Thursday, April 27, 2006

One More Dinner Party Tip

As you know, one of the secrets of happiness is enjoying Flow activities as often as you can. Writing has always been the way I get my Flow on (along with cooking and, of course, shopping for expensive boots). Writing allows me to forget my worries or what time it is, and be completely focused on the moment, so happy I don’t even think to wonder whether I’m happy or not.

Recently I learned that groups as well as individuals may attain Flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Czech psychologist who coined the term, said that a creative spatial arrangement is one way to encourage Group Flow. For example, let’s say you’re having a brainstorming session with your work colleagues, you should have chairs and white boards in the conference room—but remove the table (or, of course, you can keep the table and skip the chairs).

Because of my continued scientific interest in the dinner party, I cannot help wondering how you could apply Group Flow principles when entertaining. Usually my method of inducing Group Flow is to keep refilling people’s wineglasses. Now I’m wondering whether all I need to do is hide their chairs.

But let me return to the subject at hand. A year ago I wasn’t doing enough writing, and so I started a blog. But now I’m writing a lot. Currently I’m getting my Flow fix from a piece for one of my favorite magazines, a new novel, and a couple of other projects. With so much to do, I have to make a choice about where my time and energy goes—and I’ve decided to take a break from Resident Alien. Until I return, I hope that you will Flow.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

For God's Sake

When they knocked down the freeway over Octavia Street, the prostitutes and crack addicts that used to hang out there were driven away. Now the Street is a Boulevard and Hayes Valley has at least four new eateries, including Sebo, where I went last night. Outside, the frosted windows proclaimed its exclusivity. Inside, the décor was understated and the sake menu overwritten. Each sake inspired a paragraph of purple prose. The description of “Heavenly Grace” made it sound better than Tantric sex with a mermaid: “Your palate will enjoy a rush of silky flavors that roll on a viscous fluid that has fruit forward goodness and ends in a watery goodbye.”

Then there was “Reformation”: “If it were a house, the first floor would have wood and straw elements; the second floor, young green vegetables, and the third, a dash of minerals and a refreshing bitter flavor.” Huh? What kind of house has young green vegetables on the second floor? I felt annoyed by this blatant abuse of extended simile, the comparison abandoned almost as soon as it was made. It was simile for simile’s sake, an empty conceit, a single rhetorical flourish that seemed to embody everything that is going wrong with Hayes Valley, and everything that happens once you turn a Street into a Boulevard. Soon, I thought miserably, our neighborhood would be the kind of place where every restaurant has a line and every cocktail has three storeys. I ordered the sake nonetheless, and climbed to the top floor, where I felt much more cheerful, reflecting: "If this house was a glass of sake, everyone who lives here would be drunk."

Friday, April 14, 2006

Transcendence, via the Tealeaf

Ancient Moonlight.
Black Velvet.
Monkey Picked Iron Goddess of Mercy.
No, these are not the names of medical marijuana strains, but of teas served at Samovar tea lounge in Noe Valley. However, if the menu is to be believed, the teas are almost as potent. Monkey King is “A deep, lingering sybaritic journey,” Black Velvet will “radically improve your day,” and Iron Goddess promises to “penetrate your issues and dissolve them.”

Like most English people, I find the phrase, "a nice cup of tea and a sit down" to be one of the most beautiful in the language. There is nothing like tea to banish the five o’clock blues. Anna, the eighteenth-century Duchess of Bedford, one of the first Brits to serve afternoon tea, claimed that it banished a “sinking feeling” and I think that she was right.

My friend Bodhi, though far from British, is a fellow tea aficionado. She humored me by naming our Burning Man camp “the Desert Tea Lounge” and serving tea in assorted garage-sale teapots. (She sported a skimpy dress that would have shocked the Duchess of Bedford, made of secondhand lace tablecloths.) Last Friday, Bodhi again demonstrated her commitment to tea by venturing out in a downpour to join me at Samovar.

Tea lounges are springing up everywhere these days, aspiring to do for tea what Starbucks did for coffee. Tea’s popularity now doubt owes something to its touted health benefits, but there is another reason that tea is the perfect beverage for our age. Coffee suited the work-obsessed nineties, but tea, which calms you down as well as stimulating you, is more meditative, more suited for our slower-paced times. This is a more spiritual age, one in which we are supposedly more interested in fulfillment than in getting rich quick. I believe that tea, because of its association with Asian cultures, has a vaguely mystical appeal. It is no accident that at Samovar there are statues of the Buddha and of many-armed Hindu deities.

