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."

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Oysters and Dinosaur Eggs

“I hate the way people talk in Santa Barbara,” said the woman, a slender forty-something in a black pantsuit who had just moved to California from Greenwich, Connecticut. She went on, "They say ‘totally’ too much. And they say ‘stokin’.’ What is that? They’re always talking about ‘stokin’’ and being stoked.”

Personally I like surfer speak. I think it should be used more, not less, and not just in reference to surfing. (For example, “Remembrance of Things Past is a gnarly book”). But just as I was about to tell the woman this, she turned away to find someone richer and more important to talk to.

It was Friday night and my friend Jonathon Keats had invited me to a cocktail party in a mansion in Presidio Heights. Original art covered the walls: a painting of a lobster, a portrait of a girl in a nightgown, listening through a glass pressed against the wall. A doddery butler was serving absinthe at a cocktail station set up next to a grand piano, and a vicar kept drifting from room to room, as if he’d wandered out of a nineteenth-century novel and couldn’t find his way back. Middle-aged art collectors admired the paintings while slurping plates of oysters.

Jonathon and I went into the dining-room in search of snacks. Gaunt women with artfully tinted hair were gazing lasciviously at a silver tureen of brisket. I noticed a box on the sideboard with a cannonball-shaped rock inside it. It looked out of place among the sculptures and figurines.
“What’s that?” I asked Jonathon. He is a conceptual artist whom I admire for many reasons, one of which is that he is always elegantly attired in a three-piece suit. Plus, he makes a mean martini, collects strange things like opium pipes and is that rare thing, a perfect gentleman.
“That,” said Jonathon, “is a dinosaur egg.” Then a friend of his explained that there is a subculture of rich people who collect dinosaur eggs and bones.
I stared at the egg, wondering what was inside it. Then I thought about being rich. Does wealth make people eccentric or do we all have a core of eccentricity that wealth simply allows us to express? If I was stinking rich, would I order custom-tinted M&Ms to match my decorating scheme and hire a personal stylist for my poodle? Or maybe I would start a utopia with my friends on a Caribbean island. Feeling annoyed that I could barely afford to throw a cocktail party, I touched the cold egg and said snippily:
“This is a priceless relic of our planet’s history, not an objet d’art. Shouldn’t it be sitting in a museum for everyone to enjoy?”
“Actually, dinosaur eggs are surprisingly cheap these days,” said Jonathon’s friend.

Twenty minutes later Jordan came to pick me up. We had another party to get to, but I told him to come in so he could say hello to Jonathon and have a few oysters (Jordan loves oysters even more than I love vodka, and there were dozens left). Jordan strode across the room towards me. He was wearing jeans and a leather jacket, and hadn’t shaved that day. Then the hostess tripped after him, her body rigid with agitation.
“EXCUSE ME” she said, grabbing his shoulder. Everyone stopped talking for a second to look at Jordan. Apparently there are still places in San Francisco where jeans are considered inappropriate. They thought he was an intruder.

Before anyone could press the panic button, I introduced Jordan, apologizing for assuming it would be OK for him to stop by. The hostess apologized too, saying “Well, you can’t be too careful. I’ve heard there are a lot of drug deals going on in the neighborhood.” This only made things worse. I was angry. Of course, it’s understandable that she was a little suspicious: she didn’t recognize Jordan, and he wasn’t dressed for a party and perhaps I should have found her and asked her permission for him to invite him. But even so, she should outwardly have given him the benefit of the doubt. Instead of shouting “Excuse me!” in ringing tones, she should have simply introduced herself. (Even “Can I help you?” would have been better.)

But owning so many beautiful things had made her paranoid. She and her husband could admire the gorgeous paintings of girls and lobsters every day, but they could no longer allow unexpected guests to show up at their parties. What if he’d been black? Someone would probably have brained him with the surprisingly cheap dinosaur egg.

Jordan ate an oyster or two, but had lost his appetite. As the vicar slipped into the garden with one of the younger female guests, we thanked the hosts for having us. I glanced back before we slipped out the door and caught the hostess rolling her eyes.
“That was one gnarly party,” I said.
“Totally,” Jordan replied.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Catastrophe, and Cake

Maybe it’s the endless rain, maybe it’s a surprise visit from Aunt Millicent, but catastrophe seems imminent. Global warming is upon us, causing apocalyptic weather, and my friends at the Grotto are convinced that a pandemic is approaching. They have organized CostCo trips to stock up on vodka and Gummi bears. They have planned their retreat to cabins in the wilderness (to me “wilderness” is anywhere outside San Francisco). And they urge me to do the same, sending me Cassandra-like emails with subject lines like “you have been warned.” To top it all off, on Friday, it snowed here. What’s next? Locusts raining from the sky?

When disaster approaches, you can adopt one of two strategies. You can rush about procuring canned food and water to stockpile in your basement. Or, like the violinists who kept on playing as the Titanic sank, you can act as if nothing has happening. Whether from laziness or lack of storage space, I have decided to take the latter approach. It has more grace, more elegance, more sprezzatura. Thus instead of buying Power Bars by the case and a battery-operated radio, I have been busy worrying about important things like how to fill a cupcake.

