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The Pleasure Principle

Updated on December 10, 2009

Wilmer thought he had a winning formula from the day he turned nine years old. This was definitely his sort of a day, with flags on the table and people being nice to him, presents and all the trimmings. His slender build and fitness were hardly the result of modesty, he tended to grab anything digestible within his rapidly expanding reach. For his parents, this represented a modest kind of progress. He had indeed been playing with a quarter inside his mouth four years ago, down it went – bummer! – and it had gotten stuck in the food pipe, causing him quite a bit of trouble swallowing and much pain to go with every attempt.

“I’ve… I’ve swallowed….,” he’d said with tears in his eyes, pointing at his throat.

“You’ve what?”

“Can you breathe, son? Can you breathe?” his father kept on asking anxiously while driving him to the hospital. No problem breathing, fortunately. If the coin had gotten stuck in the windpipe, that would have been a catastrophe, but this was only a bummer. A temporary setback to his well-being, that was about it.

Today, Wilmer had all but forgotten about the coin, although it sat on display in a box inside a glass cabinet in his room. One has to move on to bigger, better things – not bigger metal objects, fortunately, nice things of the chewy sort. He'd go through the cabinets when he was alone, there was always something of interest: Cookies, dog chocolates (not a whole lot of taste but better than nothing), biscuits on the upper shelves the naive adults thought he couldn't find. He walked the countertops like an acrobat. 

He stood by the trafficked roadway on his way to the candy store, where he tended to double up on licorice juice and chocolates. His kind of day this was, extra money in his pocket, the kind of thrill only empowerment can give. In spite of his excitement – or because of it – he took his time and watched out carefully before crossing the road. For a boy his age, he had surprising hubris-nemesis awareness, although he'd never heard of the ancient Greeks. The Happy Hunter who rides on a long friendly wave needs to be cautious, went his thinking, because the coin swallowing incident had taught him a lesson for life.

He made it safely across the street and back that day and many times since. Over the years, he broke no limbs and attracted fewer cuts and bruises than the average boy. Adolescence didn't hurt him either, he was a decent student, fairly popular with the girls, and a better-than-average basketball player. Odd jobs came to him naturally, high-school was a breeze, college barely tolerable. Graduate school was worthwhile until the day he realized that, for better or worse, he was headed for a normal sort of life. 

As graduation was nearing, he suddenly remembered how he had felt on his 9th birthday, how easy life had been back then: A few coins in his pocket, none down in his throat, plenty of things to experience and look forward to, and off you go! The universe appeared in perfect balance, himself placed squarely in the middle. Cars to watch out for, holding on tight to his coins while running, remembering to ask for free extras because it was his birthday. Such simple, worthwhile challenges had made good sense to him back then, and now it felt like deja vu: Close your eyes, the cars are humming and buzzing. Hear the pigeons cooing – “quackaaa-quackaaa!”

The headmaster, hardened by decades of experience with troubled young men and women, calmly listened to Wilmer's vision for a pleasant life. A decorated listener, he nodded repeatedly and with an expression of “I'm all ears” sincerity while Wilmer rambled on about his grandiose plans. Essentially, he wanted to become an artist and an art dealer, so that the creative arts and business would mix into a beautiful, yet profitable enterprise, which would leave him with plenty of time and money for fun stuff, as well as being fun in and of itself. “Let the market come to Wilmer, not Wilmer going to the market,” he insisted.

“And if it doesn't?” the headmaster cautiously asked.

“Then to hell with it, I'll find pleasure some other way! All I need is a few coins in my pocket, I'll walk the street a free man, which is more than can be said for…”

“Me?” The headmaster appeared unshaken. “I'm not free, go ahead and say it!”

“That's right, Sir, whatever your many good sides, a free man you're not.”

“Very well, maybe not, but there are worse things here in life than being not entirely free. Being dirt poor is one of them. Being sick is another. Being a confused individual without a standpoint is a third. What I mean to say is that there's no such thing as an easy life, not on Earth at least, not unless you happen to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth and maybe not even then.”

“I once had a quarter down my throat, doesn't that help?” Wilmer asked sarcastically.

“No, you'd better opt for a normal life. Stay with us a few months more, graduate, work hard, save up for your nest egg. If that's not enough, get some hobbies and a nasty habit or two, but don't even think of dropping out of life. If still unsatisfied, pray to God and start looking forward to the weightless afterlife.”

“Hell no!” Wilmer exclaimed. “Life is too precious for office work. I'll live by the pleasure principle at all costs!”

Wilmer had jumped school that day, said to hell with the mainstream, and in general turned his back on what society had to offer. To his disappointment, the artists and gallery owners took their trade too seriously and were not easily persuaded by his self-proclaimed and unproven talent for arranging arts exhibitions around the world. A dreamer in the wrong place, that's how they saw him.

“Then to hell with them too!” That soon became the punchline, as he encountered similar disappointments with professionals from other walks of life. Nobody believed in the pleasure principle nowadays, so he swore to keep it to himself from now on and squeeze every last drop of delight out of life until the bottle was empty.

The bottles do get empty, but there's always another one within reach. He always has a bottle of licorice juice, some chocolates, and a few coins in his pocket when he closes up the old candy store, carefully crosses the street, and heads back home.


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