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A "hep" and a "balou" ...

So, I was sort of surprised when “The Almighty Algorithm” over at LibraryThing.com's Early Reviewer program picked me for one of the copies of Paula Poundstone's The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness … sure, I've read and reviewed other humor books (most recently one by Chelsea Handler), but I'm pretty sure there were fans of Ms. Poundstone also in the running who would have been more enthused to have been assigned this volume. Now, I'm not a non-fan of her comedy, and I'm certainly familiar with her (although it's probably been quite a while since I caught her act in any media), it's just that I'm on something of another wavelength.

In getting myself organized to write this review, I noticed something that I'd missed previously (or got the sense of when reading this), which is that the contents (the “experiments”) of the book are based on activities spread out over seven years, which certainly puts them in a different context than one would (or, at least, I did) get in reading it (except for her kids ending up in college by the end). One of the first "ha-ha" moments with this is on the cover … the promo blurb by the venerable (which I'm saying with the nicest intent – I still fondly remember her characters on Laugh-In) Lily Tomlin: “A remarkable journey. I laughed. I cried. I got another cat.” … one of numerous kudos from recognizable names the book attained.

After some mental back-and-forth, I'm thinking that a basic walk-through of the book is going to be the best approach to it. There are a dozen “experiments” over thirteen chapters (one, the “Get Organized” experiment is repeated), each reasonably free-standing. I do have a half-dozen of my little book marks in here, so there are things that I felt well worth passing along. Oh, yeah … one more thing: in an obvious attempt to make this all look “scientific”, each experiment is broken up into sections like conditions, hypothesis, variable, uncontrolled variable, field notes, procedure, qualitative observation, constants, environment, analysis, equipment, laboratory assistant, factor, inference, and conclusion (and I may be missing some), although these are not set up in any particular order, and some are as brief as a single word, while others go on for several pages. And, another caveat: while I'm certainly not Paula Poundstone (although we're nearly the same age – which could explain the Lily Tomlin quote), there are quite a few of these that would clearly “not end well”, and I reacted with a heartfelt “what were you thinking?” to her travails, which sometimes go well beyond “suffering for one's art” (or whatever).

Chapter 1 – The Get Fit Experiment
One thing to note up front … these ramble, with parts of them about the experiment per se, but with other parts about her home life and kids, and some about her professional life. In this, she signs up for taekwando classes, paying for two twenty-one session packages up front, as she notes “for science”. There's a somewhat odd section here about doing radio interviews to promote ticket sales for her stand-up gigs around the country … which then segues into a long story about doing some activities with one of her adopted kids. Neither has much to do with the “experiment”, but possibly does set up the parameters for what she's perceiving as “happiness”. Of course, getting fit is a bitch, and she comes to it from zero … at one point she reports: “… the workout was grueling. Honestly, I could turn in after the jumping jacks and wind sprints …”, while later adding “Qualitative Observation #3”: “There was no part of me that didn't hurt.”. More stories about care of pets and kids ensue, but she does set up something that gets re-used throughout the book:
So, am I happier? Part of the problem is that we as a species have never come up with a standard form of measure for happiness: teaspoons, volume, decibels, maybe something akin to blood alcohol level. Maybe a small amount of happiness could be a “hep”, after my old cat Hepcat. I like that: a hep of happiness, and if you're lucky enough to amass four of those, you've got yourself a whole “balou” of happiness. That's a lot. And, yes, I did have a cat named Balou.
She does end up getting some results, realizing that she's feeling great after carrying 30lbs of kitty litter down to the trash, an activity she notes “is generally not a mood enhancer”, and while she does manage to lose weight she comments that “I have a bad feeling that my fat has a highly developed homing instinct” … as Larry the Cable Guy would say: now that's funny right there.

