Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Centerfolds & Life

Whither the centerfold?

And why should I care? Chalk it down to the perturbed musings of Pete Townshend and T-Bone Burnett. Or to a bizarre glitch in kismet that seems to land Hugh Hefner in the papers every second month -- the most recent example being Joan Acocella's critical gaze at Playboy. Reviewing Taschen's The Playmate Book: Six Decades of Centerfolds for The New Yorker, she can muster little more than a disdainful sniff for the enterprise. When I first read it, I thought, "Well, give a brainy woman a book of centerfolds and ask her what she thinks, and this is what you'll get." I also thought she was right.

Playboy was never much of a habit for me -- I was enough of a moralist to make it a habit not to make it a habit, a practise that generally kept me out of trouble until I considered myself old enough to manage it. To borrow a phrase from Raising Arizona, I released myself on my own recognizance after a summer of industrial delivery. The wallpaper on most delivery bays was courtesy of Hef and his co-conspirators: the overall effect was less than arousing, and the stray issues I obtained amounted to a flat experience. The last issue I bought was over 15 years ago. I don't recall the cover, the pictorial spreads or the centerfold, but I do recall the literary content: an extended travelogue of India, by Spalding Grey. It would be disingenuous of me to say I bought it for the article, but that's finally what I took away from it.

In contrast, I have no trouble recollecting the first centerfold I was exposed to. But then, I was a callow lad prone to the sort of typical callow lad obsessions that John Irving has plumbed with such depth of perception. A 12-year-old boy looks at those faintly orange pictures and finds it hard to believe the day will ever arrive when he is given license to explore the undiscovered country.

As erotica, I think prepubescent inexperience is the only condition in which Playboy works. Experience pretty much overwhelms and kills it, which leads me to wonder when might be the last time Hef found his own product arousing. More likely, Hef reached a saturation point where arousal was no longer the intention. In his waning years, Hef has devoted a great deal of energy to selling himself as the final product. Playboy, like Martha Stewart, is finally an extended brochure promoting one person's very particular lifestyle -- in this case, Hugh Hefner's. You'd be a fool to think your own lifestyle could ever approach that of Hef's (it's a zero-sum game, and Hef got there first), but maybe if you subscribe for a year or two, a little Playboy (or InStyle, or Muscle & Fitness) pixie-dust will float your way.

I'm reluctant to concede such points. I dislike being the square, the moralistic killjoy. Were I pressed to express an official line on the subject of centerfolds, it would be akin to my friend's sentiments: "I like looking over a beautiful girl as much as the next straight guy. But, you gotta know ... that's all kidstuff,"

Indeed. It would be nice if such insular pleasures as considering the erotic plane would inspire the viewer to step outside and properly engage, but the human inclination seems to be quite the opposite. From my lofty perspective outside Hef's glass mansion, I can't help thinking the man's life is a tad impoverished. My father-in-law, four years Hef's junior and in many ways the embodiment of Hef's darkest nightmares, has led twice the life. He's married people, buried people, witnessed life come into the world and leave it. He's got a million hilarious stories, quite a few of them related to funerals, and at least one involving a cross-eyed undertaker who accidentally tumbled into his customer's grave. He's been around the world and led numerous choirs, some of them too glorious for words, others too disastrous to be believed. A lusty, gusty man, he's never made a secret of his appetites -- he's just made a point of indulging them within the confines and security of his marriage.

For better or worse, he's often like a big kid. But better that, I suppose, than an old, embittered grump. To one degree or another it's all kidstuff. And if you can keep the kid alive in something as grown-up as marriage, then I think you've got something worth calling a lifestyle.


Cowtown Pattie said...

Fathers with a profound and natural sense of humor are the best kind of dads, no?

A wise and touching way to illustrate your own dad's special take on life.


Trent Reimer said...

I once had an epiphany after hearing yet one more married man guiltily attest to a pornography addiction. I confided back to him that on the one hand I could honestly claim not to have ever purchased porn and yet if I thought about it I realized I had a pornography issue myself because main stream media provides me with plenty of pornography to lust over.

