Sunday, November 29, 2009

Deferred. Shine and glow.

I was led to ponder the matter of deferred gratification.  RB said, in the last post but one's comments, that her three children all have a different approach to their food, and always have done:  the youngest going straight for what he reckons are the tastiest bits, the oldest saving the best till last, while the middle one eats consistently of everything on his plate.  That reminded me of my niece, lovely sister's daughter, who was drawn to her current chap, my sparkly nephew-out-law, when she observed that, when eating Sunday dinner with his family, he did what she always did, which was to carefully eat everything down bit by bit, so that at the last mouthful, he was left with a perfect miniature dinner on his plate, a tiny portion of everything he started with.

Deferring our pleasures, saving the best till last, putting up with a degree of what is disagreeable the better to enjoy the good things later, is said to be a characteristic of the aspirant bourgeoisie, as against the feckless working class and the equally feckless uppers.  So we the middle classes, for such I am, endure student poverty and tiresome study and training, put off marriage - which at one time meant putting off sex - in order to achieve better worldly prospects, status and income in the longer term.  Then when we have all that, we  save and are thrifty in order to pay mortgages to assure ourselves of nice homes to come back to at the end of the day, and to put aside for our retirement so as to enjoy cruises and play golf, or at least avoid penury and humiliation, when we finish our days.

The workers and the poor, on the other hand, are not supposed to care too much, either because they don't have any pleasures to defer, or any income to save, or because they reckon that life's too short and too hard not to take what gratification you can when you can. The upper classes presumably don't give a monkey's, since they have loads of money and don't give much thought to anything, and in any case they might be called on to go and get killed fighting in wars, so eat, drink and be merry...

So go the received ideas, though I'm not quite sure where I received them from: somebody else's O level sociology perhaps (my mother would have sooner immolated herself on a burning pile of Post Office Savings Account books than see me take such a dubious lefty course of study...).  How much it resembles the reality is another matter.

But when it comes to food: I was never given the 'save the best till last' value at home.  I remember the idea being introduced to me at primary school by my best friend.  Her family were socialist pacifist Quaker teachers.  When I thought about them I fell to wondering what happened to them, and got distracted by trying to track them down on the internet, which is why I'm posting this today not yesterday and yesterday was only photos.  I only found her younger sister, generally reckoned to be the most promising of the family, who is looking very beautiful, has married someone with a Dutch name and is empowering women in Guatamala and occasionally writing articles about it.  I think of them often; as a family they introduced me to birdwatching, Marmite, the Norfolk Broads, Swallows and Amazons, to the idea that not everyone of a leftward persuasion was disreputable and hell-bent on revolution or holding the country to ransome, and to smoking.  Not all at the same time.

So they were quite high-minded people (which didn't preclude the juvenile smoking, partly because the wholesome, forward-thinking ethos encouraged free-ranging in the woods, building camps and being independent, so giving opportunities for such illicit activities, and partly because the children of the virtuous and high minded frequently do feel the need to kick against it and do naughty stuff).  When I first saw Ruthie carefully selecting a particularly succulent morsel and putting it on the side of her plate, I asked if she didn't like it, probably as a preliminary to saying if not then I'd have it.  On the contrary, she replied, it was the best bit, which was why she was going to eat it last.  An interesting idea, I thought, I shall try it, and so began to put the principle of deferred gratification into practice, or at least to try.

As well as signifying social aspiration, it is, I think, seen as a mark of maturity, of a more self-realised way of thinking.  A very small child, or a dog, will of course go straight for the thing they like most, perhaps because in evolutionary terms, in situations involving scarcity and survival, it makes sense: you don't leave the most nutritious bits hanging around for someone else to grab.  But deferring gives us a self-created incentive, it internalises our motivation, makes us more efficient in performing tasks because we are looking forward to the pleasure we will allow ourselves afterwards.

And yet I wonder.  I've never actually been very good at it.  I might have learned to apply it to my dinner, but
I wasn't one of those kids who could sit down and do their homework straight after school then relax and enjoy a sense of accomplishment and a free evening.  Now, though I might say I'm going to assiduously plan lessons/do the vacuuming/ take the dog out before I sit down at the computer, more often than not I find myself wandering over to the screen, just for a few minutes you understand, first.  And once there, I may say that I'm going to answer the less interesting e-mails, research the Chambre de Commerce website, or chase up that faulty ink cartridge to see if we can get it replaced,  but the chances are I'll be drifting blogwards.  The inner mentor who chides me to get the chores out of the way first can be as much of a killjoy as an outer parent or teacher, and I take equally shifty measures to get past her.

