This Recording, June 2016.
In which we try not to be suspicious
Over and over
A while back, for about a year, I lived in a flat with a classic roll-top bathtub. It’s one of those features that looks classy when you see the place for the first time: claw-shaped feet, separate chrome taps for hot and cold. Then, after moving day, you go to take the first shower in your new place and you realise you’ve made a terrible mistake: you can’t stand up to wash, but must lie down, like a child, as the shower head doesn’t attach to the wall. It’s simply sitting there, draped across the taps, and you’ll have to hold it over your head yourself. So for the next year that was what I did: I held the shower head in one hand while attempting to get the soap out of my hair with the other, as the frustration built.
It’s been ten years since I lived in that flat, in London’s Camberwell. I’ve had fully functioning stand-up showers in every place I’ve lived in since – I made sure of that because I know now: a good shower is a small but powerful pleasure. I probably haven’t thought about the Camberwell bath humiliation every time I’ve had a shower in the past decade, but it’s close. I can confidently say that I think of it at least a couple times a week. If I’m in a hotel, or somewhere else with a particularly good shower, I will wax lyrical about it afterwards, to anyone who will listen and even if they won’t. Because I once had a bad shower year, I’ll tell them, back when I lived in Camberwell. It was around 2006. It was rough! I had very long hair, you see. I remember it well.
Ten years is a long time to think about a bad shower. But I’ve appreciated the hell out of a good wash ever since, so maybe it was worth it? My partner has dubbed this the Camberwell Effect: when a negative experience boosts future appreciation. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, after having been sick for three weeks. In the grand scheme of illness it wasn’t that bad, granted, but in the depth of it I was still your garden variety miserable: too sick to leave the house or do any work, and unable to wrap my foggy brain around complex thought. All I knew was that I was profoundly uncomfortable. Until one day, after three weeks in bed, I felt up to going outside again. It felt like a miracle. I walked along the canal for a bit before sitting down to watch the ducks, in complete and utter wonder at being able to this without feeling exhausted and dizzy and seconds from falling over. How long would this feeling last?
It’s been about a month since this charmed trip down to the canal, and I can report that the post-illness Camberwell Effect lasted about three weeks. Or maybe it’s still going? It’s more subtle now, but I think it’s still here. I text my mother some photos last week, with the caption: “Greetings from sunny New York City! When you’re feeling well, all is well.” And then: “Is this the sort of thing you say when you’re getting old?!” I thought about this for the rest of the evening – it was the middle of the night in Europe so my question went unanswered for a while. Getting older is a rude awakening when it comes to health – laptop shoulders are real. So maybe the absence of illness, or a really good shower, will become an increasingly reliable trigger for happiness?
My mother, responding in the morning, concurred with my analysis, although I would tell she took the whole thing with a pinch of salt – she does that when I get overly philosophical. And in fairness, New York will certainly thrill even the most jaded of visitors: you don’t need to be freshly bedridden to find a million things to love. But the Camberwell Effect would probably have flourished even if I’d stayed in London, wandering up and down the same old streets. Anything is better than being stuck in my house, bored by Netflix and frustrated by my body’s failure to snap to, in a way only a person historically blessed with good health can be.
These are a few of my favourite things: The first coffee of the morning. Reading great non-fiction in bed. My best friend of 16 years; how our lives are in a striking moment of synchronicity right now. Walking along the canal by my flat. Pho on Kingsland Road. Texting with my best mate; he’s back after we almost ruined it by hooking up but now it’s the way it was always supposed to be. Cocktails with rum. Soda water that fizzes against the roof of the mouth. Working on something I really enjoy; that feeling like it’s going right. Sunshine in the city. The lush, humid feeling of London in the summer. A man who knows exactly what to do. A really great shower. To be well enough to be in the world.
They say that if you start listing nice things every day, soon you’ll find yourself looking for those things and it will change how you see the world. It’s certainly possible to train yourself to be appreciative of a full decade of good showers. Not that I remember most of them – with a few exceptions, they’ve blurred into sameness. The same goes for that first cup of coffee in the morning, sipped in silence as it wakes me up, bringing with it the promise of the day. It is a perfect pleasure, in part because it’s so very simple. I didn’t even have to do anything to feel like this – there’s no Camberwell Effect at work here. There are certainly things I love just as much as this early morning caffeine jolt to the system, but nothing that’s quite so lovely in its uncomplicated nature. Maybe that’s just caffeine addiction for you, but it’s good nonetheless and I try not to be suspicious of good things.
Back in London, I was walking along the road the other night, the weekend was just starting and my hair has been on excellent run lately. It was still wet, fresh from yet another hands-free shower, but it wouldn’t take long in the warm evening. Then “The Jean Genie” came on in my earbuds, and I emptied my coffee as I felt my pace quicken. It was a perfect moment: I was alone, about to see someone I love. It wouldn’t last long, but it happens all the time, over and over.