this is a summary of therapy, part 2

The therapist says we are going to try an exercise that will help her understand my story better. She is an actress, I google her later when I get home and discover that she played a factory security guard in a play last spring, and also a maid in an S&M-inspired piece about class and subjugation. She says her approach to therapy is "eclectic," which I suppose means unconventional, or non-dogmatic, a combination of many things, but I supposed it's also a way of implying that therapy will involve silly little exercises like role-play and dramatizations and the use of plastic figurines.

When I first walk into her office, which looks like every other therapist's room--bland, dimly lit, awkwardly spacious, there's always some permutation of sofa+armchair+beanbag and a bookshelf with self-proclamatory reading material about relationships and eating disorders and loving people consciously--I instinctively walk towards the big plush armchair. Before I sit down, she catches me and says, "You sit on that couch," motioning to the large empty sofa along the far wall, which is her version of "separation and independence," a psychological term applied to infants when they realize their personhood, detached from their mothers. Like babies and their mothers we have compartments to retreat into and boundary lines we need to draw. I am beginning to understand this relationship.

"We're going to use this," she says, pointing to a small sandbox which sits atop a plain table next to her armchair. The sandbox is out of place, but I suppose it fits into her "eclectic" paradigm. She opens three different cabinets, which are located in three different corners of the room, each cabinet contains an assortment of figurines: one is exclusively human figurines; another, animal figurines; and the last, a hodgepodge of random trinkets that looks like a little boy's collection of McDonald happy meal prizes: a cracked plastic hand, flowers, glass pebbles, dismembered toys.

"You'll use these to create the different worlds you inhabit, or your relationship to different parts of your life, like your family, or your job, or your body," she says. Later I tell her that this exercise makes me uncomfortable because I feel like a molested child in a Law & Order SVU episode whose drawings and sand castle configurations are scrutinized by the state psychologist (B.D. Wong's character). Therapy has the effect of making you feel like a molested child, I suppose.

I stand up from the sofa, unsure where to start. I hate role-play, I hate toys, I hate cartoons. My barbie phase lasted a few months, my beanie baby phase a little longer. I got bored easily, did not have the capacity for dream worlds, preferred to be smart and serious and living in reality, though perhaps it is much more dangerous--and subversive--to live in the blurred reality of false hopes, blown-up expectations, hypothetical worlds drawn out from what-ifs and maybes, than to create a dream world that is clearly set apart and removed from your daily existence.

I putter around the room, from cabinet to cabinet, staring but not touching, observing this menagerie of plastic, the strange lives of factory-made toys. The therapist sees that I am having a difficult time. "I don't know where to start," I tell her. "Can you repeat the prompt again?" I want structure, I want to be able to regurgitate the answers I've already formulated in my head, the backstory and history that I've told so many times already, but this exercise throws me into a void, and I do not know how to proceed.

"Let's begin with you," she says. "Pick something that represents you." So I pick up a plastic girl-doll with blonde hair and a pink dress, a far cry from my physical appearance, but she is human and a female, which is probably closer to me in resemblance than most of the other figurines.

I put her into the sandbox. She is at a 45 degree angle and looks like she is going to topple over. "Ok," I say. "Now what?" "How about telling me about what your life is like in San Francisco," she says, and I say okay, and I think about the neighborhood I live in, everything is so literal to me, and I go over to the miscellaneous cabinet and take a handful of plastic houses and place them one by one in the sandbox. "This is my house," I say. "And this is the house of my best friends who live around the corner," I say. "How about your work?" she says. I always forget about work, which my brain disassociates from when I'm not doing it. I put another house down. "This is my office," I say, it is between my house and my parents' house, and I put another house down for their house.

This goes on for awhile. And she leads me through some questions which prompt me to put down a skull, and a sword, and half a set of handcuffs. I think these are my vices, the things I feel shackled to, I tell her. This is the point of therapy, this is supposed to be the climax of the session, this is supposed to be a big epiphany, but it is not any of those things.

