Category Archives: Personal Essay

Have Gin, Will Travel

At Tin House, Alexander Chee reflects on his affinity for gin and how over the years, in various permutations alongside vermouth in cocktails like martinis and negronis, it has more than kept him company, becoming “almost a travel companion.”

My first taste of gin made me sick. I was fifteen or sixteen, and, on a night I’d been left alone, and for reasons now lost to me, I drank down a great deal of my parents’ Tanqueray. I remember specifically opening the exotic wood doors of their liquor cabinet as if it could admit me to some secret chamber of adulthood by virtue of its magic.

He was being polite, I think, when he agreed to come up to the party. I should mention that I was wearing a Viking helmet when I issued the invitation. He was not known to socialize with the visiting writers. He requested a gin martini, which I made for him. When he took the first sip, he said, “This is excellent.” He looked at me over the top of his glass, and his eyes were full of recognition. As if I was finally a real person to him.

For this member of the old guard, the taste of a correct gin martini is like a passport or a gang sign. We were friends for the rest of my time there. Our friendship always mystified others at the college, but we knew why we liked each other and I miss him still.

If, before this, my gin reveries were dreams of the future, and might-have-beens, they are now as often memories. If I really did enter adulthood, on that distant, almost forgotten day when I pulled open those liquor cabinet doors, it was not a single transformation ahead of me, but a life of transformations. Not one potion, but a life of them. Glass by glass.

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Helping My Son Choose Between the Cub Scouts and His Beliefs about God

Kate Abbott | Longreads | July 2017 | 11 minutes (2,730 words)

 

My 8-year-old son Henry believes in Santa but not in God. I frequently question when to break the news about Santa, but I’ve never worried about his religious beliefs, or lack of them. He is so young; surely existential questions can wait. At least that’s what I thought before the Cub Scouts required him to choose between his own beliefs and a desire to go camping with newfound friends.

Friends are a problem in his life right now. Henry has had to jump from school to school in his short scholastic career, and since we’ve moved to a new town, he’s had trouble making new pals. My friend is a Girl Scout leader, and her daughters enjoy Girl Scouts, so after a particularly lonely day for my kid, I thought, why not try Cub Scouts, the Boy Scouts for younger kids? I imagined boys in uniforms with caps and kerchiefs, huddled around a campfire after a day of hiking and learning to tie knots. I had visions of Scouts helping an old lady cross the street. I thought of Henry learning the names of plants and constellations and, most importantly, the names of other boys in the pack. I emailed the nearest den leader right away.

Convincing my shy, reluctant joiner to go to a den meeting exhausted me, but when we finally got there he played with the other boys during free time near the end of the meeting, which was more playtime than he’d spent with any kids recently at all. He ran into the living room where I had been talking with the den leader and his wife, all smiles and out of breath. “We’d love to join,” I said.

We were all in: we drove 40 minutes to the closest “Scout store” and the adult Scout employee picked out all of the required bits of clothing and ornaments, down to official Cub Scout socks. I didn’t even blink when the register totaled $148.66. I handed over my credit card and told Henry he was going to have so much fun. He even seemed to think so. His enthusiasm increased and I didn’t flinch when I met with the pack leader later in the week to officially register him. I signed off on the forms freely, not reading them carefully enough, and gladly wrote a check for $100 (the fee for registration and a pack t-shirt). As I saw it, I was paying for more than stuff; I was paying for instant companionship and camaraderie.

At the next meeting, Henry balked at wearing the uniform, but I reminded him that Grandma had spent four hours sewing on all his starter patches and all the other boys would be wearing it too. He deemed the uniform “hideous” but put it on. He really wanted to try because he knew I wanted him to try.

We joined Scouts midyear, so we started off already “behind” what the other kids in the den had done and we would need to work at home to “catch up” on requirements before April. (Feeling slightly contrary already, I asked “Or what?” but I didn’t really get an answer.) Still, we had committed, so we taught ourselves how to tie a square knot by watching YouTube and I signed off as we sped through the basic requirements in the official Cub Scout handbook (spiral-bound edition, because it was far superior to the paperback edition, the guy at the Scout store had assured me). We were going to do this right, down to the spiral-edition book.

