Road 2 Elsewhere, Excerpt #43: “I indulge myself a little more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age to do it”
How the legendary diarist Samuel Pepys invented hands-free masturbation, and I avoided getting crushed between protesters and cops on the Rue du Four in Paris.
ON THE LAST DAY OF SEPTEMBER,1978, on my calendar, I wrote out a snippet from William Wordsworth: “Five years have passed….”
I had been recording notes of my days for sixty calendar pages at that point, with no hint of stopping. And my journal was just about to begin. October 12th bears these notices: “Letter from Mom. Daily Journal begun.” I was a pipsqueak Samuel Pepys, who wrote avidly in his famous journal from 1690 to 1699, and then ceased because he feared blindness.
It was probably all the masturbation.
Pepys mastered hands-free self-pleasure in the Church of St. Olaf’s, in London, while training his Male Gaze upon his smokin’ fellow worshippers. He prided himself on not even blinking at the climactic moment.
“The truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it; and, out of my observation that most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate, but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it.”
Like, in the choir loft.
Pepys also recorded details of the Great Plague of London, and the Great Fire of London, and Other Important Events. But I’m partial to his documentation of his friendship with one Mr. Moore, who acquainted Pepys with artistic endeavors in Restoration-era London: “Mr. [Henry] Moore told me of a picture hung up at the Exchange of a great pair of buttocks shooting of a turd into [Sir John] Lawson’s mouth, and over it was wrote ‘The thanks of the house.’”
They don’t make political cartoons like that any more, however deserving recent leadership may have been of a crapload in the kisser.
Pepys’ frankness about his life, filling eleven volumes, shows the risk of writing it all down: It’s all written down! I have worried about that, too, as the volumes multiplied.
But I was a born circumspect Yankee, so my account shows me mostly averting my gaze; I couldn’t even bear self-scrutiny.
Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey was more my speed, which is why the above quote made it into the calendar. I’ve clicked through the smooth beads of Wordsworth’s rosary throughout my adulthood.
He even called my journal into being, in these four lines:
Here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.
Not all the memories are equally digestible, or course.
How mysterious to flip to calendar page number 61, in 1978, and see an 8½ x 11 photograph of, well, me.
Bates College distributes a spirit- and fund-raising calendar of on-campus images; I was Mr. October that year. I can see why the campus-comms office chose that photo. It’s hard to beat as a visual metaphor for Youth (me) smiling in the face of Time’s Passage (Autumn). And even as I note my smiling ignorance of all that was ahead of me, I want to whisper in that guy’s ear: College ought to be great. That’s why it’s so expensive! If you’re not going to feel confident at an institution solely focussed on your personal enrichment, and offering unlimited food, when will you be?
At the end of the Galway Kinnell poem I recited for my would-be devirginizer Diamant, on the Pont Mirabeau in Paris, the poet called time’s passage “the still undanced cadence of vanishing.” Meanwhile, I was dancing as fast as I could. I knew, at least in theory, that life’s tune always turns into a dirge, followed by silence. So I was hoofing it while the music was still upbeat.
My precarious state, balanced between hope and oblivion, was encapsulated in an exciting experience I had at the bureau poste on the corner of the Rue de Renne and the Rue du Four. It’s usually not very exciting to buy stamps. Hence, the invention of the internet. But that Latin Quarter post office has entrances on two major boulevards. I entered from Renne, bought a sheet of connectivity with home, and made my way toward the Four exit.
I was tucking my stamps into my backpack as I opened the door. That’s when I heard a wall of student protesters shouting “yada yada yada hey!” They were carrying a broadsheet decrying something or other, and marching toward me from the right.
To my left, elbow to elbow, was a great blue wall of Paris gendarmes.
The Spirit of ’69 was back!
So, if I stepped only a few feet forward, I would be the filbert in the political nutcracker.
This being France and I being me, I retreated: out the safer door, onto protest-free Renne.
Warning: I have no saved account of this event, in either of my journals or on my calendar.
So it’s possible it didn’t happen.
But I did write lots of letters, so at least I know I bought stamps.
And as Hemingway had written in his preface to his Paris love letter A Moveable Feast: “This book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”
Hemingway began writing his memoir of Paris life in 1957, thirty-one years after the experiences he was recounting with full detail and quoted dialogue, including the part about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tiny dick (blame foreshortening while viewing from above, advised the Nobel laureate).
So I feel I have Hemingway’s permission to assert that my post-office recollection was real.
Otherwise, it’s just a tale of me buying stamps, and, so what?
Of course, all of these accounts and recollections are equally fungible, as they are for almost everyone except Winston Churchill and St. Augustine. But I still feel the lure to shake the seed-packet of immaturity I was back then, to see what sprouted and why.
“Whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.” — Galatians 6:7
Cultivation notes: Heirloom variety. Thrives in transplantation. Showy buds, few blossoms. No fruit. Grows in reflected light. Long tendrils go nowhere.
*On alternating weekends (or, alternately, when the mood strikes) I run excerpts from The Road to Elsewhere, my coming-of-age-travel-memoir-with-funny-drawings. (The first entry is here. Most recent one is here. Or dive in here, here, or even here.) It details the story of my road through Paris, London, and god help me, Zagreb, in search of the ultimate destination: a life worth living. The story so far: Young Peter has arrived in Paris, occupied a dorm room at the Alliance Française language school, tiptoed out onto the Boulevard Raspail and the Paris Metro, and made the first steps on the road to elsewhere. If it’s too much to read, just look at the illustrations. They’re my favorite part, too.