But also, I wonder about the nature of work and pleasure, and how we quantify them. I'm reminded of something  the character says in 'Miss Smilla's feeling for Snow' (which I didn't much rate by about two-thirds of the way through, as everyone predicted) says about how the imposition of formal education on the Greenlanders actually made them lazy.  Before that they didn't think about the nature of their activities; they mended nets, went fishing,  made things, simply because those things were there to do.  Once they were sent to school, and were given  the idea of fruitful work against leisure, they regarded useful activity as a chore and tried to avoid it.

I had a bachelor uncle on my mother's side, who at times I rather ruefully fear I resemble, I may write about him at more length another time.  He decided he would quit his employ and set up on his own as a photographer, follow his bliss, do the thing he loved.  He always said you should never make your hobby, your pleasure, into your job, because it would inevitably destroy all joy you took in it.  And it showed; his professional photography was frankly mediocre, while the landscapes and vignettes he had taken for love had had something. 

When I was studying, writing essays became a chore, something to worry about, to put off.  I would do housework, go out for walks, draw and paint, anything rather than knuckle down to the task. It hadn't always been so; when I was at school and having to apply myself to a range of subjects, I hungered to get back to my English, and loved to write, but when that was my sole occupation, it became an extrinsic pressure, and I shirked it. When I did knuckle down, I almost always found it satisfying.  Now writing is for pleasure, I use this as the displacement activity.  It's not the easiest thing I could be doing, so it's not procrastination through idleness exactly, but I've got it into my head it's what I'd rather do.  But why is it more pleasurable than walking the dog, (indeed it isn't), or housework, or carefully going through and making notes on the business English textbooks in my room?  None of them is downright disagreeable really, and some are potentially interesting.

I think I'm just bloody-minded to myself, though whether by nurture or nature I know not.  I sometimes try to trick myself, pretend that what's hanging over me as a task to be dreaded is the nice thing, and the fun activity is the chore, but it's rather like trying to play stone/paper/scissors between your left hand and your right (though I've heard there are some who can do that!).

In fact I think perhaps that really the most mature, happiest people, are the equivalent of those who eat consistently of everything on their plates, and are left with a satisfying little portion of everything to enjoy together.  The ones who know that, although the cabbage may or may not be quite as nice as the meat, and certainly isn't as good as the roast potatoes, in fact you need to taste them together to fully enjoy them all.

Some seem to be naturally this way.  I'm not, but I'm still working on it.  Molly doesn't have to.


Now, since you've eaten your meat, or even if you haven't, here's your pudding. Crops, shine and glow.



Zhoen said...

You've got me thinking. One thought is that of the three children who express the three approaches. I think it's hardwired into us, although we can change to a degree. So, maybe as a society, we need all three.
It's always a matter of doing the job in front of us, and not allowing how we feel about it beforehand to even come up, lest it get in our way. Not creating unpleasant chores in our mind.

Reluctant Blogger said...

People often assume with regard to my children that it is their birth order which contributes to their habits. But they have always been like that since they were tiny and could feed themselves. Strange really because in many ways the behaviour does not fit that well with their characters and behaviours.

I am a last minute type person - I write best and function best when I have a tight deadline to work to. It's almost as if I need that to stop myself from being distracted - it's like putting on blinkers.

I don't with-hold pleasures from myself though - I am very much of the opinion that life is too short for that. So I tend to do the things I want to do before chores and eat the things I like best first.

Roderick Robinson said...

My education began when I left school and started as a tea-boy in the sub-editor's room at Bradford's "Telegraph and Argus". A typical educational impulse occurred when the deputy chief sub-editor watched me for a moment then said: "You have, one might say, a way with pork pies." As a great postponer of the best bits I was carrying this practice to its extreme by nibbling off the folded bits of pastry round the top edge, then the walls of the pie and finally transmitting the remaining small grey mound down my guzzard.

