Musings on Anthony Bordain, Suicide, and Being “Together”
Just this week, there was a report that came out about the growing crisis of the rise in suicide rates over the last two decades – a topic to add the broader mental health crisis that undergirds almost every major problem we have in our society today, in some form. This report from the government, as stated in various news media outlets, states that “Suicide rates increased by 25% across the United States over nearly two decades ending in 2016, according to research published Thursday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty-five states experienced a rise in suicides by more than 30%, the government report finds. More than half of those who died by suicide had not been diagnosed with a mental health condition”. Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, added that “Suicide is one of the top 10 causes of death in the US right now, and it’s one of three causes that is actually increasing recently”, also noting that “The other two top 10 causes of death that are on the rise are Alzheimer’s disease and drug overdoses”. They note that in 2016 alone, about 45,000 lives were lost to suicide. The rapid increase is not limited to one culture or region of America, but rather spread across it, with the biggest increase being noted in North Dakota, and the highest increases in diverse places such as Idaho, Utah, Vermont and New Hampshire. Montana has the highest rates of suicide per capita, at over four times the rate of the lowest place – Washington D.C. They note that about half are accomplished via firearms, with strangling or hanging the second, with about 31% of the victims having opioids in their system. It notes that suicides are highest in men, but women are rising faster, and that 18% of all suicides were among veterans, even though they only make up 8.5% of the population. Another expert they cite notes that it is particularly problematic in rural areas, where mental health services can be scarce, and even if available, may be too expensive, difficult to reach due to transportation limitations, and subject to the reduced privacy in small towns whose residents observe who is parked at the one mental health clinic in town, and the stigma associated with it. They note that the occurrence of suicide is even affecting the bulk data of the overall life expectancy of Americans.
Within about a 24-hour period on either side of the release of this report, two celebrities – both seen as being highly successful and still effectual in the culture, and having overt successful personal relationships as well – committed suicide. Ironically, both purse designer Kate Spade (whom I knew nothing about) and Anthony Bourdain (whom I was fairly familiar with) chose the mode of hanging – a type of death fiercely avoided as a means of capital punishment, including by known criminals, for its grisly and unsavory nature; this includes the clever Nazi second-in-command to Hitler, Herman Goring, who cheated the gallows at Nuremberg in desperation, willingly choosing poisoning by his own hand. Others who chose this form of death by their own hand included comedian Robin Williams, actor David Carradine, the “D.C. Madam”, and a host of others.
So what is going on here? I am told that Kate Spade was sort of “on top of the world” in the designer field of fashion purses, not only in high society but amongst the everyday women we all live around, and a beloved figure throughout the clothing world. She and her husband had founded a successful handbag (supposedly “very affordable” at $150 to $450, I am told) line, and launched into a wide array of products, boutiques worldwide, and she even wrote three books on the subjects of etiquette, entertainment, and fashion—Manners, Occasions, and Style. She and her husband sold the business for a lot of money as she was the darling of the business world as well, to then focus on raising her daughter, and then started a new fashion company of footwear and purses with other investors, called Francis Valentine. In other words, she had found success, money, fame and wealth in her own creative venture, still popular and with business and creative clout, and able to express herself creatively in many forms, and yet finding time to create a family. She was only 55 years old, married for 24 years to Andy (brother of comedian/actor David Spade), and mother to a 13 year old daughter. However, her husband released a statement to the New York Times after her suicide, an excerpt of which is quoted below:
“…Kate suffered from depression and anxiety for many years. She was actively seeking help and working closely with her doctors to treat her disease…We were in touch with her the night before and she sounded happy. There was no indication and no warning that she would do this…There were personal demons she was battling…For the past 10 months we had been living separately, but within a few blocks of each other. Bea was living with both of us and we saw each other or spoke every day. We ate many meals together as a family and continued to vacation together as a family. Our daughter was our priority. We were not legally separated, and never even discussed divorce. We were best friends trying to work through our problems in the best way we knew how. We were together for 35 years. We loved each other very much and simply needed a break. This is the truth…She was actively seeking help for depression and anxiety over the last 5 years, seeing a doctor on a regular basis and taking medication for both depression and anxiety. There was no substance or alcohol abuse. There were no business problems. We loved creating our businesses together. We were co-parenting our beautiful daughter.”
