Chronicles of The Wave
Part 1:Doctor Feelgood’s Origin Story
There was a Doctor Feelgood’s store—the flagship—right downstairs from corporate headquarters on Broadway. I timed my arrival for an hour before my interview with Dan Kahn, Doctor Feelgood’s founder and CEO. The previous morning, I’d gone online to put my name in the queue for a half-hour with a Virtuoso. It was funny how that word has morphed, I thought, just the way Genius hadn’t always meant a helpful geek at the Apple store.
Walking through the jade-green door usually triggered a flashback of my first visit way back in 2013, when I was still in college and Dr. Feelgood’s was the new-new thing. My friend Annie hadn’t been able to stop talking about the place. Despite resisting anything wildly popular (to this day, I still haven’t read the Harry Potter books), when Annie offered to treat me to coffee as a bribe, I said yes, figuring that Doctor Feelgood’s was right on the way to our favorite coffee place—the one that made the best version of that ultra-slow drip Japanese coffee.
The first ten minutes of that visit, I felt skeptical. I acted polite, adopting the best-behavior attitude appropriate to accompanying someone’s grandmother to church. But then a Virtuoso approached, a hip-seeming, friendly woman whose smile had a hint of reserve. “How can I help you today?” she asked.
I shrugged, clueless.
“Have you ever been here before?” The Virtuoso explained that a brief consultation was free for all first-time visitors. She motioned me into a room filled with comfortable-looking chairs and couches. “The idea,” she explained, “is to begin talking about anything that needs attention in your life, especially anything that leaves you feeling a little uneasy or off-center. I’ll ask you questions, but you don’t have to answer unless you want to. After we’ve talked for a bit, I’ll suggest something that might help. You don’t have to take my advice, of course, but something interesting could happen if you do.”
I thought briefly about bolting, but I was curious. My mouth seemed to open of its own accord. I began to talk about an old friend—not Annie, I’d met her at college. It was Jessica, who’d been my best friend in high school and who somehow didn’t fit, didn’t mesh anymore with the person I wanted to be. Jessica kept tagging along. It wasn’t terrible or anything, but slightly off-key, something like scenes from an old movie being spliced into a very different new one.
The Virtuoso—her name was Mona—listened patiently, then asked if I had ever heard Leonard Cohen’s music. A little, I said. My mother loved him. While we were sitting there, Mona texted me the names of two tracks from an old recording called Ten New Songs: “Alexandra Leaving,” and “Love Itself.” “Sit quietly in a room with low lights—or no light at all,” Mona said. “Don’t do anything except listen to the songs. As you listen, let an image of Jessica linger in your mind. You don’t have to think about her or figure anything out. Just let the songs work on you, and pay attention to whatever comes up.”
It turned out that those two songs—the whole recording, really—were about loss as an inevitable part of life. Love comes and goes. Everything comes and goes: that’s how life works. I listened a half-dozen times, just as Mona had instructed. The experience of just being with music, not as a backdrop to life, but as the thing you were doing in and of itself—that was both a reminder and a revelation that had been worth the first visit to Doctor Feelgood’s. But there had been more. It was impossible to say precisely how, but the music took the edge off the tension around Jessica. Jessica had new friends too, I realized. She wasn’t counting on me to rescue her. When I saw Jessica after that, I didn’t need to say or do anything. When I paid attention the way Mona had said to, I was aware of watching things change, of feeling gratitude for the friendship we’d shared, of having that be enough. I knew the music had something to do with it, but exactly what, I couldn’t say.
I went back again when something got in the way of what I thought of as the “energy flow” between my boyfriend and myself in senior year. The music was completely different that time: these long, juicy guitar songs packed with a certain erotic flavor, the concentrated essence of longing. “Maggot Brain,” which started me listening to Eddie Hazel; “The Beggar” by Mos Def before he became Yasin Bey. I still love that playlist. When my grandmother died—the arty one—it wasn’t music at all, but a weeklong festival of the films she saw as a young woman, the classics that almost nobody outside of film studies watched anymore: Black Orpheus, Jules et Jim, The Battle of Algiers, The Apu Trilogy, Wild Strawberries, Rashomon….
That had been my first time at Doctor Feelgood’s. Now, visiting a decade later (for probably the fiftieth time), I had to shake my head to clear the fog of memory. I looked around the waiting room, trying to see it freshly. There was a hot spot in my stomach, half anxiety and half excitement: I was here on an important story, after all. Even so, it was always a fun place to visit. The front of the store was like a very special museum gift shop.
The seating area was surrounded by interactive kiosks. You could put on headphones and sample playlists sorted by time and circumstance (“Ivy League pre-finals anxiety,” read one; “Little sister’s wedding shower,” read another). You could go into a scent booth to sample moods and memories: plumeria blossoms on a hot island afternoon; a glass of moscato amabile under almond trees in blossom. If that made you hungry, there were tiny bites of maximum theobromine chocolate or a kind of soft cheese that smelled like new-mown hay.While you nibbled, you could browse the first few pages of novels and stories categorized by the desires they promised to fulfill: laughter, consolation, arousal, serenity….
Some people used Doctor Feelgood’s as a kind of sensory boutique—I could see the fun in that. There was the usual scanner at the door: if your card was synced and you were in a hurry, you could breeze on through, collecting purchases, then breeze out again without interacting with an actual human being. But since my first visit, I’d hardly bought more than a snack there without consulting a Virtuoso. With so much to draw on, it just felt better to have a guide.
As if summoned by that thought, my personal Virtuoso appeared, extending her hand. Paula—tall, upright, graceful, African American, probably late fifties—wore her grey hair in a sort of Virginia Woolf do, coiled into a knot at the back of her neck. She led the way to her consulting room, which looked like the lair of a very hip therapist: not so many Turkish carpets and carvings as I’d seen in the old photos of Freud’s professional domain. Instead, shades of green were layered, giving the feeling of dappled sunshine drifting through leaves.
Often, Virtuoso sessions were personal, even intimate. But on this day, I decided not to go into too much detail. I was worried about getting snagged on some corporate p.r. policy if I let Paula know that today’s visit was preparation for an interview with Doctor Feelgood’s founder. So I just said I had an important meeting in less than an hour and needed help with anxiety. That was true. Paula knew me, she’d already accessed my records to refresh her memory, so she didn’t need to ask many questions. She bent briefly over her keyboard, and then the wall was filled with an image of buildings, whole and broken, drenched in setting sunlight. “Corot,” said Paula, “sadly neglected, I think. This is his view of the Roman forum from the Farnese Gardens.”
“Let yourself feel the light,” Paula instructed. “Imagine yourself standing exactly where Corot painted this image, gazing out at the city exactly as it was in the 19th century.” I began to sink into a reverie, feeling warm sun on bare arms. The onscreen image faded, gradually replaced by a very different landscape. “Avignon Seen from Villeneuve les Avignon,” said Paula.
For the next quarter-hour, one color-saturated landscape followed another. With each image, something seemed to open, an awareness that the enduring beauty of the world was mine to receive, that I was a fit receptacle for the knowledge of it. By the time I left, my breath came slow and deep.