Gina Barreca

I’m turning 61 and I still consider myself too energetic, too lively and too frisky to be regarded as a mare. I prefer to regard myself as a filly. But I might be closer to being a nag.

I’m just trying to be honest with myself and pass the message along to others my age: What changes, for better and for worse, as we get older?

I was prompted to write about age this week not only because of my birthday but because I read in a recent issue of People magazine that Jane Fonda published a book about turning 80 and being spellbindingly gorgeous (and also active and involved, but mostly gorgeous). She looks fabulous at 80.

Picture me reading People while sitting under a hair dryer at my wonderful hair salon. First of all, I’m wearing the navy blue plastic cape they provide to protect my clothes. The cape makes me look not like a superhero but like a dark and roomy mountain hut where weary climbers might rest. Tufts of my hair stick directly out from my head horizontally, as if I’m attempting to secure better Wi-Fi. A white collar of paper beneath my chin makes me look like Ms. Pillsbury Dough Girl. Or, because I haven’t put on any makeup today, Mrs. Pillsbury Dough Boy Sr.

Yet Ms. Fonda looks like a million bucks — at 80.

But it occurs to me in a flash — maybe because of the enhanced Wi-Fi or a spark in the dryer — that nothing has changed. Even when I was 20, Jane Fonda at 40 looked better than I did. When I was 40, Jane Fonda at 60 looked better. Why would it be different now?

I haven’t spent my life trying to look spectacular. That was never my job. I didn’t even think of applying for that job because it was obvious that it would not be a career for which I was suited, any more than being an athlete or a chef or an artist. So why would I compare myself to a person whose lifetime has been spent professionally shaping her physical self?

That would be like deliberately torturing myself for being unable to live up to an unrealistic standard that only a few human beings out of thousands could possibly achieve.

Oh. Right. I’ve spent about 57 years doing precisely that. I started when I was 3 and saw that my neighbor Nancy had two dimples to my one.

I’m done with invidious comparisons; there’s no time on my schedule anymore. I take almost everything — other people’s better looks, better waistlines, better fortunes, better scores, better reviews, better incomes and more well-groomed pets — less personally. Good for them. Jane Fonda’s firm eyelids have nothing to do with me because nobody is making a comparison between us except for me — and that’s not going to happen again.

Other folks’ achievements don’t diminish mine — and realizing that is my birthday gift.

As I get older, I take angry insults less personally, but I take thoughtful criticism more personally. I take politicians less personally, but I take the political system more personally.

I take money less seriously, but finance more seriously; I take technology more seriously, but gadgets less seriously.

Showing up on time has become more important but leaving early less so. Civility is far grander and more significant than ceremony. Sorrow and joy both command the stage while self-indulgence and moodiness get the hook.

Increasingly, I enjoy the frivolous while becoming increasingly less tolerant of the trivial. My affection for solitude has increased while any sense of loneliness has all but disappeared. Generosity has become much easier and any spiteful desire to withhold has diminished proportionally.

I pay more attention to requests but happily shrug off demands. I undertake more responsibility but more easily shake off guilt.

At 61, I hope to cast less shadow and to make more light. I hope to savor routines without getting stuck in ruts. I might not win, place or show at the races but I hope to feel a sense of accomplishment and delight when I cross the finish line.

By Gina Barreca

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She wrote this for the Hartford Courant. — Ed.

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