I read your piece with great intensity since it touched on an aspect of my personality which I thought was probably shameful. I see I am not alone. However I was enormously relieved to find you stopping short of the ultimate act of postponement - living miserably in the belief that the rewarding grey mound will arrive post-mortem. A future post, perhaps?

Granny J said...

Saving the best for the last fails miserably with a feast, such as I enjoyed on Thanksgiving. Which is the best -- the turkey and yams or the pumpkin pie? Nowhere did you discuss such this quandry -- should I eat my fill of a delicious main course, saving my desert for later ... or should I be moderate in all things.

Pam said...

I've definitely spent my life deferring gratification. I just hope I enjoy it when it eventually comes.

This hasn't applied to chocolate so much, though.

Rouchswalwe said...

Today was bottling day. The Schwarzbier is cozily carbonating in the glass flasks and I am in a state of deferred gratification. Four weeks at minimum. The longer I can wait, the better the brew will taste. Unless I wait too long. It's all about timing. And that's how I tend to be in the everyday, too. Folks tell me I'm a Libra through and through - no extremes. Everyday I strive for balance - some work, some pleasure, some food I love to eat and some that's just healthy. I would rather take my vacation days now than save them for cashing in when I retire. I go to the gym, but not every day (just enough to keep from getting a beer belly). You, sweet Lucy, put your best work here on Box Elder, and I am so happy that you don't squirrel it away and save it for last. Lately you have been posting daily, which means no deferred gratification is necessary. But when you do return to your more leisurely schedule, your posts will be worth waiting for.

Lucy said...

Thanks for reading!

Z - yes, I think it is a question of personality, though training can adapt it a bit. Tom remarked that quite simply one leaed the nicest bit of food till last because it's always good to finish you meal on a high. I think I wanted to express what you say about not creating the chore in the mind, how ideally it is simply the next thing to be done, that the successful people don't waste time distinguishing between things in that way. The problem of guilty procrastination I find is that often I dither, doing what CS Lewis described as doing 'neither what I like nor what I should'. Better to choose more positively, and get on with one or the other.
Then you have more will and energy anyway.

RB - I sort of know what you mean about deadlines. Similarly, though I put my homework off, I think when I got into it I often gave it quite a lot of careful thought; dashing through it straight after school simply wouldn't have worked for me, I'd have dithered and not concentrated knowing I had bags of time in front of me. I think I tend to thoroughness in some ways rather than efficiency, or perhaps neither! You say you do the things you like best first etc, but you've certainly not been an unsuccessful person, and have achieved plenty. There's also the sense that if you're doing something you find a bore,and the nice thing is nagging at you and distracting you, it impairs your functioning at the other task...

BB - Jaffa cakes! Chip off the chocolate, then eat the sponge, having peeled off the disc of orange jelly which you eat at the end. I really hadn't thought about the matter of the hereafter, but of course there is that. I think even in the most rational who have dispensed with religion, the ironic 'you'll get your reward in heaven' carries a ghost of a hope. But it always presupposes thst being good and being happy are mutually exclusive, and that to be deliberately miserable and self-mortifying is to be virtuous. There are plenty of reasons here on earth why self-indulgence isn't always a good idea, though.

GJ - hmm, that's always difficult isn't it? Oddly though, however full one feels, the dessert can seem to find a crack or two to fit into! More seriously though, the whole idea is affected by the fact that we are not always certain what the best things really are; our notion that the meat is perhaps the best, for example, is internalised from being told that it is the most important part that will do us most good; most kids really prefer carbs. I think I still do. Also, as I tried to say, my idea of the agreeable tends to be the thing that outside pressures aren't requiring me to do. I hope you enjoyed every mouthful anyway!

Isabelle - you make sure you do enjoy it! Glad you went for the chocolate though.

R - ah bu now your waiting is determined by outside factors. This kind of anticipation is the best. Thank you for reading the dailies, relief all round and plenty of things I must knuckle down to now...

Nimble said...

I love this title -- it is like a tiny poem. The thoughts are worthy and the pudding, esp. the dewy clover is a treat.

I used to save the best for last on my plate. And I used to procrastinate terribly. I still do if given the chance but caring for two kids has knocked some of it out of me.

Rosie said...

depends really.
When we eat crabs we always save the big claws till last...but maybe that is just ritual, otherwise jj maintains he is such a good cook that everything tastes equally good, so it gets eaten at the same time. Balance is everything isnt it?