Of Angel Poop and the Meaning of Life

In which the Elegant Bastard avoids Guilt while finding truth in a handful of lima beans.

Perhaps there are 4 year olds out there who are precocious enough to consider hedonism consciously and fully, but I was not among them. Whatever moral understanding of the world I had at that age was simple and personal. “Good” was a largely domestic phenomena that included my parents, my grandmother, anything made of chocolate, “I Love Lucy”, sweetened condensed milk on toast, the Montreal Canadiens and on three days of most weeks, my sister. “Bad” was more widely dispersed and not so easily defined. It included the bully next door, my uncle’s cigars, the Evil Queen stepmother in Snow White, the Toronto Maple Leafs, my sister on the four remaining days, and something called Communists.

 As for true “Evil”, it consisted of one thing and one thing only. Lima beans.

I was not a picky eater. In fact, much of my parents’ time was spent making sure I did not eat everything too slow to escape my grasp. If it crawled, wriggled, chirped, hissed, sat dead on the ground or even went bump in the night, I tended to wonder what it would be like with a little peanut butter.

But not lima beans.

Nowadays they strike me as merely insipid – bland little legumes the colour of cheap bathroom tiles and with a mouth-feel like chalk mixed with wall paper paste mixed with harvested dandruff.  But to a four year old with a vivid imagination, they looked (and  likely tasted) like the fat little white grubs my father disturbed when he pitch-forked the back garden. I would not eat them easily. So powerful was my aversion to them that it remains the primary reason I have yet to visit Peru.

I was never a child to suffer in silence. The appearance of lima beans at dinner would unleash wails loud enough to awaken the dead and shrill enough to send them rushing back to the quiet of the grave again. Amputations before the age of anaesthetics were accomplished with less noise. So hysterical were my protests that my parents increasingly lowered their expectations. What began as a soggy spoonful became “just a few”, then three and finally just one, given more for symbolism’s sake than nutrition’s. Even then my mother would usually sneak it under my potatoes. I quickly learned to prod it out into the open and my practiced puppy–dog-eyes would then silently accuse her of betrayal. I would push the bean around the plate for a bit – like a cat might a mouse too-long-dead – and then, with a shuddering suffering sigh, I would fork it up and swallow it. This was not surrender or a bargain meant to ensure dessert. It was merely my first attempt at peaceful coexistence and it lasted until the next time the beans appeared.

Attempts were made to increase my consumption. One uncle offered me a penny for every five lima beans I would eat in his presence. But by then I was earning a dime or at least a nickel from the Tooth Fairy at fairly regular intervals and I seemed to have enough teeth remaining to ensure great wealth. When his economic arguments failed, other adults tried the “It’s good for you!” approach. Naive as I might have been at that age, I knew that those four words meant someone was going to force-feed me cod liver oil or stick a needle in some innocent part of my body.  My response was automatic. Whatever I could clench, I clenched. It would be one bean and one bean only.

For people of their generation, my parents had relatively enlightened ideas regarding child-rearing, so the lima bean issue never escalated beyond these and other sneaky variations on the “good for you” strategy. A few whimsical relatives even made a game of seeing who could put forward an argument that might convince me to take more than one of these sodden little objects into my mouth. Didn’t I want to be the next Rocket Richard? How was I ever going to become Prime Minister? What girl would want to marry me? But invariably one cousin or other would point out that while all adults in the room were lima bean eaters, not one had yet won the Stanley Cup or a seat in parliament. And my favorite uncle would then tousle my hair and point out that no girl would want to marry a “scrawny  wee bugger” like me even if I did eat lima beans. In short, a good time was had by all and no one ever tried to guilt me into compliance.

And then my father’s maiden aunt entered the lists and suddenly it was war.

She was well into her eighties at the time, and I sometimes wonder what would have happened to her if she lived now instead of in those years before we invented terms like Alzheimer’s and built the institutions those words spawned. In our world, she was a vaguely terrifying family myth who would periodically emerge from her bedroom and wander about the house, turning the lights and the stove on and off and talking to various pieces of furniture. My sister and I would watch from safe corners and giggle fearfully into our fists. She made our lives exciting and my mother’s life hell. She did both without motive.

