H = S + C + V
I’ll repeat; H=S+C+V, which, according to four very noteworthy psychologists is the actual formula for happiness. Amazing, isn’t it?
I’m not entirely sure of all the details, but I’ll try and explain it as best I can. ‘H’ is clearly happiness, which, we’re told, is made up, or equal to, S, C and V. ‘S’, as I read it, is our mental/genetic/whatever happiness default setting. It’s kind of like our emotional neutral, or core weight. That is, when not troubled by major events, S is our normal happiness quota. C refers to our circumstances. I don’t think it’s supposed to mean that rich people are any happier than poor ones, (though they might be) but rather that people rotting away from cancer are probably a lot less happy than those who are not. Lastly, and this is the interesting bit, is ‘V’. ‘V’ refers to the voluntary things we do, or don’t do, to make ourselves happy/ier. The way I understand it, (and I may be wrong) V is essentially the margin of your happiness wriggle room. I mention it as, other than travel, happiness seems to be the one theme that undercuts this blog, so I thought it a decent enough way of starting a post. That, and because I’m going to come back to it later. But first I need to talk about people electrocuting dogs. This too will become relevant.
Basically – and bear in mind that this is entirely received wisdom – the thrust of the idea behind electrocuting dogs is proving that helplessness can be/is learnt. A psychologist, (Martin Seligman from New York, if you’d like to send him any fan mail) took some dogs and slung some in a high walled pen whereupon he electrocuted them. Initially, and pretty understandably, the dogs would try and jump out of the pen. However, after a while, finding the walls too high, they would give up and simply endure their pretty nasty lot. Once this scientific breakthrough had been achieved, the dogs would be transplanted to a similar pen , but with lower walls, whereupon they were electrocuted again. However, this time, despite the fact they were now physically able to jump out, they would no longer try. Basically, that they had learnt helplessness.
I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert on any of this. If you want more, you could do worse than go to the article I cribbed most of the foregoing from: http://nymag.com/news/features/17573/
I know, this is a crap post. I’m 412 words in and I haven’t mentioned anything about Vietnam yet. However, I wanted to include this, as I was thinking about life before September 14th 2007, (sight loss day) and, ultimately, because this is my blog and I get to write about whatever I like. Those are the rules. However, I was also wondering how high my own walls were before Sight Loss Day, (capitals intended). The truth is, I’m not entirely sure they were all that high. I was doing pretty well, so maybe it’s better to think of Corporate life as indentured slavery, rather than as a dog in a pen. Either way, going back to September 14th 2007, I was delivered a shock big enough to put me into orbit.
The point is, I’m happy. It catches you off guard and, when the full realization of it hits you, the enormity of it can be dizzying. Let’s go back to For Instances, (again with the capitals – see previous posts). I was doing something as simple as walking up the stairs only yesterday and, as is the case with most Vietnamese building – they exist as much on the outside as they do the in – emerged briefly in to the morning’s full unabridged and unedited 36 C of sunshine and there it was, wallop, I was happy.
I think you have to grab those moments.
However, let’s not get too carried away. Saigon and Shangri-la are hardly synonymous. Not least because Saigon exists and has rarely been the name of a retirement bungalow. Theft is rife here. It’s endemic. One minute you can be walking down a busy road in full daylight, the next, a pair of quick hands dart out from the back of a passing scooter and your bag’s gone. That’s it. We live on a fairly quiet street. One on which, a couple of weeks ago, my girlfriend was practicing riding her scooter when two guys on a passing bike reached out and grabbed the necklace of her neck. I can’t imagine what that was like and, for no other reason than my gender, am fairly unlikely to. All I can do is guess how such an intrusive, unthinking and unexpected act must have made her feel. All I really know for sure is that it reduced the confident, funny and beautiful person I live with to a sobbing wreck.
The rage, (and I’m using that word very deliberately) acts such as this fills you with is as intense as it is impotent. It’s all encompassing and useless in equal measure. The act’s long over and Elvis has long left the building by the time of arrival and, perhaps, that’s no bad thing. Currently, stories abound about a teacher, at the school where I work, who gave chase after such an incident and, on cornering the thieves, found their motorbike being used on him. He’s still in hospital now.
Don’t get me wrong. Acts like this are never going to be OK, but let’s provide a little context before forming any too damning conclusions. The Vietnamese government has made amazing strides in reducing the extent of poverty here, but it still exists and it’s scent is ever present. Poverty is never photogenic, it’s dirty and ugly and it’s filthy. It dehumanizes those that live in its shadow. The average yearly income here, (for the Middle Class) is around $1,168 PA. Now, compare that to your salary, or the salary of the average Westerner over here and you can begin to provide a context for these actions. I’m not saying that those who robbed my girlfriend, or robbed that teacher of most of his face, were living below the poverty line and somehow that makes it OK. That’s not where I’m at. I’m simply trying to shade in the grey.
Neither do I want to give the impression that Saigon’s some kind of crime riddled hell hole. It’s not. In truth, I’d feel more at risk on any Saturday night in any market town you can think of anywhere in England than I do here. People are nice. That’s the real truth of the matter. They smile at you in the street and wave at you from passing cars when you’re out on the highway. Kids get a real kick out of shouting ‘Hello!’ at you wherever you go and, I keep coming back to it, people are just nice.