There's a pot of flowers too, and I make up something about how that symbolizes growth and change. I know what things should symbolize, I have the answers of a schooled-girl. But I have no imagination. "Tell me more," she says. "That's it," I say. I walk around the room examining all the figurines in the cabinets. "Nothing fits," I say. "I have nothing else to add."

The room is musty and the air is somber. "You look sad," the therapist say. "Do I?" I ask. "Maybe," I say. "Just tired," I say. When I leave her office she shuts the door quickly. It slams, and I do not look back.


this is a summary of therapy, part 1

In a therapist-client relationship, the client sits in a glass box, which can be large and spacious, but large and spacious ultimately don't really matter in a box, which is confined and limited, it's like saying the tiger at the zoo has a lot of space to roam around, even nice waterfalls to drink from and automated mist to luxuriate in, the space doesn't matter, the boundaries do. A therapist sits with a stoic countenance outside of the glass box, in a worn, velvet armchair, looking in, poking and prodding as she sees fit, through a food-feeding hole perhaps, reaching but not touching, in contact but not really, hovering above a life or beside it, but not in it.

The first session always begins with a homily on client-therapist confidentiality and the circumstances that demand an exception. "I am, um, a mandated, um, reporter, um, you know," she tells me." She lists the exceptional circumstances, "suicidality" being one of them, which is apparently not merely an act but a mode of being. "Self-harm," she continues, "or harm of a minor." I space out while she is talking, which I find out later is called "disassociating."

"There is um, of course, um, one thing I haven't written down in the um, contract," she adds, "which is what um happens when um we um run into each other outside um of our sessions, um you know, like at um, Bar Tartine or um, Tartine Bakery." I nod, focusing more on her stutters than on her words. "I wouldn't um acknowledge you but um if you said hi i would acknowledge you of course and um we'd say hi but um we wouldn't sit down and um share a pastry you know," she says all this tentatively, and I feel slighted by her governance over our relationship, which can only play out according these rules, which she is trying to explain to me right now. I do not like relationships governed by rules or conditions, I do not like relationships governed by propriety, but then, maybe that's what I signed up for when I called the therapist.

I'm not going to pretend that therapy isn't a transaction, which is unlike the best of friendships and often like the worst ones. I am paying to talk to this woman, I am paying her to listen, I am paying for her questions. Every transaction must be judged by its fairness: is my expenditure worth the cost? Are her questions worth my money? Is the attempt at understanding myself (improving myself?) worth my discomfort?

Someone recently called me a vulnerability junkie, which I think means that I feel most connected to someone when we are vulnerable to each other under mutually beneficial and agreeable terms, which is like therapy, I guess, my benefit being vulnerability and her benefit being money.

Within the scope of fairness, I judge her expertise as a therapist, which at the moment is at risk of failure because of a certain guttural utterance which is innocuous in small measure but becomes repulsive in hordes, like ants. Ten minutes into the session, her repeated use of "um" begins to sound like the popping of a broken record as the needle digs into the same groove over and over again. If I am paying for her words, the dilution of her language by "um" is a ripoff.

Nevertheless, she has a lovely countenance, an unblemished face and clear, glowing skin, large brown eyes with well-formed creases in her eyelids, a very distinctively sculpted and well-proportioned nose. Her clothes are plain but her trim and well-kept figure demand little adornment. She carries herself like a dancer, with her shoulders pushed back and an erect carriage, a posture I note for my helpless lack of it. Her left eyebrow is thinner with a sharper arc than her right, which--women who dote on their eyebrows know--is the result of over-attention.


this is a summary of the morning of April 5

After two rains this week, the sand at Ocean Beach is damp and compressed, which makes for a more pleasant and clean walking experience. A man holding a surfboard stands on a bluff, his neoprene skin stretched taut across his legs and back. He is motionless, erect like a statue, surveying the ocean, which is constantly moving. Once you get too close to the water, you can only see what's it front of you, and it swallows you up, if you do not know the pattern of the swells for the day.

