Shake Strain Done: Craft Cocktails at Home. By J.M. Hirsch. Illustrations by Lika Kvirikashvili. Voracious (Little, Brown & Co.), $25.
One evening in the fall of 2004, my friend Jason and I went for dinner at Gallagher’s, a time-tested, high-end steak house in midtown Manhattan.
Sometimes you do violence to things, and even people and memories, by simply moving stuff or getting rid of it.
I stand here inside Fox Chapel Guardian Storage unit № 12104. This truck-sized storage space just east of Pittsburgh where we brought many of the contents of my parents’ house — now our house — in August of 2007 is now empty of them for the first time since then. After I spent months clearing items of extreme miscellany bit by bit and box by box, a truck driven by two young men who work for “College Hunks Hauling Junk” today took away the final pieces of furniture and detritus. They included pieces of what was once the green living room couch when I was little. …
Sometimes I wonder what’s behind my wife’s eyes
when, like this morning,
we stand on our doorstep over a freshly delivered box
and discuss the second case of urinary-tract-friendly
canned cat food to arrive in as many days
and she studiously avoids commenting on
the four oversized jars of fake bacon bits
that arrived in the carton alongside it.
The black-and-gold bowling shirt I will wear tomorrow
is sequestered in my office in its plastic. …
“Welcome to your life. There’s no turning back.”
— Tears for Fears, 1985
For Chris Wenzler (1967–2020).
Me, right now: standing in the front bathroom of the split-level house passed to me by my parents a decade ago. I glance in the mirror where, each weekday morning between 1982 and 1986, I swabbed my still-sharp jawline with a Stridex Medicated Pad, deployed mousse and Polo aftershave and ventured out to survive another day at Hampton High School.
Gazing back at me on this day in June of 2020 is a man with eyes crinkling at the corners and — no way around it — the beginning of jowls. My reflection wears the face of a worried man. …
And the world paused
for a spring it had never seen
still full of us
yet gray and overflowing
with the endless negative space
where we all used to be.
For a moment
a moment still ongoing
we saw life as it would be if we
did not occupy it.
The roads were almost empty of us.
The schools were jammed to the brim
with studentless desks and teacherless lecterns. …
my son said in my ear,
“isn’t really a name
that I’d want to have here.”
He spoke as we walked
in a hallway one day
through the “castle of geezers,”
my father would say.
My parents had moved there
when not doing well
and became sharp observers
of this circle of hell.
In the dining room,
Elsie and Alma and Rita
chewed on bland little burgers
festooned with Velveeta
while Leo and Edwin
(and the weird-visor guy)
would squabble o’er whether
the rolls were too dry.
My parents are gone now.
My temples are white. …
Why do we weep at the end of movies filled with emotion, or books that captivate us? Is it because we are emotional at what has happened in them? Or is it, perhaps, because we mourn the stories we have never experienced and never will? Is it a sense of loss bursting forth from the notion that the stories we are told by our culture are distilled, condensed, Photoshopped versions of being human — and that what we have, what we actually live, can never live up to the fiction?
We look at screen and page and advertisement and we see mirrors of ourselves. But often they are mirrors of selves that never were and never will be. We are told that love lasts forever and is epic; that childhood friendships can never fade away; that adventure will always take us to transcendent places and transform us. We are handed orange-juice-concentrate versions of human existence, and behind them are whispers: “This is what life is. This is what you should be expecting. And if this is not your life, there’s something wrong — something deficient.” …
For most of my life, and probably most of his, my late father was the master of items that he called “unsorted but significant” — slivers of serendipity that were both highly meaningful and extremely, assertively miscellaneous, and tended to turn up in the most unexpected of places.
When I was a little boy, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I attended grade school on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, where my father was a professor of linguistics. Because we spent our days in the same part of town, he would often drive me to school in the morning and pick me up afterward.
My father was someone who liked to know the terrain of the area where he lived. He liked to take a different route back to our house each day, always alternating, and he’d show me how they related to each other — and, by extension, how the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh and the little towns that circumscribed it related to each other as well. “You can’t just get where you’re going,” he would say. …
I am pacing. Inhaling. Exhaling. My feet feel Krazy Glued to the floor, yet somehow I also am about to float away, straight up to where my stomach is already hovering— in the ionosphere far above the Thai capital. This is not fun. How could this be fun?
“I want to run as far away from here as I can,” I whisper to my wife, who is standing next to me. “I did not expect to feel this way.”
I am backstage, in a community-theater dressing room along one of Thailand’s busiest roads. I am moments from walking out in front of 120 people in a darkened house and trying to persuade a hopefully receptive audience that I am a heterosexual guy named Ryan, sitting in a bar awkwardly trying to figure out if I am gay. …