Joy Is Good
By: Peter McWilliams
The Constitution of America
only guarantees pursuit of happiness
—you have to catch up with it yourself.
Fortunately, happiness is something that depends
not on position but on disposition,
and life is what you make it.
GILL ROBB WILSON
There is no such thing as
the pursuit of happiness,
but there is the discovery of joy.
Our greatest happiness
does not depend on the condition of life
in which chance has placed us,
but is always the result of
a good conscience,
and freedom in all just pursuits.
PLEASE NOTE: This is a working draft of the introduction.
I would appreciate your comments, corrections, and suggestions.
Joy, alas, has a bad reputation. "If a man is happy in America," Clarence Darrow observed, "it is considered he is doing something wrong." This is strange, because joy is a good thing, through and through.
Joy is the natural state of human beings after basic survival needs have been met.
All of the animals
know that the
principal business of life
is to enjoy it.
And yet, if you randomly ask people, "Would you like more joy in your life?" many respond, "I have all the joy I need, thank you," a rush away as though you had just offered them a ticket to perdition. "Men stumble over the truth from time to time," observed Winston Churchill, "but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened."
But I am already way ahead of myself. Let's go back two years to when I was dying. Then I can better talk about joy.
The Ides of March
It is mid-March 1996. I had just been diagnosed with AIDS and cancer—on the same day. The combination therapy that has been so successful in treating AIDS had only just arrived on the market that month. In March 1996, the prognosis for AIDS was grim, indeed.
The cancer was non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which is treatable and has a very high recovery rate if—big if—it is caught before it reaches the brain. Once it reached the brain, there was, in 1996 at least, nothing to be done. I knew there was nothing to be done because only two years earlier Jacqueline Onasis Kennedy had died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. She was diagnosed too late. Surely, if anyone had access to the best and latest of medical science, it was Jackie Kennedy.
As one is prone to do in such situations, while I waited for the results of the tests that would determine whether the cancer had reached my brain and the tests as to whether the antivirals and protease inhibitor would significantly retard the reproduction of the AIDS virus in my system, I thought about life and death, and about my own life and death, although my time would probably have been more usefully spent learning how to write shorter sentences.
I looked about me at my "work undone." I felt sad that, were I to die in a matter of months, so little of it would be completed. But then I realized that my life had been nothing but a series of projects—mostly books—and that whether I died in three months or in three hundred years, I would always die with a smattering of projects in various stages of conception, gestation, production, completion, and publication.
is the sense of having worked
according to one's capacity and light
to make things clear and
get rid of cant and shams.
T. H. HUXLEY
Rather than mourn the many that would not be completed, I chose to select the most significant project, the one important enough to complete, the one that might be, literally, the last thing I would ever do.
While reviewing my many lose ends in search of The Project, I looked for the first time at the material sent to me by my co-author of How to Survive the Loss of a Love and How to Heal Depression, Harold H. Bloomfield, M.D. It indicated that a relatively harmless herb, used in folk medicine for centuries, was as effective in treating mild-to-moderate depression as prescription antidepressants.
This startling information had been brought to Dr. Bloomfield's attention by Mikael Nordfors, M.D., a noted psychiatric researcher from Sweden. Many of the clinical studies supporting this seemingly outlandish notion had been published in the prestigious American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology. Whatever this herb was, its effects were not pseudo-science.
Dr. Nordfors, from his European vantagepoint, had closely monitored the successful treatment of depression with St. John's wort in Germany where, over a decade, physicians prescribed it to millions of patients. It was the preferred treatment for mild-to-moderate depression by both physicians and patients, capturing more than fifty percent of the antidepressant market. Prozac accounted for two percent.
Reading this literature was one of those rare moments in life: what appeared to be too good to be true was, indeed, true.
My excitement was based on the fact that I had only recently discovered the joy of living depression-free myself. Prior to my 1994 diagnosis and successful treatment of depression with prescription antidepressants, I had lived all but the first three years of my life in chronic depression. I was 44 years old when the depression was finally diagnosed and sucessfully treated.
