Saturday, November 28, 2009

These are the rules

In Good as Gold, Joseph Heller summarizes the basic rules of behavior:

Don’t make personal remarks, never tell a hostess you enjoyed yourself, don’t force anything mechanical, never kick an inanimate object, and don’t fart around with the inevitable.

Heller’s rules of behavior owe something to a set of principles articulated by Nelson Algren:

Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never play cards with a man named Doc. And never go to bed with a woman whose troubles are greater than your own.

You may have seen the rules of civility that the young George Washington painstakingly copied out — and observed through a life of tremendous dignity. Among them:

When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usualy Discovered.

Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexteriously upon it if it be upon the Cloths of your Companions, Put it off privately, and if it be upon your own Cloths return Thanks to him who puts it off.

Mock not nor Jest at any thing of Importance break no Jest that are Sharp Biting and if you Deliver any thing witty and Pleasent abstain from Laughing there at yourself.

Be not Tedious in Discourse or in reading unless you find the Company pleased therewith.

And, though I have quoted this passage before, Leander Wapshot’s posthumous advice to his sons in John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle always repays attention:

Never put whisky in hot water bottle crossing borders of dry states or countries. Rubber will spoil taste. Never make love with pants on. Beer on whisky, very risky. Whisky on beer, never fear. Never eat apples, peaches, pears, etc. while drinking whisky except long French-style dinners, terminating with fruit. Other viands have mollifying effect. Never sleep in moonlight. Known by scientists to induce madness. Should bed stand beside window on clear night draw shades before retiring. Never hold cigar at right-angles to fingers. Hayseed. Hold cigar at diagonal. Remove band or not as you prefer. Never wear red necktie. Provide light snorts for ladies if entertaining. Effects of harder stuff on frail sex sometimes disastrous. Bathe in cold water every morning. Painful but exhilarating. Also reduces horniness. Have haircut once a week. Wear dark clothes after 6 P.M. Eat fresh fish for breakfast when available. Avoid kneeling in unheated stone churches. Ecclesiastical dampness causes prematurely gray hair. Fear tastes like a rusty knife and do not let her into your house. Courage tastes of blood. Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord.


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  1. Does that mean it's acceptable to kick animate objects, like animals, small children and people smaller than oneself?

  2. I'm skeptical Mr. Wapshot never laughed at his own jokes.