Henry has had to jump from school to school in his short scholastic career, and since we’ve moved to a new town, he’s had trouble making new pals.

When we got to the next requirement on the list, though, I had to pause. This one was called “Duty to God” and consisted of several parts. We would have to complete part 1 and choose some of the options from part 2.

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Twelve Truths About My Life With Bell’s Palsy

Pam Moore | Longreads | July 2017 | 16 minutes (4,065 words)

 

1. My face—and my life—split in half ten days after my second daughter was born.

In the grainy iPhone photos taken immediately after Lucy’s birth, I am looking at the ceiling, not at her. The gray-gold glow of dusk peeks through the blinds and I feel as if it’s four in the morning, as if I’ve been laboring all day.

In fact, I’d felt the first twinge of labor around lunchtime. I put my toddler down for a nap and was halfway through an episode of Breaking Bad when I realized this was it. I made my two-year-old a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and packed her overnight bag between contractions. At three o’clock my in-laws came for her and I waddled to the sidewalk to thank them while my husband buckled her into their car. The midwives came about an hour later, and our baby was born as the summer sun dipped behind the Rocky Mountains.

In those pictures she grows pinker with every breath and all I can think is, Holy shit. Not Holy shit, she’s gorgeous or Holy shit, I am in love with her, but Holy shit, it is finally over. As in Holy shit, that was hard.

I didn’t know the hardest part was yet to come. I had no idea the next 365 days would find me depleted, sad, and anxious. I would spend the year vacillating between dreaming of a fast forward button to catapult me through time, and berating myself for squandering my daughter’s babyhood. But that would come later.

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Sometimes a Bowl of Soup is Just a Bowl of Soup

a bowl of vegetable soup with a spoon in it

On a visit to Jerusalem, Taffy Brodesser-Akner went back to a beloved restaurant for a bowl of soup that was transcendent for her college-age self and found… a bowl of soup. It’s still no ordinary bowl of soup, though; it’s a vehicle for exploring the way our capacity for joy can contract even as our lives expand. She writes in Saveur:

God, I’ve made it all too complicated. That’s what I thought when I stared down at that soup, devastated by its regularness—by its very soupness. These days, the conditions for me to enjoy a hamburger are contingent on the bun having sesame seeds and astrological order and my menstrual cycle so that I won’t spit it into the sink or sneer at the person who made it for me. These days, I can’t put butter on bread without the bread having a texture to it, and I can’t eat vanilla ice cream unless there is something to bite like a chip or an almond in it. These days, if I am going to eat a vegetable soup, it has to be a vegetable soup that defeats ISIS and fades liver spots and cures belly fat, a vegetable soup that will send people screaming into streets like a postwar victory parade, grabbing women and kissing them and throwing babies in the air and catching them with big whoops. I will never enjoy simplicity again; it will never be good enough for me. I require so many more ingredients; I require so much more technique. I need to be danced for and entertained. I have made the region of my delight a tiny head of a pin. Did anyone tell me that it would be this exhausting to get older?

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Tennessee Williams’ Catastrophe of Success

Four days before the 1947 Broadway opening of A Streetcar Named Desire, the New York Times published an essay by Tennessee Williams on the depression he’d experienced after the success of The Glass Menagerie summarily ended life as he’d known it.

Fame had turned Williams into a “public Somebody” overnight, a crisis that ultimately landed him in the hospital, “mainly because of the excuses it gave me to withdraw from the world behind a gauze mask.”

The sort of life that I had had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.

I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last.

I sat down and looked about me and was suddenly very depressed.

After spending three months witnessing inequities that felt wrong in a luxury hotel, let alone in a functioning democracy, Williams sought salvation from fame’s spiritually-bankrupt life of leisure, hoping to distance himself from a toxic setup he believed hurt everyone it touched:

The sight of an ancient woman, gasping and wheezing as she drags a heavy pail of water down a hotel corridor to mop up the mess of some drunken overprivileged guest, is one that sickens and weighs upon the heart and withers it with shame for this world in which it is not only tolerated but regarded as proof positive that the wheels of Democracy are functioning as they should without interference from above or below. Nobody should have to clean up anybody else’s mess in this world. It is terribly bad for both parties, but probably worse for the one receiving the service.