As a depressed person, ordinary pleasure from ordinary activities ordinary people felt all the time were foreign to me. My ability to experience pleasure was biochemical suppressed due to a physiological brain imbalance that is almost certainly genetic. With antidepressants, my biochemistry balanced. I was able to, on a far more regular basis, spontaneously perceive the miracle of life in every moment.
Happiness is always a by-product.
It is probably a matter of temperament,
and for anything I know
it may be glandular.
I remember one post-depression day, sitting alone, waiting for a table in a restaurant. I was simply enjoying being there. I looked out the door and saw the sun and the traffic. It was beautiful. I looked around the restaurant and saw people, each as a fascinating a work of art as the Venus de Milo or Michaelangelo's David. I was happy and content. Nothing special was going on at all. I felt like crying for joy.
Those who have endured a terrible marriage know the joy of living alone. Those who've endured imprisonment know the joy of being free. Those who know the grinding monotonous agony of never really enjoying life—also known as depression—appreaciate the joy of being here and now.
A good cigar,
a good meal,
and a good woman
—or a bad woman.
It depends on how much
happiness you can handle.
So when I say joy, I do not mean the leaping-up-and-down enthusiasm of a game show contestant who has just won an all-expenses-paid-two-week vacation to Disneyworld, but the calm, deep, sometimes tearful appreciation of the "ordinary" pleasures of life.
True happiness is of a retired nature,
and an enemy to pomp and noise;
it arises, in the first place,
from the enjoyment of one's self;
and, in the next,
from the friendship and conversation
of a few select companions.
I was so happy with my depression treatment, I co-authored with Dr. Bloomfield (the psychiatrist who had pulled off this miracle of modern science for me) a book about treating depression with prescription antidepressants as well as two forms of "talk" therapy. We called it, How to Heal Depression. I published it in 1994. (Yes, the same year I was diagnosed. When I've got good new to share, I don't mess around, boy.)
The language of psychiatry is brimming with solemn and important words to replace the common words we ordinary human beings use to communicate. "Life sucks" is elevated to "I have dysthymia." Same miserable life, but now it sounds important enough to do something about. Feeling kind of blah most of the time is known as anhedonia, a word of far finer demeanor than, say, the popular phrase, "Same crap, new trap."
Anhedonia, literally translated, is "without hedonism." If we go around saying, "I don't have enough hedonism in my life" we don't get much sympathetic attention. But if we say, "My doctor diagnosed me with an illness, anhedonia, and he's given me a prescription for it," we might get a week or two off with pay.
How to Heal Depression
"broke the code" for a lot of people. "Hey folks, not feeling good most of the time is not a good thing," we said in 250 gently worded pages. "Go to your doctor and use these magic words: clinical depression, anhedonia, dysthymia."
"If you can't remember the last time you felt genuinely good, read this book," Larry King was kind enough to say. Learning that depression was a treatable illness, not a lack of character or something they would one day just "snap out of," helped people get over their initial timidness and seek professional help.
But there were problems with prescription antidepressants.
Prescription antidepressants are expensive. At more than $2 a pill (the price of Prozac, for example), treatment could top $200 a month. That's cheap, considering the value received (how can you put a price on enjoying life?), but many people don't have that kind of money and don't have health insurance to pick up the tab.
Prescription antidepressants have a variety of side effects—none fatal, but many uncomfortable. For example, more than 40 percent of the people using Prozac complain of loss of sexual desire or ability.
Prescription antidepressants, as the adjective states, require a prescription. The unfortunate cultural taboo against seeking professional help for mental or emotional problems keep many from seeking the help they need.
So, there I sat in March of 1996, quite possibly at death's door, discovering that a relatively harmless, inexpensive herb with the impossible name St. John's wort was as effective in treating depression as prescription antidepressants, and that it could be purchased without a prescription.
