Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Zen of Telemarketing

In the fall of 2001, I couldn’t get a job. The economic slump, which hit San Francisco particularly hard, meant that there were no jobs. I tried phone sex, but it didn't pay. Then I tried phone sales. Five evenings a week, I attempted to sell season tickets for the San Francisco Symphony, calling anyone and everyone who had ever attended a concert there. I worked at a plastic desk in a windowless room with fluorescent lights and, this being California, a plug-in Zen garden in the corner.

But despite the soothing sound of trickling water, selling tickets was a tough job. Michael Tilson Thomas, the director of the Symphony, favored jangly modern music over classical favorites like Beethoven and Mozart, 9/11 had made people frightened to travel into the city, and because of the recession they were reluctant to squander money on symphony tickets. Morale sagged. Some of my fellow telemarketers stopped trying altogether, since even if you didn’t make sales and earn bonuses, you still got the base pay of $10/hr. In theory, at some point they would kick you out if you made no sales, but as far as I knew, this had never happened. People sat around drinking the free Swiss Miss and reading the celebrity gossip magazines concealed in their laps

Doug, our boss, was depressed too. He was a tall, pale man with fidgety hands, perhaps from punching in so many phone numbers over the course of the years. Then one day, he read a book called The Zen of Selling: the Way to profit from life's everyday lessons and had an epiphany. Everything we needed to know, he declared, was contained within this book. He insisted that we all read it. The book was written in a cryptic style that seemed very wise, with advice like: “Forget the selling. Let the customer do the buying” and “Most of the time we don’t communicate; we just take turns talking.” The essence of the book was that salespeople should stop treating customers as adversaries and start treating them like people.

I could see why Doug liked this idea so much. He was a gentle man who brought his own camomile tea to work and was incapable of firing anybody, out of place in the ruthless world of telesales. Of course he loved the book, which portrayed the relationship between customer and salesperson as compassionate and mutually enriching, and selling of any sort as a noble calling. In its last pages, the author rhapsodized thus: “When your eyes greet those of the customer as surely as a light in a reflection, and when smiles pass between you like a gentle breeze, then you know you are where you should be and want to be.”

Unfortunately, Zen was no more help with telesales than wabi sabi with retail design. Even when we started treating them with compassion and respect, people still weren’t interested in the symphony. Apathy descended over the office again, but I was determined not to give in. I went to the library and got out a book on how to sell the old-fashioned way. There was nothing in it about your eyes greeting the customer’s eyes. It was blunt and to the point. Salespeople should flatter the customer and let him do most of the talking, since people like to be listened to. Also, they should reflect back or “mirror” the customer—agree with everything they say, like everything they like. “People will see through this,” I thought. But amazingly, they didn’t.

From then on, I flattered customers shamelessly, so much so that one man asked me out. I listened to people’s stories, because some people want to be listened to so much that a telemarketer is better than nobody. But the best trick of all was mirroring. At the start of the conversation, instead of asking people right out whether they wanted to buy tickets, I asked them what music they liked. And whatever they liked, I claimed to like too. On one call, I’d agree: “Yes, I love Beethoven and Mozart too—there’s just so much passion in the classics. Modern music is dry and inacessible.” On the next call, I’d say: “Yes, I love modern classical music too. I find it so much more intellectually challenging.” One woman told me that she didn’t like the symphony because “I’m overweight and the seats are too small.” I mirrored right back: “I totally know what you mean. I’m a large person myself. But what I do is sit in the aisle, that way I feel a little less constricted.”

That was my first sale. It was pure ecstasy. No one had ever told me how incredible it feels to make a sale. Adrenalin flooded my veins and I tingled all over. Often working in the phone program, I felt a little hopeless, worrying if I would ever get a better job or even succeed in that job. But for one delicious moment, even though there were no gentle breezes and I could not see myself reflected in the customer’s eyes, I knew I was where I should be and wanted to be. Soon after, Doug quit, the miniature Zen garden died from lack of natural light, and I left to take a slightly better job.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Breakfast Pizza Omwich

I decided to move to America soon after I discovered American poetry. I loved its restless quest for the new. I loved innovators like Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Lowell, who trampled on convention and wrote in novel ways about things that had never been written about before. I longed to live in the land which had fostered such dazzling originality.

