Monday, March 28, 2005

An Easter Tale

A book I am reading advises people to keep a “gratitude journal” as part of a program of conquering the culture of materialism, the idea being that instead of wanting more and more, you are content with what you have. Since this is a very intelligent book in every other way (The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz), and since I am always interested in my own spiritual advancement, this morning I gave it a shot. You keep a notepad at your bedside and every morning when you wake up, you write five things that happen the day before that you’re grateful for, such as, Schwartz suggests: “the sunlight streaming in through the bedroom window.” Since nothing streams in through my bedroom window but the shrieks of homeless crack addicts, I had to look elsewhere. The first thing that came to mind was my victory at the Easter egg hunt, which took place yesterday in the backyard of my friends L and R.

From the minute I heard of the hunt on Friday evening, I was determined to be the victor. I’m not usually competitive where games are concerned, but I am very partial to chocolate eggs and Sunday was my last chance to stock up on them for another year. That Friday night, I refused a third cocktail and made my excuses, saying that I was tired. In fact, I didn’t want a hangover, since I was in training for the competition. On Saturday afternoon, I made a point of not missing yoga, hoping my enhanced flexibility might give me an advantage. On Sunday morning, at the brunch beforehand, I ate lightly to avoid weighing myself down.

When the time came for the hunt, I was disappointed to learn that the eggs in question were ordinary hardboiled ones and not, as I had thought, made out of chocolate. But since I had already told everyone I was going to win, honor bound me to do so. As soon as we were told to start (well, slightly before in my case) I grabbed the two or three eggs nearest me. Then something possessed me, a savage elemental force that I will call Bad Bunny.

This only lasted a few minutes, but when Bad Bunny departed, I was hunched protectively over my hoard of eighteen eggs, while one of my friends lay panting in the mud, another was yelling “Cheater!” and a third advanced with an empty basket shouting “Give. Them. Back!” I tried to explain that they obviously were not listening when the referee announced beforehand that there were no rules, which meant there was no such thing as “cheating.” Meanwhile, Jordan, shielding me with his body, ascribed my behavior to “too many mimosas.”

Unfortunately even winning the hunt did not get me any actual chocolate eggs, but merely the first shot at the piñata, a cardboard girl with carrot-colored hair and beetroot-colored cheeks. I attempted to knock her to the ground, but was severely hampered by my blindfold. Then, as a thunderstorm brewed, my savagery seemed to infect my friend M, who is usually a charming and gracious woman. M snatched the stick, swung it round her head and then, as one guest later put it, “she went ape-shit, freestyle.” Was it my imagination or did I, for a second, see, in place of M, a giant bunny, silhouetted against the greenish light? The victim did not stand a chance, although for a while her head hung on by a string.

As the first drops began to fall, M finally disemboweled our makeshift Jesus. But I stood back and let the others scrabble for the plunder. Victory was hollow, and not filled with chocolate eggs, as I had imagined, but mostly chocolate in plain old bar shape and, since this is San Francisco, sachets of ginseng tablets. Yet somehow I was not downcast, still throbbing with adrenalin. The referee shook a flaccid Kit-Kat at me (it had broken as it fell) and said: “You fought so hard to win and yet it wasn’t what you thought. There’s a life lesson for you in this, isn’t there?” Yes, I thought to myself, it's fun to beat people, and I mentally inscribed “Bless Bad Bunny” in my gratitude journal.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Power Trip Yoga

When I first moved to San Francisco, I refused to "om" in yoga. It made me uncomfortable. I would sit there with my mouth shut, daring the teacher to comment, much as when, back in my schooldays, I refused to sing hymns. In the handful of yoga classes I’d taken in Boston, I never had to om. There, yoga was just a workout. In San Francisco, it was a spiritual practice, with Indian deities painted on the walls and burning sage scenting the air. In Boston, the teacher said “Press your feet into the ground”: in San Francisco, the teacher said “Feel the earth’s energy.” In Boston, the teacher said “Lift your chest”; in San Francisco, the teacher said “Feel the fluffy cloud inside.” But no matter how hard I tried, I never felt a fluffy cloud. It was bad enough that I wasn’t as flexible as the other students; now I had to put up with not being as enlightened too.

