Breaking the dam

This post doesn’t capture all of my June, but it is the June in which we lost a really interesting human being. There is half of a warm summer that I’ve experienced with family and friends. I’ve been quiet online. My last Instagram post was mid may. My last post here was around the same time. Days have been full, and I’ve had lots to say involving other more positive inspirations, but writing it all down was only ever on the horizon, somehow out of reach in the 9 pm setting sun.  I had to break the dam with this post.

I wanted to title this post Anthony Bourdain.

On the day he died, I squinted up at my phone in the blazing heat and impulsively ordered three of his books. I knew I was overpaying for them since I was not alone in my impulse. Two of the books were already sold out and would take some time getting to me. I didn’t care. I’d never read his books anyway, so how could I complain about that.  Amidst sounds of kids splashing in the outdoor pool, I reacted to news of his suicide by buying his stories.

I google his name daily to see what else is out there. I know that sounds crazy.  If you haven’t  seen Anderson Cooper’s tribute to Bourdain, you should see it; it says what needs saying about Bourdain’s personality. One of my favorite parts is when Bourdain says rather simply that he won’t miss that magic that comes from eating a meal even though he knows he may be sick from what he’s eating. “What’s the worse that can happen? A course of antibiotics? What do you get in return? I think a lot.”

The thing is, I’m just one of many who thought him to be a gifted and fair storyteller. I’m not special in finding his voice or eyes or abandon or appreciation attractive. I hardly knew I liked him as much as I’ve considered lately. Like you, I thought of inviting him over to our home for dinner and how that would be. Until recently I really didn’t know anything of his past except for his allusions to it in a Part’s Unknown trip to Morocco, let’s say, or in some dusty closet when a celebrity’s name comes up. In fact, when some pedestrian culinary conversation would sprout, I’d add excitedly that I love his shows, or I love when he visited Iran, etc… I even spent some of a year saying, “Anthony took me to (insert country) last night” or “I went to (insert city) yesterday for free” after travel-lusting via Netflix each night.

And yet I have carried Kitchen Confidential in my bag every day since it came in the mail a week after his death. Like so many books I stroll with, I didn’t underline a single worthy sentence–not even ones that made me laugh out of context, not even the ones that instantly made me walk into a culture and a time about which I had no idea. The only evidence I have of my engagement is the curled up cover, random Safari pages of names he drops that I’ve googled, and the glance of the mechanic.

If I’ve learned anything from my recent reading, it’s that wrestling with the burden of telling your truth is heavy. Writers use figurative language and their sensibility to artfully present a truth, and the artful part can be a crafty achievement when you are protecting parts of the truth. In  Kitchen Confidential, he calls out names, restaurants, people, and details candidly. I don’t know if I could ever tell a story this way. His abandon is my opposite yet totally enthralling.

What is empowering, however, is the permission he grants himself in the later publication of the same title.  For example, Kitchen Confidential was published  in 2000. In the updated 2007 version, his first line in the Preface is, “Things are different now.” In the Afterword, the first line is, “Times have changed since much of the action described in this book took place.” He acknowledges changes without really apologizing for them. I think as humans we can all take a lesson in that: what people may say about us or how we may feel about people will likely change. To remain the same or to feel we’re at the apex of thought is already downhill.

Reading his work pulls my face to the real burden the introverted, principle-lined, talented, and often tortured human’s face (the very torture that perhaps makes them endearingly empathetic). Andrew Zimmerman, who is also a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, got me thinking in his recent interview after his friend’s death.

Teaching high school has meant the last few years has seen too many mental health issues, too many heartbreaking suicides. I think I bottled all that up until hearing about his, this man who never knew me. What I struggle with the most is feeling that if he got to the other end of the moment where he gave up, he would regret it. This man who said almost 18 years ago that the world of the kitchen made the most sense to him; being in the real world was the hardest. That type of desperation haunts me, looping in my mind. Maybe what pulls at my heart so much is that I know with certainty that nothing is more seductive than learning something new from someone in conversation. He brought that to us, and I’m moved by his talent and our loss.

Most of Kitchen Confidential shares his experience of how a successful kitchen should be run, but near the end of the book, he recounts an example that defies his earlier claims. He admits it. Clearly. That is the meat of what I love about that book: his words are human, and even in our very distant worlds, he offers truths that help the way I see.

This wasn’t meant to be an unnecessary book review. While I don’t write about current events, I guess this just made its way here. I didn’t feel I could write about a recent hike or about house epiphanies until this made its way out.  I’m equally perplexed by how much his story has been on my mind. In grad school, I wrote a 20-page paper once about an Egyptian author who committed suicide after writing his first novel. Maybe I grapple with what else these artists had to give or what they endured that made their stories distinctive. I suppose this post is my memory of how I’m thinking about this storyteller, and about how I was taken by surprise, not at my admiration of him or my interest in his works, but by my reaction to his story.

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If you are in need of help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to access free, 24/7 confidential service for people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them. The Lifeline provides support, information, and local resources. You can also text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 for free 24/7 support with a trained crisis counselor right away.

 

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