Maybe Anthony Bourdain’s last travelogue will lead us on a journey in which we learn to take better care of each other.
I was brushing my teeth yesterday morning when my phone screen lit up with a breaking news alert. It is not unusual for the New York Times to ping me with tidbits they think I’ll find interesting, but since the phone was near the sink, and since I often have nothing better to do while brushing my teeth than scanning Twitter, I picked up the phone, turned the screen back on, and read:
Anthony Bourdain, whose memoir about the dark corners of New York’s restaurants started a TV career, died at 61. CNN said the cause was suicide.
I’m not sure how to describe the kind of reader I am, but I knew within the first four words that Bourdain was dead. Still, I had to read it twice–is that right? possible? The final sentence was a sucker punch.
I was in the seventh grade when one of our classmates committed suicide. He wasn’t someone I knew well, but even then I remembered the chilling coldness that came in understanding a living, breathing human being made the deliberate decision to stop living and breathing.
During my freshman year of high school, a young woman I did know, someone who was a close friend to people I considered close friends, committed suicide. Imagine jumping from a high place into a lake, and instead of simply making a splash and its requisite ripples, the jump turns into a puncture, the splash turns into a drain, and the lake pours into it. We were fourteen, and we had the unfortunate privilege of learning to ache deeply.
As an adolescent in the mid 1990s, solace felt short in supply. Our airwaves were saturated with Nirvana–Cobain’s voice a curt reminder of self-death–and though I was unlike my more goth-like friends in how I dressed, it wasn’t hard for my teenaged mind to wander into the same caves. We wrote bad poetry, we had group counseling, we clicked back and forth with each other on call waiting.
And we got better. No one else from our group died. The sun came out, we graduated, we disbanded, we found each other years later on Facebook.
I tell you that to tell you that suicide has been a near-presence for the last twenty-five years of my life. There have been college classmates and friends’ children and famous people. And in the past week we’ve been given the gruesome gift of two celebrity suicides whose news cycles seem to have compounded into a small tidal wave of interest in reminding Americans that there are a lot of living, breathing humans out there who make a choice to stop living and breathing.
Suicide feels so all-consuming in its aftermath. I don’t know if it’s like this for everyone, but it is for me–in part, I’m guessing, because I spend large measures of my time preserving, continuing, planning, and I cannot fathom how to arrange my brainwaves into a pathway of non-existence.
Or can I? Aside from the aftermath of our high school friend’s death, in which I think many of us peered around at the arrangement of mourning and considered it might really be something if all our friends felt that way about ourselves, there’s been one other time I briefly considered the idea of suicide.
That was more than a decade ago. I had been suspended from my teaching job, and I was in a difficult place in my personal life, and I was driving late at night on the interstate and started making the calculations about how fast I’d have to drive into a concrete column to make sure it was all over quickly.
I can’t remember where I was going to begin with, but I got there. And I got counseling. And I’ve gotten better, and I can tell you with all honesty that I feel firmly planted on the side of the living.
Anthony Bourdain’s death felt like a blow to us all for so many reasons–journalist after journalist has written about Bourdain’s enthusiasm for life, for his genuine passion for exploring our world and sharing it with us via his lens, about his power in truth-telling. Even President Obama made time to remember a meal he’d shared with him.
I followed Bourdain on social media, something that invariably helps all of us feel closer to famous people than we actually are. And already, in the garish business that is celebrity media, the gawkers are Monday-morning quarterbacking Bourdain’s pathway into the darkness, picking apart photos he’d posted, the song he tweeted about, snippets from interviews that in retrospect seemed terribly telling.
Yesterday in the car, still stinging from the news, I queued up an interview with Bourdain on NPR’s Fresh Air. It was calming and sad and difficult at the same time just hearing his wonderful baritone–but even then, even in that interview from 2016, the way he talks about his trips to Borneo, where the village leaders asked their honored guest to do his part in slaughtering the pig they’d eat in a celebratory feast, Bourdain’s lesson seemed pointed:
BOURDAIN: Well, both times when I went to the village as the guest of honor, you know, they kill a pig for the feast. The whole village eats. There’s an equitable division of pig parts. It’s a big deal. But that first time, I don’t think I’d ever killed an animal before. I mean, I’d been ordering them up as a chef over the phone, so I was culpable in the death of many animals. But here I was being asked to physically plunge a spear into the heart of a pig.
