Article — From the March 1933 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Trivial, but important because one can be so uncomfortable if one does not know them, are the parlor amenities. A boy should learn how to dance. Good dancers, like aviators, are born, but any one can learn to do modern real-estate dancing — that form of rhythmically bumping into other people in a small space with a technic dictated by the high land value of the places where dancing is usually to be found. The kind of dancing that is really fun is extinct in America. Social dancing is no great art, but essential if one wishes between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two to become acquainted with more than a few specimens of the opposite sex.
As to card games, I play bridge so badly myself that I am prejudiced against it. If one plays bridge well enough to enjoy it, one probably plays too much of it to the exclusion of better things. As a refuge from boring conversation, it is without equal. Backgammon, though useful for the same purpose, is a monotonous blind alley. Pool and billiards are specialties. From these indoor pastimes our student can pick one optional elementary course, which will be given at the pleasure of the instructor.
Even more trivial, but infuriating if one is clumsy at it: tipping. It would be very pleasant to go through life with a knowledge of how to tip naturally, justly, without fear and without reproach.
American social habits being what they are, there is one indoor skill which seems to me not only far more important than bridge or dancing, but actually compulsory — drinking. A young man who could convince me that his lips really would never touch liquor might be let off my required course in drinking. But he would be an exceedingly rare bird, and alcohol is so much more evident a liquid in the United States than water that it is probably quite as necessary for a young man to learn how to drink as it is for him to learn how to swim. If the youth of the country had been taught how to drink, just as they were taught not to eat between meals or swallow before they had chewed, we should never have had Prohibition. It is a more difficult art than most, for every man reacts differently, and every man should know, long before the time when (according to our customs) he indulges in his first collegiate binge, whether liquor goes to his head, his legs, or his morals, whether he is the type that sings, fights, weeps, climbs lamp-posts, or pinches the girls. Furthermore, he should learn his capacity and stick within its limits; he should know something about the different kinds of drink, and which drinks produce chaos within him when mixed. By all means let him leave drink alone if he wants to. But since, nine times out of ten, he will drink, let him do so sensibly.
I have omitted from this list all mention of women, not so much because it is a subject of appalling breadth, leading to endless discussions of chastity, frustration, fulfillment, birth-control, curiosity, mate hunger, and other less printable but even more important topics, but because, in regard to the other sex, the fairly well-educated seem to be at as great a disadvantage as the rest of mankind. What every high school, boarding school, and college graduate should know is no different from what every man should learn in this darkest and most unteachable province of human conduct. I shall not be the one to tell students of this course what acquired skills can prevent mistakes and heartache. Where sex is concerned, nature clearly intended us to make many mistakes in her hope that some of them would be productive.
I shall certainly be in a minority in suggesting that our sons should know the rudiments of gambling. Gambling might be placed on the same plane as drink — the less use one has for it the better. And the sooner America gives up gambling, not only at card tables, roulette wheels, and slot machines, but in stocks and bonds of equally mysterious and unpredictable corporations, the better also. But gambling in one form or another seems to be a national habit of mind. Almost every American gambles at some time in his life. And there are things valuable in other departments of life which gambling can teach: to be a good sport, to be a good winner as well as a good loser, especially when games are played for money; not to brood over the irrevocable, not to give way to retroactive daydreams and say, “if only I had put a big stack on double zero, if only I had sold out in August, 1929.” October of that year was the rout of the amateur gambler, and the crash revealed this country to be singularly full of poor losers. Important as it is to be a good loser in public, it is even more important to learn not to try to turn the hands of the clock backward in the privacy of one’s own soul.
More from Robert Littell: