No Satisfaction

No Satisfaction was a Seriously Entertaining presentation by the House of SpeakEasy at City Winery NYC on Monday, November 17, 2014. It featured the writing and speaking talents of Ruby Wax, Philip Gourevitch, Hooman Majd, Hari Dhillon (who posed this month’s “Tip of My Tongue” quizzers), Christopher Mason, Graham Moore, and Dan Povenmire.

Ruby Wax“About seven years ago, they asked me if I’d be the poster girl for mental illness,” said Ruby Wax in the opening minutes of the final House of SpeakEasy show of 2014. “I thought it would be a tiny picture… but a month later, there were huge pictures of me all over London.” Ruby, an American comedian who has achieved great success as a comedian in the UK, was in the US for the publication of her latest book, Sane New World: A User’s Guide to the Normal-Crazy Mind. “So I wrote a show,” she continued, “and toured it in mental institutions for two years. I think they liked it. The bipolars used to say, ‘I laughed, I cried…’ These people are my tribe. Because I have serious depression.”

Ruby shared a series of revelations with an enthusiastic SpeakEasy crowd. People are out of control, she said, and the critical voices in their heads are driving them to distraction. “Our thoughts are jumping, jumping, jumping, like motes on cocaine. I’m gonna find out why, if we’re at the top of the food chain, we’re driving ourselves to extinction.”

So off she went to Oxford, to study cognitive psychology. Evolution, she pointed out, sets the table with cutlery we no longer really need. These are the sort of fight-or-flight mechanisms that mean “we live with this surround-sound fear… This is what’s driving us crazy. And I don’t know why this isn’t shouted from the rooftops: you can change the wiring in your brain. Your genes hand you a deck of cards; it’s up to you how you play them.” She went on to explain neuroplasticity, the idea that the mind can be changed through different habits. “If you want satisfaction,” she concluded, “do it yourself!”

Philip Gourevitch“Connecticut, New England. Which is maybe where you think abolitionists came from, but is a redneck, racist part of the country.” This is where Philip Gourevitch found himself starting a new school in 1971 or ’72. “I went out at recess, clutching my books and my recorder. (I’d been beaten up before.) I see a group of boys, including one black kid. One of the other members of the group says to him, gesturing at me, ‘He just called you a nigger.’ Another: ‘A nigger??’ A third: ‘Oh man, I don’t know if I wanna watch this.’ The black kid turned to me. ‘You called me a nigger?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, who’re you calling a nigger?’ ‘No one.’

“His grip relaxed. Maybe he realized he was being set up. But then it took me twenty-five years to realize, so maybe he didn’t… ‘So. Are you calling me a liar?’

“There was no satisfaction, no exit, no win in that situation. It set me up for Rwanda and Abu Ghraib… where no one has an out.”

Philip would go on to write perhaps the definitive history of the Rwandan genocide, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (1998), and The Ballad of Abu Ghraib (2008).

Hooman MajdA few weeks ago, Hooman Majd was getting no satisfaction from Twitter. “It’s worse than nicotine. You try not to read the sponsored ads, but British Airways was running one that said, Take us a picture that reminds you of home and we’ll send you there. It was very presumptuous that you’d like the home you came from. Also that you’d have a home.”

The son of an Iranian diplomat, Hooman grew up abroad in the years before the 1979 revolution in Iran. “A year in San Francisco, a year in India. Then to North Africa… I went to an American school with fellow diplobrats. As a kid, no one cares your name is Hooman. But all those kids had a reference point, a home they knew was always gonna be there.”

The revolution put a stop to his planned return home. “I couldn’t go back to Iran, so I stayed in the US and immersed myself in the most American culture possible: the music business.” But Hooman always kept up with the news from home and eventually moved back for a year, with his family, in 2011 (the subject of his book The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran). What he realised, on his return to the States, was that “it’s not just that the cliché you can’t go home again is true — it’s that it doesn’t matter any more. The satisfaction I’ve always had as a first-generation hyphenated American is that no one cares where you’re ‘from’ because you’re American. I got no satisfaction elsewhere in the world; I found satisfaction here.”

After the break, and for the third and last time this year, SpeakEasy audiences were treated to a new song by Christopher Mason. “Bottoms Up” was a tribute to the internet-breaking star derrière of Kim Kardashian, and you can read the full lyrics here.

Graham Moore“There’s this one moment that occurs in a lot of films about scientists,” began Graham Moore. “You’ve seen it a dozen times. Our scientist delivers a brief, reasonable paragraph of technical explanation about some plot point… ‘We’re going to need the warp drive to get through the wormhole.’ I often feel my entire, exceedingly brief, career has been working against that moment.” (Graham’s work includes the screenplay for the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game and a Holmesian pastiche called The Sherlockian.) “These are the perils of writing about people who are smarter than you, writing about geniuses when you’re not one.”

But how to approach genius? “The best place to look for inspiration,” said Graham, “is the best fictional representation of genius, which is found in Arthur Conan Doyle.” Doyle, of course, grew to hate his most famous creation, going so far as to write his own short satire of the Sherlock Holmes canon, “How Watson Learned the Trick,” designed to piss off fans. “The point of the story,” Graham concluded, “is that it’s totally random. Doyle’s great discovery is not the accumulation of data. It’s working out what that data means. Doyle makes you go, Why didn’t I think of that?

Graham’s career has come sort of full circle, as BBC TV’s Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch, plays Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. One day, on set, the actor was worrying over a technical detail about the Enigma machine in the screenplay. He explained at length, prompting Graham to fall into his own cliché: “‘Wait, Ben, say that again!’… I guess we’re all the normal-person buddy in someone else’s story of genius.”

Dan PovenmireThe final guest of a Seriously Entertaining first year for the House of SpeakEasy was Dan Povenmire. “There’s this equation comedians use,” he began: “Tragedy plus time equals comedy. I say, Comedy plus time equals more comedy. The longer you can delay the satisfaction of having that pay-off, the funnier it is.”

While working on Rocko’s Modern Life in the 1990s, Dan and his friend Swampy (aka Jeff Marsh) would listen to The Rocky Horror Picture Show on a loop. The third man in their working party, “a guy called Perry with a voice like gravel and a mane of curly red hair,” would complain about this… which meant that “pretty soon we’d all be doing the Time Warp again.” One time, Dan went into the office on a Sunday to do some work and realized that Perry had taped over part of Rocky Horror with the words, “This sucks, man, this fucking sucks.” Knowing Perry would be looking forward to their reactions on Monday, Dan re-recorded Rocky Horror and let it play out. Perry, confused and annoyed that his scheme had come to nothing, eventually confessed.

“What he didn’t know…” continued Dan, was that Dan had recorded the same phrase — “This sucks, man, this fucking sucks” — between two Steely Dan songs on a cassette belonging to Perry.

“So I wait,” said Dan. “I wait two and a half years. The show has ended. I haven’t seen Perry for the last year. The phone rings. ‘Oh, you fucking got me, man!’ He’d had this Dory moment from Finding Nemo, this Keyser Soze realization. I got him back by not allowing him the satisfaction of knowing that he had gotten us.”

Join us again in 2015 for more fabulous excursions into the hilarious, moving, and Seriously Entertaining unknown.

Master Your Mind with Ruby Wax

Sane New World: A User’s Guide to the Normal-Crazy Mind

by Ruby Wax

NY: Perigee Trade, 2014; 256pp

Mindfulness seems to be less a case of mind over matter than mind over emotion. In this entertaining introduction to neuroplasticity, mental illness, and coping with the tricky business of being, Ruby Wax outlines the potential benefits of employing a mindfulness-based approach to life. The Sane New World of the title is the other side of mental illness, the world beyond what can seem insurmountable to the one in four of us who live with recurring emotional difficulties. The secret? You can change your mind.

Sane New World is both self-help and a personal account of life with mental illness. Wax is an American comedian who’s had a prolific career in the UK as a stand-up, script editor (for Absolutely Fabulous), interviewer (check out her program on O.J. Simpson) and TV personality. But as she points out in the early pages of her book, her busyness may not have been an entirely good thing. “You could say that multitasking has driven us mad,” she writes; “like having too many windows open on your computer, eventually it will crash.” The need to be so busy is a symptom of affluenza, as is the rampant, uncontrollable consumerism she identifies in herself — a sequence in which she stops a taxi seven times on a quest to find the perfect lamp is both funny and terrifying. The impulse is toward an ever-receding ideal: the perfect striped cushion; a life so full that fear and anxiety can be kept at bay.