Then I invented Power Trip Yoga. PTY is designed to show your fellow yogis that, while you may not be able to do a headstand, you tower above them spiritually. While it takes years to achieve many of the poses in Power Yoga, you can learn everything you need to know about Power Trip Yoga in five minutes:

1. Always sigh rather than say the word “yoga” and pronounces it in an overly emphatic way. “Yog-ahhhh.” This indicates reverence, and possibly that you know Sanskrit and are using the original pronunciation.
2. Use the word “practice” a lot, as in “My practice is evolving every day.”
3. While waiting for the teacher to arrive, do not pick at your toes, but instead adopt full lotus in the exact middle of your mat.
4. At the start of your practice, you may get the option to send the “energy” from your practice to someone else. Always send it to yourself.
5. Throughout the class, keep your “dragon breath” as loud as possible, and maintain a beatific smile.
6. At the end of the practice, when everyone lies silent during Savasana, give a quiet chuckle, as if tickled by the absurdity of the cosmos.
7. The piece de resistance of PTY is the Power Namaste. When, after the final blessing, you bow down for namaste, stay there for as long as possible. You could even take a power nap. While the other students are rolling up their mats and wondering what to cook for dinner, you have triumphed over them, for you are still communing with the divine.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

From Hair to Eternity

Recently I have been wondering why instead of becoming a writer, a thankless profession, I did not become an international hair growth expert, like Riquette Hofstein. Riquette was educated at the Schwarzkopf Institute of Hair Research in Munich and the prestigious René Furterer Institute in Paris. You, not having attended Europe’s finest hair-growing academies, probably think there is nothing you can do to make your hair grow faster. Wrong! The problem, you see, is not on your head but in it. Riquette uses hypnotherapy to “redirect the subconscious to correct the erroneous beliefs that aging, genetics, or the environment are keeping them from growing hair.” In her latest book, Grow Hair and Stop Hair Loss(2003), Riquette devotes a whole chapter to “Mind-Body Techniques for Manifesting Hair Growth.” (She does not say whether with sufficient mastery of these techniques you can manifest hair on other people.) I am envious of Riquette, who has published two books, has “countless fans worldwide” and doubtless makes more money than I do. And who cares that she is a snake oil merchant? Even if she can’t give her clients the hair they want, she gives them something nearly as good: the belief that they can get the hair they want through the power of the mind. When so much of life is beyond one’s control, what is more seductive than the idea that you can at least control your hair?

Thursday, March 17, 2005

How to Be a Great Dancer

Many people are insecure about their dancing and will only do it when propelled by drugs or at least a few drinks. But the secret of dancing is simple. If you want to learn it, go to 111 Minna on Wednesday night where, gyrating in the center of the stage, you will see Hamid. A paunchy middle-aged Indian gentleman in shirt and slacks, who looks as if he has a day job at IBM, Hamid loves to boogie. He's there every Wednesday, dancing so hard that his shirt's soaked with sweat. He raises his arms over his head with the enthusiasm of a twenty-two-year old on his first hit of E and he twists his hands with the grace of a flamenco dancer. His signature move is the Playful Point, in which he points and wags his finger at a chosen member of the crowd. And somehow, he maintains a priestly dignity, so that no one wonders why he’s cavorting on stage and not at the office finishing a Powerpoint presentation. This unlikely avatar of Terpsichore shows us all that to be a great dancer you don’t need to have professional training, the perfect body, or even the perfect outfit—you just need to really, truly love it.

Friday, March 11, 2005

The Death of Etiquette

This morning as I was on my way to yoga, a man approached me on a street corner and asked:
“Excuse me, would you like to make out with me?” A generous offer indeed, and naturally I gave it careful consideration, before replying:
“I’m married—but thanks for the offer.”
Afterwards I wondered whether that was the right response. I could have shouted: "Do I look like the kind of trollop who would make out with strangers at the drop of a hat?" (OK, maybe I do—but not on my way to yoga, with my hair in the same ponytail I slept in.) I could have told him to fuck off. Or I could have simply stuck my nose in the air and marched onwards. But after a couple of blocks, my esprit de l’escalier evaporated. I like to be polite, even in response to impolite requests. In fact, I’m proud of it. I am a great believer in manners.

Sadly, as everyone knows, manners are in decline, particularly in California. I have two pet peeves:

1. Thank you notes: A note should be sent not only when a gift is received, but also after a dinner party. A brief phone call or email is acceptable, but the ideal is a handwritten thank you note, preferably one that does not begin with the word “Thank you.” Sadly, nowadays handwritten thank you notes are going the way of white gloves. Many people don’t bother with the phone call or email either and, worst of all, some people don’t thank you at the time of the dinner.

2. Voicemail etiquette: One should respond to a friend’s message within twenty-four hours (forty-eight in a pinch), unless one is out of town. This doesn’t seem much to ask, but I’ve noticed that these days, people are responding several days after the message—or, in some cases, not at all. Now if these people did not want to be friends with me, I would understand. In fact I would applaud their graceful friendship exit strategy. But sadly, these are good friends with bad manners, friends who do call, but not necessarily in response to a message.

Evidently, we are in the midst of a national etiquette crisis. A simple solution would be to introduce the etiquette equivalent of traffic school. Attendance would be compulsory after three violations. There, students would attend classes such as “Small Talk 101” and learn advanced thank you note-writing skills, such as how to write a note for an unwanted gift (without using the words “unique” or “conversation piece”).