Ironically, the aforementioned CDC report mentions that chronically depressed people are typically not those who tend to lose their life to suicide. One thing that is not mentioned in her husband’s statement or other narratives of her lifestyle is any evidence of active religious participation on their behalf.
I am much more familiar with the story of Anthony Bourdain. As a “news hound” who typically has cable news on in the background (with sound either on or off) for all hours of the day, in recent years it always seemed to be plastered with Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” television program, running almost continuously on CNN. He came to CNN supposedly in 2013, bringing his combination travel-and-food show to the network – an unorthodox fit, but in tune with the new management’s desire to do more lengthy background news pieces like documentaries. It served as an offbeat, irreverent forum to visit far-flung places, or those in our back yards, and probe mysterious cultures, seeing exotic places and its common folk in action, and seeing the search for the culture’s gourmet and common street food as a backdrop to understand their cultural mindset. It talked to its local authors and journalists (sometimes under fire from their own governments) as well as chefs, street vendors, and mothers in their kitchens and dining rooms, discussing aspects of their cultures and daily lives heretofore unknown to average Americans, and the pressing political and cultural issues and dangers they were facing. It has been smashing ratings hit and recognized for its artistic merit, garnering five Emmy Awards, and certainly raising Bourdain’s respect and mystique, and allowing him virtual carte blanche and clout at the ailing network as a type of flagship program that added to their prestige.
With Bourdain’s show, viewers were able to see life in little-known places in all parts of the world, often traveling by austere means to very remote sites, seeing those for whom meeting Western visitors was not common, and explaining how food and its preparation helped explained their cultural history and their day-to-day life, while he chatted with locals (as seen in the pictures above), or their regional chefs, writers, politicians or even street vendors. Sometimes the political hotbeds he visited made news in and of themselves, as when he visited both Israel and Palestine, or Lebanon in the midst of their civil war. Sometimes, those who interacted with him paid a steep price for their honest public discussions with the plain-spoken Bourdain. Russian dissenting senior politician Boris Nemtsov, himself a brilliant scientist and successful reform politician, spoke honestly with Bourdain in 2014 about the gangster-like nature of Putin and details of his and the government’s corruption, as well as his understanding that his life was in danger; mere months after the show’s airing, Nemtsov was gunned down on the street with four slugs in his back, with later investigations suggesting government complicity. Similarly, Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post Tehran, Iran bureau chief, was arrested and jailed with his fellow journalist wife by authorities (for “propaganda against the establishment”) just a few weeks after Bourdain interviewed him with a frank but restrained discussion of the good and bad aspects of life in Iran (a show which also featured Bourdain hanging out with Iranian youths with hot-rodded American cars drag racing and eating pizza, in a typical (for him) type segment), and after much campaigning by Bourdain and others publicly, he was finally released around 18 months later. As a response, Rezaian (in the above linked article about him) says that Bourdain “changed his life”, calling him “one of the most beloved television personalities, and people, of our generation”, who “raised awareness in a different kind of way that nothing else could have”; he also said Bourdain helped him privately to re-integrate back into society after his arrest, and decided to have Bourdain publish a book about his experience.
On occasion, Boudain sought out those he idolized, drawing on his “bad-boy”, New York punk rock-loving past (which he still loves) by seeking out and finding punk rock legend Iggy Pop in Miami, discovering him aging quietly (and still amazed to be alive after his drug-addled younger life, like Bourdain) and eating healthy food, and enjoying the serenity of a modest breakfast and a quiet beach. Another icon of his he corralled was comedian Bill Murray, who shared his somewhat pedestrian yet offbeat lifestyle in his adopted Charleston, South Carolina. More likely, though, were the celebrity fans who sought out the “coolness” of Bourdain, and one of those evidently was President Barack Obama, whose staff arranged for Bourdain to eat with him in a “dive” in Hanoi, Vietnam, while there for a summit shortly before his departure from office. The experience of meeting and eating with Obama there was shared by Bourdain himself in an article he wrote, the following excerpts of which will give the reader a feel for the lack of pretense in Bordain himself and devil-may-care attitude, yet seriousness regarding things befalling the common man:
“Some people at the White House had reached out and hinted at the possibility that maybe, just maybe, we might find a time and a place where the two of us could sit down to a meal together. These discussions were, out of necessity, very closely held until the very last minute. CNN didn’t know. The producers, even the camera guys who were to shoot the scene, were not told until the day before. At no point did the White House, CNN, or anyone else, offer guidance, suggestions or ground rules for what I might talk to the President about. There may or may not have been an offer of a ride on Air Force One at one point. But I figured we’d look totally in the bag if we did that. You ride in a man’s car — or his plane — you owe him something. And it just seemed weird.”
