guilt by (de)association

The other night, I was asked to give a Drunk TED Talk about “guilty pleasures,” and so I sat cross-legged on the stage floor and spewed this unlikely American aria about Olive Garden’s “Buy One, Take One” promotion, secondhand happiness, “[activating] relationship-based concepts,” and everyone’s favorite TV family, the Simpsons. Here it is, if you get off on any of those.

I disagree with the idea that there’s “no such thing as a guilty pleasure.” My brain-arrangement is such that everything I enjoy carries some degree of guilt along with it, so I know that there is such a thing, which I otherwise understand as “all things.” Thankfully, this renders “guilty pleasures,” in my head, a dialectic—all things are, so nothing is. The tension lies, for me, in deciding what I will allow myself to consider “guilty,” and there’s a very simple litmus test to determine where any isolated pleasure will fall: Am I alone when I am doing it?

I am elated when I’m able to mutually enthuse about a given something—anything—with someone—anyone. That’s probably because I spent so much of my life alone, in a family awash with substance-abuse problems—a category of people not known for their skills in open expression—in a meathead New Jersey town where nearly all of my peers adopted an exaggerated fake-O Italian Super Mario accent as a stab at social currency. It’s-a-me, isolation! The internet existed when I was an adolescent, but I didn’t like it or see how I could use it to find people to whom I could relate. The things I liked were appreciated in solitude.

When there’s no one around to co-sign a pleasure for me, I have no sounding board as to whether what I’m doing is well and sublimely fucked, and so the chosen activity becomes, in tandem, both guiltier and more pleasurable—the thought sounds like, If I like it, how could it be right? My guess is that, on some level, I intentionally design it this way. The things I feel most sated by, which is to say most internally conflicted about, are the ones that, as I confessed to a beloved friend once, “I can never tell to anyone, or they’ll think I’m deranged.”

She disagreed, so I bit back my worry and spewed them her way. Upon hearing their sleazy details, my friend comforted me, saying: “These are like the esoteric character-exposition points relayed by a movie heroine that were written to order to make the audience love her more.” Let’s hope she was right, but I highly doubt it.

I still don’t like spending much time on the internet, except in the service of the trained-animal behavior that allows me to exercise the built-in predilection for lonesomeness that I learned in earlier years. Over the past 10 years, when I haven’t been able to sleep—if it’s really dire insomnia—I go online and read fast-food industry publications and promotional menus. Alternatively, I’ll trawl The Simpsons–centric memorabilia forums that went dormant around 2013 in search of personal clues embedded in the past posts of avid collectors. Do you see why I couldn’t conceive of sharing these very non-cinematic biographical blights with someone? I have many memories of slamming my laptop closed when a sleeping partner lying parallel to me stirred, murmuring, “Whuh time is it?” at 4 AM. I was glad of the fact that they probably assumed I was cruising pornography. That was far better than the truth, in my head.

Still, the attitude I have toward these habits is somewhat fetishistic—plus a surrogate means of human connection—so I get how someone might confuse the two. Thinking about the satisfaction I take in two distinctly American tastes—food and The Simpsons—as enjoyed with several layers of remove between the actual articles and the ways I chose to like them, I realize that they confound my idea that I am constructing a distance between what I took pleasure in and the rest of the population’s idea of a good time. 

Let’s start with the whole fast-food deal. I’ll walk you through my typical routine when I’m “indulging” this urge. First, I usually hit up QSR Magazine’s website, my portal to the rest of the bingeing process. QSR stands for “quick-service review.” It’s a trade journal for franchisees and other industry figures in the fast-casual and chain restaurant businesses. Its headlines read, “Dunkin’ Donuts Bring Back White Cheddar Twist,” and, “Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s Grills Up Midnight Moonshine Burger.” I click on every one, taking in nearly identical insights from CEOs and executive chefs like the Dunks’ Jeff Miller, who had this to say about the reintroduction of his cheese bread: “The White Cheddar Bagel Twist adds an exciting flavor to our bagel menu, and is another way for fans to enjoy a freshly-baked bagel.” I have never eaten a White Cheddar Bagel Twist, but I’m happy the fans are happy.