Sad to say, soon after I moved here, I lost all interest in poetry. But I developed a new interest: fast food. In the fast food industry, I saw the same relentless creativity that I had admired in American literature. Barely a day passed, it seemed, without news of some new creation: Pizza Hut’s Twisted Crust Pizza; Burger King’s Fiesta Whopper Sandwich; McDonalds’ McFlurry Sundae. And then, in 1999, Dunkin’ Donuts unveiled the Breakfast Pizza Omwich. This magnificent sandwich was to obsess me for months.

At that time in the industry, portmanteau words—such as “omwich” and “croissanwich”—were in vogue. But the Breakfast Pizza Omwich went one step further. It was a hybrid portmanteau. It was a sandwich and an omelet and a pizza and you could eat it for breakfast. It was so daring as to be virtually inedible. How on earth did they come up this thing? I brooded about this day and night. Probably this obsession was a symptom of some unsatisfied psychological need. But I had not been through talk therapy back then and had no way of knowing this. All I knew was that I had to know—I had to know—how they came up with this baroque flight of fancy they called a sandwich. Finally I could stand it no more. I telephoned the Dunkin’ Donuts headquarters, which were in Randolph, Massachusetts, within driving distance of Somerville, where I lived at the time.

I told them I was a British journalist and they put a PR woman on the phone.
“British readers are fascinated by product innovation in the American fast-food industry,” I informed her confidently, “and I would love to be a fly on the wall at one of your product brainstorming sessions.”
I waited for her to invite me to company HQ, where I would sit in a conference room stuffing myself with free donuts while snack-food masterminds bounced around ideas like the “Cajun Cornbread Gumboburger” or perhaps the “Breakfast Crumpet Frittatwich.”
Instead, there was a chilly silence.
“Impossible,” she said finally. “Our concepting techniques are highly proprietary. We absolutely cannot reveal them to a journalist.” She was worried, it turned out, that industry competitors would discover their special methods and use them to invent an even better breakfast sandwich. I badgered her for a while, but she stood firm. Then I insisted that she have her superior give me a call.

Several days later, he did so. I grilled him for information, but he wouldn’t give me any. He refused to answer when I asked if they had ever thought of fusing a doughnut with a hamburger.
“I’ll give you a quote and that’s it,” he said.
“That’s better than nothing,” I said sullenly.
“The Breakfast Pizza Omwich,” he announced grandly, “is revolutionizing the breakfast sandwich landscape.” He hung up before I could ask him what the breakfast sandwich landscape looked like.

After speaking to the breakfast-sandwich revolutionary, I burned with even more curiosity than before. What were these proprietary concepting techniques that were so coveted by their competitors? I was determined to find out. I read industry press releases, and learned that over at Pizza Hut they were revolutionizing landscapes too: “Innovation Transforms Pizza Landscape,” crowed the press release for their “Revolutionary Twisted Crust Pizza.” I read What Were They Thinking: Marketing Lessons you can Learn from Products that Flopped by one Robert McMath, a product-innovation expert who maintained a museum in upstate New York of over 73,000 failed products, from Clairol’s Yogurt Shampoo to Gerber’s Singles, a baby food for adults. (Sadly, the museum allows only corporate visitors.)

Finally I chanced on the Web site of a Kansas-based company called New Product Insights, Inc. They listed Dunkin’ Donuts among their clients. As luck would have it, New Product Insights, Inc. explained their special concepting technique right on their Web site. Aha! Finally, the truth! The special technique was something called “Mega-Brand Modeling”—a way of extrapolating new-product concepts using computer modeling based on similar current product attributes. Mega-Brand Modeling, in other words, was a way of turning out minute variations on the same thing. Why hadn’t I noticed this before? The Omwich, the Crossanwich, the Pizza Omwich—they were all basically the same sandwich. The fast-food industry managed to create a constant slew of new products without actually introducing any novelty.