You’d think that I would be overjoyed by the tea-lounge trend, but in fact the English like to drink bad tea (one reason is that in the nineteenth-century, unscrupulous tea merchants adulterated it with dried leaves and chaff and we got used to drinking swill). Our preference for bad tea is a matter of temperament as well as tradition. A nice cup of tea is perfectly lovely, but a “sybaritic journey for all the senses”? Well, it makes a Brit distinctly uncomfortable.

As Bodhi and I scanned the menu, I realized another problem with topnotch tea: it costs six bucks a pot. But then, I reflected, I spent $6,000 on therapy. If Iron Goddess could “penetrate and dissolve my issues,” then at one-thousandth of the cost, it was pretty cheap.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Haunted Bathroom

I am feeling perky today. As we say in England, there’s enough blue in the sky to make a sailor a pair of trousers (or maybe it’s just my family that says that). After so many days of rain, a scrap of blue sky is a glorious thing. And so, I discovered yesterday, is a child. No, I’m not expecting one of my own. I started volunteer-tutoring at 826 Valencia.

The workshop that I’m helping out with is a journalism class. Over the course of four weeks, the kids, aged eight to eighteen, each write an article. Then we produce an issue of a newspaper, the Valencia Bay-farer. In the first class, a week ago, we had a brainstorming session. My friend Chris, who was leading the class, asked the kids to come up with as many article ideas as they could in fifteen minutes.
“Britney Spears!”
“My school bathroom!”
“Now that sounds promising,” said Chris. An investigative report on school bathrooms. What about your school bathroom interests you?” The kid thought for a minute, then announced:
“My school bathroom is haunted!” It's hard to teach kids what journalism is.

Marty Seligman, one of my spiritual heroes, says helping others is one of the keys to authentic happiness. This is one reason I volunteered at 826. Unfortunately, I haven’t been feeling the virtuous glow, the satisfied selfish selflessness, that I hoped for. The kids hardly need me, since in the journalism class at least, there’s a glut of tutors, with more than one per student. Plus, I was disappointed to see that the kids all appear to be well-fed and middle-class. Why can’t they get in some underprivileged offspring of crack addicts? Then I’d really feel good.

But while the kids can’t gratify my altruistic impulse, teaching them is profoundly entertaining. It’s really more about them helping me than me helping them. Yesterday evening, in the second class of the course, the kids did research for their articles. One little girl was writing about the Venus Fly-Trap. We listened on speaker phone while she conducted an interview with an expert, the owner of a local plant store.
“Do you have any Venus Fly-Traps?” asked the girl.
The girl was flummoxed. The rest of the questions she had prepared were now irrelevant.
“Wing it!” someone whispered. We watched as the little girl thought. Then she said,
“Is it weird to be a plant?”
"I don't know," said the woman. "I've never thought about it."
"Well, what do you imagine?" persisted the eight-year-old reporter. "And is it weird to stay in one place all day long?"
It may not be weird to be a plant, but is very weird to be a kid.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Goodbye, Little Vienna

While not as pricey as phone sex, therapy is expensive. I can’t bring myself to actually add it up, but I’d estimate that in the last two years, I’ve spent a little less than $6,000 on it. And I’ve squandered hours schlepping to and from my therapist’s office (which is on a block so crowded with therapists that a friend of mine calls it “Little Vienna”).

Therapy was sometimes exhausting, and sometimes boring, but I learned how to do what I call “inviting your feelings in for a cup of tea.” For an English person, that is no small thing. Many of my fellow Brits slam the door on feelings and think that therapy is self-indulgent. I was like that once. Now I think that people who say that therapy is self-indulgent are the ones who need it most.

My therapist was a cipher of a woman, who revealed absolutely nothing about herself. I have no idea whether she has children or how old she is. She has gray hair in a pageboy and clothes that I never noticed. She always remained sphinx-like and unfazed, whether I was crying, rambling, or ranting.

As therapy slowly helped me to change, I began to feel that I owed this woman a great deal. Once or twice I thought about our last session, and how I would bring her a bouquet and a movingly inscribed card or maybe a copy of my book. But when the time came, I couldn’t decide. What’s the etiquette for saying goodbye to your therapist? Should you bake cookies or give her a card or maybe a potted plant? Why doesn't Hallmark make a card for this? Our relationship seemed at once so intimate that nothing could be enough, and so impersonal that anything at all would be too much.