Chapter 2 – The Get Wired Experiment
The premise of this is “The entire world seems to believe that “being connected” is the key to happiness; I wish to no longer stand on the outside looking in.”, that after confessing that she writes everything by hand and has her assistant type in stuff for her web site and her previous books, further noting “I don't even know how to turn on the machine.” Aside from the writing thing, she also has some goals for doing web video “to hook up with my audience directly”. I wish I could pass along her Jeffrey Dahmer quip here, but it would involve too much set-up … but its one of those little things that make the book charming. As I've been a computer user since the early 80's, I have to admit that a lot of this experiment is quite painful to read. She has a computer guy come in to get her set up on her new laptop, and the first thing she can think of to learn is how to send an email. Send. An. Email. Oh, and this one also has a “Qualitative Observation #3” worth passing along (which I immediately shared with my wife): “I hate auto-correct. I don't need a machine correcting me, I have two teenage daughters.” Aside from attempting to make and upload little videos, she's also introduced to Facebook – which spurs “Qualitative Observation #4”: “Computers are addictive.” and sets up a (much) later observation: “Twitter has to be one of the stupidest, most narcissistic activities humans have ever come up with, and I was enjoying it very much.”. Prime take-away point from this experiment's Conclusion: “Getting wired comes with too much compulsion to be the key to happiness and you miss too much real life while messing around with tech stuff.” … I believe I've had that pointed out to me before.

Chapter 3 – The Get Earthy Experiment
In which Ms. Poundstone decides it's a wonderful idea to go backpacking with her daughter who suffers from Cerebral Palsy … really. To her credit, she presents the clear “Qualitative Observation #1”: “My life is a series of self-delusions.”. As one might expect, the preparation for this is cringe-worthy … oh, and once they get going: bugs … and bears. And, lest you think this experiment is without mirth, here's its “Qualitative Observation #8”: “After you pee like a man, you don't ask for directions.”, which sort of leads to “Qualitative Observation #10”: “It's good to not be eaten” (see “bears”, preceding). Despite the difficulties of the project, she decides that backpacking with her daughter was “good for a couple of balous and a few heps of happiness”.

Chapter 4 – The Get Organized Experiment: Part One
This one ends up with “Experimental Error” as its conclusion and “There's no way I can do this alone.” as “Qualitative Observation #3” (which oddly appears after #5 and #6), which sets up Chapter 6. It starts out with the rather revealing: “I lost my beautiful house years ago. I went broke before it was cool.”, which is sort of a sub-theme here … unlike some other comics, her career seems to be high on accolades, and low on cash, with her being big on NPR rather than on late-night cable. Here, the “Hypothesis” is a Dorothy Gale toned “I am sure that getting organized will make me happy. I just know it will.”. The set-up on this is that when she had to unload her house, and get a rental, she went to a much smaller space, while simply moving everything in, much of it yet to be unpacked, which she excuses due to being vastly behind on handing over her previous book to her publisher, and simply focused on that.
By the time I completed my first book, I was so overwhelmed by the chaotic residue left behind, I didn't know where to begin. So I didn't. Then I didn't some more.
This experiment was a difficult read for me, as Poundstone is a “saver” in much the same way as I am, if in different particulars (although, I could painfully relate with her throwing out things kept for decades), with “Qualitative Observation #1” really summing up the mental state involved: “If I throw away a screw I find in the junk drawer today, I guarantee the refrigerator door will fall off tomorrow”. Over the years she has bought numerous magazines with promises of getting one organized, including a copy of Oprah's which was about people who regularly tidied their spaces, which she misread as tie-dyed and notes “Now I had quite a mess on my hands.” … waka, waka. She confronts the clothes, the kids' old toys, the photos, the books, the videos, the bills, paperwork for pretty much everything:
I sorted paper for three solid hours and thought that it might be time to establish the “negative hep” measure. I was hemorrhaging heps of happiness.
Chapter 5 – The Get Reel Experiment
It appears that at some point in the previous experiment Poundstone promised her kids something about sitting and watching movies together all day (possibly some point near when one of the kids chimed in with “Mom, you're never going to get the cats to sleep in alphabetical order.”). She also explains that they don't watch any TV, with the kids only getting to watch videos at specific, special, times, so this promise “was an especially exotic one”. Much of this chapter hinges on the chaos of her home environment, the interactions and personalities of her kids, and the urinary habits of her numerous cats. She mentions having “tons of movies” (and given the descriptions, that might be a weight estimate), but very minimal tech ability to run the various machines dedicated to playing these … noting: “Buzz Aldrin couldn't figure out the sequence of buttons to push to watch a movie in my house.”. These experiments aren't dated, but one part of this involves going with the kids to a “video store” (do these still exist?) to select films, as it appears that the hundreds at home just wouldn't do. This leads into another swing through the personalities of her kids, and trying to rein in their understandable sudden desire for “forbidden fruit”. The bulk of this chapter is a walk through their day … which video, who's complaining, her take on the various films (her play-by-play on Fast Five is notably arch), letting out the dogs, letting in the dogs, what cat is sitting/pissing where, and the consumption of snacks. Ultimately, the experiment is chalked up as an ordeal, vaguely scheduled to be repeated in the future, when they still believe it might make for some happiness.

