Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The pleasure is all mine

I write this as I lounge on my sofa, sipping a glass of bourbon. There's a cool summer breeze wafting in through the window, and I just concluded an enjoyable evening with my wife (and child, at the beginning) of pasta, conversation and a little TV (a retrospective on the first five years of Saturday Night Live--the only years that matter). The important thread running through all of this, one too often given short shrift, is pleasure. The things I did tonight, at least in the way I did them, from creating a fancier supper than necessary to pouring myself an evening drink, have given me pleasure.

Pleasure is an oft-derided value in American life. I'm reminded of that fact as I peruse the latest hysterical headlines about Americans getting fatter and Sen. Larry Craig cruising for "dates" in men's rooms. Sen. Craig has speckled his career with a series of anti-gay votes while, apparently, personally nurturing a taste for beefcake. Americans as a whole are being driven into a panicked lather about expanding waistlines--an expansion fueled by their own relatively new-found (in historical terms) access to plentiful supplies of cheap and flavorful foods. In both cases, a failure to recognize pleasure as a value in and of itself is in play.

Assuming the charges against Sen. Craig are true--and let's not forget his guilty plea--he's on record supporting a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage even as he engages in an almost two-dimensional stereotype of anonymous gay sex. But I think I'm on solid ground saying that the public fascination with Craig's case has little to do with his rank hypocrisy and everything to do with his pleasure-seeking behavior. As sexualized as our culture is, sex is still laden with all sorts of cultural baggage that renders it, in the eyes of the many, as something a bit shameful. We have trouble imagining public figures stripping down and slipping between the sheets--let alone getting freaky in public places. Trouble imagining it? Hell, we think it's a bit icky--better that they say their prayers and utter "good night" with a chaste peck on the cheek.

And what about obesity, that very visible demonstration that food is now plentiful and affordable? Of course eating is enjoyable; besides earth-shattering sex, is there anything more pleasurable than a plate of Pad Thai washed down with a cold beer? Well, a pulled-pork sandwich might do the job too. Why shouldn't people indulge in the gustatory delights denied to hundreds of generations of their ancestors through droughts, plagues of locusts and general crop failures? And if a Buddha belly isn't the healthiest shape for the human body, well then, neither is the skeletal definition of a bout of starvation--and starvation isn't half as much fun as pigging out at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

That's right, pleasure involves trade-offs--but so do all values and preferences. It's up to each of us to decide what's important to us--what will gain us the most enjoyment from life. For some, it's sexual abstinence and a diet of greens and tap water; for others, it's a turn greased up in the sling followed by a smorgasbord. One path may lead to a longer life, but the other may mean a more fulfilling one--depending on your tastes. Most of us, of course, fall somewhere in between.

But pleasure is very definitely an important value, and one which we're all entitled to give the weight we, individually, believe it deserves. And if that means that our neighbors make choices that we wouldn't emulate ... Well, hell, let's just hope that they're having a good time.

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