A steaming dish of your favorite food is placed before you. Look at those flavor-coded colors - even your eyes water in anticipation. Sniff those savory smells - your nose twitches with delight. You reach for your fork to turn fantasy into reality. And then an awful thing happens. Your waiter shouts into your ear: ''Enjoy!''
What is it about commands to pleasure that make the heart sink like a collapsed souffle?
Perhaps it is because this injunction to enjoy is but one dreadful step away from all the manuals on How to Enjoy. Does the chef who prepared your dish have braced before him, between his vinegar and his salad oil, ''The Joy of Cooking''? Is there, somewhere near the water glasses, an instruction book for waiters and waitresses titled ''The Joy of Serving''? Will a revised edition of ''The Joy of Serving'' eventually list in its pages the instruction to serve with every entree a manual titled ''The Joy of Eating''?
In emancipating ourselves, supposedly, from puritanism we have transposed our moral earnestness from the work ethic to the pleasure ethic. And now it is not having fun that makes us feel guilty. The solemnity of taking pleasure has made it into the new form of duty.
Let us say you love cats or dogs - or maybe even both. You acquire one - or both - and give yourself over to the spontaneous satisfaction of petting your pet. It's as simple as that.
Not at all. A man named Dr. Michael Fox will rid you of that naive notion in a hurry. Dr. Fox is not only a veterinarian and a psychologist but a Ph.D. and a D.Sc., not to forget ''a certified massage therapist.'' He has written a book called ''Massage Program for Cats and Dogs'' to let everybody know just how intricate the joy of petting a pet can be.
Such rigorous concentration is required that, first, you must take the phone off the hook. Then you are ordered to put ''quiet music'' on the stereo - no, not that quiet music, dummy! Next, with the full understanding that your pet has been under ''stress'' - those nasty blue jays, those sassy squirrels - you must speak the following words in a ''reassuring voice'': ''Okay, time for relaxation. . . . Let's see how your back is doing. . . .''
All this drill - consuming up to 20 minutes a day - ought to be enough to make you trade your pet for a copy of ''The I Don't Understand Football Book, Or How to Tackle the Game Painlessly.'' But don't let the jovial tone fool you. Behind the cajoling, somebody is very seriously instructing you on how to enjoy watching a popular sport on America's foremost entertainment medium. What have we all come to? Well, for one thing - on page 87 - our old moral imperative: ''Enjoy!''
No wonder Parade magazine recently ran a feature under the headline, ''Is Your Fun Too Much Work?'' The trouble is, the article itself only made the pursuit of pleasure seem even grimmer. After citing cautionary cases of bookkeepers who take to coin-collecting, thus repeating their work patterns in their recreation, the author brings on the experts - a new breed known as ''leisure counselors.''
These scholars from Enjoy University seem to rely chiefly on a mechanical strategy of opposites: whatever you do for work, do the opposite for fun. This formula produces some bizarre advice.
Your job is ''repetitive''? For fun, ''Memorize some Shakespeare.''
Your job is ''dull''? In your spare time, ''Go out with a metal detector and seek buried treasure.''
Are these people kidding? Of course not. As the reviewer of a comic novelist recently reminded us, play is the ''ultimate seriousness.''
We're certainly not laughing. In fact, the whole industry of pleasure-proselytizing has got us pretty seriously displeased.
Out of curiosity we looked up the recreational advice for people in our business, operating on a ''deadline.''
''Go for a hike,'' the leisure counselors said.
They took the words out of our mouth.