Chapter 6 – The Get Organized Experiment: Part Two
Yeah, my reaction would be “tried it once – didn't work”, but here we are again on getting organized. This time she opts to hire a professional organizer {shudder}, which she rather sensibly hadn't thought of before “they're pricey and … do absurd stuff like make you put everything you own out on your front lawn.”. She eventually picks one who's a “green organizer” (whatever that is), and charges $75/hr … way out of her budget. A lot in here is about her kids, as lot of the clutter relates to her kids, and there's one bit about something discovered in a closet that she tries to defend keeping, yet: “It cost me thirty-five dollars to tell the Green Organizer that story, and she wasn't moved at all.”. Needless to say, given my own neuroses in this area, the entire process was a difficult read. Poundstone does however really nail it at one point: “I was afraid that if I got rid of all of the memorabilia from my past, I wouldn't remember it anymore.” … a point I've made over and over when it comes to assorted gee-gaws which are my only physical link to some notable life event, that realistically only comes to mind when in the presence of said item!

Chapter 7 – The Get Rolling Experiment
This one is definitely in the “what was she thinking?” zone, although it begins with overtones of a classic mid-life crisis as she drives her elder daughter up to college in Oregon. The emotional impact was such that:
I needed to do something drastic to score some happiness. Until now, I had experimented with what I thought would make me happy, but I was wrong a lot and this was beginning to feel urgent.
Her solution? Rent a fancy sports car. Really … despite her very next line being “I am thousands of dollars in debt.” Now, perhaps I'm not the ideal person to “judge” this … I live in a walking / public transit city, and have never “really” owned a car (long story, but I did nominally own cars at two points in time), so the L.A. car culture is something that might as well be about ice skidders on Titan. Anyway, she looks up a luxury car rental place online and after skimming through various cars, she focuses on a Maserati (“because of the Joe Walsh song”). On the site there are prices, which she assumes to be for a week's rental, however, once she gets on the phone with a rep, she's steered towards a Lamborghini, and discovers that its rental price, of $1,576.93 (!) (!!!), is for the day. Twenty-four hours … (oh, OK, so that is just a somewhat more reasonable-sounding $1.10/minute). Still, she perseveres (“for science”). As one might expect, it's a lot more car than she can handle (see VCRs above), and keeps stalling at stops. Her son is, however, absolutely thrilled to get driven to school in it, and she convinces a friend to go ride with her (after her assistant demurs). She finds it's not much good for getting groceries, spends a lot of time going 5mph in bumper-to-bumper traffic, still she admits that she did get “several heps of happiness” driving it. Go figure.

Chapter 8 – The Get Up and Dance Experiment
The set-up to this one is somewhat convoluted … she's waiting for her daughter to get out of a store in a mall … she's next to a group of “swing dancers” … she'd read a book about activities that release oxytocin – dancing is one of these – and she asked one of the gals where she learned to do it. And, so, she's off to visit the “Dance Doctor” for a 45-minute private class. She's a bit better at this than she was at taekwondo (“I definitely garnered three to four heps of happiness from my very first class.”), and he “prescribes” her 2-3 private classes a week. Poundstone, however, is not the best student, and takes to it very slowly, with slow being the key:
He was playing the slow version of “The Letter” at an even slower speed. It sounded like the artist's voice had been altered to protect his identity in public testimony, and yet I could still barely keep up. … Today I learned the Charleston. It's supposed to be a snappy step, but we're doing it to “Fire and Rain.” It looks like tai chi when I do it.
She tries dancing around her son, who says “Please don't.” which spins her into a digression into teenagerhood and a reminiscence of her own teen years, and assorted scenes from her kids' schools. She eventually moves on to group classes, and, despite her expectations from having taken all those private lessons, she “sucked”, a judgment further enhanced by “Qualitative Observation #10”: “My dog plays Jenga better than I swing dance.” (ouch). While she decides that she wants to continue to learn swing dancing, she pretty much sums up this experiment with the beginning of “Qualitative Observation #11”: “Dancing is really fun. Not being able to dance while others can is not nearly as much fun.”

