Counsel Bluffs : My Advice to the Young--Who Won't Heed It Anyway--Is Just Be Lucky

MY NAME IS James Harmon and I am 22 years old.

"I would like to ask you a question: If you could offer the young people of today any piece of advice, what would it be?"

Harmon notes that he is editing a book called "Take My Advice" (scheduled for publication by Ballentine in the fall of 1989) and has already obtained contributions from writers, actors, scientists, poets, musicians, scholars, activists, etc., including Katharine Hepburn, Walker Percy and Tom Wolfe.

Is is my opinion that people who are successful in certain fields are probably the least likely to give useful advice to anyone hoping to succeed in those fields; mostly they have just been so lucky or so supremely gifted with a level of talent that mere advice will do little to help anyone else. All the same, I wouldn't mind reading Katharine Hepburn's advice just for the sheer enchantment of it.

I don't know whether Harmon expects me to give advice on how to become a journalist or how to survive a heart bypass or how to have a long marriage and a delightful family, but I feel incompetent to advise the young of those accomplishments.

Being a father, I am aware that advice is rarely attended to by the young and that, in fact, the young are more likely to advise their elders. It is curious how much advice my sons give me, though they rarely listen to mine.

Some years ago I was asked to advise a husband and wife who wanted "some words of wisdom" to pass on to a boy about to turn 13. That indeed is a crucial age, between idealistic boyhood and the torments of adolescence. Perhaps a boy of 12, about to be 13, might be favorably influenced by words of wisdom.

I believe I did not try to advise the boy but instead advised the parents. If they did not want him to smoke, drink too much or watch too much trash on television, they must quit smoking, quit getting smashed every night and quit spending every night between dinner and bedtime watching trash on television. Any parents who can't make those sacrifices are wasting their time giving advice to a 12-year-old.

Perhaps the best advice for young men was encapsulated by a novelist named Nelson Algren: "Never eat at a place called Mom's; never play poker with a man named Doc, and never sleep with a woman who has more troubles than you have."

That advice was paraphrased by Amos, the cultivated chauffeur in Raymond Chandler's "The Long Goodbye." Perhaps it antedates both Algren and Chandler. It is simply a piece of folk wisdom that any lad would be well advised to heed.

Expressed in a more general way, it would be: "Never eat at a truck stop; never play poker with strangers, and never sleep with a pickup."

To anyone who is capable of eliciting advice from literature, I recommend one of Somerset Maugham's short stories, "The Facts of Life."

The story is told in a London club by an English gentleman to his cronies. He is worried about his son. The lad has recently made the young Englishman's obligatory trip to the Continent, before which his father had advised him to avoid alcohol, gambling and women. The young man of course heads straight for Monte Carlo, wins a bundle at roulette and is picked up by a seductive woman and taken to her apartment, where he spends a glorious night in her bed. During the night he awakens to see her taking the money from his jacket and putting it in a flowerpot. Later, when she is again asleep, he gets up, dresses, takes the money from the flowerpot and departs. He later discovers that he has not only recovered his winnings but has gained the young woman's savings as well.

His father asks his cronies, "What am I to think?"

"Don't worry," the old boys assure him. "The lad's just lucky."

So my advice to any young man is just be lucky.

It might also help to be fair, honest, industrious, kind, to marry well, to be sober and faithful, to be kind to your children, to read copiously, serve your country and honor thy father and thy mother and avoid fats.

For the record Los Angeles Times Sunday November 27, 1988 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6B Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction The crystal ball pictured in Jack Smith's "Counsel Bluffs" (Nov. 6) was used courtesy of Brian Markee. --The Editors
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