Prunes and Prism

RULES FOR YOUNG LADIES: Some arch advice on snagging a husband. Exercising the mouth into a pretty shape through repetition of certain words seems to have been an indoor sport for young nineteenth-century girls; in Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens' overly bred girl repeats, "papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism." (

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Year of the Dog

Every time I schlep to my Chinatown psychiatrist I wonder why I'm going all the way down there; the office is half a mile from any feasible subway station and I'm always picking my way through hordes of people, and stepping over the odd pile of discarded sea urchins, in deeply unsuitable shoes. When I turn onto Mott from Canal, though -- especially if it's gray and rainy, the way it was today -- the signs and the lights and the mess are so cinematic I'm sure there's got to be a cameraman following me on a dolly.

When my mental-health insurance provider offered Dr. (let's call him) Wong Kar-Wai, I guess I got excited because I'd seen Woody Allen's Alice too many times and I guess I was hoping he'd cook up some herbs that would make me all whispery-voiced so I could seduce Joe Mantegna. (And I suppose everybody has seen the Seinfeld when Jerry is going out with Donna Chang, whose advice Mrs. Costanza takes as gospel until she finds out Donna is Caucasian and therefore no wiser than the rest of us.)

As it turns out, Dr. Wong Kar-Wai is merrily churning out prescriptions in an office festooned with Cymbalta promotional calendars, just like his colleagues over at Cedars-Sinai. It makes what happens in there seem as banal as it really is: I'm experiencing sexual side effects. My sleep patterns are erratic. If you give me another SSRI I will hunch under the piano and rock back and forth like Sybil.

I'm fond of him, though; he talks to me with as much interest and animation as if I were his only patient (which I must not be, because he'll stop our sessions to answer his own phone: not "Dr. Wong Kar-Wai!" but "Hello?" in a slightly paranoid how-did-you-find-me-here? kind of way).

He always asks about work, and that always turns into a one-sided harangue (his) on how print is becoming a dead medium. Last month he blamed it on MP3s, and this month it was Google. I can't follow this logic, either, and when I'm in there I'm even slower on the uptake than usual because it's this tiny little Skinner-box office with no windows and fluorescent panels that emit a purplish sort of bug-zapper light. Also, I'm stoned with allergy problems lately, and so it's like sitting in a field of opium poppies all the time (and not in a good way).

Which is why I was startled today when he told me I couldn't let my depression keep me from sharpening my technical skills, and why didn't I take a class at night? Have I seen what they're doing in the schools? Look at the PowerPoint presentation his ten-year-old daughter made!

He had some problems pulling it up on his laptop -- and I was unable to help him because the pull-down menus were in Mandarin (yeah, that's why) -- but at last he loaded it, a nice little full-color eight-slide show about Chinese New Year (Gung hay fat choy!) with a bar chart about how many people celebrate Chinese New Year worldwide and a bulleted list of the holiday's benefits (#3: "People want to get stuff").

"At ten years old!" he said. "And I can't even get it out of the computer!"

I tried to get him to teach me how to say "Gung hay fat choy" and said I'd rather learn Chinese than PowerPoint.

"Chinese is a very difficult language," he said."My kids don't even speak Chinese. I send them to Beijing to learn, they say it's stupid, they don't want to learn! I say, 'Fine!' You know, I have no expectations. I tell them, I save money for your college, you don't get into college, that's fine! Be a pizza boy!"*

I asked him if it bothered him that his children didn't speak his native language, and he said that it didn't because he resented Chinese culture anyway; when he was six and his brother eight, their parents were removed to the remote countryside "for political reasons" and didn't come back for five years.

"But why?" I said.

"For political reasons!" he said. "So I say, what culture? A culture of killing people! My grandfather was executed! Five-thousand-year-old traditions? These scholars should slit their throats! Always looking back, never forward!"

I must have said something about Confucius then, because he said, "Confucius is a dog!"

My silent Well, all righty, then! hung in the air between us.

"People call me crazy," he said then, "And I always say I have to be crazy to be a psychiatrist."

Meanwhile, a co-worker says if I want to see an acupuncturist, there's a great one over on St. Marks. Her name is Barbara.