My compulsion to please others was one of the problems that drove me to therapy in the first place. By the time I was ready to end therapy, I was able not to give her anything. I felt that it was enough simply to tell her how grateful I am. And after all, I was paying for her services—enough to buy an umbrella for everyone I know, fly to Baja for a couple of weeks, or have phone sex for two solid days and nights.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Hal Podger Society

From now on, I plan to model my life on that of Hal Podger. Who was this Podger fellow? You haven’t heard of him because he was an ordinary man, who worked for General Electric for over thirty years. But Podger also achieved something more difficult than winning a Nobel Prize: he was happy. In fact, we should all hope to lead lives that deserve an obituary headline similar to his: “Hal Podger—a perennially happy man, married 65 years.” Podger married his high-school sweetheart and had six children. He loved cha-cha and home repair. In fact, if he was at a friend’s house for dinner and a door squeaked, “he’d run for his toolbox, humming and singing.” Whenever you asked him how he was, he always replied: “Faaaaaaan-TASTIC!!!”

OK, Hal was probably a bit annoying. No doubt, he was one of those people who won’t say a bad word about others behind their backs (people like that really irritate me). Plus sometimes you just want a friend to get drunk with while listening to Death Cab for Cutie—not someone who does the cha-cha while he unblocks your drain. And then there’s the biggest question of all: Was Hal truly happy? Or was Podger just a Pollyanna, like our friend Mr. Best-Ever, someone whose cheeriness masked loneliness and self-doubt?

I prefer to believe that Hal was indeed happy, and that in the picture accompanying his obit, his smile is genuine. In this rainiest of Marches, we need some inspiration. So in homage to Hal, I am starting the Hal Podger Society, a society of those who aspire to be Podgers—perennially happy people. The Podgers do not evangelize, they simply promote Podgerism by example. Next time you ask me how I am, the answer will be: “Faaaaaaaan-TASTIC!!!”

Monday, March 27, 2006

How to Stay Young

In California, people often look almost eerily young, and I’ve always wondered what their secret is. Plastic surgery? Raw food? Energy work? Or do they all have ageing portraits of themselves in the attic? Whatever the reason, people here tend to age in California years. To calculate someone’s age in California years, according to the formula I have devised, you divide their real age by 1.3. Thus a forty-year-old who has lived all his life in California will look as if he’s in his early thirties. I came to California four years ago, when I was twenty-six. If you factor in those four California years, I’m actually about twenty-nine (which explains why I still like to go out dancing all night).

My friend Mindy, a glamorous creature with an enviable wardrobe and perfect skin, turned fifty this weekend, which makes her about thirty-eight in California years. On Saturday, I went to her birthday party, which was like a cross between Burning Man and The L-Word. Beautiful women rubbed shoulders with fire eaters, a magician, a candy girl, and a fortune teller. A towering transvestite in pancake make-up handed out miniature latkes with smoked salmon, while a woman in a belly-dancer outfit proffered a sulky boa constrictor.

At the end, guests were given boxes of cookies containing fortunes composed by Mindy. The first one I opened read: “The polish on your toes should never be darker than the polish on your fingernails.” I sat down on a couch and eagerly began disemboweling the rest, as if one might contain the secret to eternal youth.

Then a man leaned over and said, “I have to ask, is that dress vintage?”
“No,” I said. I was wearing an extremely colorful mini-dress that I had chosen because I did not feel very colorful myself.
“Well, it’s fantastic,” said the man warmly. “Honey, you have the tightest look of any woman in the room. I’ve been watching you and you upstaged every woman here, except for the fire-eating woman, and that’s because she was on the stage. Everything is perfect, your accessories, your hair...”

As he continued in this vein, a wave of euphoria washed over me. I felt as if my entire body had been dipped in warm honey. It was a revelation. Who needs mood elevators when you can be flattered by an attractive, well-dressed gay man?
This one was a master at the art of giving compliments, knowing, as so few straight men do, that it’s more important to be specific than to be effusive, that “Your hair is always so shiny” is better than “You look fantastic.” He finished, “And you’ve got just the right amount of make-up, not too much and not too little.”

Mindy was sitting on the couch nearby. “I love your friends,” I raved.
“They’re great, aren’t they?” Mindy said, smiling. As I looked at her luminous skin, I wondered if any of the cookie fortunes read: "Never be without a gay entourage."