I was ecstatic and furious.
Ecstatic, because the three major barriers to treating depression had suddenly been lifted. Tens of millions of Americans could live considerably better lives for less than fifty cents a day.
The greatest service
which can be rendered
is to add
a useful plant
to its culture.
Furious, because this herb had been around forever—Hippocrates, the father of medicine, prescribed it in 350 BC. When I thought of the unnecessary human misery that could have been eradicated by an herb that grows like a weed—not to mention the four decades of needless suffering in my own life—a voice in me screamed:
Why didn't somebody say something about this, in a way people could understand, long before now?
I was furious and inspired—a heady combination. All other projects were set aside. I got up off what might have been my deathbed to write what might have been my last book—a book with some very good news, indeed. My co-authors were Dr. Bloomfield and Dr. Nordfors. We called it Hypericum (St. John's Wort) & Depression.
INTERVIEWER: Ever meet a man
who could make you happy?
MAE WEST: Several times.
My Own Reports of My Own Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
As these words are being written in the fall of 1998, you may have gathered by now that the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma did not reach my brain. They looked and looked inside my head and found nothing, absolutely nothing—just empty space, a slight vacuum, and echoes.
Chemotherapy and radiation did the trick, and I have joined the ever-growing ranks of cancer survivors, grateful to modern medicine, where "a hundred-million miracles are happening every day." More than half of all cancers are now curable, and science has within its sites the successful treatment of all cancer.
On the AIDS front, the combination therapy is working very well to keep the virus in check. The only difficulty I have had with these remarkable drugs is nausea. Fortunately, the herbal kingdom has provided us with the most effective antinausea medication imaginable, medical marijuana.
A merry heart
like a medicine
Copies of Hypericum (St. John's Wort) & Depression reached bookstores in the fall of 1996. I also put the entire book on the Internet for free, along with How to Heal Depression. For the next eighteen months, I answered the e-mail about St. John's wort personally. I corresponded with thousands of people.
Some would approach St. John's wort so timidly, as though they were about to learn sword swallowing or fire eating. Gently I would explain that, in clinical studies, more patients reported negative side effects from the placebo than from St. John's wort. The same cautious people would often write back in a month with encouraging results. The side effects reported online, as in the clinical studies, were mild and few. St. John's wort, it seemed, was working remarkably well in treating depression.
Mirth is like a flash of lightning,
that breaks through a gloom of clouds,
and glitters for a moment;
cheerfulness keeps up a kind of
daylight in the mind,
and fills it with a steady and perpetual serenity.
The summer after publication, on June 27, 1997, ABC's 20/20, did a report on St. John's wort that included a mention of the book as well as an interview with Dr. Bloomfield. The report began:
HUGH DOWNS: Now, a truly startling medical breakthrough—one that could affect millions of people who suffer from mild depression. Right now, many of them are treated with drugs like Prozac.
But there may be a better way. Researchers say an amazing herb is proving to be safer, cheaper and just as effective as prescription drugs in treating depression.
Traditional medicine is slowly holding out a hand to some alternative therapies. And as Dr. Timothy Johnson will show you, all of us may reap the benefits.
The 20/20 report had nothing but praise for St. John's wort, with one important caution:
BARBARA WALTERS: Now, if you're taking a prescription drug, I mean, like Prozac, should you stop and start to take this?
DR. TIMOTHY JOHNSON [ABC News Medical Correspondent]: Certainly not on your own. First of all, this drug has not yet been studied in severe depression. And the drugs that work for severe depression can be life saving.
Secondly, if you are truly mild or moderate in the depression level, you may want to talk to your doctor about weaning off of this and starting St. John's Wort.*
(*FOOTNOTE: Since this report aired, it has been determined that taking prescription antidepressants in the SRI family—Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Effexor, and Trazadone—and St. John's wort together is not only acceptable, but in some cases advisable. Personally, I take Effexor during the day and Trazadone just before bed. Each time I take a prescription antidepressant, I take St. John's wort, too. For those who, with their doctor's approval, want to wean off prescription antidepressants entirely, the best advice is to gradually add St. John's wort to the current dosage of prescription antidepressants, then gradually, very gradually, taper down on the prescription antidepressants. Going "cold turkey" is not advised.)