McMath , the owner of the failed-products museum, had noticed this widespread dearth of originality. His new-product research firm, Marketing Intelligence Service,gave a special Innovation Rating to products it considered “new and different.” In 2000, of the 13,373 new items lauched, only 6.6 percent of them were considered genuinely new. Part of the problem was that while it was easy to come up with a genius idea like the Chicken McNugget in the 80s, now people were running out of ideas.

But in any case, fast-food moguls aren’t that interested in originality. New ideas cost money and in a competitve market, they can’t afford to go wrong. Besides, if they introduce something too different from their previous offering, they risk brand dilution. Avoiding actual novelty, they aim instead for the appearance of novelty.

Why bother even maintain this appearance? Launching new products attracts customers to stores. And new products produce a “halo effect” in the category, regardless of whether they sell. Whether or not people bought the Breakfast Pizza Omwich, after its launch, they bought a lot more breakfast sandwiches. In the years that followed, Dunkin’ Donuts would roll out the English Muffin Spanish Omwich and the Biscuit Pizza Omwich and the Maple Cheddar Breakfast Sandwich. Yet no matter how many times they revolutionized it, somehow the breakfast sandwich landscape always looked the same.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Admonitory Finger

In England, people signal meticulously when changing lanes, so when I moved to America, I was shocked to see how few people bother. In a public-spirited attempt to correct them, when I drove I began using a gesture called the “Admonitory Finger”—wagging my index finger back and forth as if scolding a small child. Unfortunately, this gesture did not work as well as I had hoped. Sometimes people mistook it for the Finger (although technically I used a different digit) and responded in kind. Sometimes, people did reform their signaling (but only if I chased them up the highway). Mostly, they just ignored me. Then, one suffocating, humid day in Boston, I used the Admonitory Finger on a middle-aged man in an SUV. Already frustrated by the heat and traffic, he snapped, turning the Admonitory Finger into a malicious dance. Stuck by his side in the gridlocked traffic, I was forced to watch as he waggled both index fingers and waved his arms in the air, a fiendish grin on his face. His satirical pantomime seemed to go on and on. I never used the Admonitory Finger again.

At that moment, I gave up my naïve belief that I could change other people’s behavior and make America more like England. Later, I adopted a new gesture, “Existential Hands.” One turns one’s palms to the sky, perhaps with a slight shrug, as if to say: “You ought to signal when changing lanes, but since life is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, it matters little whether you reform your ways.” People didn’t like Existential Hands, but they liked them a lot better than the Admonitory Finger.

When I moved to San Francisco, I rarely got a chance to use Existential Hands, since I walked nearly everywhere. From time to time, when I was crossing the road, someone would nearly run me over, usually a driver talking on their cell. As a civic contribution, I invented another gesture, “Disapproving Hand Phone.” I paused in front of the vehicle, put my hand to my ear in a phone shape, and raised my eyebrows. Of course, most people just carried right on with their phone conversation (although one or two revved their engines).

As I became happier, more relaxed, more tolerant—more Californian—I wondered if I should drop the Disapproving Hand Phone. After all, you can’t change other people, you can only change yourself (and then only with extensive talk therapy). If you try to change other people, all you do is annoy them. Besides, I told myself, these people would be punished in their next incarnations.

But this morning, my faith in annoying hand gestures was restored. As I was crossing the road on my way to yoga, a man in a sleek sports car noticed me at the last minute and screeched to a halt. Of course he was on the phone. Automatically, my hand flew to my ear in a phone shape, but for some reason, instead of raising my eyebrows, I smiled. To my amazement, instead of ignoring me, he raised two fingers from the steering wheel and gave a tiny, apologetic nod.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Art of Elegance

It is well known that when times are hard, one should take more, rather than less, care with one’s appearance. Last year I worked as a proofreader in a junk mail company, a job I hated. You should have seen the lovely tea dresses I wore to the office every day. Dressing up made me feel less down, and my dresses-only policy lent structure to what seemed a formless life. I hated my job but needed the money. I wanted to write a third novel, but lacked the courage to begin. My office work left me too drained to make a plan that would allow me to earn money and write. I had no idea what the future held. Elegance was my weapon against entropy. I did not know what I would be doing in six months time, but I did know that I would be wearing a nice dress.

