Pleasures

Sharon February 16th, 2008

I confess, until I started rioting, I was one of those people who liked to think in the shower. When you have four children, a shower has magic powers - it makes a cone of silence around you. It warms you when you are cold, it cools you when you are hot. And until I started paying attention to my water usage, I showered a lot - it was a self-indulgent pleasure. While we’re not actually keeping our water usage down to the 90% reduction - we can do it, but we don’t like it and we’re not in a water short place, so we’ve gone up to a more comfortable 70% - there is still the hot water to deal with.

The funny thing is that when I began to cut back to shorter and cooler and less frequent showers, I didn’t mind it that much. The only time I missed long hot showers was on the first day of my cycles, when I could remember how much pleasure I got from hot water against my back, easing my cramps. And for a while, I grumped around for a bit over the fact that I no longer took morning showers, or long hot showers at all.

And then it occurred to me that I could have my first-day-of-the-cycle shower if I wanted - I just had to shorten the other ones. So this month I did that. I skipped one extra shower a week, and shortened my other ones slightly. And a few days ago, I stood in the water in the morning, blissfully contemplating how good it felt that hot water on my back.

But it didn’t just feel good. It felt *GREAT* - all day long I felt wonderful. And it struck me that this is the payback for all the scrimping and conserving we do - the transformation of ordinary comforts into a delight.

We get this too with our small percentage of non-local food. We buy a very few non-local fruits and vegetables each week. And each week, my husband and the children choose carefully - what shall we have? One week it was mangos, and none of us have ever tasted anything so delicious as those juicy, dripping yellow fruits. This week it was avocados, and every molecule of our bowl of guacamole was scraped out and enjoyed with homemade tortilla chips. My sons discuss what special fruit they will choose next week at the coop - and what we should do with it.

But, if these pleasures are so acute, why deny yourself at all? Why not get mangos every week
if we love them so? But when I ate all the tropical fruits I wanted, I never enjoyed a mango like I do now. Would my children take so much pleasure in their selection? Would I, if we had them all the time? Experience suggests to me that we would not. The funny thing is that most of the denial isn’t a hardship - that is, the intensity of the two experiences doesn’t run in parallel. Having fewer showers isn’t awful at all, merely a mild inconvenience - but having an extra one is terrific! Occasionally limits do feel awful, and then we have to rethink “is there a way to make this better?” Usually there is - and often we can get the hardest things down to nothing more than a minor inconvenience - and one, shortly, we become used to and don’t notice at all.

Not all pleasures are diminished by frequency, but as we get accustomed to things, they no longer delight us. Thus, we must find new sources of stimulation, new delights - usually by raising the bar higher and seeking out more and more of what we look for. And more and more gets us into trouble pretty quickly - not only because we consume more and more but because there isn’t always more to be had - so we feel dissatisfied.

I know someone, who, for their child’s fifth birthday, took him and two of his friends to Disney World for the week, including a party with a favorite cartoon character. They spent thousands of dollars, and reported to me how much the child had enjoyed himself. And I have no doubt that that is true. For his fifth birthday, my son had a group of children, lunch, a homemade cake, and enough balloons for each child to have one. And he too, had a glorious birthday. It is possible that the child who went to Disney World had exponentially more pleasure, perhaps thousands of times more pleasure, but I doubt it. At the end of the day, Simon told me, “That was a great birthday.” What would he have said if we’d taken him to Disney World “That was a super-duper great birthday?” How big is the difference, if it never even occurred to you that Disney was an option (I’m not totally clear that my kids know Disney World exists yet, which is fine with me.)

I am by nature no ascetic - I like my pleasures - I like to eat, have sex, giggle with my family, be warm, be comfortable. My children are like all children - they love treats, sweets and anything special or new. If there is a difference between us and other people it is this - we try as hard as we can (with varying degrees of success) to keep the bar for happiness low. In fact, we consciously try and move it backwards as often as possible - not because we like to sacrifice, but because we enjoy the sheer intensity of the pleasures that come with it. We’re not ascetics, we’re sensualists - and the most sensual pleasures are available to you when you work at avoiding becoming jaded.

When I was a child, my mother was into healthy eating. We ate carob brownies (to this day I can’t bear the stuff) and macrobiotic stuffed peppers instead of chocolate ones and hamburger helper. I remember acutely the tragedy I felt it was when my mother informed me that I was going to remain the only one of my peers who never got to have a marshmallow fluff and peanut butter sandwich for a school lunch. But once a year, every year, my mother would tell us “Today we’re not having dinner - we’re having ice cream sundaes.” And we would go out to a local restaurant that was an early leader in the “sundae bar” phenomenon, and make the most elaborate ice cream sundaes imaginable, and my mother would never mention the green vegetables we didn’t eat, and would enjoy her own dessert with ours. I remember every single one of those moments, and remember thinking that I had the best mother in the whole world.

It was only later that I realized how much our delight in those moments depended on the reality that my mother and step-mother provided a healthy dinner with vegetables 364 days of the year, how a life where ice cream was a norm (and of course I had ice cream more than once a year ;-)) would have taken the shine out of that glorious, glorious experience.

