(Mike Royko is on vacation until Jan. 30. While he's away, we're reprinting some of his favorite columns. This column first appeared Oct. 29, 1981.)
I RECEIVED SOME startling information while I was reading a cover story in Time magazine.
The story itself wasn't depressing. It was about the obsession for physical fitness that has become a part of American life.
I don't mind reading about how millions of people jog, whack balls, wrestle with exercise machines, ride 12-speed bikes and otherwise punish themselves to squeeze into a pair of designer jeans. Just as long as I don't have to take part.
But at the end of the story there was one of those self-testing quizzes that magazines and newspapers like to print.
You've seen them. They're usually labeled something like: "Do You Drink Too Much?" or "How Happy Are You?" or "Are You Under Stress?" or "Are You Courting a Heart Attack?" or "What's Your Rating as a Lover?"
You answer the questions, then add up the points, then look at the bottom to find out what kind of shape you're in. And depending on the kind of quiz it is, it says something like:
"Ten to 20 points -- You are a deeply unhappy person and will probably jump off a bridge soon."
Or: "Ten to 20 points -- Your heart probably sounds like a slush maker."
Or: "Ten to 20 points -- You are a terribly inadequate lover and your mate is surely carrying on with somebody else."
I usually skip these quizzes because I know the results in advance. If you don't know if you drink too much by the red of your eyes, then you're probably too shaky to take the quiz in the first place.
But the headline on the quiz in Time had a title that made it impossible to ignore. It said: "How Long Will You Live?"
That is an intriguing question. If you know the answer to it, then you have time to make plans for your future. For example, you might buy a new Mercedes-Benz, knowing your children would be stuck with paying it off. Or you could stop slobbering on your boss' shoes and tell him what you really think of him and his wife.
So I took the quiz, which consisted of about 30 questions in two categories: personal facts and lifestyle status.
The personal facts included whether I lived in a city or small town; the longevity of my grandparents; health of my parents' marital status; and earnings. The lifestyle questions had to do with how much I smoked, drank, exercised, slept, weighed and whether I was easy-going or an aggressive, angry person.
It was a simple test. I started with 72 points, each of which represented a year. Then each question was worth plus or minus points or years. I just added or subtracted as I went along.
When I finished I looked at the final number. Then I looked for further instructions. Most quizzes tell you to multiply by two or something like that.
But there were no further instructions. The final number was it.
"That can't be right," I told myself. And I took the quiz again. But the results were the same.
According to the test, I died seven years ago.
I couldn't believe it. I went to a co-worker and said: "I just took this test in Time magazine. It says that I died seven years ago."
He nodded and said: "I'm not surprised. You haven't looked well lately."
Hoping to show that the test gave inaccurate results, I asked a friend who doesn't drink, smoke, swear, get mad, and stays in perfect physical shape to answer the questions. The final figure was 82 years.
"How did you do?" my vice-free friend asked.
"I died seven years ago."
"Nonsense. Only the good die young."
At first I was depressed. I've always known that my lifestyle isn't recommended by most phys-ed instructors, but I didn't think the situation was that serious. After all, I take vitamin pills and get regular exercise by walking down escalators.
And I know others who have the same habits and have made it to ripe, old ages. After I took the test, I sought out one of the oldsters in the nearby bar and asked him: "Oldtimer, how long have you been living this way?"
"As far back as I can remember," he cackled.
I looked at his wrinkled, withered face, his frail, stooped shoulders, the liver spots on his hands, and said: "To what do you attribute your remarkable old age?"
L He said: "What the hell are you talking about? I'm only 38."
The joint does have poor lighting.
Now that the initial shock has worn off, I don't feel as bad about the test results. In a way, I find them complimentary.
For one thing, I took the test again, basing the answers on the condition I was in seven years ago.
Those results showed that I wouldn't have died until last year. So that tells me something, although I'm not sure what.
You can look at it this way: I must be a truly amazing physical specimen if I'm in such awful shape that I should have died seven years ago, but I'm still walking around today.
Nevertheless, there's a warning in the test results, I guess. So I'm going to immediately change some of my bad habits.
By doing so, I can make a dramatic shift in the results and add about 10 years.
For one thing, I lost three points (or years) by answering "yes" to the question: "Do you work behind a desk?"
I'm going to add those three years by moving out from behind my desk and sitting on my sofa when I write.
Also, I failed to pick up two years by answering "no" to the question: "Did any of your grandparents live to be 85?"
Actually, one grandfather would have surely made it, but he died at 82 in a barroom brawl with a sneaky young Greek who had a knife hidden in his sleeve.
Finally, instead of losing three points by being "intense, aggressive and easily angered," I'll gain three by becoming "easygoing and happy."
And I'll drink to that.