Elegance does not come naturally in this era of down-dressing, of jeans and baseball caps. Fortunately I discovered A Guide to Elegance (1963) by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux . In the Introduction I learned that Ms. Dariaux had honed her expertise working in a Parisian couture house. “From my earliest childhood,” she wrote, “one of my principle preoccupations was to be well-dressed.” Quite right too.

Reading on, I learned that the well-dressed woman is a dressed-up woman. She avoids trousers and always puts fashion before comfort (“comfort is the Public Enemy Number One of elegancy”). Elegance, for the most part, means dressing with restraint and discretion. Career women in particular should avoid “frilly trimmings, printed materials, aggressive colors, shaggy woolens, very lightweight fabrics that are certain to wrinkle, and skirts that are too short.” Shocked, I realized that a full ninety percent of my wardrobe was not Elegant!

I have always thought of myself as a reasonably Elegant person, but apparently I was wrong. I was ignorant of all these sartorial truths:

 The size of your handbag should be in proportion to your own: “it is just as comical—and needless to add, inelegant—to see a tiny woman lugging about an enormous satchel, as it is to see a portly dowager clutching a tiny purse to her ample bosom.”
 “Make-up is a kind of clothing for the face, and in the city a woman would no more think of showing herself without make-up than she would care to walk down the street completely undressed.” (How I shuddered to think of the many times I had showed myself in public with a naked face.)
 Never shop with girlfriends: “Since she is often an unwitting rival as well, she will unconsciously demolish everything that suits you best.”
 Your raincoat, rain hat, and umbrella should match, as should your dressing gown and bedroom slippers.

Nobody said elegance was easy.

Genevieve would have been horrified by the apparel anarchy of San Francisco, where in the course of a single day in the Upper Haight, you might see someone in a clown suit, someone with a single spike piercing both eyelids, and someone in a crinoline made out of plastic forks. The fashion ideal, in San Francisco, is Originality, not Elegance.

Genevieve admired Originality too, but in her view few women can pull it off. Rare is the woman whose fashion sixth sense inspires her “to unearth an old egg basket in the attic and transform it into a beach bag, or to wear her grandfather’s pocket watch around her neck on a long chain.” Most women, in attempting Originality, simply achieve “comic effects,” which, Genevieve warns darkly, are “justifiably feared.” In fact, pulling off Originality is easy—one sees it in San Francisco every day. The challenge is to be Elegant too. It is one thing to be Elegant, and another to be Original, but few manage to be both.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Profound Parties

At a dance party a couple of years ago, I saw these words on the wall: “Who are you? You are what has always been.” This was not a drug-induced revelation, but an actual motto, hung up on the wall, its frame decorated with plastic flowers. As I drifted round the club, I found other maxims on the walls. In the main room, a table draped with a velvet cloth formed a makeshift altar. On it sat the Buddha and other Eastern deities, candles, a crystal or two, and a couple of owl feathers. The party also featured a “midnight ritual.” The music stopped, the revelers were told to form a circle, and a fire dancer gyrated in the middle. Then a tall, imposing man stepped out of the shadows. He told us that “conscious partying” (surely a tautological phrase) could bring about “world change.” In short, he believed that partying ought to be taken very seriously.

The man, I came to learn, was known as Dr. Syd. His Opel parties belong in a San Francisco tradition of what one might call parties with a point. In the sixties, for example, the Diggers staged processions in which they proclaimed the death of money and gave out free food at mass picnics. There were be-ins and love-ins, whose fuzzy idealism was continued in rave culture. Then there’s Burning Man, the ultimate party with a point—for some people claim it is about much more than frolicking and foolery. One newsletter quoted an anthropologist, Rob Kozinets, arguing that Burning Man is part of an ancient religious tradition of “transformational gatherings that catalyze political and social change.”