“I’m not a journalist. Or a foreign policy wonk. My politics are my own. Contrary to the assertions of angry Twitter warriors who think I’m getting regular guidance from the “Communist News Network,” I’ve never once received a phone call or an e-mail or had a conversation that contained the words “wouldn’t it be a great idea if…?” or ” how about?” I’m proud of the fact that I’ve had as dining companions over the years everybody from Hezbollah supporters, communist functionaries, anti-Putin activists, cowboys, stoners, Christian militia leaders, feminists, Palestinians and Israeli settlers, to Ted Nugent. You like food and are reasonably nice at the table? You show me hospitality when I travel? I will sit down with you and break bread.”
“So I wasn’t going to “interview” the president. And though I may admire him, I wasn’t going to be a platform for discussion of a particular foreign policy agenda. Barack Obama was apparently interested in sitting down for a meal with me — and I intended to speak to him only as a father of a 9-year-old girl, as a fellow Southeast Asia enthusiast (the President spent time in Indonesia as a young man), and a guy who likes a bowl of spicy, savory pork and noodles with a cold beer…Various locations were discussed. But when Vietnam came up, as one stop on a multi-country state visit to Asia in May, I knew where I wanted it to be. I love Vietnam. Everybody on my crew loves Vietnam. We have a lot of experience working there, we have friends, connections, favorite dishes, favorite restaurants. It’s beautiful…Bun cha is a beloved local specialty of Hanoi. It’s basically bits of marinated, charcoal-grilled pork patties and pork slices in a room-temperature dipping sauce with rice noodles and herb garnishes. It’s delicious.”
“It’s always seemed pointless to me to go all the way to someplace as extraordinary as Vietnam and spend time in an air-conditioned, Western-style restaurant with tourist-friendly food. The President, I guessed, had spent more than his share of time in the banquet rooms of major chain hotels, slogging through long state dinners, eating representative menus of “national dishes.” Bun cha is NOT a national dish. And the second floor of the small, family-run, decidedly working class Bun Cha Huong Lien restaurant, in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, is not exactly the kind of place the President was likely to be taken by his hosts on any official state visit. I got the definite impression that the Secret Service was initially less than delighted with our choice of venue. The location was … sub-optimal, as far as they were concerned. It was tight, with minimal exits, not particularly clean — and set off a narrow street. But they persevered. I’d like to thank them. They were, all of them, very nice guys with thick necks. Many of them had to spend a lot of time standing stoically in the driving rain.”
“What can I tell you about what it’s like to sit across from the President of the United States and drink beer from the bottle? I can tell you that Barack Obama was, in spite of having had a high-ranking leader of the Taliban whacked in Pakistan a few days previous, very relaxed and at ease. He seemed to enjoy himself sitting on a low plastic stool eating noodles and pork bits with chopsticks. I talked to him as a father, as an enthusiast for the region, and he responded with real nostalgia for the Indonesian and Hawaiian street food of his youth. When I asked him if it was OK that I get along with Ted Nugent, who has said many, many deeply offensive and hateful things about him personally, he responded “of course” — that that was exactly the sort of person we SHOULD be talking to: the people who disagree with us. He was oddly resigned to and forgiving of his enemies. And when I asked him if — given the very likely ugly and frightening contents of the daily intelligence briefings to which he is privy — if it was “going to be OK” for my daughter as she grew up, he replied with confidence that on balance, it would.”