DR. TIMOTHY JOHNSON: But you want to make very sure that you do it under careful supervision, that there are no other drugs you're taking that might interfere. So I wouldn't even attempt that without a doctor's supervision.
Important words. It is depression, not St. John's wort, that is harmful. If people are already taking prescription antidepressants, their doctors should by all means be consulted before any change in antidepressants. This is true of any prescription medication.
The 20/20 report concluded:
BARBARA WALTERS: But a lot of doctors, I'll bet, don't know about this herb. And how do you know about dosage?
DR. TIMOTHY JOHNSON: Well that's a very important question. We point out that they don't. And what I would recommend is Dr. Bloomfield's book. It is a practical source of dosage and information that both you and your doctor can learn from.
BARBARA WALTERS: This is awfully important and very good to hear about. Thank you, Tim.
HUGH DOWNS: I've written the name down. There are days. Thanks, Tim.
With that kind of plug (bless you, Ms. Walters, Dr. Johnson, and Mr. Downs), Hypericum (St. John's Wort) & Depression hit every bestseller list in the country. People began reading it online (www.hypericum.com) at the rate of 45,000 a day. The e-mail went through the roof. I spent much of July through November of 1997 hunched over my computer, happily reading e-mailed hoops of joy from far and wide.
How good is man's life,
the mere living!
How fit to employ
all the heart
and the soul
and the senses
forever in joy!
Although the volume of e-mail increased, the theme remained the same: people went from "I'm afraid" to "This is great!" in a matter of weeks, over and over again.
There was, however, a significant new theme.
Barbara Walters asked the question many non-depressed people ask after learning about St. John's wort's relative safety and remarkable effectiveness:
BARBARA WALTERS: Tim, I think this is one of the most important stories that we have done in years. Let me ask you something. If it's good for mild or moderate depression, should all of us take it and just feel better, even if we're not depressed?
DR. TIMOTHY JOHNSON: You mean like a preventive vitamin?
BARBARA WALTERS: Yes.
DR. TIMOTHY JOHNSON: No, I can't recommend that. There is no evidence that it makes normal people feel any better. And I certainly wouldn't waste the money or take any chance if I was feeling normal by taking something that appears to be safe, but we, you know, don't know about the long-term.
Dr. Johnson gave the correct medical response, especially on a television show watched by 20 million people—caution, always caution. But, apparently, not everyone heeded his caution.
It seems ordinary people who believed you don't have to be sick to get better started taking St. John's wort and reporting results that, while not as dramatic as those from people with depression, were impressive nonetheless. "My weekly fight with my wife hasn't happened in two months now." "My daily dips in energy aren't as frequent or as bad." "My view of the world, and myself, has grown from liking to love."
It's good to be just plain happy;
it's a little better to know that you're happy;
but to understand that you're happy
and to know why and how and still be happy,
be happy in the being and the knowing,
well that is beyond happiness,
that is bliss.
At first I assumed these were people who were depressed but undiagnosed—which is certainly true in many cases—but further investigation indicated that St. John's wort may, indeed, have a positive effect on perfectly healthy human beings. Although we'll explore this in more detail later in the book, the basic explanation is this:
The brain talks to itself through chemicals known as neurotransmitters. These transmitters must be present in sufficient supply for the brain to function normally. Everyday human occurrences—frustration, disappointment, stress, physical trauma—can temporally deplete some of these neurotransmitters, even in the healthiest human beings.
St. John's wort has been shown to slow the depletion of three neurotransmitters, serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. These are the neurotransmitters most often associated with emotional mood, mental clarity, and feeling good.