The West Coast is supposed to be the antithesis to the buttoned-up East Coast. But there’s something profoundly Puritan about the idea that even fun ought to be good for you. You’d think that such high seriousness would dampen Syd’s parties, but it doesn’t. They are amazing events—lovely people in fancy dress, beautifully decorated chill spaces with furry pillows and silken canopies. At every party, people go up to him to thank him. Yet somehow he never seems very happy. In a sea of happily dancing ravers, Dr. Syd towers above them, with a slightly mournful look in his blue eyes, as if brooding on the difficulty of bringing about world change.

Monday, April 04, 2005

The Come Dancing Smile

Until recently, since I could not smile on cue, and as a result, I always looked glum in photographs. No longer! Earlier this year I resolved to overcome this deficiency and develop a camera-ready smile. The result—an expression I call the “Strictly Come Dancing Smile”—has been a magnificent success. In photo after photo, I look almost revoltingly happy.

The Come Dancing smile was inspired by a popular English television show, "Strictly Come Dancing" on which professional ballroom dancers are paired with minor celebrities. The professional teaches the celebrity a flashy dance routine, and the couples then compete against one another. While watching this show in England when I was home for Christmas, I noticed that the professional dancers maintained a radiant smile at all times. After studying this smile for several shows, I realized that the secret was simple: just show your teeth. However fake this smile may feel, it looks genuine. (In my case, it looks more genuine than my real smile.)

Smile experts, it turns out, have already discovered the Come Dancing smile, and given it a name. They call it the “Pan-Am” or “Pan-American” smile (named after the grins of flight hostesses in ads for that now defunct airline). I learned this from a book called Authentic Happiness, which I am reading as part of my ongoing pursuit of nirvana. According to this book, there are two types of smile—the other is the “Duchenne” smile, named after its discoverer Guillaume Duchenne. I’m not sure how you can “discover” a smile, which is not the kind of thing you find lurking in a Petri dish, but apparently he did. The Duchenne smile is genuine. The corners of your mouth turn up and the skin around your eyes crinkles. The Pan-Am smile, by contrast, is an inauthentic rictus, in which the lips part and the corners of the mouth are stretched out to the sides, rather than up.

According to Dacher Keltner, a Berkeley psychology professor and savant of smiles, the English do the Duchenne smile more. This led to a gloating article in the Times, in which the English smile is lauded as “restrained but dignified,” and the Yank smile is decried as “far less expressive.” In fact, I suspect that the Americans do the Duchenne smile just as much as their British brethren. But in situations when the Englishman might look glum, the American opts for a Pan-Am. And what is wrong with that?

By the way, I hope you were smiling in your college yearbook, and I hope it was the right smile. This is an accurate predictor of whether you will be happy. As recounted in Authentic Happiness, Keltner studied 141 senior class photos from the 1960 yearbook of Mills College. All but three of the women were smiling, and half of the smilers were Duchenne smilers. When the women were contacted 30 years later, Duchenne women were on average more likely to be happily married and satisfied with their lives. The book does not say what happened to the non-smilers, who perhaps became the trio of homeless crack addicts outside my window. And what lies in store for those who, like me, did not bother to contribute a yearbook photo? Apparently, a fate too horrible to mention.

Disco Buddy

Adolescent as it may be, Jordan and I both love dance parties. Most people get this out of their system in their early twenties; we did not and thus must make up for it now. On Saturday, we arranged to go dancing with our friends M and R. We were driving to the party, when M phoned to say they couldn’t make it. They were canceling, literally at the last minute.

