Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Last Laugh

These are dark days. Indian summer is over, and the fog and rain have taken its place. Newsom’s ad campaign warns us to be prepared for disasters, and on lampposts there are pictures of earthquakes and lightning attacking toy houses. Yesterday as I watched a Jell-O replica of this city tremble, it seemed a grim portent of the Big One. Trapped at home by the rain, responsible citizens may take the opportunity to review the contents of their disaster readiness kits, inventory their possessions for insurance purposes, or perhaps prepare backup photocopies of important documents. I, however, intend to work on my courtesy laugh.

The courtesy laugh is your fake laugh, the laugh you do when something isn’t really funny and you’re being polite. I used to hate the courtesy laugh, especially when Jordan did it. If my joke fell flat, I’d rather he just didn’t laugh. His half-hearted courtesy laugh, more of a courtesy chuckle really, seemed to add insult to injury.

Laughter has many positive effects, including strengthening the immune system and relieving stress. It also makes it easier for people to work together. It makes people like you more. And happily, it is contagious.

This is all very well, you say, but that’s real laughter. Fake laughter doesn’t have the same effect, any more than Smart Bacon gives the house that delicious bacon-cooking smell. Not so. This is one of those rare cases where the fake version works just as well as the real stuff.

And in any case, when you start doing a fake laugh, it quickly becomes a real laugh. I once accidentally found myself in a laughing yoga class. We had to roll around on the floor clutching our knees and chanting “Ho ho ho!” like demented Father Christmases. In a few minutes, we were all rolling around in genuine hysterics.

Thus the organizers of the World Laughter Tour, “a clearinghouse for the global grassroots laughter movement,” do not bother to amuse their followers. Instead, they teach you how to laugh without the aid of jokes, or even tickling. In these dark times, when nothing seems very funny (not even a Jell-O Frisco), this is a useful skill indeed.

If you can laugh when nothing amuses you, in time you may be able to laugh when things actively alarm you. If you practice hard enough, you may even be able to laugh during a major catastrophe. Let’s face it, in the event of a tsunami or a terrorist attack, batteries, a radio and a few Power Bars aren’t going to help you much. Why not finesse your laugh instead? Unlike a disaster readiness kit, the courtesy laugh is free, and as a final gesture, it has a kind of elegance. Practicing it may not protect you from the apocalypse, but at least you can chuckle in its face.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Scary Corner

There is a corner of San Francisco where it is Halloween all year long. In the Outer Mission, my friends Bodhi and Jeff have created a ghoulish nook in their apartment. In the corner they have hung a lurid painting of a horned demon, as well as a ouija board and a collection of throwing stars. They’ve also nailed up a tiny mirror with a pewter woman gazing into it. If you peer at her reflection, you see that her face is a skull. In addition, there are various portraits and figurines of clowns, some sad, some grinning, all striking fear into the onlooker in the way that only clowns can.

When I first visited their apartment, Bodhi told me that this part of it was called the “Scary Corner.” The Scary Corner was a shrine to what frightens us most (and thus, ultimately, to death itself). The Scary Corner was a memento mori, like the skull in a still-life of fruit, or Corpse Pose in yoga.

At first I did not like the Scary Corner, and tried not look at it as I passed it on the way to the bathroom. But over time, the Scary Corner became less scary. It turns out that if you incorporate death into the décor, you transform it into something comparatively harmless—kitsch. In fact, the Scary Corner actually made the rest of the apartment seem cozier.

As a child, I tried to make my rocking horse less frightening by hanging a pair of knickers on its head. Instead, it looked more terrifying still. I learned that you should not try to conceal your fears, since that makes them even worse. But as an adult I’d forgotten this lesson. Now, instead of ignoring my fears, or worse, trying to hide them under a pair of knickers, I think I may create a shrine to them. I can only hope that one Scary Corner in my apartment will mean fewer scary corners in my soul.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

An Affronted Adonis

My friends Emily and Elizabeth had VIP tickets to a fashion show last Friday, and invited me to join them. It was in the Regency building on upper Van Ness. In the lobby, tense, beautiful women, rich men in suits, and male models were milling about. The air smelled of custom-made fragrances.

The woman checking names off the guest list wanted to know who I was.
“This is Helena from San Francisco Magazine,” Emily said briskly. Before I could say debate her use of the word “from”, the woman said:
“Well then, you must have front row seats.” Next thing I knew, Emily had swept us away to the front row, where every seat had a bag of presents on it. There was shampoo, moisturizer, a tiny soap tied up in gauze and ribbon, and an enigmatic utensil I decided was a designer bottle opener.

At the after-party, pink drinks flowed freely. The name of the vodka company sponsoring the event was etched into giant bottles carved from ice. Waiters glided through the crowd with trays of brooch-sized hamburgers that nobody ate. The guests were more interested in the cock rings that waitresses clad only in white teddies were offering round on silver platters.