Chapter 9 – The Get Warm and Fuzzy Experiment
This takes quite a long time to get to the point, but it's about her deciding to begin hugging, well, everybody, which is perhaps well-illustrated in “Qualitative Observation #2”: “TSA agents hate hugging.” (she later notes “I think I'm already on the national Do Not Hug list.”), which is furthered in “Qualitative Observation #3”: “When you walk around the airport smiling and trying to make eye contact with people, you look like Carol Channing panhandling.”, which is followed by the “Field Note” about her son walking to another gate in hopes “to board a flight to another destination altogether.” A lot of this chapter has to deal with her role on NPR's Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me! (which she's taking her son to a live taping of in Colorado, hence the airport stuff). She apparently hugged everybody in line at Red Rocks, to which she attributes “a whopping two balous of happiness”, as well as “a residual hep” upon reading a tweet later reporting her hugging. Otherwise, there's “Qualitative Observation #5”: “Some hugs fill you up, and some hugs suck the life out of you.”

Chapter 10 – The Get Purring Experiment
This one also takes quite a while to get set up, with lots of musings on the evolving lives of her kids, including one great quip about her second daughter, also now in college: “I miss her, but I know she's alive by the Starbucks charges on my MasterCard bill.” This eventually gets prefaced by the thought: “I look longingly at my cats before I pass out at the end of the day, but it occurred to me recently that I almost never spend any quality time with my animals.” … so, “I am going to see how many heps of happiness I can get from spending a day with my cats and dogs.” She claims to keep catnip (a gift from a fan) in a safe, and “sometimes late at night, I can hear the cats in there slowly turning the dial trying to decipher the combination”, she unlocks some of this, and unboxes a complex cat toy (another gift from a fan), which is immediately quite popular with the dogs, who then must be hustled outside to not be an impediment to the cats.

Like the movie-watching day, this is broken up by the time of the observations. Amazingly, the cats do seem quite interested in the toy. She also takes to brushing the cats … which I believe she has 13 of … which is intermittently disturbed by unwanted phone calls. Much of the content here swings back and forth between complaints about her son's school, and by-name interaction with the various cats and dealing with the dogs. Make that 16 cats. She spends most of the day brushing the cats, so by the end, the house is a mass of cat hair, filling up the vacuum three times. In conclusion, she doesn't think there was much happiness (“no more than a hep or so”) to be had in this all-day project, leading her to contemplate: “Maybe happiness doesn't come in bulk. Maybe it's sprinkled in.”

Chapter 11 – The Get Positive Experiment
The plan here is: “Although negativity is practically my native language, I am going to replace my negative thoughts with positive ones.” She looks up assorted positive affirmations on the web, and rejects most of them for the (to me) obvious reasons, but she expands on this:
They're mostly written by women who sit on mats, breathing, in front of tables covered with batiked cloth … I say “I just plain suck,” to myself several times a day. Replacing it with “My body is my vehicle in life; I chose to fill it with goodness” just isn't going to fly. … I narrowed down the affirmations to those that wouldn't require just plain lying to myself.
I hate to be negative (yeah, right) but this went about as well as one might expect … with the “Conclusion” being a very succinct “What the hell was I thinking?” and the equally predictable realization in “Qualitative Observation #5”: “Don't tell me that I said so, but when this positive self-talk doesn't work, I feel even more like a loser.”

Chapter 12 – The Get Over Here and Help Experiment
In the closing bits of the previous experiment, she notes of her son: “This is the behavior of someone suffering with electronics addiction.”, which sets up half of this … in that she talks to a number of experts in this field, and ends shipping her son off for a 10-week “wilderness program” out in Utah, where “He was probably, even now, desperately trying to get a signal.” This frees up some time for the actual experiment here, based on a Swedenborg quote about “the desire to be useful to others”. Her first two shots at this (giving platelets and offering to drive a couple that had broken down right in front of her house to where they needed to go), were met with lots of thanks, and she found that she was “enjoying the heck out of just intending to help”. She continues to go in to give platelets until she got tested as being low on iron (she doesn't report if she kept going back after that).

