One of the most fascinating spaces to occupy is a boundary area, where one reality bleeds into the next. As I write, I’m on the border between my ordinary life and celebrity headlines. I’m struggling with the shocking suicides of two famous people, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, as I go about my everyday business.
What do I know about either of them, except that they reached a point where their lives became unbearable, where they could not believe in their own futures, where they lost hope that something could lift the pain that was dragging them down?
For reasons I cannot fully explain, I feel especially connected to Bourdain, and have watched most episodes of his food and travel shows more than once. This phenomenon of empathizing with someone I don’t know at all is kind of weird, although I guess many of us are experiencing some discomfort over the sad news.
If you’ve ever lived through depression, learning of a suicide feels threatening. If Bourdain lost interest in his successful, fascinating and privileged life, then how can the rest of us slog on? We don’t get to travel to the most intriguing places on earth with our own production crew and staff who make arrangements and sweat the details. Most of us don’t get to become fabulously wealthy, with all the access that unlimited money confers.
Did you see the Bourdain show in which he met Barack Obama in Hanoi and sat down with him for a casual meal in a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop? I remember thinking, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” How impressive that the celebrity chef, born in New York City, a confessed alcohol abuser and drug addict, an admittedly self-destructive man, was slurping noodles with the president of the United States. For so long, he was apparently able to push back against his demons and achieve dazzling success.
I loved his politics and his raunchy language and his disdain for phoniness. He was a kind of overgrown Holden Caulfield, or at least he portrayed one on TV. He was way out front on supporting women against sexual harassment in the food industry. In war zones, he seemed to bring the victims’ harrowing lives into our own along with a sense of real empathy for their pain.
I loved his shabby chic demeanor, his authenticity and his self-deprecating wit. He knew everyone in the food world; his TV shows, his books and his varied enterprises all contributed to making him a superstar.
I cried when I heard he’d died, I think because he seemed like someone so appreciative of the pleasures of life — meeting new people, exploring remote cultures, tasting different foods and telling stories.
The mystery to me is how we occasionally find ourselves connecting with someone we don’t really know, someone living a public life very different from our own lives. Bourdain traveled to war zones and took risks most of us would not tolerate in order to land an interview or make contact with a culture that survives off the grid. He ate and drank foods that surely put him at risk for sickness. In one show he submitted to tattoos etched into his body by the resident artist in a remote indigenous tribe.
It was reported that after Bourdain and his crew were stranded in the Beirut airport for a week when war broke out, he never went back to ordinary culinary shows. He sought out the edgiest places and the strangest food, and he didn’t just sit down to dinner. He helped slaughter the pig in Louisiana and dive for octopus in Greece. I wouldn’t want to do these things, but I admire his quest for the real deal.
All the while, of course, he must have been struggling with emotional pain. In a 2008 interview, he said, speaking of the birth of his daughter, “I feel obliged to at least do the best I can and not do anything really stupidly self-destructive if I can avoid it.”
I don’t know why any of us viewers should feel this loss so keenly, but many of us do. Part of it is the scary thought that with all the blessings Bourdain enjoyed, he could not go on. But that was where he ended, unable to cope with the pain. In the beginning, and along the way, he inspired us to step across the border and try something different, something tantalizing and slightly scary.
Now, what is left is to prepare something delicious to eat, pour a tumbler of special wine, and raise a glass to Anthony Bourdain and the enduring idea of a joyful life on the road to an unknown adventure.
Copyright 2018 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.