisily. I admit it—Jane is right.
Very well, Jane. You win.
Did she just wink at me?
Taking an honest inventory of my life, I recognize room for improvement. Disclosure: I’m afraid to start something I cannot finish. I don’t want to fail. Sorry, Jane. I’m not quite ready to revisit my past unflinchingly. I’ll save the life review for later. So, how do I begin my Third Act, intentionally and with clarity?
I’ve never been good at diets. The moment a food is deemed off-limits or “forbidden,” it’s literally all I think about. Going cold turkey on vices such as wine, chocolate or overconsumption of the Internet, I am destined to fail. Adding a positive goal, not subtracting, has always been more successful for me.
As fall approaches, I’m reminded of new beginnings. With that mind, I embark on a more conscious Third Act, taking baby steps toward meaningful change. The first thing that comes to mind is diet. I’m a decent cook, but night after night, it often feels like drudgery, so most of the time, I rely on prepacked salad greens to fulfill the vegie requirement. I love vegetables and I know they’re good for my body, but don’t eat enough of them. I tell myself it’s too time-consuming and I’m just too damn busy for all that shopping and cooking. Hell, I’m not Jane Fonda. I have no personal chef, tempting me daily with an abundant variety of luscious, exotically prepared vegies.
This is the point where I smugly justify my laziness. But not this time, because the veil has been lifted. I can choose to make this manageable, yet significant change. There may be only one Jane, but the rest of us can strive for Jane-lite.
JC’s August-September Baby-Steps Challenge
I task myself, and anyone who’d like to join me, to consume a greater variety and quantity of vegetables. Your ideas and suggestions are very welcome.
Baby steps, people.
Stay tuned for updates!
Born in the winter of 1956, my girlhood was fraught with gender envy. If being a girl meant sitting quietly, playing with dolls, minding my manners, wearing frilly dresses and behaving in a lady-like manner, I did not wish to be a girl. If being a girl meant becoming a princess and someday marrying a prince, I rejected girl-ness.
These early observations led me to an indisputable conclusion. Girls were restricted and boys were free. Being a boy meant riding my bike, playing baseball, running wild, scraping my knees, and shooting mud pellets from my air rifle. Therefore I simply chose to be a boy. I got away with it, too. Yes, I sometimes fielded the innocent, yet brutal inquiry, Hey kid, are you a boy or a girl? It was worth it.
My carefree boyhood, sadly, was cut short. Junior High School and its cruel sidekick, Puberty, knocked me out, dragged me down and slugged me in the gut. I put away my baseball glove, my air rifle. After my mother took me bra shopping, I succumbed to the bulk of a sanitary napkin between my legs, the stranglehold of its chaste elastic belt. In my reincarnation as a female, I discovered Day-Glo orange patent leather shoes, nylon stockings, garter belts and blue eye shadow. I took to kissing boys rather than beating them up. I learned to let them win. In the midst of change, I lost my voice, my spunk, my edge. I had never heard the word depression, but late at night, alone in the dark, I contemplated the sweet release of suicide.
Jump ahead to 1974. Picture a seventeen-year old girl walking into her first women’s studies class. The word feminist described who I was, what I believed in, who I wanted to be. This moment of homecoming set in motion a lifetime commitment to choice—to equity, as a mother, an educator, a wife. These days I’m still reclaiming my voice, my spunk, my edge.
Footnote: I discovered my inner princess, and I embrace her, too.