The Third Act: I recently saw an interview with Jane Fonda being questioned about her new book, The Third Act. First impressions? Whether you love or hate Jane, even at 76, she’s still lethally good-looking, and in a way, more beautiful than in her early years. And her book promises an intimate look at “the third act,” that act being the last chapter of a person’s life.
Call it old age, or call it something sexier, it doesn’t really matter. The laws of nature and of aging eventually apply. One of the bigger points she makes, however, is that for the first time in the history of humanity, an extra 30 years, plus or minus, is being added to Act Three …Sometimes.
Why??? Maybe it’s from studying too much philosophy in college, but my brain seems to be hard-wired for finding the exceptions to things. First thing you learn is terms like Always and Never should be eschewed. They just get you in trouble because they are rarely correct. It’s a sad fact that many, many humans walking on this planet, never get the opportunity to enter stage left for act three…or even act two.
One of life’s profound question marks for me and one that makes me want to spit is the disease of progeria (Hutchinson-Gilford Syndrome). It exclusively attacks children, causing them to age prematurely. A twelve-year-old child with the syndrome, more resembles a feeble 80-year-old…and they die quickly of “old age”. In my younger more foolish days, when I would get angry at the concept of a kind and loving God, I would bring up progeria and scream in frustration, “WHY???” But there are a million different ways to…not make it to act three or even act two.
Life is a Seven-Course Meal: On the other side of the coin…the corollary, is the concept that life may have more acts than three. I wrote a novel, semi autobiographical in nature, entitled Playing on the Black Keys. Toward the end of the book (the beginning of Act 3), there is a chapter entitled, Life is a Seven Course Meal (with the assumption that some courses are going to be tastier than others). A handful are predictable…those first early innocent years: toys, stuffed animals, a first kiss, followed by the beginning of the tempering process: high school, self doubt, hormones changing, testosterone discoveries… College is a good solid third course, learning to think, truly learning about real love, developing the beginnings of life-long friendships… The fourth course is the course you deserve. Here is where…if you were a late bloomer, you begin to shine. The fifth course is a tricky stage of your life. Vulnerability. Deep love, deciding that fork in the road. Sometimes it’s money. Sometimes it’s integrity. Sometimes…you have to choose. The Sixth Course is when most people retire and it’s potentially a mine field you weren’t warned against. You yearn for time to play golf, tennis, skin dive, sit on a beach
and do nothing…and then you get that and discover that it just might be exactly what you didn’t want. If you’re a workaholic, it can be devastating. Which brings us to the seventh course or last course. It is also where controversy dwells. If this “last course” were truly the last course in a meal at a fine restaurant, we might hold up our hands and say, “That’s all right. Just give me the check.” …….I’m using a metaphor here…. The last course often involves senility, incontinence, Altzheimer’s, nursing homes, loneliness, loss of old friends, family, husbands, wives. In Playing on the Black Keys, Sam Harper, the protagonist, is convinced he’s dying from stage IV cancer, and to steal a word from Christopher Hitchens, “There isn’t any stage V”. The philosophical question arises, do we round-out our stellar six-course meal with a seventh course of…crap, or do we ask for the bill? I’m not here to argue that one, but the question remains.
Retiring: Whenever I’m in a discussion regarding the subject of retiring, I put on my boxing gloves and prepare for a fight. I’m constantly amazed at how many otherwise incredibly bright men, get snookered in this most basic fallacy. The very thing we covet…the cherry on top of the cake after a week of hard work…be it sitting on a beach or hitting a small round ball for some purpose or other, the reality is: It’s not nearly so much fun when you have a daily diet of it…particularly when you’re accustomed to accomplishing things.
Gene: I’ve been on the planet for roughly 6.5 decades and I have yet to see one of my friends make the transition without losing a whole lot. They seem to wilt…sometimes badly. One friend, who seems to be an exception but isn’t, is a highly intelligent former executive with Merck. What does he do? Play golf? Nope. Tennis? Nope. He runs a little coffee shop at Wegmans. He meets people, brews 15 different blends of coffee, jokes around, engages old friends and…WORKS. Does he need the money? Oh, hell no. He needs to do something purposeful and his pride isn’t skewered so high that it’s CEO or nothing. He’s one of the happiest guys I know. His name is Gene and I have yet to see him sullen or in a bad mood.
A personal note: Lately, Pamela and I have been primping and at the same time deconstructing CrossBow, a ten-acre estate we built from nothingness in the space of almost 30 years. All six ponds…we dug. The gazebo, our cool treehouse, (the Pax Notarius) up in the clouds? …from scratch, baby. At over 200 trees chopped and split I stopped counting. We threw the wedding for our son, Cameron, here at CrossBow.
Our best friends…(our pups) have lived and died here, and we faux painted the walls to Tuscan colors and Cote d’ Azure themes. The entire estate is one big sculpture garden and we’ve made literally thousands of sculptures in our barn studio. And now? We’re deconstructing it…making it viable for sale to the next owner. Apparently everything today has to be painted the color of drywall mud or sand. (It’s called being tasteful, though a little secret: at Buckingham Palace, each room is jewel-tone, except for the servants whose rooms are white.) We’re doing it, with more than a trace of wistfulness. Friends ask, Why???? The reply is: We did it all here in Bucks County, not once but fifty times over. Every restaurant, every festival…everything. It’s time for another course in our seven-course meal. Which one is it? Who knows?
Act III certainly has an important ring to it. In the theatre, it is the most powerful section of any play. In life, it is the time to catch up for lost time, to make things right with your life, to re-evaluate, to reflect, and also to keep growing and learning. Sitting on the porch/sofa and just watching TV doesn’t cut it. We are meant to keep going forward as long as possible, to share our experiences, and to make the most of our lives (here’s where the quote that life is not a dress rehearsal becomes crystal clear). Everyone needs a reason to get up each day. It can be learning a new activity, doing volunteer work, making friends, but do not stagnate. It has been my observation that the more time you have to sit alone and do nothing, the more critical you become. Suddenly you are obsessed with pettiness and minutae. Savor the time that you have, especially if you are unemployed. There is no excuse for boredom…get out and do something and take your mind off yourself.
You really drive home your points nicely. I particularly like the way you wove in “dress rehearsal” into the metaphor. I’m in constant amazement by people who seem to think that time is an unlimited quantity. And someone content in saying, “I’m bored.” hasn’t awakened to realize that they’re the ones in the driver’s seat. Thank you for your insight.
Maybe it is really a Chinese banquet of perhaps 30 courses. I know I’m well beyond 7, but not anywhere near 30!
Then again I suspect we are both fatalists so que sera sera.
I’m trying to imagine the portion size on a 30 course meal… I’m imagining a sprig of parsley and two almonds for one of them.
More seriously, although the concept of fatalism sounds somewhat appealing…romantic, I believe we both subscribe to the very unfatalistic axiom that: The harder I work, the luckier I get. But then…it’s a gimmie that one day you zig when you should have zagged and you become history. Hoping that’s not for a long time, old friend.
I imagine you’ll take some flak with your metaphor of “asking for the check”. This is something that many people with religious backgrounds find abhorrent. And yet, look at what we do when we come across an animal that is in horrific pain and dying? Do we stand there and watch it suffer? No we “put it out of its misery.” with much love and compassion. The slippery slope is knowing when a scenario is utterly hopeless…or possibly hopeful. I would not like one of my relatives trying to “put me out of my misery” because I’d become a bit annoying.