Roxi finds two pieces of driftwood and a smooth sand dollar, which she cups in her hand. She squeals, as if she has never seen anything like these before. "I bring these home and put them in my front yard," she whispers to me, as if she were eloping with a little piece of the ocean.

People are walking up and down the frayed edges of the shore where the flat rug of ocean moves in and out again, the primordial comings and going that are not subject to human will, a will which seems more peculiar and less mighty in this context. I watch the surfers striding into the waves, like lone soldiers stalking into an unknown territory that will always be unknown in some way, no matter the depth of the reconnaissance, no matter how many times he enters the field. The white foam crashes into bodies and washes up against ribs and bellies, the bodies stay upright, the soldiers continue to move forward. But they do not fight the water either, they must not be swept away, but they cannot resist the movements that are the waves themselves. They have chosen to be subjects of the ocean today.

The ocean noise vibrates in my coffee cup. I can feel in my hands the sound that migrates from the water into the air and into my mouth. The vibrations comb through me easily, it is difficult to talk over the sound of the waves but for once loudness does not make me cringe, the sound is greater than me, it is a womb not a crushing fist.

A dog trots obediently clutching an orange frisbee in its maws. Dogs look relieved here on the ocean shore, like regulars at the bar after a long day of work. On the sidewalk, dogs are okay, I like dogs more at the beach though, in the open space, in the salty-clean air, at the edge of eternity.


this is a summary of the morning of april 4

Mornings are never easy. I awake from a strange dream or a nightmare, with a full bladder, which becomes the first order of business naturally, and then after that I have to decide what to do, not just reach for my phone, which is the easiest thing to do because with the phone I can be reactive, I don't have to be proactive. It is more difficult to choose one thing to do, the thing that feels most important, but nothing feels particularly right in the morning, and my heart is beating quickly, either from the dream or from the startling passage between the unconscious and conscious. I am thrust into this world, absurdly it seems.

Before I am in the elevator, I am already thinking about what coffee drink I want, or if I want a coffee drink at all, but I am afraid I will fall asleep at the wheel if I don't have coffee, and I am afraid I will become a coffee addict if I do have coffee, and I am afraid that spending $3 a day on coffee makes me a careless steward of money, but in the end I go get coffee, which I suppose by now I could call a ritual, or a routine, but it feels more like a compulsion, a crutch, what's the difference anyway. A quick cup, they call it, which is the pre-brewed coffee, not the coffee they weigh by the bean and grind and then stand over a clear glass cone pouring a stream of hot-but-not-too-hot-water intermittently for a slow cup of what is supposedly superb coffee. I never order the supposedly superb coffee because by the time the coffee is done dripping, it is only a little warmer than lukewarm, which is not the temperature I like my coffee, and anyway, I don't like coffee as much as I do espresso, but this morning I am having a quick cup. 

I see the baristas everyday and know them by face, a few by name, but there is this strange exchange at coffee shops you frequent, where, even after you've gone in ten times and all the baristas' faces have become familiar to you, you are still only vaguely familiar to them, like an extra in a television show, or something. This coffee shop exchange typifies my encounters with most people I have met only once because I have a freakishly acute memory for names and faces: I remember them, the context in which we met, most likely their first and last name and other attributes, and they greet me with a generic smile on their face, "Hi, nice to meet you, I'm ________." I used to pretend I didn't remember them, and would introduce myself again. Now I don't do that anymore, unless I'm feeling merciful. 


this is a summary of the evening of april 3

I have asked too many questions today, probing for answers that I know will not suffice, no matter how revelatory, or descriptive, or shocking. I expect the answers to be interesting on a day when hardly anything is interesting; I expect people to lead lives worth talking about, worth writing about, and I am impatient for a story, the arc forms too slowly, if it forms at all. I spend ten dollars on a grapefruit, english peas, and a head of broccoli, the broccoli feels a little soft and wilty, but it's locally grown, there is even a label with the name of a farm, the broccoli should be robust and verdant, but there is always an excuse for that kind of thing, an excuse that will make me feel like an ignorant consumer, so I do not ask, and I pretend that a soft, wilty broccoli is normal for an organic, locally-farmed vegetable.

