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Take My Advice : A Word to the Wise May Be Worth a Chuckle but Seldom Is Taken to Heart

October 07, 1990|JACK SMITH

EVERYBODY GIVES ADVICE; nobody takes it.

In his new collection, "Friendly Advice" (Dutton), Jon Winokur seeks to distinguish between good advice and friendly advice, holding that the first is condescending and humorless and benefits only the giver; friendly advice, on the other hand, is sometimes frivolous, often ironic, and usually benefits the recipient.

On the contrary, I doubt that most of the examples Winokur quotes, though often humorous or ironic, were ever taken to heart by their recipients, or ever benefited anyone but third parties, such as the readers of this book.

Many of Winokur's examples are cynical: "Old people like to give good advice to console themselves for no longer being able to provide bad examples."--La Rochefoucauld. "The worst waste of breath, next to playing a saxophone, is advising a son."--Kin Hubbard.

Now those are not examples of advice, but aphorisms about advice; they are neither good nor friendly, but cynical.

David Zucker remembers Davy Crockett's advice, absorbed on his 8th birthday: "Be sure you're right, then go ahead." As small boys, our sons also learned that from the TV series; the problem is, how can you be sure you're right?

Under business advice, Winokur cites a truth he attributes to Louis B. Mayer: "A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on." Funny, I have always thought it was Samuel Goldwyn who made that indubitably sage remark.

Perhaps the ultimate in cynicism is Ernest Hemingway's child-raising advice: "To be a successful father, there's one absolute rule: When you have a kid, don't look at it for the first two years."

Cynicism seems to infect almost all advice on raising children: "The best way to keep children at home is to make the home atmosphere pleasant, and let the air out of the tires."--Dorothy Parker. "The secret of dealing successfully with a child is not to be its parent"--Mell Lazarus, creator of the comic strip Momma.

Advice on drinking is usually moralistic: "First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you."--F. Scott Fitzgerald, who spoke from experience. "Never drink alone. That's the way to become a drunk . . . . Never drink while the sun is shining. Wait until it's dark."--H. L. Mencken, who liked his schnapps. "If you drink, don't drive. Don't even putt."--Dean Martin, whose hobbies are drinking and golf.

On food, Winokur quotes Ogden Nash as the author of:

Shake and shake The catsup bottle. None will come, And then a lot'll I believe that gem was written by Richard Armour, author of many light verses sometimes attributed to others.

A Belgian proverb advises: "Don't salt other people's food," a piece of wisdom with many applications. From Robert Orben: "Old people shouldn't eat health foods. They need all the preservatives they can get." Sounds reasonable.

Cynicism also creeps into the advice on friendship: "Don't believe your friends when they ask you to be honest with them. All they really want is to be maintained in the good opinion they have of themselves."--Albert Camus. On health, Winokur's pundits tend to scorn today's fads: "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 rather not."--Mark Twain. "The best cure for hypochondria is to forget about your body and get interested in someone else's"--Goodman Ace.

Cynicism also runs through advice on investments. "Invest in inflation. It's the only thing going up."--Will Rogers. "The safest way to double your money is to fold it over once and put it in your pocket."--Kin Hubbard.

Advice on journalism is disrespectful, as we might expect: "Never lose your sense of the superficial"--Lord Northcliffe. "Remember, you only have that space because some advertiser wouldn't buy it."--Herb Caen, to columnists. "The only qualities for real success in journalism are rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability. The capacity to steal other people's ideas and phrases . . . is also invaluable."--Nicolas Tomalin. (Alas, I have no rat-like cunning.) And from Jim Murray: "Learn to write. Never mind the damn statistics. If you like statistics, become a CPA."

The comments on life are more reflections than advice. "Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward."--Kierkegaard. "Life is like a dog sled team. If you ain't the lead dog, the scenery never changes."--Lewis Grizzard.

Advice on marriage is voluminous and, for the most part, useless: "Get married, but never to a man who is home all day."--George Bernard Shaw. "If you are afraid of loneliness, don't marry."--Chekhov. "Every woman should marry--and no man."--Benjamin Disraeli.

My advice is to keep on living and see what happens next.

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