“In general, he spoke with the lack of careful calculation of a man who is no longer running for office. My hot dog question might have been diplomatically problematic for a first-term president. He answered without hesitation — like a Chicagoan. He was funny, quick to laugh. When I asked him if he ever missed being able to go out to a bar, sit down by himself and have a cold beer while listening to old songs on the juke, he smiled and said “in about six months.” He put my crew at ease. Was kind to them. So much so that we were not nervous while we were with him. Only afterward, when he had gone, did we all look at each other and say, “Did that just HAPPEN?””
“The next day, I was suddenly recognizable to the Vietnamese who rode their scooters and motorbikes around me. They’d seen me in the newspapers and again and again would point at me, shouting “Bun cha! Mister Bun Cha!” A few young Vietnamese who spoke English approached me and told me, with tears in their eyes, how incredulous they were, how shocked — how proud — that the President of the United States had come to their town and eaten not pho, or spring rolls, which they would have expected — but bun cha. Bun cha! It was THEIRS! Their proud local specialty! And Hanoi beer too! They couldn’t get over it. And on a low plastic stool, in the kind of place they always ate. The effect was extraordinary. I cannot possibly overstate the warmth with which he was received by the Vietnamese — particularly the young ones…”
“Vietnam may still be a communist country. But you can hardly tell from the streets. Money flows in and out in a raucous, free-market scrum of Western brands and materialistic expectations. Buildings are going up everywhere, private enterprise having long ago outpaced ideology. As in Cuba, the toothpaste is out of the tube. And there’s no putting it back. And as the show will remind you, Vietnam remains an extraordinarily beautiful place. It is enchanting. Its people, for as long as I’ve been going there, warm, food crazy, hospitable and proud….At the end of the show, I quote Gen. William Westmoreland’s notorious quote claiming life is valued less in the East than in the West. A statement so stupid and ignorant that it still shocks today…I will sure as shit remember this trip to Vietnam. Not very long ago at all, I was a 44-year-old guy still dunking French fries with no hope of ever seeing Rome, much less Hanoi — much less EVER sitting across from the President of the United States, talking about hot dogs”.
Bourdain himself did not cast a shadow as the stereotypical “Chef Boy-r-Dee”, with an intimidating accent, off-putting air of perfection, or smug demeanor towards all things plebeian. All you had to do was look at him – a body covered in tattoos (and always adding new ones, even to commemorate special good times on various episodes), a long, lean body that looked like it experienced more intake from the intravenous needle and long neck bottle rather than a fork, and a long, infinitely craggy face that was too weathered for Mount Rushmore – which all told a tale of a man who had experienced much in life; maybe too much, even for a 61-year-old. At times, often when he was drinking on the show (which was about every five minutes), he might share, in a voice-over, snippets of his past. Such as being born in New York City and being raised in New Jersey, unmistakably contributing to his “tough guy”, “take no guff” persona. His being born to a Catholic father and Jewish mother, and (not surprisingly, having heard many times the same tale from celebrities raised in similar locales and family situations), being raised in a non-religious home. His untamed youth, in which he left the prestigious Vassar College, sowing his wild oats (in an early 70s that featured lots of rampant wild-oats sowing) in the seafood kitchens of Cape Cod restaurants with fellow reckless youth (later saying he learned the most about life while washing dishes). Eventually graduating from the American Culinary Institute, and paying his dues in famous New York City gourmet restaurants, while getting hooked on LSD, heroin and cocaine in those lawless days, being a user while on duty along with his youthful chef peers. Although he eventually became a respected chief of a prominent New York restaurant for decades, it was his 1999 article for The New Yorker about the foul deeds that carried on in the kitchens of the country’s finest restaurants, and a subsequent book of his war stories in the field, which became a best-seller, which led him to his meteoric rise at the dawn of the 21st century. Additional books of cooking and his culinary experiences during his adventurous travel expeditions, and subsequent popular television programs which documented his experiences, led to his penultimate contribution via his CNN series.