*He also said something that I now can't recall exactly about "mediocre colleges," and I asked him where he'd want his kids to go, and he rattled off Harvard, Yale, MIT. "Or Stanford," he added reluctantly, the way my parents might say "Or Hiwassee College." Which kind of gives the lie to "no expectations," which proves that all parents everywhere rewrite history even as it happens.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Freak Love

I missed Freaks and Geeks during its one season on NBC in 1999-2000 and on a whim recently added it to my Netflix queue. I'm only a third of the way through the episodes now, but feel tremendous affection for it and am heartily sorry it was over before I knew it had begun. (I'm guessing I'm not the only one, since somebody out there posted on its IMDb message board just 10 minutes ago.)

The show got a lot of attention from critics, who lauded it for casting real teenagers* who didn't trade in snappy dialogue but talked and acted like real kids, doing what real kids do; i.e., having alternate bouts of inarticulate mortification, irrational exuberance, and mind-altering boredom.

I like it for that reason, but also because it happens in 1980, in that weird liminal period between the dazed-and-confused Seventies and the New Waved Eighties, and it's not full of self-congratulatory nostalgia that overtakes the stories. Though I was heartened immeasurably to see, in the den (the den!) of John Bonham devotee Nick, a big wall clock made out of a slab of lacquered tree stump. It's at the base of the bottom of the stairs (the ones you have to trudge up so your parents can yell at you) , and the camera pans right past it -- but it's a great throwaway detail that was so evocative, for me at least, of what it's like to try to have a Rich Inner Life when you're basically under house arrest.

I also like it because it's a love letter (on your locker in Liquid Paper, with a Van Halen logo underneath) to Freaks everywhere. Long may they rock! I thought middle Tennessee was the only place where the kids passing a roach at the pep rally were called Freaks, and apparently I was wrong. The Freak, if you ask me, is a grievously underrepresented archetype. You could watch the whole filmic pantheon of the high-school experience and come away thinking that nobody ever put on a Journey (pre-Escape!) baseball jersey and drove around in a Gremlin.**

* Remember thirtyish Gabrielle Carteris as Andrea on 90210, shuffling along in her walker? She had to be sacrificed, Logan's Run-fashion, so she was promptly impregnated and married off. A fitting comeuppance for smart, dowdy girls everywhere!

**I deduct verisimilitude points only because these Freaks are so much more attractive, and showered, than the ones at my high school. If our Freaks had looked like James Franco, I'd still be in the back parking lot listening to "Comfortably Numb" and doing Whip-Its.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

A Purely Hypothetical Question

Say you're doing a story, and your primary source (in fact, your only source) -- a character, a Real Dame -- has a stage name that, for some, brings up unsavory associations with the porn industry. And say your queasy editor wants to use that source's given name instead.

So you e-mail the publicist (and your source has one!), and she e-mails back to express dismay and ask if The Dame has approved this. And your queasy editor responds (copying you) that you'll just call The Dame and ask.

This leaves you in a bit of a conundrum, because in order to ask The Dame whether it's okay to use her full name, you're going to have to give some reason why, and you don't want to insult her by saying her stage name is too porny, even though this must be obvious to her.

What would you do? The hypothetical floor is open to hypothetical suggestions.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Existential Nausea on Ice

In the February Vogue: "From Poland with Love," or "How a Girl from Kansas Ended Up with a Boy from Katowice." The author pictured in a Duro Olowu-esque slipdress.

From the bathtub I yelled, "Jesus Christ, I should have written this!" (the way I'll tell Emma she should be the cat on the Fancy Feast commercials) and made the Comrade come in so I could read aloud:

"Men raised in formerly Communist countries make wonderfully patient shopping companions."

"Yes," he said, "Just tie us up like ossliki*."

Then he went back to obsessing about the European weather patterns and left me to wrestle with the crippling awareness that I will likely never be photographed for Vogue, and certainly not with my upper arms bare.

Friends, it's a short trip from rudderless wanderer to embittered crone. Sunday night the Comrade and I were watching the U.S. women's skating championships (out of consideration for my feelings, the Comrade pretends to be only half as enamored of Sasha Cohen as he really is), and so we were watching Emily Hughes, and so we fell to discussing Sarah Hughes and the 2002 Olympics.

The night she won, the Comrade was watching with some emigre friends (doubtless over herring salad in someone's Sheepshead Bay living room) , and his friend Senya maintained that Irina Slutskaya wuz robbed of the gold by a cabal of Long Island Jews. ("I am one old Jew myself!" said Senya. "I have cheated more people than you have kotleta po-Kievski** eaten!"***)

I squarely faced the Comrade: "Sarah Hughes was fucking awesome."****

The Comrade agreed that she was, and then, dear readers, I started to tear up, remembering. I think crying over an ice-skating routine that happened four years ago is part of the DSM-IV definition of "emotionally labile."

