When Mark Twain mapped out the road he took to old age, he began by waving a caution flag that would make any Surgeon General's Warning look sick. Whatever you do, he told a New York audience in 1905, don't follow this road.
He had reached old age, Twain said, in the usual way: "By sticking strictly to a scheme of life which would kill anybody else." He was joking, yet he was deadly serious. You simply can't achieve a happy old age by following another person's road. Well, you can't.
Why not? "My habits protect my life, but they would assassinate you," he explained.
So his number one piece of advice was to reject the vast majority of what passes for advice. You've got to find your own road and stick to it.
And that's not as easy as it sounds, because there always will be someone waiting around each turn, eager to take all the joy and happiness right out of your life and replace it with misery and dreariness. But don't let them do it to you. If you can't reach old age by a comfortable road, he concluded, "don't you go."
In Twain's view, you see, it was all about the journey.
Before the world knew him as Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens was a skilled pilot guiding steamboats up and down the Mississippi River. As a writer, using his considerable gifts as a humorist and social critic, he also became an expert life pilot, wanting to guide both the individual and society toward those joyful and happy destinations.
Some of this guidance is rough stuff, to be sure, but Twain makes it palatable with sly twists of humor. Also a wildly popular performer on the lecture circuit, he was something akin the leading standup comedian of his. Small wonder that George Bernard Shaw credited Twain with teaching him a vital lesson: If you're going to tell people the truth about themselves, you'd better make them laugh.
I started pulling together Twain's thoughts on such matters in the mid-'90s, when it seemed everyone had his or her nose buried in some kind of self-help book. Something clearly wasn't working. We should have been the fittest, slimmest, trimmest, healthiest, wealthiest, happiest, least-stressed, best-adjusted, best-conditioned, best-natured, most-fashionable people in the history of the planet. We weren't. I began to think there might be a more helpful self-help book in Twianian advice that, back then, we would have slapped with a phrase gaining buzz currency, politically incorrect.
These observations were poured into Mark Twain's Guide to Diet, Exercise, Beauty, Fashion, Investment, Romance, Health and Happiness, published this month by Prospect Park Books. There are 20 chapters in this book, including ones on the two subjects we were told to avoid, religion and politics. Here's one blast from each chapter. Remember, Twain warns that aping his habits will kill you. But the idea with Twain is to die laughing:
Exercise: "I have never taken any exercise, except sleeping and resting, and I never intend to take any. Exercise is loathsome. And it cannot be any benefit when you are tired."
Diet: "A full belly is little worth where the mind is starved, and the heart."
Sleep: "Well enough for old folks to rise early, because they have done so many mean things all their lives they can't sleep anyhow."
Smoking: "I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time. I have no other restrictions."
Drinking: "As for drinking, I have no rule about that. When the others drink I like to help."
Staying healthy: "The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like, and do what you'd druther not."
Stress management: "In certain trying circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer."
Anger management: "If a person offend you and you are in doubt as to whether it was intentional or not, do not resort to extreme measures. Simply watch your chance and hit him with a brick."
Keeping a positive outlook: "Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life."
Beauty: "Forty years ago I was not so good-looking. A looking glass then lasted me three months. Now I can wear it out in two days."
Fashion: "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society."
Finance: "October. This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August, and February."
Education: "In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made School Boards."
Politics: "Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."
Religion: "The church is always trying to get other people to reform; it might not be a bad idea to reform itself a little, by way of example."
Surviving childhood: "It is good to obey all the rules when you're young; so you'll have the strength to break them when you're old."
Romance: "When you fish for love, bait with your heart, not your brain."
Parenthood: "Familiarity breeds contempt - and children."
Reaching old age: "When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but I am getting old, and soon I shall remember only the latter."
The end of the road?: "As for me, I hope to be cremated. I made that remark to my pastor once, who said, with what he seemed to think was an impressive manner: "I wouldn't worry about that, if I had your chances."