Bourdain was on “top of the world” himself as 2018 rolled around, as everyone wanted to be around him, and was much beloved by CNN personnel, his staff and show participants, and his legion of fans, with a show that was a consistent ratings success while being critically acclaimed and oft-awarded. For a nomadic loner of extreme experiences and views, he had seemed to find a soul mate (as he himself described her) in 2017 in a fellow “bad girl” Asia Argento, the daughter of one of the most famous cinematic directors ever (Dario Argento) and a successful actress and director in her own right, and whom he met on one of his show productions in her hometown of Rome. Their mutual rough exteriors and wizened, cynical views seemed to dovetail into each other, and he strongly defended her in the press when she was one of the first actresses to charge Harvey Weinstein with sexual harassment. Bourdain had finally achieved undeniable success, respect, a beloved reputation, and finally, personal love in his life.
Thus, no one expected what occurred suddenly in June 2018, while Bourdain, his best friend, the French chef (and often sidekick) Eric Ripert and his staff were in a scenic vista on the north French coast to produce a show of Alcasian cuisine – a “recipe” to certainly enliven and warm Bourdain’s heart. When Bourdain did not join Ripert for dinner one night, as well as breakfast the next morning, his good friend knew something something wasn’t right, so he and one of the hotel staff entered his room, finding him hung by the belt of his hotel bath robe from the bathroom door, and Ripert himself finding him unresponsive, necessitating them to notify his crew to cancel the photo shoot scheduled nearby mere minutes later. According to a report by The New York Times, Bourdain’s mother told them that “He is absolutely the last person in the world I would have ever dreamed would do something like this…He had everything. Success beyond his wildest dreams. Money beyond his wildest dreams”, and said that his friend Ripert told her that “Tony had been in a dark mood these past couple of days”. Another fellow TV chef stated that “He told me he’d never been happier. He felt that he had finally found his true soul mate in Asia”. The Times quotes him in describing his earlier days in the Cape Cod seafood restaurant scene, saying that “I saw how the cooks and chefs behaved. They had sort of a swagger, got all the girls and drank everything in sight.” They add that after his first divorce, he married Ottavia Busia (identified elsewhere as a mixed-martial arts fighter), and had a daughter Ariane, who is now eleven; he separated from Busia two years ago, and last year began dating Ms. Argento. They also added a quote from himself when he stated, “I should’ve died in my 20s. I became successful in my 40s. I became a dad in my 50s. I feel like I’ve stolen a car — a really nice car — and I keep looking in the rear view mirror for flashing lights.” On a Massachusetts episode of his “Parts Unknown”, which covered the opioid crisis in New England, the normally-guarded Bourdain actually participated in a drug recovery group, giving his testimony of early drug use that should have killed him, and how having a daughter, and a need to raise her, motivated him that life was worth living, and to proceed at it for her benefit.
Another report notes that his show that just aired a week ago from Hong Kong was directed by his girlfriend Argento, with camera work (in a pinch, since his regular camera man fell ill) by famed cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Of the episode, Bourdain was reported to have said (days before his suicide) that “It was the most intensely satisfying experience of my professional life and a show that I am giddily, ecstatically proud of. I plan to get a Du Kefeng tattoo, in the original Mandarin, as soon as possible. As you might have guessed, I already have an Asia Argento tattoo.” Bourdain’s publicist was reported to say that “He was effusive and happy about the Hong Kong episode—that was all he could talk about weeks leading up to it, how it was like a high water mark for him…I didn’t talk to him this week but all I know was he was so happy last week. I mean giddy. He was texting me and emailing me, which he doesn’t normally do, about publicity for episodes, but he was like, ‘This is a high water mark, this is the best thing I’ve ever done.'”
Another report notes that actress Rose McGowan, already a troubled soul and the central figure in exposing Weinstein and headlining the “Me Too” movement, with a similar “in your face” style to Bourdain and Argento, Bourdain having provided hands-on support to McGowan and her friend Argento in their travails of confronting sexual harrassment, stated that Bourdain had been fighting depression for a long time. The report noted that she stated that Argento had asked her to speak out about Bourdain’s struggles publicly on her behalf. She wrote that “In the beginning of their relationship, Anthony told a mutual friend, ‘He’s never met anyone who wanted to die more than him.’ And through a lot of this last year, Asia did want the pain to stop,” McGowan continued. “…thankfully, she did the work to get help, so she could stay alive and live another day for her and her children. Anthony’s depression didn’t let him, he put down his armor, and that was very much his choice. His decision, not hers. His depression won.” They also add that “Before his death, Bourdain “reached out for help” but didn’t take his doctor’s advice, McGowan said, advising fans and followers not to blame Argento”, and asked the public to rather rally behind her.
