With the recent war on the Big Gulp and other sodas of their size by Mayor Bloomberg of NYC, perhaps it is time to reflect on the importance of simple pleasures in life. After all, smoking has been severely restricted, trans fats have been outlawed, when, where and how dogs can be exercised have been regulated, etc., etc., etc. Most of these restrictions are government done, but usually at the insistence of those who know what’s good for us all. But, do they really?
Back in my undergrad days, when I was ‘learning’ about teaching, [not learning how to teach or be a teacher cause that is learned in the classroom after years of experience], we watched a film titled, The Things I Cannot Change [NFB, 1967]. It is a heartbreaking documentary about the life of a lower income family living in a lesser district of Montreal. After viewing the film – in which the already oversize family has yet another baby, the oldest boy makes weekly runs to the local church for stale bread handouts, and the father ‘makes a living’ watching a guy’s car, gets into a scuffle, and gets arrested – we ‘future teachers’ were asked for our observations and possible solutions. I was in my usual seat at the back of the room doing my usual keeping my mouth shut and observing my classmates so as not to put my foot in my mouth. First, most expressed sympathy about the family’s plight. Whoopie! ‘Three cheers for the poor!’ Then they got down to ‘fixing the situation.’ “Why do they have so many kids?” “Did you notice how both parents smoked. If they quit they could save a lot of money.” [At that time a pack of smokes cost about 40-50 cents.] In the extremely honest smoking scene the mother and father are discussing their financial situation at what served as their kitchen, well only, table. “They give their children a sugared cereal every morning. If they bought the cheaper, no sugared type they could save money.” Maybe.
As I sat in the back listening to these West Island raised white breads, one of whom was the son of a McGill Professor and went on to be a doctor not a teacher, I reflected on similar moments in my own childhood, my own working class neighborhood. There were families with upwards of 8 kids because they were good Catholics forbidden to practice any reliable method of birth control. Many people smoked because that is what people did then, and the ‘smoke break’ was a means of escape from the hard life. In my own home I did have the luxury of those multi-pack cereal boxes, where you can just open the individual box and pour in the milk. In mixed packs of ten, each came with two boxes of Raisin Bran. I learned to save those two for last, for two really ‘good mornings in a row. When I crowed about this to some of my friends they made it clear that I was lucky that I even got breakfast cause some of them did not. No wonder they liked to hang around my house, a single child family, especially at lunch time when my mother might break out the cream cheese, peanut butter [to which no one was allergic], and saltines. That lunch for us was a real simple pleasure. To the family in the film these ‘solutions’ would take away the few joys they had.
Sometimes on the morning news shows we are scolded about how bad certain foods are for us. The announcers then confess or admit to their own guilty pleasures as if eating a Hostess Twinkie –now on the endangered species list- a fresh Twinkie dunked in whole milk then pressed between the tongue and top of the mouth –[oops, I need a moment]- should make us feel guilty? To be healthy in our 24-7 society more than ever, people need their simple pleasures, their little escapes, their health breaks, even if that means a date with Lady Nicotene. The other morning as I was walking along the lake front I saw a man of maybe fifty with his Golden Retriever in the park. The man had his dog there after 10AM and the dog was running free – both against local regs- and the man was smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee. As least the caffeinated beverage was still allowed. They did seem to be having fun, however.
This scene reminded me of another one of the simple pleasures of my childhood, my every third week visit to the barber shop, where my friend Eddy the Barber would delight me with stories of his camping trips –to this day I swear by Coleman products just as he did,- and enlighten me- he taught me how to spell Mississippi, for example. In the summer I would often be his first customer. I’d be waiting outside the door, the shop was in the lower rear of his house, as he’d open for the day. With coffee hand he’d usher me in and get me set up in the chair with that little bit of tissue paper around the back of my neck and that green sheet protecting the body from the dangers of cut hair. He’d light up and L&M, sip from his coffee and start in on my head. About halfway through these early morning cuts, he’d excuse himself and head for the ‘head.’ The sound of a hearty flush would signal his return, toweling off his washed hands and resuming his artistic masterpiece that was my fresh haircut. In his words of wisdom he explained his absence, “Nothing better to get you ‘going’ in the morning than a cup of coffee and a smoke.”
–Just My Two Sense
[For the record, the author enjoyed his last cigarette on November 9, 1975, does not have a dog, hasn’t seen a Hostess Twinkie in decades, cuts what is left of his own hair, eats plain bran flakes with raisins sometimes added, and has never had a Big Gulp in his life]