A chapter from The Arnie Chronicles, the semi-fictional biography of oldster Joshua Bateman Arnold.
By Dave Riley
“How about a movie this afternoon?” I asked Mrs. R. one day last week.
“This is Thursday. You always play golf with Arnie on Thursday. What gives?”
“Can’t play. He’s got a class.”
“Arnie’s in a class? What is it — traffic school?”
“Don’t be so hard on the guy. And anyway, I didn’t ask him what kind of class, but it’s at the community college. “
A bit of background for those who may not have read the earlier post about Arnie. He’s a retired cross-country trucker who lives a few doors down and across the street. He was born and raised in Montpelier, but moved to California after his wife, Flo, passed on a few years ago. Arnie isn’t the sharpest tack in the toolkit but he’s got a good heart,
Anyway, a few days later, when we ran into him at Red’s coffee shop, Mrs. R. said, “I hear you’ve matriculated, Arnie.”
“Now you watch your language, young lady.”
“Ease up, Arnie,” I said. “We just want to know what are you studying.”
“Oh that. Yeah. Well right now I’m taking my General Electric requirements. “
“What?” I said.
“My GE courses — English 1A and math 101. I’m studying at the community college. I’m gonna go all the way and get a degree.”
“What prompted you to go back to school?” Mrs. R. asked.
He reached into his backpack and pulled out a newspaper clipping. “A long-haul trucker buddy of mine from Little Rock sent this to me. It’s from The Arkansas Times. Read the part he highlighted in yellow.”
So Mrs. R and I put our heads together and began reading.
“For generations of Americans, it was a given that children would live longer than their parents. But there is now mounting evidence that this enduring trend has reversed itself for the country’s least-educated whites, an increasingly troubled group whose life expectancy has fallen by four years since 1990.”
“Four years,” I said. “That’s a lot.”
“When I read that you could have knocked me over with a fender,“ Arnie said. “Keep reading.”
“Researchers have long documented that the most educated Americans were making the biggest gains in life expectancy, but now they say mortality data show that life spans for some of the least educated Americans are actually contracting.”
“So you see,” Arnie said, “if I get more education I’ll live longer.”
“Arnie it doesn’t quite work …” I began, but before I could finish, Mrs. R kicked me under the table and shushed me.
“Good for you, Arnie,” she said. Normally she likes to tease him, but today she was solidly on his side,
“You two went to college, right?” Arnie said.
“We did,” Mrs. R replied. “Riley actually has three degrees.”
“Wow, Riley!” Arnie said. “You’re gonna live forever!”
Later that evening Mrs. R brought a computer printout into the living room. It turns out the Arkansas Times piece we read at Red’s was an excerpt from a longer piece by Sabrina Tavernise in the New York Times.
“It’s a problem that’s got researchers stumped,” she said. According to the article, white women without a high school diploma lost five years of life expectancy between 1990 and 2008 and white males without a diploma lost three years.
“Don’t they have clues about why all this is happening?” I said.
“Nothing solid, but they did make some guesses as to what the culprits are: a spike in prescription drug overdoses among young whites, higher rates of smoking among less educated white women, rising obesity, and a steady increase in the number of the least educated Americans who lack health insurance.”
“But they’re just speculating,” I said.
“Okay, but it seems to be educated speculating.”
“So why did you shush me when I tried to explain to Arnie that taking classes wasn’t going to make him live longer?”
“Well first off, you don’t know that to be true. He might get all involved in some super interesting studies that could give him an even more positive outlook on life. Studies show that seniors who are involved in positive pursuits tend to live longer and be happier.”
“Studies? Okay smarty pants, give me an example of someone.”
She didn’t hesitate. “Mary Ellen, that 90-something who volunteers serving at the senior center lunches.”
“What about her?’
“You asked her how come she volunteers so many days a week. Why at her age didn’t she just kick back? She said, ‘Kick back and what? Watch Matlock reruns?’ And she said, ‘Here’s why I work here so much. I work here because it’s fun. It keeps me going. I love helping the people who come here. It’s good for them and it’s good for me.’”
Being a sore loser in an argument, I was about to demand another example, but just then the phone rang. Mrs. R. got it, and after a few moments she said, “It’s Arnie. He’s been told to pick one Shakespeare play to read. He wants us to help him choose.”
“What are his options?”
Mrs. R. started to speak, then giggled, then put her had over the speaker.
“Well?” I said.
“He’s narrowed it down to two plays,” she said.
She paused. “Romeo and Juliet,” she said at last.