St. John's wort, then, might work as a neurological shock absorber, helping at least three neurotransmitters remain at natural levels while the body adjusts to the temporary impact of bumps in the road.
As the smaller bumps in the road are leveled out, the larger speedbumps, however, will still get your attention. The smaller irritations may still be noticed, but reacted to with merely, "Oh, well," before returning to more productive pursuits. "The sword removed from the water leaves no trace."
In addition, traumatic events can leave otherwise healthy people with reduced levels of neurotransmitters for varying periods of time—days, weeks, months. Emotional losses, physical pain, illness, stressful transitions, worry, and other natural misfortunes can leave one, literally, depleted.
There are days.
St. John's wort, it seems, can help keep neurotransmitters at more normal levels during these times. It does not eliminate the pain associated with these events, but it does gently prevent some of the unnecessary turmoil psychologists call "suffering over suffering."
"Pain is inevitable," M. Kathleen Casey wrote. "Suffering is optional." Or, to quote Thomas Jefferson, "We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather bed." That doesn't exactly fit, but I like quoting Thomas Jefferson.
Let's return to Barbara Walters' question: "Should all of us take it and just feel better, even if we're not depressed" as a "preventive vitamin?"
My answer (not as a doctor, for I am not one, but as someone who has corresponded with thousands of people taking St. John's wort over the past two years) is, "Why not give it a try?" If it works, great. Keep taking it. If not, the downside is small.
Take it daily for, say, a month. Then stop for a month. Then take it for a month. Then stop for a month. Which months were more enjoyable? This test costs about $25 worth of St. John's wort.
This is known in medicine as a "diagnostic trial." In the diagnosis of depression, for example, after ruling out other causes, a doctor might say, "I don't know if you're depressed or not, but if you'd like, you can take an antidepressant for a few weeks and see if it helps. If it helps, you are probably depressed, and we can work out a treatment program. If the antidepressant doesn't help, we'll look for other causes." This is perfectly legitimate medical practice.
In the restaurant business, it's called, "Try it! You'll like it."
Gladness of the heart
is the life of a man,
and the joyfulness of a man
prolongeth his days.
This book, then, is about the elevation and stabilization of mood in otherwise happy, healthy, well-adjusted human beings.
The Big, Big, Really Big, Drawback of St. John's Wort
No, nothing's perfect. My enthusiastic recommendation of St. John's wort comes with a giant caution: There's many a slip twixt plant and lip.
When the news broke that aspirin, taken in small daily doses, significantly reduced the chance of heart attack, aspirin sales naturally soared. Whether one paid more for Bayer or less for a generic brand, the consumer knew that aspirin was aspirin was aspirin.
The same is true of the prescription antidepressants—all 30 million Americans who tried Prozac have taken precisely the same medication. This is what prescription medicine and the FDA are all about—single-molecule substances that can be identically reproduced, time after time after time.
This is not true of St. John's wort, or any other herb. A plant is not a single-molecule substance that can be reproduced in a lab. Plants grow naturally in all their multi-molecular wonder. If a single molecule in a plant is found to be the medically useful one, it is synthesized out. Aspirin, for example, comes from willow bark. Willow bark tea works just as well as aspirin, but how many cups of tea does it take to ward off a heart attack, using how much willow bark and how much hot water at what temperature steeped over how long a period?
Before herbs get to your door, they go through processing, and that's where the problems occur. There are many methods of getting from plant to pill. One method can produce a therapeutically active product and another method can produce inert dross—all from the same plant.
Even if a product is therapeutically active, what concentration is it? To take one-tenth the recommended dosage might be useless. To take ten times the recommended dosage might be dangerous. That's the problem with herbs: you don't know the quality and you don't know the strength.