That all changed one Sunday dinner. She watched impatiently as my mother served me my lima bean. Suddenly she stood and muttered something about the Lord. She took the pot from my mother’s hand and unceremoniously dumped a great mound of beans on my plate. The long tableful of aunts, uncles and cousins watched as my parents stared open-mouthed and I went into my defensive crouch. The battle began. According to eye witness reports, it went something like this.

Her first salvos had to do with children starving in India while nasty little boys like me wasted good food. I had no idea what “India” was. Perhaps that was where the communists lived. Apparently I told her that if I had to cross the street to get to India, I wouldn’t be allowed to go there on my own so she would have to give them my beans for me. I was then asked if I knew how hard my father worked so that rude little boys could have dinners they didn’t deserve. Again, I don’t think I really understood her. I knew my father did this thing called “work”. He went to “work” each morning and came home from “work” every night. He would spend dinner telling us funny stories about “work”. I am told I just looked at her and smiled and nodded and agreed that Daddy worked. But I did not eat my beans.

Now she brought in the big guns. If I didn’t eat my beans, Jesus and all the angels would be sad and I might never get to Heaven. My cousin tells me that a look of concern finally spread across my face. Perhaps this was because I had seen drawings of Jesus and Heaven in the colouring books at Sunday school. In Heaven, all the little children got to ride around on happy lions and live in a land of milk and honey. No mention was ever made of lima beans. Heaven was also filled with angels. Angels were big happy people with huge white wings like seagulls.  I liked angels and I suppose I wanted them to like me. Apparently I mentioned that fact to my inquisitor.

“Well,” said my great aunt, “if you want to go to Heaven to see the angels, you have to eat your lima beans because lima beans come from there.” She then raised her eyes in Heaven’s direction as if anticipating an immediate downpour of the things. Her momentary distraction gave one of my cousins a chance to lean towards me and whisper in my ear.

“Yeah, lima beans come from Heaven all right. They’re angel poop.”

That was it. Nothing in the world – not dessert, not money, not even promises of hockey glory – would force another lima bean between my lips. I was far too young to understand either metaphors or metaphysics, but I knew enough about life to know that if it something lived, it pooped. Therefore, if angels lived, they pooped too, and according to my older and much idolized cousin, proof of this was now sitting on my dinner plate.

I’ve no idea how the whole event concluded. I’m told that even my tormentor smiled before seeking comfort in her drug of choice, a cup of tea. I certainly did not rush from the table to spend some angsty hours musing on the dynamics of guilt or the role of pleasure in our lives. I likely just ate my dessert – a piece of chocolate cake – and then abandoned the adults (and the lima beans) in order to watch my cousins and their friends practice various dance moves while they listened to “Rock Around The Clock” and “Ain’t That A Shame” on the radio.

It was only years later that I understood the event and its significance. It had been the first time in my life that someone else’s version of Good and Evil had been turned into a club to be used on me. My great aunt had decided to add “Thou Shalt Eat Lima Beans” to the original list of Ten Commandments.  That was her right. Others may, with similar freedom, add, edit or delete at will. By all means deny yourself various actions or partners, live in anticipation of gloom and doom, refuse to wear this, eat that or pay whatever. And as long as what you do or don’t do in no way infringes upon the basic rights of others (and that includes your children)  you can stand on one leg and howl at the moon if you want to – even if it’s under my window! (Hey, I’m a tolerant guy!). Just don’t demand that I howl with you or that I feel guilty if I don’t.

It was also the first time I encountered the idea that pain must come before pleasure. Again, we are all free to establish arbitrary rules for our own guidance. You may have determined that Wednesday is “red socks” day and I can decide that if I don’t do my early morning 5k run, I can’t add maple syrup to my breakfast smoothie.  But you may not mock my sock selection, nor may I sneer at your butter-laden waffles and demand to see a sweat stained t-shirt as proof that you’ve suffered enough to deserve them.

In short, there is no moral link between lima beans and chocolate cake. And if someone tells you that there is, remember this.

It’s all a bunch of angel poop.

So begins an intermittent series of posts concerning Hedonism in this modern age. And I would like to turn to you, Gentle Reader, for help in arriving at a key definition. Tell me what you think Pleasure is and answer the following question: Can Pleasure be pursued? For now, Happy New Year!

(And as always, feel free to tweet, like, share or offer comments.)

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