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Following Julia

The infinite virtue of pleasure

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I had a Julia Child moment about five years ago.

I did my doctoral work in the Santa Barbara area and spent many mornings during my three years of classes in nearby Montecito at the Drug Store, where everyone gathered for breakfast. This little town in the hills is among America's wealthiest, being full of second homes for the slaves of the silver screen in Hollywood, two hours away. Because I rarely watch television anymore -- nothing snobby, just not much interest -- I had breakfast several times with Dennis Miller without any clue who he was until a classmate asked me how I rated his attention. (Frankly, I thought he was kind of a bum. He wore hideous buckskin boots and never shaved.)

One day, I was driving from breakfast to school with a classmate and I saw a tall old woman tottering down the road with what appeared to be a turnip held at arm's length, as if to balance herself as she walked. I slowed the car and turned to my classmate. "Holy shit," I said, "that's Julia Child!" I had actually met her years earlier in Texas when I attended a dinner for her at an oil family's home. But this, seeing her on the street, looking lost, was startling.

I pulled up beside her and rolled down the window. "Do you need a ride, Ms. Child?" I shouted.

She turned and said in that inimitable voice, "No, just the air."

I laughed. "Just the air and a turnip," I said to my classmate as we drove away. She in turn harangued me. How, my classmate asked, could I recognize Julia Child in her dotage and not Dennis Miller in his prime?

Put aside the fact that Child, who died nearly two weeks ago at 91, was a genius and liberal Democrat, while Miller, who has turned into a shill for George Bush, is not the sharpest tack in show biz. (Then again, let's thank God he exists to counteract the incessant Republican claim that everyone in Hollywood is a liberal hater of America.)

What Child represented is the virtue of authenticity and devoting your life unabashedly to pleasure. I'm not among those who can utter unctuous claims that Child had a big influence on my life. When my mother turned on her television show in the '60s, I thought she was a hilarious eccentric, bumbling about her kitchen and trilling canary-like about fancy French food, period.

It was only later that I realized she represented the kind of person most of us are afraid to be but would like to become -- following our passion, unworried about how weird we might look to others, realizing you have to make a mess to make something beautiful, refusing to sacrifice pleasure to body Nazis. "Life itself is the proper binge," she said. Her heart was enormous -- too big to be affected by butterfat -- and she supported controversial causes like Planned Parenthood and openly derided puritanical thinking.

It is a constant source of amazement to me how many clients I see who immediately reject the notion that devoting life to pleasure is worthwhile. Since I went into practice 10 years ago, I've seen mainly creative types. It is hard to believe that an artist, whose work is with the senses, could sacrifice her talent to appear "normal" and "responsible," but it is common in our culture.

I don't mean that I don't understand it. I went through it myself -- entering a 10-year creative block after being given a book contract because I was so worried what my family and the world would think of someone who took delight in traveling with a freak show and hanging out in drive-in funeral homes. And I had some of that same block reoccur in the writing of my doctoral dissertation. What would people think of an academic treatise on sexuality built around the macrophallic god Priapus!

What I've learned and what I have tried to communicate to clients is that if you allow yourself, like Julia Child, to boil over and make a mess, you quickly learn that the outcome is where people's attention goes -- not to the mistakes you made in creating your work and life. But that does require absolute faith in the propriety of devoting your life to what pleases you. Otherwise, your own attention stays fixated on making mistakes.

Julia Child's life also reminds us that it's never too late to lay claim to your pleasure. She actually came to cooking relatively late in life. In fact, she launched her PBS show, for which she was paid about $50 an episode in the beginning, around the age of 50. The excuse that it is "too late" is the one I hear most often. In fact, we do not have eternity, but anyone who is doing what he loves can tell you that a moment of passionate engagement feels like eternity.

So let us remember Julia Child for more than her gifts to our culinary life. She was a great example of the infinite virtue of pleasure.

Cliff Bostock is in private practice. Reach him at 404-525-4774 or at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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