Sadly, this is common behavior among my friends. In this case, they canceled for a good reason and are forgiven, but most people bag for flimsy reasons, often claiming to have a sore throat or headache. In fact, the problem is a “disco cold”—a psychosomatic ailment they have developed because they don’t really want to go dancing. Sometimes this is because they feel depressed about not having a job, sometimes they don’t like the job they have. Sometimes they feel depressed about not having a girlfriend or boyfriend. I try to explain that the function of dancing is to distract them from these woes. But when they choose to languish at home, I always have my disco buddy.

My disco buddy is a man I hardly know. I call him my “disco buddy,” because he loves to go out dancing. He always wants to dance and he always knows where the best party is. He calls us in the middle of the night with music throbbing in the background, insisting that we join him. When I run into him at parties, he’s always a whirling dervish of energy, a tireless Pan in a blue feather boa. This is not the result of that insidious condiment, “disco salt,” but of his natural joie de vivre.

Our shared passion for dancing is the sole basis of our friendship. No doubt we would find more in common if we got to know each other, but that is not necessary. Being disco buddies is enough. Besides, the relationship between disco buddies has set parameters—like that between “friends with benefits.” Suggesting to my disco buddy that we get to know each other better would be a terrible faux pas, like one of the friends suggesting that they date.

Jordan and I went to the party without our friends and danced for an hour or so. Then, I am ashamed to say, our energy flagged, perhaps because we had failed to take a disco nap earlier in the day. And we didn’t see my disco buddy, even though he’d planned to be there. Was it possible that even he had finally succumbed to a disco cold? Had he let his problems crush him, instead of turning to the one thing that could distract him from them? The very idea chilled me to the bone. But sure enough, at 3 AM, he called, having just arrived at the party.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Two Theories of Dinner Parties

I am having a dinner party this evening, and one of the couples who are coming will be particularly hard to impress. They both work in the wine industry, and they are used to eating fancy food in fine restaurants—sea urchin fritters and foie-gras-stuffed quail—cooking that I cannot hope to rival. Since they are both charming and well-mannered people, no doubt they’ll say they like everything, but will they really? I intend to apply a simple psychological principle to ensure that they do.

The "peak-end rule" says that how positively you remember something is dictated by a) The peak moment of the experience and b) The end of the experience. Take the loud noise experiment: One group had to listen to a piercing loud noise for eight seconds. The second group listened to the same noise for eight seconds, and then a slightly quieter noise for eight seconds. This latter group rated their experience more positively—even though they had to listen to an unpleasant noise for longer. Another experiment often cited involves subjects receiving a colonoscopy, but since I am of very delicate sensibilities, I will refrain from giving the details.

My dinner party, of course, will not resemble a colonoscopy, but the same principle can be applied. According to the rule, instead of having a consistently good quality of food and conversation, you should aim to have a magnificent high point and finale. You are thus better off serving boxed macaroni and cheese followed by a flaming, brandy-doused pyramid of profiteroles than, say, a pleasant main course and dessert. And instead of being moderately witty throughout the evening, you should aim to tell a single brilliant anecdote.

Of course, your guests might enjoy a consistently pleasant evening more than a mediocre evening with a high peak and end point. However, they will remember the latter as being better. One could debate for hours whether a lovely experience or a lovely memory is more valuable. But it is definitely in your interest for your guests to have the lovely memory—that way, they will be sure to write you a thank you note.

On the other hand, if you want to ensure that your guests enjoy themselves at the time, regardless of how they look back on it, you should encourage them to smoke pot. That way, they will declare everything you make sublime. The next day, of course, they will not be able to remember much about it.

Millinery and Mortality

My thirtieth birthday is approaching. And recently I found my first gray hair. As a result, I have been contemplating my mortality even more than usual. I hate the prospect of growing old, of becoming staid and dowdy. I hate the thought that at some point I’ll have to stop going dancing all night and give my sequined butterfly top to charity. I was delighted then, when I discovered an organization called the Red Hat Society, a group for women over fifty devoted to the pursuit of fun. Inspired by Jenny Joseph’s poem, “Warning,” which begins “When I am old I shall wear purple,/With a red hat that doesn’t go,” members wear red hats and purple clothes and they go out on jolly jaunts. (Women under fifty, who occasionally want to join, must wear pink hats and lavender clothes, and are known as Pink Hatters.) These gaudy grannies are dedicated to “growing old disgracefully.” Yes, I thought, these are my sort of old ladies: over-fifty party animals. I decided to write an article about them.

