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.


Anonymous ashok said...

I know you don't need to hear this, but you write really, really well, and every second of that story was absorbing and fun.

I'm hungry for Chinese food now. I want fried duck.

1:13 AM  
Blogger frostine99 said...

Oh, Ashok, I can't hear it enough! Really, thank you so much -- that makes me warm and happy inside, no kidding.

I went to look at your blog, and was enjoying it and wondering why I haven't read poetry regularly since college (raise the roof, Ezra Pound!), when I saw you wrote about O Magnum Mysterium and almost died! It's one of my favorite pieces of music ever.

See, I told you we aren't Freaks.

2:31 PM  
Anonymous ashok said...

Thanks very much. I suppose a word or two is in order about why I'm blogging.

Being on the Internet with books open around me makes me look smart when I'm not doing any actual work, so I'm on a lot, and continually thinking about blog entries.

I'm also trying to get my blog listed in Arts & Letters Daily's blogroll through sheer popularity. I figure if I'm gonna be on this much, why not try to be an Internet celebrity.

I'm very happy you like the blog. There's a mini-essay on Lincoln that I enjoyed writing very much which you might want to read. Not all Presidents gave ridiculous State of the Union TV "speeches" that made me want to go to class rather than hear the President speak.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Recovering Baptist said...

My Soul Reader, that's right, I said it, is a slight blonde little thing who speaks in soothing tones. There is asian-flavored music playing softly in the background and some kind of water feature going for that soothing trickling sound. I don't know if she's actually helping me, but I do feel terribly relaxed when I leave her office. And I have to pee.

3:27 PM  

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