They don't make lies - and liars - like they used to.
That is the sentiment expressed in "On the Decay of the Art of Lying," by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), written in 1880.
His thesis, written in Twain's inimitable and hilarious style, is that we all lie. He goes further. Lying, he asserts, is actually a virtue, because it is a necessity if we are all to get along while living in families, in neighborhoods, in towns and in the same country.
I reread the essay last week after my wife stumbled across it in a search for interesting books for her new e-reader.
Of course, I recommend it. I recommend anything written by Twain. I consider him to be the greatest overall writer the country has produced, though I submit that the greatest American novelist is Harper Lee, she of "To Kill a Mockingbird."
From this distance in time, it is impossible to tell how much of Twain's essay was written tongue-in-cheek (not actually endorsing lying), and how much was another of his straightforward putdowns of the hypocrisy of Pharisaical human beings.
The task is made more difficult and more amusing by Twain's admission, after relating an anecdote about an "I never lie" woman caught in a lie, that "I was lying myself" when he told the story.
Of course, Twain is right.
We all lie, if we don't live as hermits.
"How do I look?" when asked by a wife, is clear grounds for a justifiable detour around the blunt truth.
Contrary to popular belief, however, husbands rarely say, "You look beautiful" when they are in fact thinking, "You look dreadful." At least for this husband, answering, "How do I look?" with a compliment is evasive only because my wife does not look this way or that way to me. She looks like my wife, whether the dress is red or blue, whether the hair is braided in back or caught up in a wrap.
I suspect that I look like "Denny" to her as well, not "better-looking Denny" or "Doofus Denny."
However, there is a curious inequality in spousal evaluations.
Wives are much more willing to point out flaws in husbandly appearance than are husbands when it comes to wifely appearance.
I will turn my back on my wife and go entirely out of a room before even letting her see the expression on my face should she ask, "Does this dress make my butt look fat?" Not only will I not answer the question; I will not acknowledge that it has even been asked, not even by non-verbal body language. She asks me about her butt, and all she sees in return is my retreating butt.
That is spousal wisdom.
"Change your shirt!" is, however, a not-uncommon directive from my wife. Unspoken within that command is "You look like a dork in that."
Sadly, she is more often than not correct.
I have no sense of style whatsoever.
As a teenager and young adult, I sold men's clothing. I had no affinity for men's clothing. Rather, I had a necessitous affinity for the wages. By observing and listening, I acquired some rudimentary knowledge, i.e., don't wear a plaid tie, a striped shirt and a herringbone sport coat all at the same time.
But beyond the basics, I am hopeless.
My older daughter worked for a while at JC Penney during the 1980s, when the "Garanimals" tags were popular. "Garanimals" were hand tags depicting animals, according to Wikipedia, which refreshed my memory.
Intended for young children, the tags matched the friendly rhinoceros shirt with the friendly rhinoceros slacks, giving young children the confidence to conclude that, yes, one could wear the red shirt with the black slacks.
Theresa brought home some tags. My memory is not clear as to whether she actually put the horse tag on a specific jacket, necktie, shirt and slacks. I do know that she threatened to do so, and other members of the household insisted that the effort would be worthwhile, sparing them the embarrassment of being caught in public with mismatched me.
Garanimals, by the way, were reintroduced a few years ago. I do not know whether there is a geriatric version, but my wife insists that she might well buy some tags for my opsimathetic education.
"Does this outfit make my belly look bigger?" I might ask.
"Yep," she will unhesitatingly reply, followed by "Change your shirt!"
However, this plainspokenness by wives is restricted to being used on husbands and, perhaps, on male children.
"You look lovely!" is de rigueur, whether merited or not, among females greeting each other at social events.
I, on the other hand, look "nice" at best. Never, except in my most fever-wracked imaginations, have I been told at a social event that I look "handsome," or "studley."
We all lie. Just not that much.
Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org