Between the lines: Getting older, still going like 60

More than a dozen of us gathered for dinner on a cold Saturday night. Cassoulet simmered on the stovetop, and a fire in the wood stove warmed the room.
Some of us there had been close friends for decades. Others barely knew one another. But we were all united by one thing: We had been in the same college class or had come with someone who was in that class.
Perhaps it was the wine, the tasty food or the refuge from winter’s chill, but there was another thing unifying us, and very much a topic of conversation.
Here in the new year, almost everyone in the room was about to turn 60. We were starting to feel old(er).
So how old is 60, really?
Turning 40 is a big year, the entrance into midlife. At 50 one is undeniably deep into adulthood.
If there are going to be divorces, abrupt career moves, trophy wives or boy toys and red sports cars, it’s a good bet they will happen near the mid-century mark.
Sixty is the point where one feels not only mature and adult and all that, but aware of aging. Not physically in many cases — those of us lucky enough to have health and vitality still have them at 60 — but undeniably we are the victims of chronology.
As I approach 60, whenever I’m in a public place such as 3 Squares or A Starry Night or just in Shaw’s, I find myself looking around at people older than I am.
I’m looking ahead for older role models, and for ways to remain fresh and vibrantly alive. I ponder whom I know that is still active and relatively youthful at 70.
Could I be that way? Could I even hold on to youthful activities until I’m 80 — or is that completely unrealistic?
What’s it like to be that old, I wonder. Is life full of regrets? What would the older strangers I see around me say about the passage from 60 to 70? From 70 to 80?
At this point in life, one does plenty of looking back, too.
I’ve begun to make a list of the factors that have most influenced who and what my peers and I have become, on the verge of 60.
The first factor is really just a state of mind: that old sense of how time flies.
As James McMurtry put it in a song, “It’s a damn short movie.” Where did 60 years of living go?
Secondly I see the influence of the state of one’s health. All the patterns of a lifetime, from eating to exercise and posture, show themselves more with each passing year.
One’s romantic history plays a role at this point. Whom did we marry or involve ourselves with? Did we stay married or suffer through divorce? Do we spend our days regretting the loss of an old love, or do we have the good sense to truly appreciate the one with whom we spend today?
Friendships matter more. Especially if we are an American male, we have fewer friends by now. These days I count every lasting male friendship not just as a support system and a source of comfort and humor, but as a blessing.
Some of us value the religious or spiritual life. Whatever our stance here, at 60 we are trying to make sense of existence on the cosmic level.
For many people, of course, family ties count for pretty much everything. Our family of origin and the family relationships we maintain (or do not maintain) are sustenance, and they are markers by which we measure our lives.
Others less inclined to dwell on family ties or religion take solace in the life of the mind.
For example, I love living near a college town where there are lots of people smarter than I am, interested in the same intellectual activities and happy to talk about them.
Those of us who came to maturity in the last half of the 20th century were lucky enough to live in a time when it was OK to be an egghead; when Americans’ anti-intellectual bias began to fade.
But we have also experienced the shredding of community. Vermont is very special in this way, of course, because we have retained a strong and flourishing sense of commonality. For the rest of the country, though, the shattering of shared activities is captured in the title of Robert D. Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone.”
Baby Boomers matured in a time when the opportunities for everyday contact with nature were dwindling. Our sprawling cities and suburbs shut out Mother Nature. Yet for those of us who still need the great outdoors, nature continues to sustain us.
What will the future bring for nearly-60-somethings?
A new book called “30 Lessons for Living,” which draws on the advice of more than 1,000 older Americans, offers plenty of cause for optimism.
“Embrace it. Don’t fight it,” one 80-year-old man said of growing old.
For most of these people (see interviews at legacyproject.human.cornell.edu), growing old is way better than they expected it to be.
“Each decade, each age,” said one, “has opportunities that weren’t actually there in the previous time.”
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday. His columns are archived at http://Middleburyvt.blogspot.com and http://gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected].

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