The Comrade asked if I was tearing up because Sarah Hughes was a triumphant underdog in the classic American tradition (to wit: Rocky II, III, IV, and V). Probably, I said, but also because she skated with such unleavened joy, and it was so pure and exhilarating and transcendent. How often do we get to see somebody be so passionate and brilliant without a thought for who's watching? How often do we get to experience that ourselves?

"You know how you watch the skaters and you sort of imagine you're them?" I said, and the Comrade said he did. "Well, I don't imagine the skaters as me anymore. I imagine them as my daughters."

"Well, let's have a daughter, then," he said.

With my therapist I tried again, five minutes before my session was up: "I think of them as my daughters," I said.

"Well, have a kid then," he said.

What I meant as despair apparently reads as longing. I guess they skate as a pair.

* donkeys

** chicken Kiev

*** This grotesque cultural stereotype is simply a verbatim account as related to Your Humble Narrator.

****For reasons I don't really understand, I prefer not to use profanity in this blog, but here I think it's sort of revealing.


If you have questions, as I did, about What Happened Next to the Great Zucchini, you might be interested in this chat session with Gene Weingarten, the writer who followed him. There are some interesting insights here about the reporter-source relationship.

If a body catch a body, coming through the rye

The man who will soon be my ex-husband just sent me a link to an article from the Washington Post magazine that should not be missed. I beg you not to be dissuaded by the fact that it's a five-page story on a children's entertainer called the Great Zucchini.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Lavender Marriage

Dear Tim Gunn,

When I worked on my college literary magazine, one of the lady poets' submissions had a line that went something like this: "In another time and place, I would show your hand the way." And then I believe it went on to talk about moons and huntresses, but nevertheless I recall it every week during Project Runway when I fall in love with you all over again, and then fall upon your blog and podcast like a ravenous wolf in a pile of table leavings.

Your silver-fox elegance. Your compassionate critiques. Your steadfast humanity. The sensitive yet unflinching way you totally called Andrae on the carpet when he threw that weeping fit on the runway! (Though I'm going to have to respectfully disagree and say I don't think it was "contrived" -- it was such an ugly, humiliating snot-cry, and I just can't believe anyone would mortify himself so utterly on purpose. Anybody manipulative enough to use his burned-down boutique for pity points would know that a couple of silent, climb-ev'ry-mountain tears would be far more effective. Or maybe that's just what I'd do.)

Tim! I want to hear your take on everything! The Argentinian maquiladoras! Wheat Thins vs. Triscuits! The Decalogue! Il Divo! Big Pharma! Why Slobodan Milosevic is still on trial!

In another time and place, I would have your baby, which we would swaddle in a nursery tastefully appointed by Banana Republic. The two of us would look down at our baby, Elsa Klensch Gunn, and marvel at what we've made together, this little person with absolutely no athletic ability and a closetful of onesies cut on the bias (so flattering!). I'd lay my head on the lapel of your velvety bathrobe and get my lungs all full of you. I bet you smell so good.


Your Humble Narrator

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

I Think I'm Turning Japanese

I really think so.

I'm seriously considering joining the ranks of Japan's hikikomori, disaffected teens who for years at a time hole up in their rooms eating leftover dumplings and building model cars. Psychiatrists and social critics think the kids, mostly boys, must be alienated by their dim prospects in Japan's sagging economy, coupled with the pressure of culturally sanctioned gender roles.

I'd like to humbly submit my beloved late grandmother, Della Mai Agee, who holed up for years at a time eating chicken and dumplings and watching The Price Is Right while she smoked Pall Malls. It's a safe bet this had nothing to do with the falling yen, but was simply the only sensible lifestyle choice: Life inside the house is really just about as interesting as life outside, and certainly far less tiring.

At the heart of the Times magazine piece linked above is Takeshi, who used to spend 23 hours a day on his bed listening to his stereo; after four years he was finally spurred to leave (the logical conclusion to 1,460 days of nonstop Radiohead).

"It's not hopeful," he says, "but I learned that the world is not such a good place, and regardless we have to move on. That caught my heart."