On QSR, I also learn that Olive Garden’s “Buy One, Take One” promotion is back, so I go to the restaurant chain’s website to find out more. “Gather your family for dinner tonight and tomorrow,” Olive Garden instructs me.  I click a button that prompts me to “Explore Choices,” which I am already doing in a more critical, self-questioning sense about this decision re: how to spend my life on this planet, but I digress. I review the options the families will gather around—fettuccine alfredo, something called sausage-stuffed giant rigatoni—and I feel somehow fuller. I’m imagining the two-day-dinner stretch of others by way of a corporate website, and when I’m here? I’m family, even if I’m alone, or, if not alone, with one hand clasped around the top of my laptop, its muscles tensed and at the ready to clap it closed should a person I love wake up, and the other hand navigating to

A study titled, in part, “Comfort Food Fulfills the Need to Belong,” by Jordan D. Troisi, a psychologist at SUNY Buffalo, asserts that “comfort foods are associated with relationships and alleviate loneliness. A series of experiments [found that] consumption of comfort foods automatically activates relationship-related concepts.” So why am I reading instead of eating? That illustrates another point of connection with my fellow Americans in this otherwise lonely compulsion: As Michael Pollen wrote in his famous 2004 essay, “Our National Eating Disorder,” “Asked what comes to mind upon hearing the phrase “chocolate cake,” Americans were […] apt to say ‘guilt,’ while the French said ‘celebration’ […] Compared with the French, we’re much more likely to choose foods for reasons of health, and yet the French, more apt to choose on the basis of pleasure, are the healthier people.”

We still eat, though, or find a way around eating, as I have, to get close. (I want to note here that I don’t have any pronounced aversion to fast food—this is just what I do, and why I suspect that I do it.) As the Simpson family put it during an episode about rich food, as they danced around their matriarch in a conga line: “You don’t win friends with sal-AD!”

That brings me to my second guilty pleasure. Another substitution is at the heart of my sleuthing through comment threads on Simpsons paraphernalia enthusiast sites as I try to become an ersatz biographer of the people looking for the Blinky Bart doll, the rarest Simpsons collectible on Earth, or complete their World of Springfield sets. I tripped over the Simpsons Collector Sector, my preferred drugstore of choice, one night as I hunted for a Life in Hell T-shirt to showcase my ardor for Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s first comic strip. Immediately, my attention was vacuumed up instead by the emotional candor of the people on this community meant for buying, selling, and trading collectibles.

Here’s a 2012 post by Simpsonssuperfan: 

Recently my family has asked me to sell the entire collection on Ebay due to downsizing their house and me soon to go off to college. I have tried but every time I start going through everything I can’t bring myself to part with it. My biggest fear is to sell it but then regret it as due to it is part of my childhood. Does anyone have advice who have been through a similiar situation?

Kermy812 responds:

I still have quite a basement warehouse from the “everything” days. The past few years, I’ve been so busy with a brother & mom with mental illness, I just can’t seem find time or patience to sort through it all too. (Don’t get me started)

I get the “stink eye” from the wife every once and while to clear out the basement too. Just can’t do it yet. The stuff that I focus on, I keep in the upstairs office, where it is not out of control (like the basement).

Simpsonsuperfan responds with, “Thanks for the advice man I appreciate it.”

These people are looking for others who understand, and, in my hands-off way, I think I do. “Marriage,” I search. “Mother.” I read the posts that these words turn up, then work my way backward through the commenters’ accounts, trying to determine the shape of their lives.

Please note that, in doing this, I am not actually watching The Simpsons, and nor are the targets of my voyeurism: These people found their own emotional Plexiglass through which to watch what was, for very many years—the years in which I grew up—the most popular show in America. The people on the Simpsons Collector Sector don’t seem guilty about the lens through which they’ve chosen to view The Simpsons, but I still feel a strange camaraderie with them: We are trying to make our love for an eminently and widely loved thing presentational.

It feels slightly goofy to approach a show whose lead character’s catchphrase is “D’oh!” from an analytical standpoint, but, on the show, the Simpsons live in Springfield, an American everytown—as you likely know, the name of their city was chosen for reasons of relatability, because every state in the U.S. has a Springfield. Everyone likes this show. I have a pair of knockoff Jeremy Scott denim shorts printed with the face of bart simpson—I call the the friend-makers, because invariably, if I wear them to a club, especially outside of New York, they live up to that name—once, in Venice Beach, they earned me the only catcall I can remember ever enjoying in earnest: “I want to eat your shorts!! EVERYONE likes this show.