As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, sex is an easy sell because it's something everyone has in common. There is no more convenient item to commoditize.

Like you I had a moment at work when I watched a notoriously unlucky co-worker gaze up longingly at poster of a freshly waxed v***** (ouch!) then after a long moment finally look back down with a sigh. I agree, the sight was pathetic and I couldn't help feeling a pang of sorrow.

I have a hard time feeling pornography is an ambivalent item in our world. I realize much of that relates to my conservative upbringing which shapes much of my mores but it also relates to observation, even to those "Nightline" specials where they set up a sting to lure sexual predators over the internet. They can run those shows all they want and there remains a never ending stream of candidates showing up at the door. And there never, ever, will be. They turn out to be criminals, fire-fighters, teachers, agents of the Department of Homeland Security... We can deny it all we want but predators are not a tiny minority. They number in the MILLIONS. There is hardly a street in any town or city that doesn't contain one or more predators.

The show is very disturbing and at the same time highly artificial. The announcers denounce these perverts in the strongest of terms while the resident psychologist explains that it is really just an illness. I have to take exception with both. I understand the idea that sexual desire for pre-pubescent children is unnatural. But the human race has been mating at teen-age years until very recently. Indeed it is only recently that we have defined adulthood as something that occures no sooner than 18 years of age. And I concede that in modern society there are good reasons, socially, to discourage sexual relations between young teens and what we now call adults. But the fact is, not one male in that production crew hasn't been turned on by a teen-age girl at some point in his adult life. And not one would admit it on camera. Which doesn't help. The difference between healthy adults and predators is more behavioural than we seem to want to concede.

Pornography encourages the commoditization of sex and the whole-sale categorization of young people as sexual objects. We all do a splendid job of acting shocked when we hear how prevalent child pornography is. One of the hardest problems for us is that it is closely related to adult pornography which is where predators start and then deviate; first to teens, then to young children. Which makes it difficult to confront the real issue. For us to tackle pornography is to tackle a marketing industry which has learned to opiate us upon our own inner darkness. We may seethe as they push the needle into our veins or we may love them for it. But make no mistake, not many are willing to take down their own suppliers. This kind, enlightened modern society! We will freely sacrifice our children to ensure we can get our fix.

Whisky Prajer said...

CP - thanks for the kind words! The old gent in question is actually my wife's father, but he and my dad do share a number of things in common, including their profession.

TR - I seem to have found a rather slippery slope on which to park my handbasket and get comfy! If I could selectively tease apart your response, I'd say that behavior is just about entirely the point. My own thinking, backed up by not one single behavioral theorist, is that most porn fixations or addictions are cases of an adolescent sexual sensibility that hasn't been teased, coaxed and encouraged into something a little more grown up - not uncommon in an adolescent culture. As for desire, it is what it is, and I've got enough Hefner in my psychological makeup to be suspicious of external forms of censure. Some years back I asked a psychotherapist what he thought about the sexual attraction that often develops between a therapist and a patient who is making encouraging progress. He said, "What do you mean, 'What do I think'? I think it's great I'm still alive. The issue isn't what I think or feel, it's what I do. And I don't touch the patient." I never kept track of this guy to see if he was able to live by this policy until he retired, but I certainly appreciated the sentiment.

DarkoV said...

A tightly written piece that's hard to clip anything unto; you succinctly placed Playboy in that time frame of (callow or wallow) youth when discussion and action were activites long seperated by twiddling fingers.
I remember being involved with a lingerie magazine model in my 20's. She'd invited me to a shoot. It was eye-openingly depressing, putting a permanent taint on any of the Playboy-style natural posing pictures I saw again. Lots of propping, prepping, & preening. The Unnatural Triumvarate of Desire. The selling of sex, like most businesses, succeeds best when approached with the calculated airs of efficiency. So much for mystery or mystique.

You father-in-law has it in spades; keep the bedroom door closed and the bedroom occupied.