So many of us crave stability more than anything else, and maybe we shouldn’t–maybe we should all be more ADVENTUROUS instead, ESPECIALLY as we get older!
This makes me think of our friend, the great intellectual Jacques Barzun, who has just turned 100. His body doesn’t work very well anymore, but his brains are still on fire and he’s as passionate and opinionated as ever. When we lived in San Antonio, we were lucky enough to be able to visit Jacques and his wife Marguerite. On these occasions, Marguerite and I would sit back (myself in awe and she in ironic amusement) as Jacques and Whitley had a nonstop, wide-ranging conversation that encompassed everything from 19th century romance novels to what happened between the two World Wars to Nazis and back to classical Greece and Rome. If wisdom is the ability to link disparate pieces of knowledge together to form a new whole, and gain new insights, then there was plenty of it on hand during those times.
I’m also thinking about the great 80-year-old chanteuse Barbara Cook, since Whitley and I recently attended one of her concerts. She’s done it all as well: been a star on Broadway, used too much booze and too many pills, gained too much weight?yet she still sings incredibly. We also recently went to see the Wendy Wasserstein play “Third,” the last play that she wrote. I took an entirely different message from it than most of the critics did, one that relates directly to my life right now, and I think it’s the message I think she really wanted to convey.
Wasserstein has always been a favorite playwright of mine, ever since I saw her play “The Heidi Chronicles” in New York City, which became a kind of mission statement for women of my generation, who started was has become known as the Feminist Movement. In The Heidi Chronicles, the heroine Heidi Holland spoke for all of us when she when she gave the following speech in front of a group of women at Harvard University on the topic “Women, Where Are We Going,” which ended up being about how much she envied all the women she saw in the locker room the last time she went to the gym?and how much she DIDN’T want to feel that way:
“I’m embarrassed, no, humiliated, in front of every woman in that room. I’m envying women I don’t even know. I’m envying women I don’t even like. I’m sure the woman with the son at Harvard is miserable to her daughter-in-law. I’m sure the gray- haired fiction woman is having a bisexual relationship with a female dockworker and driving her husband crazy. I’m sure the hot-shots have screwed a lot of 35-year-old women, my classmates even, out of jobs, raises and husbands. And I’m sure the mothers in the pressed blue jeans think women like me chose the wrong road. ‘Oh, it’s a pity they made such a mistake, that empty generation.’ Well, I really don’t want to be feeling this way about all of them. And I certainly don’t want to be feeling this way about ‘Women, Where Are We Going?’
“I’m just not happy. I’m afraid I haven’t been happy for some time.
“I don’t blame the ladies in the locker room for how I feel. I don’t blame any of us. We’re all concerned, intelligent, good women. It’s just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded. I thought the whole point was that we were all in this together.”
I felt an additional kinship with her when I found out that she had the same disease I had when giving birth to her daughter, a form of high blood pressure caused by pregnancy. Most plays have 3 acts, and all movie scripts have 3 acts?something you quickly learn when you’ve been in LA for awhile. “Third” has no third act because Wasserstein’s own LIFE had no third act: She recently died from cancer.
Many critics didn’t like “Third” because it makes fun of the politically correct pronouncements of academia and the media. But there’s much more to it than that, and their defensiveness seems to have blinded them to this (something Wasserstein must have known would happen, and maybe that’s part of the message as well: A kind of joke she was able to play after she died).
Wasserstein seemed to be saying that our LIVES have 3 acts, even though she realized, when writing the play, that she wasn’t going to get a chance to finish out her own final act. In “Third,” she made it pretty clear what she thought those 3 acts are for.
The FIRST act is for learning, gaining knowledge and acquiring abilities.
The SECOND act is for USING that hard-won knowledge and those hard-earned abilities.
And the THIRD act? This will surprise you. No, it’s NOT for RETIRING from those abilities or forgetting that knowledge. It’s not even for gaining what we like to call wisdom. It’s not even for PASSING ON our insights to a new generation, who are now starting on their own first and second acts.
No, the third act of life is for HAVING FUN!
At least that’s what Wasserstein thought, and I think she was right. I almost missed my own third act as well, and I’ve vowed that whenever I get too gloomy or worried or obsessed with worldwide disasters or trivial problems, I’m going to remember her message.
I know that’s what she would want.
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