At his birthday party Peter Cooper greeted guests with the declaration, “80 is the new 79.” Then he smiled impishly, pointed to the bar and led you to his mountain view.
At her birthday party Alice Waco asked for suggestions on what new challenges she might take on in her next decade, this also being Alice’s 80th. Most agreed it would be something extraordinary and not found on most senior activity listings.
Having friends turn oh-my-God 80 when you’re in your 60s probably isn’t that much of a surprise. But it does make one ask, how did this cool person I hang out make it so well to 80?
Peter and Alice don’t know each other but with their birthday parties on the same weekend it gave me a chance to consider what is it about aging that works better for some people than others. I’ve known both of them since they were in high middle age and they’ve always had a busy house full of friends and family. Both have quick minds and a sense of humor, get outraged about injustice, care passionately about the world and are people you hope to sit next to at a dinner party.
They both also might credit vibrant marriages for keeping their sizzle. Alice’s husband Bill was killed in a bicycling accident seven years ago when he was 79. Before that they were always “Bill and Alice, Alice and Bill,” and if you were describing them, you’d have to add that she used to be a nun and he used to be a priest and so, of course, they were made for each other.
Peter is married to Robin and when you ask her, “How’s Peter” her first response is almost always, “He’s wonderful.”
You could tell you’d arrived at Alice’s party because of the bumper stickers. Alice spent years running the Sonoma County Peace and Justice Center. When she was a teacher, she led the biggest strike in Santa Rosa (Ca.) history. If there’s a demonstration or vigil against war Alice is there with a candle, a sign and if need be, waiting to be arrested. Not all of her friends lean to the left. At her party an attorney introduced himself as probably the only Republican in the room and everyone applauded.
Peter was a TV guy in New York who traveled the world producing commercials for peanut butter and beer. He and Robin regularly return to New York to see plays, stay up late and visit his childhood buddy, director Mike Nichols.
But when Peter retired he didn’t stop, he simply changed coasts. He got involved in community theater as an actor and director, took writing classes at the junior college, held folk music concerts at his house, raised dogs, became a Californian.
Peter looks like a theater person. At one of his openings he stood on the sidewalk in black turtleneck and tiny earring, chatting up theater goers. He was likely hurting that night. His body is pretty beat up, from surgeries and a couple of car accidents, but he doesn’t talk much about that. The only time you realize he’s slowing down is when he plants himself in a good spot – at his party on the deck looking to Mount St. Helena – and instead of working the room lets the room come to him.
The week before his party Peter had finished a month’s run in the cast Stalag 17, playing the commandant. A guest who saw it told him he’d given her the creeps. He said, “Thank you.”
At her party Alice talked about the Parkinson’s she is now integrating into her life. Then she announced she’d be gone for a while, heading up to the prison in Susanville to do some non-violence training.