Whither the centerfold?
And why should I care? Chalk it down to the perturbed musings of Pete Townshend and T-Bone Burnett. Or to a bizarre glitch in kismet that seems to land Hugh Hefner in the papers every second month -- the most recent example being Joan Acocella's critical gaze at Playboy. Reviewing Taschen's The Playmate Book: Six Decades of Centerfolds for The New Yorker, she can muster little more than a disdainful sniff for the enterprise. When I first read it, I thought, "Well, give a brainy woman a book of centerfolds and ask her what she thinks, and this is what you'll get." I also thought she was right.
Playboy was never much of a habit for me -- I was enough of a moralist to make it a habit not to make it a habit, a practise that generally kept me out of trouble until I considered myself old enough to manage it. To borrow a phrase from Raising Arizona, I released myself on my own recognizance after a summer of industrial delivery. The wallpaper on most delivery bays was courtesy of Hef and his co-conspirators: the overall effect was less than arousing, and the stray issues I obtained amounted to a flat experience. The last issue I bought was over 15 years ago. I don't recall the cover, the pictorial spreads or the centerfold, but I do recall the literary content: an extended travelogue of India, by Spalding Grey. It would be disingenuous of me to say I bought it for the article, but that's finally what I took away from it.
In contrast, I have no trouble recollecting the first centerfold I was exposed to. But then, I was a callow lad prone to the sort of typical callow lad obsessions that John Irving has plumbed with such depth of perception. A 12-year-old boy looks at those faintly orange pictures and finds it hard to believe the day will ever arrive when he is given license to explore the undiscovered country.
As erotica, I think prepubescent inexperience is the only condition in which Playboy works. Experience pretty much overwhelms and kills it, which leads me to wonder when might be the last time Hef found his own product arousing. More likely, Hef reached a saturation point where arousal was no longer the intention. In his waning years, Hef has devoted a great deal of energy to selling himself as the final product. Playboy, like Martha Stewart, is finally an extended brochure promoting one person's very particular lifestyle -- in this case, Hugh Hefner's. You'd be a fool to think your own lifestyle could ever approach that of Hef's (it's a zero-sum game, and Hef got there first), but maybe if you subscribe for a year or two, a little Playboy (or InStyle, or Muscle & Fitness) pixie-dust will float your way.
I'm reluctant to concede such points. I dislike being the square, the moralistic killjoy. Were I pressed to express an official line on the subject of centerfolds, it would be akin to my friend's sentiments: "I like looking over a beautiful girl as much as the next straight guy. But, you gotta know ... that's all kidstuff,"
Indeed. It would be nice if such insular pleasures as considering the erotic plane would inspire the viewer to step outside and properly engage, but the human inclination seems to be quite the opposite. From my lofty perspective outside Hef's glass mansion, I can't help thinking the man's life is a tad impoverished. My father-in-law, four years Hef's junior and in many ways the embodiment of Hef's darkest nightmares, has led twice the life. He's married people, buried people, witnessed life come into the world and leave it. He's got a million hilarious stories, quite a few of them related to funerals, and at least one involving a cross-eyed undertaker who accidentally tumbled into his customer's grave. He's been around the world and led numerous choirs, some of them too glorious for words, others too disastrous to be believed. A lusty, gusty man, he's never made a secret of his appetites -- he's just made a point of indulging them within the confines and security of his marriage.
For better or worse, he's often like a big kid. But better that, I suppose, than an old, embittered grump. To one degree or another it's all kidstuff. And if you can keep the kid alive in something as grown-up as marriage, then I think you've got something worth calling a lifestyle.