It seemed to me the height of hypocrisy, however uncomfortable I might have been with that, to put it off on somebody else. You know, I’d been responsible for the death of many animals. Here I’m being asked – I didn’t want to let the team down. I didn’t want to dishonor the village or embarrass anyone. The first time was very, very, very, very difficult. My camera guys almost passed out. It was certainly very difficult for me.
The second time, as much as I’d like to say that it was still really hard – and I think I said in the voiceover I don’t know what it says about me, probably something very bad, that I’d become – you know, I have changed over time, I like to think in good ways for the most part. But I’ve also become more callous. I’ve become able to plunge a spear into the heart of a screaming pig and live with that much more comfortably than I did the first time. And I can lie and say it tormented me forever and since. But, you know, I felt that ugly emotion or lack of it. And I thought I should mention it.
Of course, I didn’t personally know Anthony Bourdain. I’d watched hours and hours of his television shows, I’d read his interviews, and I’d even once gone to see him give a talk in Durham.
He was such an appealing personality, in part, because there were parts of him I wanted to share, parts I identified with, parts that I aspired to.
I spent nine years in a good job that sent me packing across the world, and I wanted deeply to approach my very not-special travel job with the same wide-eyes and open heart as Tony Bourdain.
Bourdain described himself in his Twitter profile as, simply, an “enthusiast.” There’s a sense of optimism there that sings to me–an upward tone that often chimed in the closing narratives of his television programs, the self-imposed reminder that cynicism was okay, but you can’t let it win.
I loved that. I felt–I feel–the same way. I cringe at all of the obituaries for Bourdain that describe him as a celebrity chef or T.V. personality. Bourdain had a writer’s heart and a journalist’s head and an eater’s stomach and a drinker’s liver. Given his finely cultivated punk rock image, a lot of us in his audience wondered which part might give out first.
Punk rock: not me, but a lifestyle many of my friends have worn at some point in their lives. Bourdain was 24 years older than me, but he might have been the leather-jacketed uncle to our sad group of fourteen year-olds writing poetry in high school.
The majority of the articles I’ve read about Bourdain’s death have ended with similar pleas: if you’re thinking about suicide, talk to someone. The rote nature of these reminders is mildly upsetting. On social media, a number of my friends are posting similar missives. Let’s check on each other. Let’s take care of each other.
Last night after supper, the kids wanted to play outside, so they strapped on their helmets and got out their bicycles (and Annie got out her new scooter) and they glided down the driveway, across the street, and into the cul-de-sac to make laps until the sun went down. As is often the case when the kids are bicycling, I’ll stand in the middle of the road, a sentinel keeping watch for distracted drivers, a sign to slow down in case they don’t happen to see my little blond kiddos pedaling away.
Which is to say that the line between life and death is awfully thin anyway. This week was the anniversary of D-Day. The conservative essayist Charles Krauthammer signed off in a letter announcing he will likely succumb in mere weeks from terminal cancer. A Times op-ed writer examining the Holocaust noted a relative’s mother wanted to ensure her daughter knew that when she was sent off to die, she was not afraid.
The boys who swam toward Normandy’s nests of guns, the way Krauthammer already references his life in the past tense, the images of women being forced to strip naked and stand on the edges of wide graves so they can be more efficiently murdered–these are only the more sensational reminders of an always-present horizon. They join the pedestrian, mundane reminders–the accidents, the odd coincidences, the normal, healthy people who bizarrely die, the elderly or the sick who make their peace and close their eyes and somehow drift off.
I sat down today with the intention to write about how social media tricks us into thinking we know people when in fact we don’t. I aimed to write a balm for the dark fascination our society frequently invokes when confronted with suicide.
Eventually I realized you might not know me as well as you think you do. And maybe it was worth writing down here that I, too, have taken a brief glimpse into that darkness, and even though I quickly looked away, maybe it’s helpful to know that even someone like me has entertained the thought. Maybe that’s something we all should be more honest in talking about.
And I remembered that, just as Bourdain felt his callousness deepen, just as we all see our innocence covered with the kudzu of experience, the more and more we see suicide, the easier it might seem to someone pondering a slip across the divide.
It is important, vitally important, to check up on each other. Some of us have to stand in the middle of the street while we’re out riding bikes. We owe each other phone calls and emails and impromptu supper invitations. We are all catchers in the rye. Maybe Bourdain’s last travelogue will be the chance for us to reach out and help someone.
Like Bourdain, I am a sucker for ending long, difficult stretches with a note of hope or humor. It would be perfectly in keeping with his perspective to admit I don’t have any better answers or platitudes, not even a Bourdain-esque quote of wisdom to impart.
So I’ll leave it at this.
Love you guys. Stay well.