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Living the Guilty Pleasure life

From fanfic to dive bars, indulgences that drain our extra cash and time
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An extra hour in your day? An extra sawbuck in your wallet?  Sure, you could fritter them away on a new paperback copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or a nice chef salad.  But really, where's the fun in that?

We firmly believe indulgences should be frivolous — little wastages of your hard-earned time and money that have no redeeming value and absolutely no basis at all in prudence.  That's why they're indulgent, no?

Whether it's street food, other peoples' intimate online ramblings or an extra helping of salt, here are a few unsung pleasures that help make life just a bit more fun.

For Better or For Worse

“Peanuts” is forever in reruns. “Doonesbury” is hit or miss. Don’t get me started on the horror that is “Family Circus.” The one comic strip that is as vital to my mornings as coffee is Lynn Johnston’s “For Better or For Worse.” Johnson has been telling the story of Canada's Patterson family for decades now, and unlike most strips, she let her characters grow up on the page. Son Mike went from a baby to a schoolchild to a collegiate journalist to a married father of two. Daughter Liz is now teaching school in a First Nations community. Even young April recently had her first make-out session after eighth-grade graduation. Sure, the strip sometimes drives me bonkers: Do the Pattersons have to be so perfect? How do all Mike’s friends have million-dollar businesses already? What’s with the weird storyline about Liz’s now-married boyfriend and his baby-hating French-Canadian wife, Thérèse? But stop reading? Never! The Pattersons are like family now, and you don’t give up on family. —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

Taco trucks

A James Beard award is due whoever took the utter perfection that is the taco and decided to sell it from a vehicle. Some days it’s hard to believe I once led a life in which tacos came from Taco Bell and Old El Paso — a life unenlightened by the joys of fresh masa tortillas handed to me through the slide window of a panel truck.  Taco trucks are the retort to every snooty menu ever written, every lousy Tex-Mex chain that darkens the face of our great land. They serve working mens’ food, which means you don’t inquire where the beef came from and you drink Jarritos soda, not Evian. Though you can stay in the shallow end of the meat pool, with chicken or carne asada, a good taco truck’s real pleasures are revealed to the brave: Try the tacos de lengua (tongue) or cabeza (beef cheek).  A Seattle even serves up my favorite tostada de ceviche. One final tip: Wine country is filled with taco trucks, since most vineyards would shrivel and die without Mexican laborers. Next time, skip the frou-frou bistros and head for the convenience-store parking lot. Best $5 meal you’ll ever find.  —Jon Bonné

Shark books on the beach

“Jaws” was scary enough to keep beachgoers out of the ocean for decades. But what if there was something so large lurking beneath your flailing legs, it made a Great White look like a sea monkey? That’s the premise behind the three “MEG” books by Steve Alten, which explore what might happen if a 20-ton Megalodon shark survived since prehistoric times by hanging out in the depths of the Mariana Trench, then decided to visit the shallows — a smorgasbord of surfers and swimmers. It’s the pure terror in the concept that makes these books ideal reading at the beach. How can you not tremble a little as you plop yourself down in the sand and crack the spine, letting your eyes lift from the page and stare out into the water, hoping to God you don’t see a fin the size of a sailboat cutting through the ocean? A movie’s in the works, but the most visceral thrills come when you feel the book in your hand, the sand in your toes and your heart jackhammering in your chest. —Brian Bellmont

Fan fiction
At this moment, dedicated amateur authors are rewriting "The Half-Blood Prince" as they think it was meant to be, with Harry and Hermione (not Ginny!) coupled up. Fanfic, as its purveyors call it, is any derivative story using pre-existing fictional characters that does not have the official sanction of their original creators. Its origins lie with Trekkers who, reading sexual tension into the Kirk/Spock relationship, typed up tales wherein the two became romantically entangled. (Seriously!) Most centers on indulging the writers' impassioned, lovesick fantasies. I initially encountered deliciously bad fanfic a decade ago while perusing "X-Files" Web sites. Particularly memorable was one narrative wherein Scully and Mulder used their FBI vacation time to blush, flirt, hug and go rock-climbing together. It was like watching someone pick her nose on public transportation; an embarrassing, yet mesmerizing, unselfconscious display. The genre remains a diverting mess of adolescent wish-fulfillment. A fanficcer often inserts herself into her favorite fantasy world, depicting her autobiographical character as beyond flawless: the gorgeous teenage X-Man who soundly defeats Magneto while winning the heart of Wolverine, for example. Only fanfic can offer explicit bedroom scenes ... written by adolescent virgins ... starring hobbits. What's not to love?  —Kim Rollins

