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Simple Life

A Little Stuffed Potato Wisdom

Lessons from full-grown tater tots

By Jim Dodson

Someone once said to me that it’s not happiness that makes one grateful, but gratitude that makes one happy.

Looking back, I may have seen this poetic syllogism scrawled on an ancient stone wall several years ago while hiking with my wife in Tuscany (where every graffiti artist is a philosopher-in-training). Or maybe I heard Oprah Winfrey say it in one of her SuperSoul Conversations that the aforementioned wife suggested that I listen to on long drives.

Whoever said it, I’m grateful for its pithy wisdom because I’ve suddenly reached an age where I know it to be true.

Back in February, I turned 70, a milestone that took me by surprise.

It’s not that I was unprepared. In truth, I’ve enjoyed getting older and slowing down a bit, giving me the chance to notice the evening sky.

Also, I am not alone in this epic journey into the great gray age and the unknown, as my late father — who lived a full and active life right up to a week before he died at 80 — used to joke. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 69.2 million baby boomers alive and kicking today in America, the second-largest population group next to our children, the millennials (73.9 million born between 1981 and 1996 ). My particular group was born in 1953 ands falls somewhere in the lower middle of the boomer years between 1946 and 1964.

According to the latest actuarial projections used by our friends at the Social Security Administration to calculate how much longer the agency will have to give us back all the money we spent decades putting into the system, my age and gender group — males aged 70 — can expect to live another 14.5 years, while our female counterparts come in at a 16.75. Good for them, I say! Sell the house, dump the stocks, give away the dog and go sit on a beautiful beach in Tahiti for the rest of your days!

By the way, that’s exactly what my wise but cheeky and younger wife Wendy says she plans to do with her giddy 10 extra years after I check out of the Hotel California.

Meanwhile, according to the CDC’s Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), life expectancy at birth in the United States declined nearly a full year from 2020 to 2021, a worrying dip from 77.0 to 76.1 years that is the lowest level since 1996, probably due in part to a thing called COVID. The 0.9 year drop in life expectancy in 2021, along with a 1.8 year drop in 2020, was the biggest two-year decline since 1921–1923, years in which the Spanish flu wiped out millions worldwide, including my own maternal grandmother.

Actuarially speaking, it could be worse, of course. Afghanistan’s current life expectancy is just a hair over 56 years, considerably shorter if the Taliban’s Morality Police catch you whispering about the need to educate girls and women.

Singapore’s life expectancy, on the other hand, is a bonny 86.5 years. Perhaps this means that Dame Wendy — the future merry widow — should consider moving there instead of Tahiti (which has a mere life expectancy of 78.82 years) where she’s likely to make lots of older gal pals living the good life off the insurance money on a lovely Asian beach. As any veteran foreign traveler knows, however, Singaporeans are obsessed with public cleanliness and strict social order. Littering, chewing gum in public or failing to flush a public toilet can land you a whopping $1,000 fine, while showing your bare feet or skin of any sort can earn you three months in jail. That sensational black one-piece my 61-year-old lover debuted at the pool last summer probably won’t fly with Singapore’s own Morality Police. So on second thought, perhaps I won’t suggest Singapore and just leave well enough alone. That’s probably the wisest thing I’ve learned from being happily married for 20-plus years.

The point of all these dizzying numbers, as Oprah or any Tuscan street poet with spray paint can tell you, is to live the best life you can and be damned grateful for whatever time you have left.

That’s exactly what my fellow members of the Stuffed Potatoes Lunch & Philosophy Club try to do on a daily basis. 

For the moment, there’s just three of us in the club. We meet every other week or so in the shadowy booth of a popular restaurant to discuss the current state of the world, the wonders of our grown children and the enduring mystery of our wives.

Remarkably, as this March dawns, all three of us will have turned 70 by the end of the month. Joe hit the mark in late January, I did so in early February, and Patrick achieves the milestone later this month.

I’m told none of us actually looks 70 years old, though wives, golf pals and fellow Stuffed Potatoes can scarcely be considered objective sources.

For that matter, we probably don’t even act like old men, save for when we complain about dodgy knees and idiots who run red lights. As a kid, I once asked my lively grandmother on her 84th birthday if she was afraid of dying. She grinned and patted my rosy little cheek. “Not a bit, sugar pie,” she said. “Just afraid of falling.” 

None of the Stuffed Potatoes, I can reliably report, are afraid of dying. We’re too busy for that.

January Joe is a professional forester helping set aside beautiful lands for future generations. Patrick, the marketing whiz — I fondly call him the “Irish Antichrist” — is keeping the national economy afloat. And I’m just a humble scribbler trying to finish three books this year alone.

Given that we collectively amount to 210 years of accumulated life experience, I put to my fellow Stuffed Potatoes a timely question the other day: What is the one thing you’ve learned in 70 years?

January Joe, our resident sage, didn’t hesitate. “There are wonders ahead. Don’t fight them — just surrender!” This from a lovely fellow who gets to walk in the woods for a living and surrenders most weekends to the joy of several beautiful grandbabies.

My old friend, Patrick, offered with a hearty laugh, “There’s no good news or bad news. It’s all information. Just keep doing what you do and don’t look back.” The Irish Antichrist means business.

As for me, I hope to finish half a dozen more books over the 15.5 years I may or may not have left. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, we have a joyous new puppy named Winnie and a garden that is springing gloriously back to life by the minute.

I’m deeply grateful for both, not to mention a fabulous wife who says she really has no interest in going to Singapore or Tahiti. And was probably only joking. 

That makes me a really happy guy.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.