The only place to sit was on white leather ottomans strewn with pink flowers. Technically I think they were for VVIPs, not just VIPs, but after a certain number of pink drinks, I felt myself to be a VVIP. A male model with impossibly long eyelashes recognized Emily and came to join us.
“What did you think of the show?” Emily said.
He pouted a little.
“I think the outfits were too revealing. Having your nipples on view might be appropriate for a sensuality event but not for high fashion,” he sniffed. I stared at him, thinking him a total prude. Then I thought about it. The show had been a little racy towards the end. You could see the models’ nipples through their diaphanous shirts. The last model sported only legwarmers, a turtleneck, and a thong.

I wondered if living in sex-positive San Francisco had made me blasé about this sort of thing. I’ve seen so much bared flesh at Burning Man, the Folsom Street Fair, and other places. I’ve seen people dressed as clowns having group sex and beating each other with a rubber chicken filled with whipped cream (I’ll explain another time). You can understand, then, why at this point I scarcely notice half-bared nipples. And the offer of a cock ring? No more shocking than a cucumber sandwich.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Towards Better Dinner Parties

Now that I do not have a big project taking up all my time, I intend to entertain more. As I have said before, I am fascinated by positive psychology (the scientific study of happiness). And as part of my attempt to apply its lessons to my dinner parties, I am considering the introduction of a new ritual.

Before I explain, we must go back to my first Thanksgiving, back at Oxford in 1996. It was organized by some homesick American students that I knew. In those days I was severely malnourished, due to the Oxford student’s typical diet of custard and spotted dick. As soon as we sat down to dinner, I reached hungrily for the sweet potatoes. But before I could dig in, the hostess announced:
“OK everybody, let’s hold hands. I want to take a moment, go round the table, and all say what we’re thankful for.”

The English are a self-deprecating nation. The idea of publicly dwelling on all the good things in my life made me feel distinctly uncomfortable. I wriggled in my chair as one by one, the other guests held forth about the dinner, the other guests, their families and recent academic triumphs. (One woman was grateful for Bobby, her golden retriever whom she had left back in New Jersey.)

Here in California, my dinner guests often pause before the meal begins to give thanks. Well, thanksgiving is the wrong word, since there is no higher being involved to whom the thanks are being given. It’s more a moment of appreciation—sometimes just of the meal and the company, sometimes of other things in their lives as well.

I found this a little cloying until I learned that science has shown that expressing gratitude makes you happier. In one experiment at the UC Riverside, psychologist Sonja Lyuobmirsky asked subjects to keep a gratitude journal—a weekly record of things they were thankful for. Over a six-week period, her subjects’ overall satisfaction with life improved significantly (whereas the control group felt no better than before). And at UC Davis, psychologist Robert Emmons has found that gratitude journals improve physical health and raise energy levels.

It seems safe to assume that expressing gratitude will improve one’s dinner parties. Yes, it all sounds very new age, but that’s how people felt about meditation twenty years ago. Now it’s been shown that meditation has profound physiological and mental benefits. Could gratitude be the new meditation?

The problem is that, being relatively new, the moment of gratitude is not shaped by set conventions. Might I suggest the following?

Keep it short: Avoid the tendency to ramble.

Shun repetition: This is boring. If you’ve nothing new to say, say nothing.

Share: The first person to speak often takes all the low-hanging gratitude fruit (the meal, the present company), leaving others with little to say. Don’t be a gratitude hog.

When it came to my turn at that Oxford Thanksgiving, I mumbled something about being happy to be there. Repressed little soul in velvet trousers that I was back then, I did not imagine that I would one day move to a land where people regularly use “share” to mean “say.” And I certainly did not imagine that it would be a place where people like to give thanks all year round.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Dread of Doilies

My therapist is constantly urging me to feel my feelings, but I find that it is much easier to avoid them by channeling them into obsessive-compulsive behaviors. So, when at the start of this week, a mysterious dread crept into my heart, I decided to clean the apartment from top to bottom. I scrubbed the floors. I washed the sofa covers and the shower curtain. I got rid of everything I would never use, including a Candy Whip of uncertain provenance. (It wasn’t edible any more, if it ever had been.) I threw away a pair of boots I’d worn at Burning Man, too dusty ever to wear again.

At first, I felt invigorated by the gradual triumph of order over chaos. But the more I cleaned and organized, the more dirt and disorder I saw. I found one humdrum task after another, mending the torn binding of my favorite cookbook, dusting my computer keyboard. I was about to organize our nonfiction alphabetically by subject, when I discovered a little tome that I bought at a garage sale for fifty cents: Organized Closets & Storage, by Stephanie Culp.

Ms. Culp’s advice on vacuum cleaners: “Get rid of exotic attachments you know you will never use. Vacuuming is a chore, not an art.” Her thoughts on doilies: “Do remember that doilies were made to be used, and if you’re not really using yours, but can’t bear to part with them, they should be moved out of the active storage area and put away with other mementos and heirlooms.”

Ms. Culp seemed to inhabit a very different world with me, one in which people have state-of-the-art vacuum cleaners and get overly attached to doilies. In my world, it is vibrators that have exotic attachments and Burning Man costumes that I find hard to part with. As I stared at the photograph of Ms. Culp on the back cover, with pancake make-up, a weak smile, and a white blouse buttoned to her chin, I wondered from what dark place her lust for order sprang. I realized that I would never be truly organized, and I didn’t want to be. I would rather face the mysterious dread I felt than end up counting doilies.