A local chapter, the Babes on the Bay, invited me to join them at Betelnut, an Asian restaurant in the Marina, for a meeting last Tuesday night. The Marina? That didn’t sound too promising. As you know, the Marina is the LA of San Francisco, the home of rich, boring people, where the men wear clothes from the GAP and the women have perfect pedicures. But, I assumed, the fun would probably begin after dinner. What zany adventures were planned? Perhaps we would go to a strip club in North Beach and demand lap dances from alarmed nymphets. Maybe we would streak through the Financial District in nothing but our hats. Maybe we would go to Asia SF, and join the transsexuals cavorting on the bar. With daredevil dames such as these, who knew what would happen?

When I got to the restaurant, the Red Hatters stood out like a field of poppies. One middle-aged woman wore a crimson cowboy hat; another sported a scarlet beret. Another wore a tulle-trimmed affair that looked suitable for Ascot. The light on her plastic ring flashed on and off as she gobbled the cherry from her piña colada. They chorused a greeting and admired my pink hat and lilac dress (I’d thought it only polite to don the costume of a Pink Hatter). One handed me an amuse-bouche from a silver platter.

But when I started talking to my companions, it was like being trapped at a wedding with someone else’s elderly relatives. While some sat glumly silent, one woman would not stop talking. I heard all about why she should have chosen a different career, why Charles should apologize to Camilla’s husband, and why she had moved from New York to look after her grandson. She spoke unceasingly about herself, and her eyes were lonely. As she talked, I squinted at the amuse-bouche, which was disturbingly hard. It was round and brown with brightly colored speckles in the middle. Maybe it was a brooch? The other ladies, I noticed, had set theirs neatly by their water-glasses. They weren’t bothering to listen to my garrulous neighbor, but were too busy wrapping beef in lettuce leaves. In fact, I noticed, they were barely talking to each other. Were they even friends? When I asked, they said they hardly saw each other outside their monthly meetings. The Red Hat Society was supposed to be all about fun and friendship, but didn’t seem to offer much of either.

I went to the bathroom and looked at my reflection, relieved to see that I was still young. A woman putting on her lipstick grinned at my pink hat. On my way back to the table, I noticed that the other diners were staring at me. I liked the thought that they were wondering who I was and what my strange costume signified. This, I thought, is what these women get out of it: the frisson of attention. Women over fifty become invisible, and the red and purple ensemble is their way of forcing people to notice them.

When I was seated again, the creator of the mystery items demanded when I was going to eat my “Easter nest.” So that’s what it was.
“You can eat it?” I asked doubtfully. “What’s it made out of?”
“The nest is chow mein noodles stuck together with melted marshmallows, and the eggs are sugar-coated sunflower seeds.”
I wrapped the imaginative combination in my napkin, insisting,
“It’s too pretty to eat.” Glumly, I feared that self-absorption, loneliness, and handicrafts would be my lot. Instead of being inspired by the Red Hatters, I felt disillusioned. Instead of flouting stereotypes of middle-aged women, the Red Hatters enforced them. They preferred tea rooms to tattoo parlors. There was nothing madcap about them other than their millinery. For all their talk of growing old disgracefully, they did not paint the town red on Tuesday night. They refused a second piña colada, and by 8 PM the evening was winding down.

On the way home, I took a wrong turn, and found myself in Pacific Heights, staggering up a steep flight of steps in the dark. I thought of becoming old, of a future in which climbing stairs would be more and more difficult. I had to face the fact that perhaps one day I would lose my appetite for adventure, and, in the end, prefer high tea to high jinks. But even then, I promised myself, I would never force-feed seasonal handicrafts to my guests.