In order to perform clinical studies comparing St. John's wort with prescription antidepressants, this problem was overcome by using an alcohol extraction process that produced a consistent product from batch to batch. This extract was then concentrated or diluted until the amount of one element of the plant, hypericin (not to be confused with hypericum, a name for the entire plant), was adjusted ("standardized") to 0.3 percent. Although hypericin is not considered a major contributor to St. John's wort's mood-elevating effects, it is a good "marker"—a consistent indicator of the concentration of all the elements that account for St. John's wort's therapeutic properties.
If the St. John's wort was extracted using a specific method and the amount of hypericin was 0.3 percent of the whole, the batch was declared "research-grade." Precisely 300 mg was put into tablets, and these tablets were deemed consistent enough for clinical trials. This research-grade St. John's wort extract is the only formulation that has been proven in clinical trials.
I made, as best I could, recommendations as to which brands were research-grade for the readers of Hypericum (St. John's Wort) & Depression and visitors to the web page.
Some companies, I found, didn't use extraction methods at all, but simply ground up dried St. John's wort and put it into capsules. These companies claimed this method was superior. Other companies came up with tinctures, oils, and skin patches all claiming superiority to the lowly pill—but none paid for the clinical studies to support their claims. Are the claims accurate? How am I supposed to know? That's the problem.
Other companies used a good extract, but encapsulated it improperly, with consistency varying wildly from pill to pill. And then there were the outright crooks. One company sold "St. John's wort" that correctly tested at 0.3 percent hypericin. It was, in fact, not St. John's wort at all—merely worthless plant material with added red food coloring imitating pure hypericin to fool the lab doing the test.
All this inconsistency in the quality of supply was felt by consumers. I would get an e-mail saying, "I tried St. John's wort and it's not working." I would suggest an alternate brand, and the writer's response would be completely different. Placebo effect? In some cases, perhaps, but it happened too often to account for the many variations people reported between brands.
Obviously, an objective testing of finished product was called for. I looked into labs and found the tests to be expensive—about $600 to run a complete set of tests. Considering there were some fifty brands on the market and the number was growing weekly, the cost of doing this testing project started at $30,000—more than I had. Even if I invested in testing, there was very little indication I would recoup my investment. (Consumer Reports I'm not.)
In an effort to make order out of the chaos, I proposed the idea of an impartial, nonprofit organization I dubbed the St. John's Wort Institute. In April 1998, I sent a letter to all the St. John's wort manufactures in the United States, proposing that the Institute set a standard for St. John's wort preparations.
"St. John's wort can then be tested and, if it meets the standard, awarded the St. John's Wort Institute's Seal of Approval. Consumers will then have objective criteria from which to make a selection," I wrote. "Consumers will expect to pay more for an approved St. John's wort preparation over a ‘generic' one, and the competition among those who have earned the St. John's Wort Institute's Seal of Approval will keep prices down. In this way, both consumer quality and price are guaranteed, while unscrupulous low-end suppliers (such as the one who sold inert plant material with hypericin added knowing some companies test for hypericin levels only) will be relegated to the level they deserve in the consumer's mind."
The response to my letter was polite. I sent a second letter, asking for money to finance the tests. This time, the response was overwhelmingly nothing.
What to do?
Milton Freidman, I Love You
Being a firm believer in the free market, I thought I would let "the invisible hand" take over: I would market a St. John's wort product myself. I could test the product, regularly, for quality and consistency to make sure each tablet met the research-grade standards for St. John's wort. I couldn't vouch for any other St. John's wort pill, capsule, tincture, oil, or patch on the market, but I could vouch for my own.
What to call this new product? In 1996, when I first read the words, "St. John's wort," I thought, "It's hard to imagine a more awkward name for something. It has a period, an apostrophe, and that disagreeable word, ‘wort' at the end. We may have elected a Newt to Congress, but is America ready for a wort in a pill?"
My 1996 solution was to semi-coin a new word, "hypericum," taken from St. John's wort's proper name Latin name, Hypericum perforatum. Since the term St. John's wort was (then) not widely used, and since we were writing the first book exclusively on St. John's wort and depression, I thought we might get away with making "hypericum" the word for popular usage.