Most of this chapter, however, is about her volunteering at a geriatric home … in fact, the tales from there take up nearly a couple of dozen pages here. She starts from zero on this, working up a list of centers in her area, and cold-calling them to see about volunteer opportunities. One would think that this would be a much appreciated thing, with systems in place, but at some “it was worrisome how unfamiliar these ideas seemed” to the folks she spoke to. I'm afraid that if I were to pull out some amusing quotes from this part, it would sound like she was making fun of the old folks, but she obviously is working very hard to make a connection, and it's a process. Her most successful venture involved bringing one of her dogs with her … which was very popular with both sides, saying her dog ended up being “a rock star” … and she puts in the “Conclusion”:
… I'm going to continue to volunteer at the nursing home. I love the old people. Besides, my dogs practically drag me there.
… along with noting this experiment has given her “oodles of heps and several balous of happiness”. On a significantly less happy note, she follows up on her son's stint at the wilderness program, detailing that while searching for schools that were "electronics and computer free", she'd found “only two programs in the entire country” that qualified. She flew to Utah to pick him up from the summer program, and then deliver him to one of those two schools, in Virginia (where he'd be living “in another tent in the woods”). She is sufficiently hostile to these devices (and aware of Apple's early marketing) that she snarls:
These machines had stolen into our homes and schools under the deceptive cloak of the word educational … despite glaring evidence of decreasing test scores and educational outcomes … on the off chance that I am wrong, and there is an afterlife, I hope Steve Jobs's is not pleasant.
Chapter 13 – The Get Quiet Experiment
The last experiment in the book deals with meditation, which she says “is credited with lowering anxiety, rewiring the brain, and even producing bliss”, with the “Hypothesis” for this reading “Bliss could be good.”. As I mentioned way up top there, this whole cycle of experiments took place over a long time, and at this point her elder daughter is on her own, her younger daughter is a senior in college (Poundstone offers to be a “visual aid” for her presentation in an Abnormal Psychology class), and she's sending letters back and forth to her relegated-to-the-wilds son. The younger daughter had taken meditation classes at this place on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A., and she signs them up for a class together. As one might expect (given the various neuroses the author confesses during the rest of the book), this does not work smoothly for her, and when her daughter heads back to school, she's on her own with it. This chapter flips back and forth between meditation-related stories, various remembrances of parental foibles, complaints about L.A. stuff, and a couple of pages of ranting when she discovers how many other books on “happiness” got published before this came out. Surprisingly, given that the experiences with the meditation classes seem so counter-productive, Poundstone reports at various points feeling “more open to possibilities”, “uplifted”, “lighter and more alert”, plus “energetic and optimistic”, and while she admits that her “science may be screwed up here” being unable to prove a causal relationship, she insists she feels more creative and is able to “pour myself onto the stage” in her “silly, stupid stand-up comedy job”. Oh, and aside from that, on the suggestion of her son, she's at least considering doing a book about electronics addiction (won't that be a fun read?).

In the “Final Report” section, she sums up the years of investigation thusly:
Happiness is more complex than I had realized. Maybe the true answer to the secret of happiness is that it is a combination of things and they don't always happen all at once. If you're happy without interruption for days on end, you're likely daft.
I'm, frankly, shocked to find that I needed this mass of words to feel like I sufficiently represented The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness … I went into this review (which took 3 long stays at Starbucks to finish) thinking it would be half this length … go figure. As this is an “Early Reviewer” book, it's new (-ish, it took me three months after finishing reading it to triage time for writing the review), having just come out in May, and so should be readily available in actual book stores. However, the on-line behemoths presently have it at a significant discount (nearly half off of cover price), and the new/used guys have “good” copies that, with shipping, are running at about a quarter of cover, if you're particularly price sensitive.

This certainly is a revealing look at the author, and given the passage of time with her life and family, one feels that she's become quite familiar by the end of it. As mentioned, parts of this are quite “cringe worthy” (she mentions in the last chapter that she's “still paying off a day's Lamborghini rental”), but the muddle of sub-themes that work their way through it almost makes on feel like “having been there”. I don't necessarily feel that this would be an “all and sundry” recommendation, but if the above sounds good to you (and, honestly, despite the length of the review, I really only cherry picked enough to give you the broad strokes), there's a whole lot more to get from this.


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