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Life Advice from David Mamet


By Steve Russell, Men's Journal

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

When I was a kid in Chicago, I knew this woman named Frannie who’d take photos of people at Wrigley Field for $10 and get their addresses to mail the photos, but there wasn’t even any film in her camera. Anyway, I’d just had my heart broken by some girl, and Frannie told me, “It’s all in a lifetime.” She meant that things happen, but you get over it. I’ve always treasured that advice.

What should every man know about money?

As the old Yiddish proverb had it, “Rich or poor, rich is better.”

How does a man best face his fears?

I’ve played piano since I was four, but I had a phobia about playing in public. About a year ago, Woody Allen asked me to sit in with his jazz band at the Carlyle hotel in New York City. I thought I had a very good excuse not to do it — that I’m a coward — but knew that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. So I got very drunk and played piano with his band.

What’s the best way to impress a woman?

Courtesy.

What article of clothing should every man own?

A black turtleneck sweater. You can wear it with anything, it makes everybody look better, and if it’s very good wool or, God willing, cashmere, it will keep you warmer than anything.

What book should every man read?

When I was young, I was very influenced by Theodore Dreiser, because before that my experience with literature was all about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe feeling out of sorts in New York City. Who cares? Dreiser was writing about things I actually saw and experienced in Chicago, about getting a job and not knowing how to start your life and getting along with women. Start with An American Tragedy.

What’s the best survival skill you know?

Sit down and take a deep breath.

Have you ever cheated death?

About 20 years ago, I was taking a walk in the woods in Vermont and got turned around. I was underdressed and didn’t have a compass. The sun was going down and I started to panic. When you panic the blood rushes from your head, and as your body temperature falls, you get hypothermia. One of the symptoms is that you begin to lose your mind and run around and throw your equipment away. I had just gotten to that point when I stumbled upon a road and found civilization. I still go into the woods, but now I take five compasses.

What advice would you give the younger you?

Another Chicago writer, Nelson Algren, said to never play cards with a man called Doc, never eat at a place called Mom’s, never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. I would add one to that list: Never trust a Jew in a bow tie.

What skill would you still like to master?

My wife introduced me to a bunch of genius Japanese directors, like Yasujiro Ozu and Masaki Kobayashi, whose movies I didn’t know previously. I’d love to learn Japanese so I can watch them without the goddamned subtitles.

What’s your biggest regret?

Not serving in the Vietnam War. It was the ’60s. I thought I shouldn’t go and wasn’t smart enough to realize that it was too easy an excuse because a lot of people were going in my place. It’s a young man’s responsibility to defend his country.

How should a man handle getting older?

The body changes, so you have to adapt. For example, I really like to drink, but I got to the point where my body couldn’t take it. The answer was to stop. It was unfortunate in one sense. In another sense, how great to have a remedy straight at hand.

What skill should every man have?

The ability to tell if a knife is sharp enough. Here’s how: Hold the grip with the hilt lightly in your right hand and rest the blade on your thumbnail. You impart a slight motion to it and see if it skitters off, which most knives will. If it doesn’t, if it simply rests there of its own weight and doesn’t move, then the knife is very sharp indeed.
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