The Magazine

Negative Pleasures

Joseph Epstein, negatively pleased.

Mar 17, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 26 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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A friend of mine, a highly intelligent lawyer with an interest in human nature, not long ago asked me if I knew any men given over in a serious way to chasing women. When I said I did, he asked if I'd ever noticed that, at the end of a lifetime of doing so, these men seemed to have no regrets? I had to agree that, with the women-chasing men I knew, this seemed to be true.

Not easy to get through life without collecting a hatful of regrets. My own are too commonplace to describe here, but I do count a few items in my life that are the very reverse of regrets. What I have in mind are negative pleasures, the genuine delight found in things avoided or deliberately not done.

I am very pleased, for example, never to have owned a station wagon. At one point, I had charge of four children, and toting them around in a station wagon would seem to have made good sense, yet I resisted. In the early 1960s, I came close to buying a used Volkswagen bus, but when the car dealership (Cliff Packer's Auto Ranch in Little Rock, Arkansas, salesmen equipped with ten-gallon hats and with toothpicks in mouth at no extra charge) wouldn't take cash but would only sell the bus to me on credit, the deal was killed. I have in fact lived in suburbs at various times in my adult life, but acquiring a station wagon would have forced me to regard myself as irretrievably suburbanite, which would have badly dampened my spirits.

Owning an SUV, the station wagon of our day, would be even more dispiriting. Climbing up and into and down and out of one of those monstrous heaps of metal would depress me beyond reckoning. Whenever I am driving behind one, the mortal words of Jackie Mason on the subject return to me: "Sports Utility Vehicle, hell. It's a truck, schmuck!"

Another great negative pleasure I enjoy is not having a Ph.D. Some of the most deeply stupid people in the country have Ph.D.'s. A mediocre student, I never for a moment considered going to graduate school, but I am fairly certain that I couldn't have endured the various tortures that acquiring a Ph.D. entails. I have an A.B., in absentia (as I always prefer to add), and mildly regret that I have that. I love to hear stories about men and women who never finished, or even entered, college and went on to score great artistic and financial successes, and only wish I could claim to be one of them.

An even greater delight, perhaps the chief negative pleasure in my life, is that I have never golfed. When I was a kid, my friends and I used occasionally to play miniature golf, and sometimes we would buy buckets of balls to hit off driving ranges; one I remember had the name Stop 'n' Sock, after a famous Chicago food emporium of the day known as Stop 'n' Shop. Cleverly, I never went on to acquire a set of clubs. (The initial expense must have deterred me.) Several of these same friends did, and today, it is not going too far to say that golf is close to being the main event in their lives. One of them, who struck it very rich, is said to belong to ten golf clubs here and in Europe. Others have settled for that Valhalla of so many commercial warriors, condominiums on golf courses.

I consider golf, like the Soviet Union, good only for the few excellent jokes it has produced, whose punch lines ring in my head: "So for seventeen holes, it was hit the ball and drag Irving, hit the ball and drag Irving." Or, Moses to Jesus: "What do you want to do here--screw around here, or play golf!"

Ah, not to wake early on weekend mornings, and then not to pull on peach-colored pants, shine up one's driver, kiss one's putter for luck, and drive off, to return at dusk one or two strokes better or worse than the last time out--not to do any of these things is for me, as Omar Khayyam had it, "paradise enow."

These trivial but to me genuine negative pleasures may not seem much to brag about, and in the grander scheme of things they aren't. Still, when I think that I shall never drive off, the letters Ph.D. as part of the vanity plate on my station wagon, for yet another round of golf, I realize, with a surge of pride, that I have not lived entirely in vain.

JOSEPH EPSTEIN