Chow asked me to write a how-to on the subject, and so yesterday I visited Citizen Cake, whose pastry chef, Luis Villavelasquez had agreed to give me a private cupcake-filling lesson. (If you think it sounds a bit kinky, then let me tell you that filling cupcakes is hard work, especially if like Luis, you have to squeeze your luscious buttercream into hundreds of holes a day.)

First I made notes as Luis injected chocolate-mint ganache into a cupcake. Then he tried to show me how to pipe a perfect rosette of lime-green mint frosting on top. But try as I might, I couldn’t master the technique. I wished for his Zen-like focus on the task at hand, but my hands trembled and I ended up frosting part of my notebook instead.

As I wielded the pastry bag, I tried not to think about the mute swans languishing on the shores of the Black Sea, about Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe, or about Aunt Millicent waiting for me at home. But it didn’t work. When I looked at the finished cupcakes, my mouth did not water. Instead I wondered how long Jordan and I could survive if we had nothing to eat but frosting.

The cupcakes I iced weren’t good enough to sell, and I thought Luis would let me take them home. Instead he stripped and re-frosted them. Then he added them to his cupcake army, lined up as neatly as the terracotta warriors buried in Emperor Qin Shi Huang's tomb. I thanked Luis for his help and hurried home in the rain, reflecting that although an all-frosting diet would kill me in a week or so, Jordan could probably live on it forever.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Mocktails and Mars Bars

The British love to drink and I have always striven to remain true to my national identity and ingest at least the British Heart Association's recommended 1-2 drinks per day. Unfortunately, my freakishly low alcohol tolerance is a disgrace to my native land (three drinks and I get the spins). The nadir occurred one January evening in the Lower Haight, when a mere two (OK, four) G & Ts sent me reeling out of a bar and into a shop doorway. There Jordan up-ended a recycling crate so I could sit down on it and throw up. A homeless person who had stopped to watch said to Jordan sympathetically, “My wife’s an alcoholic too.” But even this experience did not make me give up drinking (although I did give up the vintage leather trench I wore at the time, realizing it was maybe a little too vintage).

Last Sunday, suffering from a particularly bad hangover, I swore to Jordan I was never going to drink again (or eat a deep-fried Mars Bar, but that’s another story). Then that afternoon it rained so hard that it did not seem like a good day to give up drinking.

Obviously, I needed a pep talk. I phoned my friend Bob. He never touches alcohol during the month of January, a regime he has stuck to for the past twenty-five years. Bob raved: “In January, I feel stronger and stronger every day and have so much more energy for sports and jump out of bed with a spring in my step.” But he admitted that his stint of sobriety depresses other people: “They freak out and project their own insecurities onto you.”

This is the fundamental problem with abstinence. It may energize you, but it will aggravate your friends. This is partly because it makes them feel guilty for indulging. But there’s another reason too. Since alcohol makes you feel better in the short-term and worse in the long-term, when you choose to drink with someone, you’re saying that the present matters more than the future, and that this particular evening, right here, right now, matters more than getting up in the morning. Thus, when you order a Shirley Temple, it’s a clear statement of your priorities.

Fortunately, although I have yet to finesse the details, I have hit on a solution. I will become a closet teetotaler, slugging back soda water and acting as if it were a vodka tonic. That way, maybe I can have my cocktail and not drink it too.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Sexual Chemistry

A few weeks ago, San Francisco Magazine decided that a sex column was déclassé and dropped “Metropolust.” Fine. I never felt quite comfortable being a sexpert anyway (people always assumed I must be an adventuress). Then the editor asked me to resurrect “Metropolust” as a dating column. Although I met Jordan at the tender age of twenty and have scarcely been on a date, I agreed.

My first dating column was about the Quiet Party (you can read my description of the silent soiree that I attended here). I toyed with various theories about the event’s popularity. But I wanted to see what a sexual anthropologist might say. I phoned Helen Fisher, a professor at Rutgers University and author, most recently of Why We Love (2004). She said that bedroom eyes and body language play a part in the Quiet Party’s success. But according to her, the real secret is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that produces “focused attention, elation, and energy.” Dopamine soars when we have new experiences and also when we’re falling in love. Fisher said: “Studies have found that if you drive up dopamine by doing something very exciting, people are more susceptible to falling in love.” The Quiet Party is nothing if not a new, exciting experience. What could be more novel than writing instead of typing, and silence, instead of noise? If Fisher is right, the attraction of the Quiet Party is not silence itself, but the novelty of silence.

The dopamine factor explains a lot. I couldn’t understand why there are so many new variations on the singles mixer, for some seemed tedious and others borderline humiliating. But now it makes sense. Daters crave novelty, for dopamine is their catnip.

So what does this mean for savvy singles? Must you now tax your imaginations to plan ever more inventive and novel dates? Should you take your crush on a vampire walking tour instead of dinner at Delfina? Should you go kayaking on the Bay instead of relaxing with a nice cocktail? Happily, there is no need. Novelty may drive up dopamine so that two people find each other more attractive, but alcohol, of course, has exactly the same effect.