Williams suggests we should let machines take up some of humanity’s unwanted tasks, then takes a poetic detour into the consequences of that automation. Removing work from the equation of living, he observes, creates a void of paranoid inertia. Just as he concludes that outsourcing this work to fellow humans breeds depression, he notes that advances in technology designed to lighten the load often render the average person fearful of struggle itself.

We are like a man who has bought up a great amount of equipment for a camping trip, who has the canoe and the tent and the fishing lines and the axe and the guns, the mackinaw and the blankets, but who now, when all the preparations and the provisions are piled expertly together, is suddenly too timid to set out on the journey but remains where he was yesterday and the day before and the day before that, looking suspiciously through white lace curtains at the clear sky he distrusts. Our great technology is a God-given chance for adventure and for progress which we are afraid to attempt.

The essay is available online as part of The New School History Project, a site where students curate a trove of recovered archival material to provoke critical and informed discussion.

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Searching London for My ‘Third Place’

Jessica Brown | Longreads | July 2017 | 10 minutes (2,605 words)

 

After a quick stop at a Jamaican food stall at the outdoor Borough Market, I parted with my lunchtime companion and began my solitary journey through the heart of London, with City Hall on my right, the Thames to my left and the low winter sun above me. Though most of my walks through the city tended to be directionless — at least mentally, if not also geographically — today I had a purpose: I was looking for my “third place.”

Home and work, I had read that morning, are our first and second places, respectively, and the third place is a sociable one we choose for ourselves as somewhere that helps root us in our communities, and promotes social equality. Or at least that’s the ideal, according to sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who coined the phrase in 1989 in his book, The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. “Nothing contributes as much to one’s sense of belonging as much as ‘membership’ in a third place,” he wrote.

My first place is a flatshare in North London — an area characterized alternately as middle class; an area overrun with affluent, well-groomed “yummy mummies”; and as the intellectual hub of London. It’s the family-friendly part of the city, but it’s also rapidly falling victim to the kind of hipster gentrification that has already affected its trendier cousin, East London. It also has some of the city’s poorest and most crime-ridden areas, such as Tottenham, where unarmed 29-year-old Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police in 2011, sparking the infamous London riots.

My second place, an office in Kensington, the richest borough of London — provides me with a vastly different version of the city than my first place.

I needed to find my third place, the place that could connect the authentic me, the persona I am at home, with my surroundings — with my wider home. Since moving to London from the north of England five years before, something had been missing for me — some deeper connection with the city. I hoped finding my third place would give personal meaning to the random masses of concrete and strangers I happened to live among.

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The Condition that Shielded My Grandfather From Heartbreak

Kate Axelrod | Longreads | July 2017 | 8 minutes (2,056 words)

 

I sat in the Emergency Room with my grandmother on a cool night last June. Hours earlier, Sadie had stood up from the couch too quickly and fallen. She and my mother had been waiting at the hospital for much of the day. Sadie was bored but wouldn’t complain except to be dismissive of her own pain. This is all so dumb, she’d said when I arrived. I’m really fine, so unnecessary for you to come all the way uptown for this. On the gurney next to her, a woman with a British accent sat erect, and asked continuously for the lighting to be alternately dimmed and then brightened, as though she were both the star and director of a one woman show.

Earlier, an X-ray had confirmed that Sadie had fractured her pelvis, but we were waiting for an MRI to see how bad the damage was. At ninety, Sadie was in fairly good shape; she hadn’t been in the hospital since giving birth to my aunt in the mid-1950s, but she had chronic pain in her right knee and had lost much of her vision to macular degeneration. More often than not, she was her ordinary astute and thoughtful self, but there were also moments of confusion and repetition, and resentment about growing old. Just a few weeks before she fell, she told me she wanted to do something, anything. She suggested to my grandfather that they volunteer in the neonatal unit of a hospital; to cradle abandoned infants in their soft, creased arms.

