Tuesday, September 22, 2009

`The Fatal Trap of Abstinence'

We celebrated the birthday of a girl in the special-education class with cupcakes and an earnestly discordant “Happy Birthday.” She looks five or six years younger than her age and I don’t think she understood any of it. The cupcakes were thick with pink frosting and the parents had sent too many with her to school – 30 or more for a class that never tops 10. Had we let them, the kids would have gorged. One girl ate two cupcakes and stuck her fingers in a third. Their faces and fingers were smeared with icing, like sloppy lipstick, and one girl rubbed it in her hair. I thought of Don, the kid with Down’s syndrome in Thom Gunn’s “Sweet Things”:

“He licks the last chocolate ice cream
from the scabbed corners of his mouth.
Sitting in the sun on a step
outside the laundromat,
mongoloid Don turns his crewcut head
and spies me coming down the street.
`Hi!’ He says it with the mannered
enthusiasm of a fraternity brother.”

That final observation about “mannered / enthusiasm” is rooted in precise observation. I see it in Down’s kids all the time but also in the general school population – the elaborately ritualized and empty hugs, greetings and hand gestures.

Read the rest of Gunn’s poem and you’ll see he’s meditating on the democratic nature of appetite – call it desire, gustatory or amatory. In the staff room at lunch, if the conversation is not about last night’s television show, it’s devoted to what people are eating or not eating or wish they were eating – endless laments and acts of public penance. Food is not pleasure or even sustenance but an occasion of secular sin. I wish I could have brought the extra cupcakes and watched the stampede and the subsequent displays of self-flagellation. How healthy-minded, in contrast, A.J. Liebling sounds, how like a kid with a platter of pink-frosted cupcakes. Consider one of his typical Parisian lunches in Between Meals:

“…raw Bayonne ham and fresh figs, a hot sausage in crust, spindles of filleted pike in a rich rose sauce Nantua, a leg of lamb larded with anchovies, artichokes on a pedestal of foie gras, and four or five kinds of cheese, with a good bottle of Bordeaux and one of champagne.”

And note the mock-elegiac tone Liebling employs in a passage describing his old friend Yves Mirande, actor, screenwriter and fellow gastronome, whose health begins to fail when he commences a diet:

“When, in his kindly effort to please me, he challenged the escargots en pots de chambre, he was like an old fighter who tries a comeback without training for it. That, however, was only the revelation of the rot that had already taken place. What always happens happened. The damage was done, but it could so easily have been averted had he been warned against the fatal trap of abstinence.”

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