5.20.2017

Yes, No, and Neither: On Preferences, Whitman, Nietzsche, and Getting on with It


I like my cocktails a certain way. While I am no longer averse to a hint of sweet — it gives the cocktail some legs, some viscosity — I find sugar repulsive (as in it literally repulses me, rejects me, makes me recoil). And I don't like my cocktails too sour, either. I want the booze to prevail. Oh, and I usually like my cocktails over rather than up for two reasons. One, the ice adds some much needed hydration to my flailing, failing body. And two,  a cocktail served over comes in a rocks glass which I find less emasculating than a martini glass. These are my quite particular preferences which, too often, I am not shy about explaining to the barkeep with a certain emphatic umph (read: a NY Jewish inflection). 

But what happens when such particularity is not met? When my preferences cannot be, or aren't, served?

Well, I have some options. I can get irritated which itself can take a variety of forms — from rudeness and/or anger towards my server or, as is the go-to for the kids these days, I can write a scathing Yelp review. That'll learn 'em!

I can leave the premises and go in search of a cocktail bar that'll cater to my very precise preferences. This, of course, defers my pleasure and, if with company, becomes a burden for all.

I can say nothing and have the barkeep concoct an inevitably too sweet, too sour cocktail served up and sit there and drink it.

Or sit there and not drink it. (It's a funny thing to me that people feel that, because they paid for something, they are obligated to consume said thing. I have the opposite belief: because I paid for it, I can do what I like with it. I can not finish my meal, not drink my drink, not watch the movie I paid to see. That, alas, is true luxury: the freedom to walk away.)

I can order something else, something that runs little to no risk of offending my delicate palate — a whiskey neat, for instance.

Each of these options is viable. What matters, it seems to me, is not which path I take but how I stand towards my decision. If my preferences keep me from enjoying my evening, enjoying my life, then something is wrong with those preferences. Nietzsche would call this sickness: the things I want make me sick (indirectly, of course).

Now extend this past a cocktail. See your preferences extend into the social. She's smart and cool but I prefer someone taller. He's smart and funny and makes me happy — but I prefer someone who has a real job. Or into the everyday: I don't like being in this traffic! I prefer the road to be clear! Goddamn fuck it all! (This is me, often, in today's suckhole of the city we call San Francisco.)

What, alas, is more insane than demanding life to be different than it is? What is more sick than cursing traffic while being in traffic? First of all, I am not in traffic; I am traffic. I am in and of every situation in which I participate. So hating that situation, expending energy hating that situation, is a kind of self-hatred. And, worse, it's an enormous drain of energy: it depletes without any return on investment.

What I always loved about riding a bike is coasting: I pedal once, twice, three times and then coast for a while. It feels like the most healthy energy exchange possible; I exert a little and get a lot! It's a great deal!  Getting pissed off about traffic while being traffic is a terrible deal, expenditure without return.


Walt Whitman is a, and perhaps the, great Yes sayer.  He says Yes! To everything. He is vor-a-cious! Leaves of Grass is a catalog of things he loves, which is everything he encounters. That is surely one way to go. I love this cloying, sour cocktail in its ridiculous martini glass! I love this traffic! I love this sinus infection! Whitman is beautiful, one of the great souls of this, or any, planet. He is a man without preferences and hence a man without disappointment.


Nietzsche, the great philosopher of affirmation, has a lot of preferences. Never drink coffee, he tells us, as coffee spreads darkness. He likes the air just so; his company just so; his meal just so. And, in the same breath, he says that the key to living well is the affirmation of everything. How can he reconcile this?

Well, for Nietzsche, saying no is not necessarily saying No. There is a no-saying that affirms this body, this health, this life. We have to know our own way of going. If coffee makes you sick, don't drink coffee. But, he tells us, we want to be in a situation in which we can say Yes as much as possible as no-saying expends energy, sapping life.

It seems to me that preferences are not only inevitable but good. It is what differentiates me from you. But when these preferences prevail in the moment and become demands, there is only madness. Sure, you might shape your life to fit your preferences — only go to certain bars, date certain women, talk to certain people. Or do what I often do and just stay the fuck home, alone. But this is a strange strategy as it's doomed from the get go. At some point, you will be in a situation you can't control, that doesn't conform to your preferences. It's not a matter of adapt or die as much as it's a matter of accept and get on with it.

I've always taken pride in my preferences, fancying myself a discerning man. But this discernment becomes an escape from the flux and flow of life, a moral code that dictates from on high, trying to make the inevitable unruliness of life obey. My preferences become my own private fascist, trying to force life's meandering cadence into a military march that conforms to me and me alone. This is when preference is no longer a matter of health and self-sustainability but a matter of sickness, denial, and living death.

A few weeks ago, I was in Golden Gate Park (in San Francisco) with a friend. It was a rare sunny, warm, Spring day and the field was filled with all sorts of 20-something sporty types throwing objects and drinking beer. We sat on the perimeter, as is my preference (I've always sat in the back of the bus, the classroom, the movie theater as crowds displease me). At some point, my friend wanted to refill our water bottles from the water fountain located over yonder and — ahhhh! — through the crowd. Without thinking, I started walking with her when, all of a sudden, I noticed myself in the middle of this swarm of bodies drinking, tossing, shouting, cavorting. I stopped short and immediately scanned for my escape: there, a path that winds outside of the throngs! My friend looked at me and, without skipping a beat, declared: Don't look for the exit. Just go with it. And, with that, I relaxed and together we strode through the sea of bodies, balls whizzing by our heads, sweaty frat bros hollering this and that. And all — all — was good.

1 comment:

Lindsay Meisel said...

If I had seen you, I would have thrown you a frisbee!