Magazine subscriptions

I know there's a coffee table under there somewhere, I just haven’t seen it in a while. When you subscribe to as many magazines as I do, well, the issues have to pile up somewhere. I’m not sure where my addiction was born. Sure, I worked at a regional magazine for six years, but my love probably started earlier than that — perhaps in childhood, with Highlights for Children. Then I discovered that eBay sells the world’s cheapest magazine subscriptions (3 years for $5?), and I was gone. I’ve never lived in New York, but I subscribe to both New York Magazine and the New Yorker. You’d think I’d be more fashion-forward, since I get Vogue and InStyle. Or a better cook, thanks to Cooking Light and Saveur. Sometimes I try out subscriptions that fit an imaginary life that I might live someday, like International Gymnast or American Cake Decorating. It takes a lot for me to dump a subscription, but really, W? Your oversized issues filled with insipid socialites have gotten on my last nerve.  —G.F.C.

Ice cream sandwiches

Plenty of frozen treats taste good, but it's the ice cream sandwich that's a triumph of texture.  With each bite, you savor how your teeth pass through the chewy, ever-so-slightly gritty chocolate cake into that creamy vanilla core. These two components taste so different, yet the textures are unsettlingly similar -- a far cry from those impenetrable ice cream bars whose hard coatings crackle as you bite. The sandwich's brilliance lies in its simplicity. Its vanilla-chocolate contrast shows flavor stripped to its most powerful essence. (Unless you're eating a Neapolitan version; also tasty, if a bit gaudy.)  No sprinkles or nonpareils or popsicle sticks here, just a straightforward, self-contained treat: like a street-food version of the icebox cake you always coveted before dinner. Now over a century old, the sandwich has been dolled up over time with cookies and dips and zany flavors. But the more more modernity tries to intervene, the better the original tastes -- a reminder that sometimes the guiltiest pleasure is the least complicated one. —J.B.

Online diaries
I don’t know Sarah Katherine. I’ve never met her and chances are good I’ll never meet her. But what I do know is that she used to live in Seattle and that she was a stripper. I know that she’s had an on-again/off-again relationship with her boyfriend Otto and that he lives in Portland. I know that she recently moved to New Orleans and just got a haircut. You see, even though, I don’t know her, I feel compelled to read her online journal almost every day. And she’s not the only online journal I visit. Among others, I also keep up with what’s going on in Dave White’s life and Sarah Brown’s. I’ve tried to justify this to myself in every way possible. They’re good writers? Well, yes, actually they’re all quite good. They’ve got great stories to tell? Check. But when it comes right down to it, I know it’s just a case of good old-fashioned voyeurism, like eavesdropping on people on the bus. It’s the reality TV of the Internet and I just can’t tear myself away.  —Paige Newman

Kosher salt

I've always been addicted to salt. Even when my friends and family complains that something is too salty, I'll likely add more. Last year, I ate with a colleague at a Chicago restaurant, and there wasn't a salt shaker on the table. Instead, we got a bowl with a small spoon full of huge grains of exceptionally flavorful salt that enhanced the taste of the food 100 times over. I was addicted. I quickly bought a box of kosher salt — named such not because it's kosher, but because it's used to make meats kosher — and began to increase my blood pressure. I use it like table salt, sprinkling crystals from the spout so as to not turn my dinner into a diorama of the North Pole. A quarter-teaspoon contains 480 mg of sodium — 20 percent as much as I'm supposed to consume in a day. So after I've used it on my pizza, or pasta, or rice, I've probably consumed an entire week’s worth of sodium. But the flavor is worth it. And my blood pressure has yet to be affected, at least according to that machine at CVS.  —Andy Dehnart