Having said all that, I want to discuss what impressions I personally gathered from Mr. Bourdain, particularly since he seemed to be staring at me through the television virtually non-stop for some time, as maybe the most frequent visitor to our home, even if usually casually ignored. I would first like to talk about some things I really admired about him, even though our cultures were vastly different. First of all, even though he was instantly recognized everywhere, and everyone thought he was so “hip” and “cool” and wanted to tag along, beside his residual New York/New Jersey gruffness and cynicism, he certainly was not a “diva”, although he had every right to be. As I casually observed him, he seemed to go to every God-forsaken place on earth, and squatted down in the midst of flies and Lord-knows what types of meat or food, and he always complimented the chef, and the cultures of those he visited (I have read that his meal of “unwashed warthog rectum” may have been his worst meal, but he received it gladly, I am sure). And he not only complimented the cook; he told the viewer about all the noble aspects of even the poorest and most remote peoples, and the things that really appealed about them, or their unique contributions. Many of these peoples may have had bad impressions of Americans in general, but one could see he put them at ease, and proud of their own humble home kitchens or roadside shacks. Bourdain could be at home in the most provincial five-star French restaurants, totally familiar with the cooks as well as all the items in each dish, but also in the homes of toothless mothers cooking in their sinks for their families, and he seemed to enjoy it even better.
One of my most impressive displays from him was recently, when this New Yorker went to the unsung state of West Virginia, to discover the joys of “mountain food”, put together from what was cobbled together or scavanged from local mountains, as he reveled in “vinegar pie” and explained how cuisines all over the world are developed by what was within reach. He has explained over the years how “peasant foods” remain his favorite foods to eat, along with anything prepared fresh on the side of any street (he said that the most disgusting thing he ever ate was a “Chicken McNugget” – in essence not knowing in what infernal laboratory it was created, or its contents). In all cases, he set down with locals, at least heard their stories and hung out with them, and asked about why they liked their culture and locale so much, and what had become so hard about preserving it. Even the lowliest have noted that he always cheerfully had time for pictures and discussions, and evolved into a champion of the common people; one person noted that he spent 15 minutes off camera talked to a restaurateur who had served him canned food, and went to bat for a waitress fired on the spot by her management (he also had a hankering for Popeye’s fried chicken and macaroni and cheese). Christians could learn a lot about respecting different cultures from a guy like him.
I have come to embrace my personal adage that “an opinion reveals as much about the opiner as it does its subject”, and the following is a case where my observation about Bourdain is as much a revelation of where my head has been in my upbringing. One thing about Bordain on his show that stood out to me, based upon my cultural upbringing, is that he drank alcohol – a lot, and always. It was ever-present any time he sat down, to eat or to carouse in the wee hours, or basically anytime. It was as much a part of the show as the food itself. In some shows, it appeared he was in a competition with his new companions (such as in Japan) to see who could stay upright while drinking the most. He must have been VERY experienced in the art, because I don’t know how he still performed his duties with his apparent consumption, any more than how he kept his leanness with such a parade of sumptuous food. He almost seemed incomplete without an alcoholic beverage in his hand, as an essential part of the conversation.
The other notable matter was his clearly apparent secular worldview. This is not uncommon in television, which has a legacy of performers from secular Jewish or lapsed Catholic backgrounds, or other non-evangelical varieties, as opposed to evangelical-types who otherwise would parade their religious views into every topic they discuss (and in many cases, should), but which is deemed to make “bad television” by being too divisive or “heavy” (it doesn’t help that evangelicals have tarnished their image so badly, or go over the top with their proselytizing in such a manner as to lampoon their otherwise serious positions, that it inhibits their opportunities to participate in general public “reality television”). However, in the case of Bourdain’s show and his topics, he covers heart-burning issues that just scream for a learned, spiritual insight, and his legitimate compassionate views would be so under-girded with a sound spiritual reality and mandate behind it. As such, he comes off to one like myself as a hard-partying drinker with a confused but sometimes noble mish-mash of values. As one curious example, when he came to the Jerusalem Temple’s “Wailing Wall”, the proprietors there found out he was of Jewish heritage, and promptly ushered him to the wall, clad in a yamulke; he admitted to the viewers being awkward being there as an unbeliever in God – an honest admission to not want to be a fraud, I believe – and looked awkward, not knowing what to do there. Even though his popularity and admiration has been unmatched, maybe this tension is part of the roots of what mysteriously took it all away, or left him unsatisfied by it.