Mine, too.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Dame of Maiden Lane

I have just returned from the office of my divorce lawyer, which is on Maiden Lane. Getting a divorce seems like far too Tanqueray-drenched and dame-y an endeavor to happen in a place called "Maiden Lane," where everybody should be wearing Bo-Peep outfits.

While I was filling out a form in the outer office, one of the other lawyers answered the telephone and the conversation went like this:

"Oh, hi. Yeah, yeah, I'm still waiting for your police report."

"Well. Well, you're not supposed to share that kind of information."




"Listen, I don't think we should discuss this over the phone -- you should come in. It sounds like you've just dug a bigger hole for yourself at this point."

At least I'm not that guy, I thought.

Something you should know if you're planning to split up in New York: No-fault divorce doesn't exist here. The closest thing is to file a marital separation agreement, be legally separated for a year, and then file for divorce. If you want things to happen faster, one party has to file a claim against the other on one of a few specific grounds. I won't go into what they are, but suffice it to say they're humiliating.

What's happened to me? A retainer should be something you leave on your cafeteria tray.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Such, Such Were the Joys

On Sunday the Comrade and I finally made it to the Russia! exhibit at the Guggenheim, which ends tomorrow. I highly recommend it if you can (1) stomach the outrageous $24 admittance and (2) get there early, before the line snakes around 87th St. I love that Laurence Fishburne narrates the audio tour, which is well worth the extra $5.

If I had it to do over, I'd start at the top of the spiral, with the contemporary stuff, like Ilya Kabakov's installation The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment, which depicts the plaster-strewn communal apartment out of which Homo Soveticus has just hurled himself with a catapult. Or Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe's "Pirat TV" videos, one of which features the artist as Marilyn with plastic pearls, having a soundless telephone conversation with a Jack Kennedy we can't see (And then Bobby's in the doorway! With a gun!).

As it was, I burned up a lot of my zeal downstairs with the icons, and was already waning when we got to the 18th-century Wanderers. By the time we reached the Social Realists, I had a bad case of Museum Face and really thought I deserved a sandwich. The Comrade, for whom the receipt of knowledge is not as great a burden as it is for me (is this why all the Russians I meet are electrical engineers/architects/nuclear physicists AND computer programmers?), was still fresh as a daisy four hours in, darting into one last gallery while I slumped on a stool like an old man shopping with his wife.

I find museums fulfilling and exhausting in equal measure because I feel chronically undereducated. It's so seductive, the prospect of cramming in all those facts, but I just don't have the grasp on history or geography that I wish I did, and without it there's no psychic Velcro on which those facts can stick. So they slide right off and into the gift shop, which always perks me right up. I wish I'd had one of those classical old-school educations like George Orwell writes about in "Such, Such Were the Joys." I know I'm not the only one with this kind of anxiety, else there wouldn't be U.S. History for Dummies or The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Life of Christ.

So I was looking at the paintings and pressuring myself to have an original thought, but I just kept recognizing people I knew. Peter the Great = SeƱor Swanky (whom I do not, come to think of it, know after all). The Von Dyck Christ with the stigmata looked much like the husband of a dear friend of mine, in the naked pictures she'd send me in the mail (not nearly as insane as it now sounds). A Wanderer's portrait of a fellow painter reminded me of the Japanese art history professor from Moscow who was my landlord/roommate, for whom I acted as Cupid ex machina to reunite him with his married girlfriend (just as insane as it now sounds). Then I heard a woman turn to her 12-year-old daughter in front of this portrait of Vsevolod Garshin and say, "Hey, that looks like Marina's dad."

The last time I felt burdened by my ordinary mind was the first time the Comrade and I tried to see the Russia exhibition -- it was too crowded to even think about lining up, so we went to the Met instead. And I saw this tender Toulouse-Lautrec painting of two reclining women whom I took to be a mother and a daughter; when I got close enough to the card, I saw that they were in fact a couple of prostitutes. The Munch painting that I thought was a man in passionate embrace with a redheaded siren was actually getting his life blood sucked out through the tooth holes in his neck. I began to realize, gentle reader, that I might not really be all that perceptive. The next weekend I was talking about this at a dinner party hosted by another dear friend, and the assembled company suggested I call this blog, as yet unborn, "I Didn't Know They Were Whores." Then I told my host how delicious the pork had been, and could I have the recipe. And reluctantly she said, "It was lamb."