Alphabet soup

Soup is pretty highfalutin' these days: puree of rutabaga with truffle oil, that sort of thing. But classics are classics for a reason, even if Progresso foolishly suggests I abandon childhood favorites for more “grown-up soup.” As a kid, the bowl I craved most was Campbell's alphabet soup; you can still occasionally find a can in my cabinet, and for good reason. Its simple “Vegetable” label is a misnomer: Chunks of carrots and potato are there, just shy of mushy and yet irresistible. But the base is beef stock (and remember they used to have a version with meatballs?) with a zingy tomato flavor that brightens up every spoonful, plus less savory things like corn syrup and nearly a day's worth of sodium in every can. Still, it's the alphabet pasta that makes me love it so: pieces to push around the bowl (take that, Progresso!) and gobble up like a big kid. Other shapes — stars, or spaceships — seem silly now, but (and maybe it's my lexicographer's soul) I can still eat the alphabet on a damp, cold day with most of my dignity intact. When I'm sick, it's not chicken soup that comes to the rescue. Given the choice, I'd rather spell and slurp the sniffles away.  —J.B.

Dive bars
It’s 6:15 p.m. at The Hat in West Orange, N.J. and already Danny and Doug are deep into it. After eight hours renovating a nearby home, they arrived at 4:30 for a round of darts, then pool. Then Mark, who works for the town, arrived with a deck of cards for blackjack. The faint-hearted are departing, heading home to wives or girlfriends. Others, like me, have just arrived, hoping for a bit of conversation to take the edge of another day, another dollar. I’m not particularly fond of country music, I’m happily married and I don’t really gamble. But to quote Toby Keith, “I love this bar.” When I walk in, the bartenders greet me with a smile and a Miller Lite. The owner, a biker with a heart of gold, slaps me on the back and asks about my Triumph.  Dive bars scare some people. Perhaps we’re an intimidating bunch at first, but there isn’t a bad heart among us. Sure, the bathrooms are disgusting. The place smells of smoke and sour beer. There’s the occasional brawl, and enough gossip to keep Liz Smith happy. But there’s a sense of family. We talk endlessly about the Giants or the war or the right way to hang a door. On the wall, right near a picture of Doug’s late brother, is a picture of me and my own. Go find that at Chili’s.  —Michael MoranPerfume

Some women adore shoes, with box after box filling their closet. For me, it’s perfume, with colorful, sculptured bottles hogging all the space on my bathroom counter. My summer addiction is Bobbi Brown Beach, which smells delightfully like Coppertone lotion, but my usual favorite, Jo Malone Black Vetyver Café, has a calming, almost coffee-ish scent. As with magazine subscriptions, I rue the day I discovered you could purchase perfume samples on eBay. Forget huge expensive bottles: For just a dollar or so, now I can sample scents I may never have tried otherwise. Fragrance has such a personal hold on our minds. When I smell Estee Lauder’s White Linen, I think of my dear friend Ann, who always had a bottle in her room. She died in 1995, but that scent still conjures her up in my mind and heart. Clinique Happy reminds me of my first newspaper job; Clinique Happy Heart of my cross-country move from Minnesota to Seattle. I don’t wear Le Jardin de Max Factor these days, but I keep a tiny bottle on hand because it’s what I wore to my high school prom. One sniff floods my mind with the memory of 1980s taffeta ballgowns and nervous boyfriends drenched in Aramis.   –G.F.C.

Anne Rivers Siddons

I love airport bookstores for their selections of Anne Rivers Siddons paperbacks. I just wish they sold brown paper covers with them. Siddons isn’t a smutty author or a trashy author; she’s a really, really bad author. Nothing much happens in her Southern-flavored books. A dark secret is often alluded to, or a family mystery, but the smoky (or coltish, or “preternaturally vivid”) heroine usually muddles her way through to a safe ending with the man of her dreams. Sometimes that man is her wealthy husband — who she only appreciates after sex with the caretaker. Sometimes that man is the caretaker. Either way, you know she’ll be just fine. No woman with such captivating eyes can be anything but. Just don’t read Siddons for plot. You’ll often reach the end and realize you know how the main character dresses, and her sorority affiliation, but have no recollection of what actually happened.  That’s okay.  You read these to admire the scenery, to consider what it would be like to have great bone structure or dusky lashes. Perfect for a four-hour flight, but when I get home, I stash them in the closet.  —Hannah Meehan Spector