I was raised in what Bourdain, and many readers, would view as quite a cloistered culture, although it certainly was not intentionally so, as with many in some heavy fundamentalist cultures. I was raised in a blue-collar family on the outskirts of what is well known as a “church town” (Louisville, Kentucky), and our culture centered on the activities of our small Baptist church. While our family vacationed together (often with the pastor’s family), not to France or Italy like the Bourdains but to the local lake, or went for jaunts for ice cream and such (often in my father’s and brother’s cool Bucket-T roadsters they built), our social life was centered on the many social activities at our church, with simple, humble families much like ourselves. This included a number of worship services each week, as well as softball, youth lock-ins and mission trips, and the annual trip to King’s Island amusement park in the rickety youth bus. While I was kept pretty close to home aside from that, by my latter teenage years I had a good corral of buds to hang out with, all from my church, except for one from my Christian high school whose friendship I renewed in college. None of us drank alcohol (at least that I knew of, while we were together), nor did our folks. We would have been well out of place in a bar, and in hindsight, pretty bored, and even our teenage testosterone probably would have cooled off quickly with some of the girls we might have met in them. We loved going to see the bizarre midnight cult movies on Saturday night at the downtown sleazebag Vogue theater, seeing how the wilder half lived (I remember stepping over a couple having sex in the aisle before the movie started once), and then returned unscathed to our suburbs and ready for church choir the next morning (albeit a little sleepy). I remember one memorable trip with the gang while in college on Spring Break to Florida, and we also realized the humor of how the relatives of one of the guys we were staying with obviously saw us as such nerds for not hitting the clubs each night. We loved comedy in poor taste, movies, cruising around, pizza and everything other people liked in the “pre-Internet” world (even starred in three feature-length movies I produced that have been seen around the world), but we didn’t see much for us in the bars but did in doing stuff at church; obviously, the cool chicks stayed away from us. Remarkably, with some inevitable checkered history, we all have been fairly successful husbands eventually and at times, and able to function independently and not be too much of a burden on society; thankfully as we age, the “uncool” albatross around our necks doesn’t seem to pack the same wallop.
That is not to say that I (and I presume the other guys I knew) were not aware of our “uncoolness”, in how we differed from people our age we saw in movies or on TV. I was constantly made aware that “cool” guys hit the bars, could hold their liquor, and had hot chicks hit on them, of which one they had to pick to take home that night – a typical life of a young person, I was told. And it looked so cool to get plastered! Those guys seemed to have all the great stories. I was exposed to that environment more first-hand when I went to a secular university, although my fellow students in engineering school could usually at best muster a Friday night drinking themselves silly, and maybe a beer to two at lunch or after classes, because there was just too much studying to do (maybe “idleness is the devil’s workshop”). When I began my work career, the younger guys (newly minted lieutenants and captains) went more for that sort of things (because they did have a lot of idle time), as well as a perverse, crude boss who drank his lunches (a mean drunk afterwards; I learned to never brief him then) and then hit on the ladies at night (thankfully I only had to go on a business trip with him once). Thankfully, in my long work career and even as a consultant with some very different international companies afterwards, I was always able to avoid having to go bar-hopping with them (although I’m sure they would have liked to have me as a designated driver), and particularly not have to go to the “gentleman’s clubs” (a misnomer if I ever heard one, and containing companionship there that no true gentleman would ever want).