I was wrong. For a moment, it seemed as though it might work. TIME did a major story and used "hypericum" throughout, but the 20/20 piece used "St. John's wort" exclusively, and the die was cast. "Hypericum" has been returned to the Latin dictionary, where it will live in happy domestic partnership with "perforatum," forever and ever, amen.
The name "St. John's wort" was here to stay.
Then I thought it would be fun to make John Wort the proprietor of a company that makes the pills. John Wort. Has a nice Americana ring to it.
But what to call the pills? "Mood-Elevating-and-Stabilizing Pills"? Zzzzzz. "M.E.S. Pills"? Nah. "Prozaq"? Lawsuit city. I kept discarding the word I really wanted to use, "joy." Joy, alas, has a bad reputation.
It is the chiefest point of happiness
that a man is willing to be
what he is.
Then I thought, "When in doubt, tell the truth," so I named them John Wort's Joy Pills. Then someone wrote me: "If you're so damn proud of these pills, why don't you put your name on them." I could find no reason not to, for I am proud of them, so the final product became Peter McWilliams' Joy Pills.
I got a nifty web address, www.joypills.com. The Joy Company would cater to those who already thought joy was a perfectly legitimate reason to take a pill, as long as the pill was safe. I would also do what I could to persuade those who were willing to listen that enjoyment wasn't such a bad thing after all.
In other words, I became a drug dealer.
Those who have an intractable prejudice again joy will just have to consider me Satan, for I plan to become the Bill Gates of joy.
His lord said unto him,
thou good and faithful servant:
thou hast been faithful over a few things,
I will make thee ruler over many things:
enter thou into the joy of thy lord.
JESUS OF NAZARETH
We are back to where we were at the beginning of this introduction. (This is a long introduction for a fairly short book, isn't it?). It's taken a while, but now I can now speak freely with you about the subject of joy, and why joy is so important to me.
In March 1996, I opened the door to death and stared the Grim Reaper in the face. There was a pause. Then he suddenly smiled and said, "Enjoy yourself! It's later than you think."
I knew that line well. It was an old Guy Lombardo song. Family legend has it Guy and I are very distant cousins. My maternal grandmother's maiden name is Lombardo, so Guy Lombardo records were background music at her house. One of those songs was Enjoy Yourself! It's Later than You Think. I used to run around singing it. I never understood why adults found it so amusing to hear a five-year-old sing that song, but I liked amusing adults, so I sang it often. "That's right," those old people would say as they nodded their heads and poured another glass of homemade wine, "that's so right."
By 1996, I was older than most of those "old people" were in 1955.
What can you do when death tells you to enjoy yourself? As a start, I went to the new Woody Allen movie. It was Everyone Says I Love You. It turned out to be my favorite Woody Allen movie—but then, I'm a pushover for musicals. From a love story in Venice, the film suddenly switches to Campbell's Funeral Home in New York City. (This is, after all, a Woody Allen musical.) To the amazement of the assembled mourners, the ghosts of five corpses and the ashes of a sixth rise from their respective reseptacles, singing and dancing, Enjoy Yourself! It's Later than You Think.
(For an absolutely unbelieveably joyful version of this song, and a lot of other joy as well, please see Woody Allen's only musical, and the only "classical" musical film produced in years, "Everyone Says I Love You."
At Reel.com Everyone Says I Love You
at Amazon.com: Everyone Says I Love You
For those of you who are wondering, "Why should I read a book about joy, which is really just one long infomercial for this guy's Joy Pills?" I close this introduction and respond with a verse and chorus from that song:
Another birthday's come and gone,
You've turned another page.
Then suddenly you realize
That you've reached middle age.
To think of all the fun you've missed,
It makes you kind of sad.
It's better to have had your wish
Than to have wished you had.
Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think.
Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink.
The years go by as quickly as a wink.
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself,
It's later than you think.