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.