Ten dollars is too much for this little produce. I ask for the receipt because this amount of money feels preposterous. Three dollars for a grapefruit, three dollars for broccoli. This receipt is a little artifact of despair, and it tips me into a circuitous round of self-critical inquiry: am I spending too much money, am I careless, am I worrying too much about how I spend money, should I work harder to save money, should I care less about money, should I stop thinking about how I spend and save money.

I am standing and eating my peas at the kitchen counter and tell myself to sit down. I sit down and I finish eating and then I go over to my couch and open my book and begin to read. Five paragraphs in and I'm already thinking about something else, the next thing I should do, the potatoes that are roasting in the oven. I check the potatoes, turn the oven off, and then go down to the coffee shop around the corner, which by now is empty, the way I like it, which is why I go in the evenings, when it's not so much a scene as a space. A girl in a feathered brown hat sits in the first booth with her head down. I can tell she has a pretty face, it's circumscribed by wispy blonde hair, and she's slight, like a pixie. She's alone and silent. There are some other people I have seen before, somewhere else in the neighborhood, or here, the guy with the glasses and the long blonde hair, always with headphones on. I order a decaf americano to-go as a precautionary measure, to save myself the hassle of asking for a to-go cup if or when I don't finish, even though I plan on enjoying the americano here, and I catch myself before I explain this to the barista, who could care less about my to-go rationale, but still, my strong conscience demands an explanation, because it doesn't feel right to sit in a coffee shop sipping coffee out of a to-go cup. It just doesn't.

An empty booth, a rarity. I plop down onto the brown leather and stretch my legs out across the entire booth because this never happens and the more surface area with which I can make body contact, the more I feel like I'm capitalizing on this moment in which a booth is empty and all mine. In the coffee shop chain of supply and demand, seat ownership is a victory, and tonight this victory is mine. I am looking out the window, watching people pass by, I catch a glimpse of every face before it disappears behind a shrub, it feels thrilling to await transient eye contact, and I am safe no matter what because I do not have to hold that eye contact for very long, the person will continue walking and will forget about me completely, but for a second they will be disarmed, maybe, and even if for a chance of disarmament, the eye contact is worth it, the power to disarm is the thrill. I cannot hold eye contact for very long anyway, I will always be the first to drop my gaze, an unexpected stranger gaze is too intense, a somatic charge my body cannot contain.

An Asian man walks into the coffee shop wearing one of those messenger bags with a seatbelt buckle on the chest. His hair is buzzed on the sides, and the top is long and flipped to one side, which is the haircut all the young men are getting these days, around here in the Mission at least, a conspiracy among the hair stylists to make everyone look European, it's called an undercut, I heard. He orders a coffee and asks if he can sit down next to me, which feels like an intrusion, considering there are two other empty tables, but I say okay, and he drops his bag down beside me. When he pulls out a book, I glance over to see what it is, this is how I indulge myself in public, sizing up people based on the books they are reading or the notebooks they are writing in. He pulls out Tenth of December by George Saunders, and immediately, I find his presence more acceptable, maybe even desirable, but I try not to stare. He is not reading the book at the moment, it sits there like a prop, like a declaratory adornment, and he is writing in his notebook, and then checking his phone, the former of which shows a desire for self-expression, I decide, and the latter of which shows a lack of self-control. I wonder what he is writing about, and if he will actually read the Saunders book, and where he heard about George Saunders, and what else he reads besides George Saunders, I have never met another Asian person who reads George Saunders, so now I am curious, but I have asked enough questions today, so I close my notebook, get up, and leave. I take one last glance backwards, and his head is still down, hair swept over his forehead, scrawling red and blue, letters and diagrams, on lined white pages.