Nature’s little joke on us is that the original object of desire isn’t so much fun when we get it, so unless we can up the stakes all the time, we can’t get that burst of internal fireworks we call happiness.

And upping the stakes, in life as in Vegas, can have serious consequences.

Ruby Wax

Recently, Wax found herself in the absurd position of being interviewed and making TV shows about depression while simultaneously trying to hide the fact that she was living with it too. Assailed by what she calls “constant hurricanes of depression,” she finally decided to do something about it and enrolled in a Master’s course at the University of Oxford. First principles: getting to know the brain. “This remarkable organ in our heads holds infinite wisdom but so few of us know how to use it,” she realised. “It’s similar to having a Ferrari but no one gave you the keys.” The knowledge and understanding of the brain she gained, in particular how mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can be used to rewire brains prone to illness, form the basis of Sane New World.

Mental illness seems to be a kind of evolutionary remainder. In a memory-forming system that was geared, for millions of years, toward the avoidance of predators, negative experiences have inevitably received preferential treatment. This is why negative thoughts and feelings perpetually reinforce themselves and so many people wander round under a cloud of their own self-criticism. Meanwhile, the production of dopamine — a hormone released when you attain a goal, be it a handful of nuts or a pair of Jimmy Choos — has, historically, been a crucial factor in motivating the species to greater productivity and success, first in the hunter-gathering sphere and now in the private-shopper-bingeing sphere. The hangover into modern life of evolved traits that we don’t need in the same way is, Wax says, “one reason why we’re nuts. This is why there are women who read Heidegger but also want to screw the plumber.” And the primitive hits we get from certain kinds of behavior can be very problematic in the long run:

We are our own walking pharmacies shooting ourselves up with homemade chemicals. This constant need for a fix to make you feel good prompts you to pursue rewards over and over again and strengthens the behavior that made you want to get them in the first place. It’s a vicious circle.

Fortunately, to extend the drug metaphor, there’s hope for rehabilitation.

Neuroplasticity is the idea that neural pathways can change or be changed depending on environmental or behavioral changes. This is central to mindfulness, which involves adopting a more circumspect, detached attitude toward one’s own emotions.

When you feel knee-deep in a negative mood, it’s not only the mood that causes the ultimate suffering; it’s how you react to it. So not only did an arrow shoot you, which hurts, you send in another one to punish yourself for hurting.

Mindfulness is non-judgmental. To practise it is to take away that second arrow. There’s nothing wrong with identifying a negative emotion; you just need to learn not to berate yourself for having it. “Once you stand back,” Wax writes, “you don’t try to make things different; it’s not even about relaxation but about witnessing whatever’s going on without the usual critical commentary.” As a technique, it grew out of efforts to increase pain resistance through refocusing the mind. Wax takes us through numerous exercises one can practise to develop mindfulness; over time, the neural pathways these exercises carve out make it easier and easier to react to adversity with equanimity.

The benefits are outrageous. A stronger immune system. Longevity, because meditation stimulates the production of telomerase, an enzyme involved in cell reproduction. Relieved symptoms of a range of conditions, from psoriasis to irritable bowel syndrome. Reduced stress, and an enhanced capacity for dealing with it. Improved cognitive ability. “You eventually tame, calm and befriend that bucking bronco of a mind, gently taking the reins and steering it where you want.” Ruby Wax is convinced, and also very convincing. Even if you’re lucky enough to live a depression-free life, it seems well worth your time to take a step back and practise a little mindfulness. You never know when you might need those muscles. A sane new world awaits.

Ruby Wax will appear at our next Seriously Entertaining show, No Satisfaction, at City Winery on November 17. Our other fabulous guests are: Hooman Majd, Dan Povenmire, Sarah Lewis, and Philip Gourevitch. Buy tickets here and follow Ruby on Twitter here.