Every day continues to be an adventure. Saigon never bores. Each street is a testament to both present and past. The relics of french Colonialism rub shoulders with the brutalism of the modern communist apartment blocks. Similarly, in the countryside, by Cu Chi and out by the Mekong Delta the natural serenity of Vietnam – of walkways bordered by fruit trees whose harvest is just there for the picking – rubs shoulders with a far more brutal past. A past whose legacy is still defined in terms of craters, stillborn babies, deformed children and the lame; sights that cut across this country like a leper’s scar across the face of a model. But maybe that particular aspect of history is best left for another time and another post.
But no, life is here, life is now, life is Saigon. Here the nighttime streets are dressed in the brilliant colours of headlight and neon. Old men and women push food carts through the sweltering traffic and all the time Saigon just keeps on moving, breathing and living. That initial sense of alien has never faltered, not for a minute. If anything it’s grown even stronger.
The alien cuts through all. In terms of diet, we continue t0 break new ground. In the short time we’ve been here, everything from Duck’s feet, (last night) to squirrel has been feasted upon. We drank coffee, whose very existence owed itself to having passed through the digestive system of a Civet, (now known as ‘Weasel Shit Coffee’). Eel, Cuttlefish and frog have become dietary staples and nothing, (apart from the one time I ate Chickens’ feet) has disappointed. All of this from street-side cafes, whose patrons feast on small plastic kerbside tables, as the motorbikes roar past and the rats and cockroaches fight audibly and hungrily for the scant remains tossed onto the pavement.
However, of all, it was perhaps the snake that was the most spectacular. With a rough idea of what lay ahead of me, and a few vague recollections of having seen snakes gutted and flailed alive on television, I’ll admit to being a little nervous at the prospect of eating snake myself. However, I’ve always eaten meat and just can’t accept that separating beefburger from cow as anything other than rank hypocrisy. If you eat meat, something has died so you can do so. It can be emotionally convenient to pretend otherwise; that your pie was never once the adoring object of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ as it first stumbled around its wide eyed way around its pen but it was and it is. However, that’s a long way from signing up to witness the wholesale torture of a living animal and I’ll admit that the idea of doing so made me nervous.
Still, on the advice of a colleague, we approached the open fronted Vietnamese Hoi with little idea of what to expect. I can only describe the place as a strange sort of meeting place, one where petting zoo and menu make an uncomfortable acquaintance. Animals lined all three walls, from the expected mix of fish and lobsters to the more unusual tanks of tortoises, lizards and, of course, snakes. Snakes seem to play an important role in the Vietnamese psyche. In local shops, it’s not entirely unusual to find bottles of home made medicinal wine with a cobra thrown in for good measure. I’ve tried some, it’s not bad. However, pickled snake is a long way from live, writhing snake and, again, I was caught up with the idea of being responsible
for its torture. In the end, there was nothing much to worry about. There was simply one quick cut from a fairly sturdy pair of scissors and, an inch shorter, the snake was dead. True, going back to the title of this piece, it’s H probably shrunk quite quickly and likely in direct proportion to its S, but I can’t say it suffered much. Really, on reflection, there’s not much your average mutton chop wouldn’t give to have met such a swift end.
After that, came the matter of draining its blood – like wringing out a damp towel – into a bottle of Hanoi Vodka and the removal of its still beating heart and gall bladder for separate consumption. I knew I was going to do this as soon as I heard about it, but still, holding the beating heart of a recently living animal is quite another thing. However, like so much in life, there comes a time to silence the voices, close your mind and take a step forward.
In this case, a swallow forward.
I don’t know how to describe it, really. It’s not like I chewed. Someone told me you could still feel its heart beat in your stomach. However, delighted as I am to report this, that proved not be the case. That notwithstanding, I’ve got to say that I was acutely conscious of it being there and it still beating. It was almost, in a perverse way, as if I wanted to feel it, that part of me wanted to be more revolted by what I had just done.
But I wasn’t and I’m still not. Instead, I’m filled with a sense of wonder that, when I think about it, still leaves me short of breath. It makes no sense. Five years ago I was an office drone. I worked in industrial suburbia, existing only between those allotted stretches of time between 9am and Whatever PM. I was my job, I was my company, which, at the end of the day, means I wasn’t very much at all. This, before becoming the cautionary tale that everyone was rushing to tell each other about. The cripple that had to be pitied, or the brave soul who carried on. Life beyond these two existences seemed, to me at least, a fairy tale.
A real time interruption for you, (it’s very relevant). Just now, around ten minutes before typing this, my girlfriend and I climbed to the top of this building, watched Saigon stretching out into the horizon in all its dazzling beauty and seediness and we kissed. Christ, I could end this whole blog right there.
But I won’t.
I think this is what I’m driving at. None of us are dogs trying to jump walls. We just don’t have those barriers. Apologies to Mr/Dr/I don’t-really-care Seligman but I don’t accept that the walls are too high. Rather, I prefer to believe that there are no walls at all. Think about it. Think about your life. Are you really such an idiot that you would have consciously denied yourself happiness? Humour me, just for a minute, accept my idea of there being no walls and imagine living your whole life over again. A whole new lifetime of limitless freedom to make limitless choices and, I’ll bet you, you’d make exactly the same ones over again. Because this is who you are and who you want to be and, what’s more, that’s brilliant. Happiness is in the now, not in the maybe. Odds are that the grass isn’t going to be greener on the other side of the fence. You’re not going to be any happier if you’re famous, if you wear the right designer label or you drive the right car. Happiness is mundane. It’s waking up every day with someone you love to live the life you built. That’s it.
My advice? Accept the ‘S’ know that you can always change the ‘C’ and maximise the ‘V’. Then enjoy the ‘H’.