- PHOTO BY MARK VELASQUEZ
Babies. Bare feet. Money. Laughter. Sunshine. Chocolate. Coffee. Candy. Puppies. Road trips. Sex. Music. Water. Small-town feel. These are the words that bring joy to the inhabitants of San Luis Obispo, the happiest people in North America. We know this because a book called Thrive, after a complex, highly scientific analysis, deemed our town the happiest. And because Catherine Trujillo and Mignon Khargie, the brains behind the Reading in Public project, made it their mission to stop people on the street with a dry-erase board, asking them to write down the words that brought them happiness.
The resulting words—and many more—will be read at an event called Happy in Public, a continuation of the Reading in Public series. In the past, Trujillo, Khargie, and friends have turned the act of reading into a performance, consuming the written word in all manner of strange places about town. The most recent event, Typing in Public, involved a dozen typewriters scattered across strategic locations in San Luis Obispo. Participants and passersby were given 15 minutes to compose something on the antique machines, and their writings were compiled and read at the end of the day.
Thrive judges happiness based on factors such as green space, air quality, volunteerism, home ownership, and amount of traffic congestion. San Luis Obispo, with its bikeability, parks, Mission Plaza, and ban on smoking and drive-thrus, hit all the main points of the book’s criteria. In response to the book’s assessment, Khargie and Trujillo asked San Luis Obispo natives themselves to devote 10 minutes each to reading the words that make them happy.
An eclectic list of readers includes artist Mark Bryan, Linnaea Phillips (founder and former owner of Linnaea’s Café), Bob Whiteford (who owned the treasure trove that was Insomniac Video), and Jan Marx, our mayor, reading “San Luis Obispo’s Community Vision.”
Bryan, known for his dancing bunnies, robots, and satirical renderings of politicians, admitted he expressed himself better through painting than words. Looking for something to present at the reading, he started by googling “happiness” and soon stumbled upon UrbanDictionary.com’s legendarily ridiculous definitions. Bryan settled on the UrbanDictionary explanations of “awesome” and “bitchin.”
In response to articles and books that put San Luis Obispo in an impossibly pleasant light, Bryan said, “Every time they do that, we cringe. People can get kind of smug, like, ‘We’ve got our shit together here.’” While he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, the artist remains wary of the town’s Pleasantville-type quality, saying, “It’s kind of a fantasy world in a way. … It’s a bit like a big country club. There’s not a whole lot of diversity.”
Linnaea Phillips laughed at the thought of a town being considered happy, but conceded that “our connectedness to a place and how we contribute to that connectedness” creates individual well being. Phillips, who reads from Carl Sandberg’s Rootabaga Stories, referenced beach cleanups and the public hiking trails she had just been enjoying that morning.
Cal Poly Humanities and Sciences librarian Brett Bodemer plans to read an essay he wrote, tentatively titled “Is SLO really happy or just the apogee of pleasantness?”
“You would think, ‘Oh, it’s only the literati of San Luis Obispo,’” Trujillo said of people who participate in Reading in Public projects. But people from every age group and demographic have joined up, she said.
Trujillo and Khargie point out again and again that their series isn’t a literacy project, but a celebration of the written word—and not necessarily the printed kind. Happy in Public organizers welcome iPads, Kindles, cell phones, and laptops in addition to books or magazines.
Happiness is a chemical, philosophical, and utterly intangible concept, and the writers of Thrive aren’t the first to try to make it geographical as well. But true happiness is a cartographer’s nightmare. The trusted avenues to it often betray us, and sometimes when we return to the place we found it last, it isn’t there. Other times we stumble across it unexpectedly: in a melancholy tune, a postcard from a friend, or the words of a kindred spirit who may have lived 100 years ago.
If you’re Arts Editor Anna Weltner and you know it, clap your hands. Contact her at email@example.com.