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Anne Arundel 100
"My Habits . . . Would Assassinate you"
Written by Ben Click, Professor of English
Perhaps you're getting a bit sick of hearing the word "reform" these days (as in "health care reform"). Certainly the debate about it has served up some rather diffi cult bits of grizzle to swallow: government-sponsored death panels, Third Reich references, Town Hall violence, and seemingly sane people acting, well . . . insane. But, perhaps we need to reform our thinking about "reform" with a different diet-one Twain might suggest.
And, as we move toward the centennial of his death (April 2010), we should remember one thing: that he did live a full, rich life (albeit one plagued by tragedy)-refusing to reform his habits of smoking, drinking and swearing all the way.
His aphorism "Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits" serves us well here. Americans lack no shortage of advice regarding the habits that are bad for us. Why just last night, while standing in the checkout line at the local Food Lion, I encountered the "point-of-purchase" tabloids that drove home this very point-and with celebrities to boot! Bad news: Brad Pitt seems to have a problem with the bottle and needs help to reform. Good news: Britney Spears
reformed her eating habits, took up exercise, and lost her cellulite. More good news: So can you! Worried for Brad and inspired by Britney, I paid for my Blue Bunny vanilla ice cream (on sale) and headed home to reflect on reforming habits-other people's, of course.
As we said, Twain was no stranger to bad habits. In fact, he wrestled with them his entire life. He believed he could give up smoking, drinking, and cursing anytime he wanted. "I've done it a thousand times." He also ruminated about how to give them up: "Habit is habit, and not to be flung out the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time."
He began smoking cigars at the age of nine. By his 30s he was smoking 300 a month, sometimes up to 40 a day, but only bad cigars. He had his standards. In a 1905 letter to the Rev. L. M. Powers, he refused the reverend's "hospitable offer" of a box of good cigars. "I know a good cigar better than you do, for I have had sixty years' experience. No, that is not what I mean; I mean I know a bad cigar better than anybody else. I judge by the price only; if it costs above 5 cents, I know it to be either foreign or half foreign and unsmokable."
He had other rules about smoking as well: "As an example to others, and not that I care for moderation myself, it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep and never to refrain when awake."
He argued that whisky was the earliest "pioneer of civilization," not the "steamboat, the railroad, the newspaper, the Sabbath-school, or the missionary." And he was certainly a civilized man when it came to drink. One of his favorites consisted of Scotch whisky, lemon, crushed sugar, and a bottle of Angostura bitters. He took it before breakfast and dinner, and before going to bed, and attributed the habit to keeping his digestion "wonderful-simply perfect."
But the down and dirty cure always remained whisky-straight. In an 1893 letter to his daughter Clara: "My head-cold was terrific all day yesterday, but I went to bed before dark and drank almost a whole bottle of whisky, and got up perfectly well this morning."
Finally, he embraced the salvific poetry of swearing to the point of religious reverence. "Let us swear while we may, for in Heaven it will not be allowed." And another time, "If I cannot swear in heaven I shall not stay there." We see this reverence in a typically sardonic response to his lifelong friend the Rev. Joseph Twitchell, "My swearing doesn't mean any more to me than your sermons do to you." Let us pray.
As a disciple of words (all words), Twain maintained defi nite ideas of how his habits worked or didn't work for him. A stellar public speaker, he found two glasses of champagne worked "as an admirable stimulant to the tongue" and "the happiest inspiration" for an after-dinner speech. But for the writer Twain, wine was "a clog to the pen, not an inspiration." Smoking, however, was the "best of all inspirations for the pen." And, he allowed himself the "fullest possible marvel of [this] inspiration." He would smoke 15 cigars during a five-hour writing stint, and proudly claim: "If my interest reaches the enthusiastic point, I smoke more. I smoke with all my might, and allow no intervals."
Ultimately, the question these days about habits, good or bad, is, Who should we listen too? For our health, we might fi rst turn to the doctor, but Twain had some advice about that too. He describes his fi rst attack of gout. His first physician forbade red wine but allowed whisky; the second forbade whisky but allowed red wine, and so on. Ultimately, by consulting six doctors, Twain achieved permission to drink anything he wanted to-except water. His advice: "The
trouble with less thoughtful people is that they stop with one doctor." One wonders if health care reform will promote that!
What shall we to do then when faced with the choice of reforming our habits?
Shall we continue reflecting on the cautionary tales that befall our most cherished celebs? Shall we pledge allegiance (and funds) to one of the exercise implements designed to work every muscle in our body? Shall we bow down (if our "inner cores" can stand the strain) to one of the near spiritual exercise regimes that promise internal harmony and flat abs of steel in just six weeks? Or shall we take Twain's advice: "You can't reach old age by another man's road. My habits protect my life but they would assassinate you."