I sat on the edge of her gurney and smoothed my fingers against her wrist, which seemed newly delicate. My brother arrived and read her poetry from the most recent New Yorker. He has the most beautiful voice, Sadie whispered. Hours passed. I played her a guided meditation on my phone. We closed our eyes together and tried to just be, but after a few minutes we were both restless and I shut it off.

“What if I have to stay over at the hospital and Grandpa never forgives me?” she asked.

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Who I Became at the Running of the Bulls

Ella Alexander | Longreads | July 2017 | 16 minutes (3,919 words)

 

I wanted danger. My identity as a liberated woman, or at least an adventurous girl, was inextricably linked to placing myself in the way of unnecessary bodily harm and, though I’d never have admitted to it, my blue U.S. passport seemed like a strong enough shield to stop anything truly bad from happening. So, although I was a demographic outlier — a 19-year-old American girl travelling alone —
my presence in Pamplona made sense, at least in my mind. The running of the bulls presented itself to me as the ideal prepackaged brush with death, with the bonus of a possible existential realization. Knowledge of life and death, the value of every breath, etcetera.

Pamplona was just one in a series of strange places I’d found myself after neglecting to map out my trip any more definitively than a plane ticket from Jerusalem, where I had family, to Rome and another one home from Berlin two months later. I had been making strategically bad decisions all summer, using money my grandfather set aside for education to bankroll a solo-backpacking trip through Europe. Before I left, all my friends were gearing up for art gallery internships or ice cream shop jobs, and a flutter of joy ran through me every time somebody heard my summer plans and asked, “Isn’t that dangerous?” or, “Haven’t you seen Taken?”

I’d reply, “I can’t spend my life worrying about things like that,” or sometimes, “If I die then you’ll have a great story for parties. You can say, ‘I knew this girl who got murdered in Europe.’”

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My Grandfather’s Fateful Goodbye, Reimagined

Karissa Chen | Longreads | July 2017 | 23 minutes (5,772 words)

 

This is how I always imagine my grandfather’s departure from Shanghai: him, a lanky boy of 19, wearing khakis and a pressed shirt, standing near the docks with a small brown suitcase in hand. I imagine the shirt to be white with intersecting gray lines, a series of chess-sized squares on his body. Maybe he’s wearing a matching beige jacket too, or a hat of some sort. I assume that going overseas was probably a big deal at the time, an occasion you were supposed to dress up for.

For some reason, in this scene, I don’t see the man traveling with my grandfather—a friend of my great-grandparents he might have called Uncle. Instead, I see my great-grandmother, small and slightly bent over, her lined face rearranging its features as she struggles not to cry. I see her gazing up at her tall boy, adjusting his shirt, touching his lapel, fussing the way mothers do. I see her pressing a sack of oranges into his palms, worried he’ll be hungry on the boat. Now he’s brushing her fingers away, annoyed, impatient. He’ll only be gone for a few weeks, he reminds her, three months at the most. She tells him not to do anything rash out there. She tells him to listen to Uncle. I can see him barely registering her words. I can see his eyes lingering on the boat and the ocean and the tiny island of Taiwan he can’t yet make out. I can see that his mind is already gone from his childhood home and she can see it too. She takes a deep breath and smiles. She tries to be happy for him, to be proud of her youngest son. She tries to remember that boys his age are fighting wars in the north, and that she is lucky, so lucky, that all he wants is to explore the world. She tries to be happy that her boy will not only be well-educated, but also well-traveled, but he is her baby boy and she is his mother and he’s never traveled so far from home before.

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Home is a Cup of Tea

Candace Rose Rardon | Longreads | July 2017 | 10 minutes (2,882 words)

Let’s play a game. It’s called, “Being You, Right Now.” Perhaps you’re reading this on your way to work, defending your corner of the train with a well-placed elbow. Or are you at home? If so, please, put the kettle on. Yes, right now. I’ll wait. Read more…