Why is everyone I idolize dead? I thought as I laid quietly in bed.
I had just finished Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour and needed a moment to let it all sink in. The ending of a book is usually a moment of somber reflection for me. It’s a ritual that begins by reading the last page or paragraph twice, maybe three times, before closing it silently and falling into my thoughts. Each story is an emotional and mental investment and seeing it come to a close is like ending a relationship. You need some time to accept its conclusion and move on.
But this one was decidedly different. When this one ended, I found myself holding on more tightly than when I began, desperate to turn back the clock. To erase the blaring headline: Anthony Bourdain dead at 61.
When I returned home from my first overseas jaunt to Spain in 2008, I became a travel series addict. And it was the same kind of unhealthy relationship one has with a grubby bag of hard drugs. The images of places, as of yet unexplored, made my pulse race. I felt giddy with the possibilities. But when my reality set in, when I came down from the dreams of plane rides and foreign tongues, I felt hopelessly miserable. Sick. Jealous. Someone was doing it and that someone wasn’t me.
I still watched though. Andrew Zimmern, Samantha Brown, Zane Lamprey showed me places I mentally added to my growing list. Food, booze, iconic landmarks. It wasn’t profound television but that wasn’t the point. These shows fuelled the cycle: while my world opened up it also seemed to close in around me, a new college graduate with no funds and no prospect of travel further than just beyond the state line.
There was one personality among these hosts that I couldn’t fully accept. Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations was soulful, poetic, and to my early 20-something self, boring. I thought he was pretentious and a bit of dick. Like the junkie I was, I didn’t appreciate what was pure. I wanted my quick and dirty fix.
It wasn’t until I finally got into travel, when I stopped watching it and started living it, that I realized the flashy gimmicks those shows that I devoured only scratched the surface. Bourdain got to the heart of what matters to those who fully immerse themselves in travel: people and their stories. Reading A Cook’s Tour not only showed his sincere interest and desire to know the inhabitants of all the places he traveled to but his commitment to telling their stories.
He was more than his TV persona. His anecdotes could be foul-mouthed and raunchy without being lewd. His snark and sarcasm were never intended to truly wound. And when you read the written representation of his emotions, you feel it all. I believe that to be a great writer, your soul and humanity must seep through. His book was real and raw and I related to him not only through those fleeting but blindingly bright moments of happiness in this world but also the crushingly dark ones. And I grieve for what he was and what he could have been.
With my second graders today, I did a simple Thanksgiving exercise. Preparing to make a list on the board, I asked them what they were thankful for. Just like that, from the mouths of babes, a child raised his hand: “la vida,” he said. Life.
It has been one of the hardest years of my life and as it nears its end, I reflect on the pain as well as the joy. I do believe that without the rock bottom moments we can’t fully appreciate that true, uninhibited happiness that swells up in your chest and reminds you that the world really isn’t such a bad place after all.
Even though life can sometimes feel like a curse, it’s given to us without guarantees. But for most, those dark nights do eventually give way to brighter mornings. And that’s something to be thankful for.