We did it for the first time this year. One day over winter break, when it was cold and snowy, the children were told “Today ” - the kids were encourage to spend the whole day in their pajamas. No one had to go anywhere or do any chores, and dinner was all the ice cream sundae, with all the stuff you could possibly want. And the boys kept asking us, “Are we really going to have ice cream for dinner?” Yes, we really were. And we did. And it was great.

Sharon

  • joy
  • Comments(10)

10 Responses to “Pleasures”

  1. Laura in So Calon 17 Feb 2008 at 2:49 am

    Sharon,

    I was discussing this just today with my Mom. My almost 4 year old son gets absolutely euphoric over the thought of getting birthday cake. Why? Because he only gets some when it is someone’s birthday or about 8 times/year in our family. Sweets like candy, cakes, pies, cookies are a special occasion thing only. Amy Dacyczyn wrote an article in one of her Tightwad Gazette books called “Creative Deprivation” that addressed this issue really well. I’ve never forgotten it.

    Laura in So Cal

    Laura in So Cal

  2. LisaZon 17 Feb 2008 at 1:21 pm

    Great post, Sharon. It reminds me to cut the bar back a bit again, too. I also thought of Amy Dacyczyn’s “Creative Deprivation” article right away.

  3. Lynneton 17 Feb 2008 at 1:35 pm

    My son’s favorite birthday party was when he was eight. We invited half a dozen kids over. I baked sugar cookies (big ones) and filled plastic bags with frosting in different colors, cutting off the tip to make a frosting piper. The kids could decorate and eat their cookies.

    I have a snapshot of him at the table, friends all studiously decorating their cookies, a look of absolute bliss on his face.

    He’s 40 now, and hasn’t forgotten. Such a little bit of expense and trouble to bring so much joy.

  4. Susan Ochon 17 Feb 2008 at 9:43 pm

    When we lived in Hawaii, we had a mango tree in the front yard and an avocado tree in the side yard. The challenge was to figure out how to use a bumper crop of avocado while it was in season, and to eat yet another mango smoothie.

    Potatoes, however, were $4 a pound (in 1985) so a baked potato was a luxury item.

  5. homebrewlibrarianon 17 Feb 2008 at 10:36 pm

    I’ve been shifting to eating a seasonal diet now for a couple years. This means no strawberries in August or fresh green beans in January. Now that I live in Alaska where the growing season is very short, my diet has gotten quite limited. However, I do have a guilty pleasure - I’m a member of a CSA in Washington state that has year round delivery to various parts of Alaska. I still only order stuff that’s seasonal but it’s certainly not seasonal for here. I keep this CSA because they have organic fruit and organic fruit in good condition is tough to get up here.

    In December, mandarins showed up on the list. I got four cute little things each a little larger than a golf ball. When I peeled the first one, it was magical. The aroma, the sensation, the sight of this beautiful fruit had me salivating. And the first bite - heaven! It had been at least a year since I’d eaten any citrus and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed that mandarin, wee tiny thing though it was. I was like Laura Ingalls Wilder getting an orange at Christmas. Even though it took two weeks to eat the other three (I wanted to savor them), it wasn’t the same pleasure as it had been the first time. For that moment of pure joy, I’ll gladly cut back in other ways.

    Kerri

  6. Anonymouson 18 Feb 2008 at 7:56 pm

    Dear Sharon,

    I’ve become a big fan of (now) both your blogs, and this entry is excellent. It’s been several years now that I came to realize that in many cases “less really is more.”

    How can a treat be a treat if you have it all the time? What is a treasure if you can’t even see it for all the other “treasures”?

    Watching my kids grow up (they are now 6 and 11), and trying to stem the tide of toys and treats that continually threatens, I realize that some of their happiest times are when they are playing with a bit of cardboard and string, or setting up a “camp” in the living room, where even mommy will be spending the night in her sleeping bag, too.

    Thanks for all your sharing!

    Corinne in Paris

  7. Anonymouson 18 Feb 2008 at 8:46 pm

    who ever heard of a mango before 1997 ?

  8. void_genesison 19 Feb 2008 at 2:36 am

    I think a similar phenomenon happens with home grown produce. Sure some of it is remarkably better quality than the store bought stuff, but I think with most of it just the act of appreciating how much work went into it and actually paying attention to how it tastes make all the difference. Whenever I have had an unusual season, or if I am trialling a new variety, I have to pay extra attention to figure out how it is different.

  9. Susan Ochon 20 Feb 2008 at 4:54 pm

    My experience is the total opposite. I can’t buy greens from the produce section of my local grocery because they just aren’t good enough compared to my homegrown greens. All the prepackaged stuff looks old and dead to me. If I found it in my fridge, I’d feed it to the chickens.

  10. Greenpaon 25 Feb 2008 at 9:45 am

    Delightful. You understand. :-)

    I remember being shocked when a straight-world friend of mine was overheard telling someone that I was highly unusual, very interesting “BUT - he lives in abject poverty.”

    Wow. My internal response, immediately, was “The hell you say! There’s nothing ABJECT about my poverty! On the contrary, I live in FLAMBOYANT poverty!”

    And my first two kids, now grown- really do understand that they grew up rich- very rich. Just without any money.

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