The people on the Simpsons Collector Sector forum reflect a similar universality: They worry about families, spouses, and childhood, and they celebrate the same, as we all do. My favorite post is by a guy who calls himself Cletus, after the hick Simpsons character with a Southern drawl, who has like a million kids: In 2007, he started a thread called, “I’m Having a Boy! Now With Pics!” and I’d like to show you some of it. 


It’s official, my wife is pregnant with our first child. We just went to our first doctor’s appointment this morning. Her due date is May 8th. They did an ultrasound and it was amazing to see the baby’s heart beating (at only 8 weeks old!)

I couldn’t be more excited! We’ve both been looking forward to this for a very long time, but we decided to put starting a family on hold while we finished school. Now the time has come. So I’ve got a little Simpsons Fan in the making and I just wanted to share it with one of my favorite groups of people!

Tomorrow we are flying out to Salt Lake City to see my wife’s family, and tell her parents in person. I went nuts (as my wife thinks it) and bought a bottle of Dom Perignon (the fancy stuff) to celebrate with my family when we see them next week!

Eight people post thrilled, congratulatory responses. Dathrill writes, “yahooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo! kids rule!”

Red the Trucker writes, “Congrats Cletus! Any chance of a Simpsons middle name?” Reading this, I was weirdly touched that he respected the gravity of the situation enough not to suggest a first name.

Cletus again:

Originally my wife didn’t want to know the gender of the baby before-hand and I did. But she heard from a friend at work, that they asked the doctor to write it down and they wrapped it up, then opened it on Christmas morning. My wife liked this idea, so that’s what we did.

We opened the doctor’s note yesterday morning and we’re having a baby boy! He’s going to be named Brian Donald, after our fathers.

GusBanks writes, Congrats on soon-to-be Brian! Mother’s Day is May 11th, so your wife is getting her present early. Get your sleep now while you still can

Ketriana writes, Congratulation! What changes await you, or at least so I have heard.

A few weeks later, Cletus comes back:

We’re coming down to the wire and I won’t have much of a chance to post after a couple of weeks, so I wanted to get in another update. The baby is breech right now, so the doctor has scheduled a c-section for April 28th. That means that in less than a fortnight the baby will be here. The wife and baby are both doing fine and since it’s not an emergency c-section we have little to worry about. I’ll post pictures once he’s here, until then I’m just counting down the last (and frightening) two weeks!

GusBanks again: Hang in there, Cletus. Can’t wait to meet Brian.

Amidst other messages of support, HomerSapien writes, Anybody have any star-shaped pajamas and a pacifier we can send Cletus to make the kid look like Maggie?

Finally, on April 30, 2008, this from Cletus:

Baby Brian arrived on April 28th at 8:11am. He weighed 7 pounds 9 ounces and was 20.5 inches long. Both baby and mother are doing well. We will be bringing him home on Friday! Here are a couple of pics.

In the pictures, which I felt a little too skeevy to post here (go fucking figure, given the rest of this), a smiling woman in a hospital bed gently hugs a red infant to her breast. She isn’t wearing a shirt, but a dotted blanket is drawn up to her shoulders under Brian Donald. There are tubes in her arm, but she is radiant with joy to see this lilguy enter the world, so you don’t see them unless you really look, like I am really looking. The forum exploded with love and support. I think I cried the first time I read it.

My guilty pleasures, about which I’ve never told anyone, save for a handful of people, and which are always expressed alone, are as much about feeling kindred to the world as they are about concealing something from it. They are a way to experience the warmth of provision and love and family, in my fucked, strained way. A way to, as the psychologists at SUNY Buffalo wrote, “alleviate loneliness” and “activate relationship-based concepts.”

I have to revise the idea I initially brought to this topic: Even in my most solitary guilty pleasures, I am trying to find communion. Reading internet fast-food coupons and snooping through long-forgotten birth announcements from Cletus’s brood fulfills a hunger I couldn’t quell by myself. I don’t think I can feel so much guilt about that.

1 Comment

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One response to “guilt by (de)association

  1. Is “beautiful” too simple a critique here? Yes. But what else would suffice? Thanks for a lovely 10 minutes. xoxo

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