So I think I was right to be courteous to my sidewalk lothario. Although I wonder what would have happened if I’d said coyly, “Well, since you asked so nicely…” or just: “OK, buster, let’s go!” Would he have kissed me? Or would he have sidled away, muttering: “What kind of strumpet kisses a man on a street corner?”

Aunt Millicent

I haven’t posted for a while because I’ve been too depressed. I’ve suffered from occasional bouts of severe depression since I was eleven. When I tell people this, they sometimes look at me as if to say, “Everyone gets depressed—get over it.” But this is different from what most people feel. It’s not an emotion. It’s something that descends on your brain and makes it hurt to think. Yesterday, in hopes of making it less scary, I decided to give my depression a pet name. I named it “Aunt Millicent.” I thought it wise to pick a pretty name. Sylvia Plath had a pet name for her depression too—“Johnny Panic”—but it wasn’t a pretty one and look what happened to her. Meanwhile, Aunt Millicent has outstayed her welcome and I've told her to pack her bags.

Friday, March 04, 2005

An Inspirational Parking Lot

“The only way to have a friend is to be one.” Yes, a thought-provoking apercu, but I think you will be surprised when I tell you that it did not come from a fortune cookie but from a parking lot on Powell and Vallejo. A week ago, Jordan and I were trudging to our car one night, tired and hungry, when we noticed that every parking space proffered a painted motto. One assured us: “Your relatives adore you.” Another promised playfully: “Happiness is trying to catch you.” Yes! Maybe if I just stopped trying, I thought, happiness would catch up with me. Why are sagacious mottoes confined to fortune cookies? Why not paint them where people are most in need of them, like in this grim multi-storey parking lot—or at the DMV or the INS? But one space darkly reminded: “One day you won’t be here.” Humph. It was one thing for the lot to offer Hallmark platitudes, quite another for it to proffer a memento mori. “We’ll contemplate our mortality if and when we want to!” I told Jordan.

Shameless Sausage Shill

On Wednesday, if you were driving down Market St at around 5 PM, you might have seen someone standing on the median and waving a packet of sausages at approaching traffic. That, I’m sorry to say, was me. On the median there was also a photographer, who was snapping me to illustrate the article I just wrote on word-of-mouth marketing, specifically on BzzAgent, the Boston-based marketing firm that uses ordinary people to promote its clients’ products in everyday conversation. BzzAgent uses these volunteer hucksters (they don’t get paid) to talk up everything from soap to sausages. They do so any way they can: in bus-stop banter, hair salon chitchat, and even pillow talk with their spouses. (Usually they don’t reveal that they are BzzAgents.) Although BzzAgent only compensates its volunteers with free stuff (such as a books or jeans), people are stampeding to sign up. As I write, there are 77, 342 BzzAgents among us (according to the Web site), and BzzAgent has plans for international expansion.

Eager to discover the appeal of Bzzing, I volunteered as a BzzAgent for a few days, promoting a product called Al Fresco Chicken Sausage. (That is why I was waving the sausages for the photographer.) Although the manufacturer described this as an “award-winning” sausage, it was not very good. (Although I am vegetarian, I sampled them in the interests of research.) Actually, the sausage made me feel slightly sick (and it wasn’t because I’m vegetarian—I’ve eaten sausages before when extremely drunk). But undeterred by nausea, for a week I neglected my blog and spent every spare minute gabbling on about Al Fresco Chicken Sausages—in grocery stores, at parties, in bars, and even at a sausage brunch I hosted. (If anyone is interested in a fuller description of my activities, I will post the article on my site when it’s published.) Did I charm anyone into purchasing Al Fresco? No. Did my ravings about sausages alarm my friends? Undoubtedly.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Gypsy Madness

Back to blogging again! Previously I limited myself to two posts a day for fear of looking as if I had no life. But for the next couple of days, to make up for my week off, I will blog without limit. (In my next post, I will explain why I abandoned my blog readers, all four of them, an explanation that involves undercover advertising, and sausages.) Anyway, to herald the return of blogging and signal a new phase in my life, I have changed my cell-phone ring. My last ring was called “Espionage” and did not summon thoughts of espionage. My new ring is called “Mountain,” and is nothing like a mountain (unless perhaps they meant a mountain encircled by a funicular railway with a hurtling train driven by a lunatic). “Mountain” would be more appropriately named “Carnival of Freaks” or “Bedlam Boogie.” It is such a crazy, helter-skelter little tune that I can’t help wondering who composed it. Is there someone who does this full-time? Perhaps a frustrated musician with a phone in his head that never stops ringing, someone whose great dream is to write a piece that lasts longer than five seconds? Every time I hear my new ring, I imagine this man, channeling all his pent-up frustration into composing it—then doing a wild dance before running away to play his banjo with the gypsies.