My point here is not to shame or shake my finger at these people, but to confess that while I knew all the spiritual answers why that type of life was indeed lifeless, there was always a small part of me in the back of my mind that wondered why I didn’t “get it”, and why it sounded like their lives were closer to the coolness I saw on TV, while I was sitting alone in my hotel room, maybe reading a Bible. Television, movies and advertising has a remarkable way, along with peer pressure, to implant urges and understandings subliminally in all of us, which our rational mind otherwise could dismiss. How many of you have seen those couples on the beach in the “Sandals” or “Beaches” all-inclusive beach resort commercials, and not had a fleet thought of why our lives don’t look like those people, in skimpy swimsuits swinging each other around in the surf in carefree fashion, or drinking cocktails while the flames roar from the surf side gourmet kitchen, which then requires your rational mind to dismiss the thought? Why do at all the places I vacation, nobody looks like that? How come I don’t climb mountains (or even mountain bike) like those cool people on TV, and run the rapids in a raft with all those fun-loving people, who all look like models although they seemed to down a lot of beer, and rather still be a loser and hang out at church all the time? Although I’ve had my share of globe trotting, how come I don’t do it all the time, skipping from one exotic hip restaurant and bar to the next, rather than just sitting here in the same frumpy living room in Tennessee night after night, when every one knows the former is the real way to “live”?
I know my ruminating sounds pitiful, and I may not be communicating effectively and just giving TMI (too much information) about myself and the cobwebs of my memory, but I want to reconsider what state “pitiful” really is. I know many people get so enamored with the carefree lifestyle of the beach fantasy, that they sell everything, quit their promising job, leaving their relationships and “head for the beach”, prepared to live life to the fullest, and endless nights of excitement and passion, from one hip nightclub to the next. Then reality sets in. Bills have to be paid, rent has to be met, people get sick, cars still break. Even the night life gets a little monotonous. The people at the hip clubs don’t seem to be interesting much any more, and certainly not as fulfilling as our hopes had let on, or reliable friends when you’re down and no fun, any more than those who spent the Prodigal Son’s money for him. All our satisfying relationships and interesting careers were back home. Its hard to develop one’s life sitting on the beach or in the bar all the time. Before long you become a beach town local, paying the bills by trying to accommodate tourists to have their own fantasy. I knew some young guys who worked in the defense industry like me who headed to Southern California to find exciting jobs and “where the action is” for young people, like on TV. When I went to see them, all they did was work around the clock, so they they could pay insane rent along with a number of roommates (same thing in Washington DC). They still hit the bars and drank (just like the old geezers I traveled with), but it was because they had nothing else to do, and no other communal connections. Some “exciting life” to envy. In all my business travels with such people, over dinner or on flights, I never heard them talk about the spiritual truths that underwrote their motivations in life, their spiritual goals, or even an afterlife that scripted their priorities today. Mostly just where the next bar is, and something else to buy, to fill the void. I have also seen professing Christians falling into the same dead end path. Most such people cannot direct their life based upon spiritual goals, and often become nomadic, with minimal regular relationships, their lifestyle almost entirely dictated by their jobs, business travel, and maybe a distracting hobby; they couldn’t imagine carrying on a series of meaningful, deep conversations with the goal of learning spiritually from each other, apart from the “liquor doing the talking” in some uninhibited, incoherent scattershot philosophy shared in the wee hours at a bar. Part of the reason is that they do not frequent ‘un-hip” places where such people might possibly be found (although they may find “philosophers” who may grasp in the darkness just like they do), and they do not stay still long enough and make the sacrifices to build community locally, particularly if they are transplants like me. But they do look hip to others, doing all those exciting things they supposedly do. I have decided that those who live such a “fast-paced life” do so typically because they are “running” from something.
I’m probably reading way too much into this, but I see this mindset typified in spades in Anthony Bourdain and others of his ilk. Other sources I read said he traveled at least 250 days a year, although he tried to spend a few days with his daughter between trips. Others said he was mentally and physically exhausted – the common “reward” for being a “success” in worldly pursuits and business. He said he was a big “doubter” that did not believe in certainty regarding religion and God; I wonder how much energy he put into trying to resolve that most important issue in the universe? Did he pursue people who might have had some ideas on how he could resolve it? Was it so important an issue to him – will he have a life after this earth – that he put great effort to its resolution, including making such great efforts to get the answer directly from God, or rather tried (like many) to distract themselves with other pursuits to bury the nagging spectre? We can take comfort in knowing that our Lord says that “He who seeks, will find”, when those who pursue answers to the real meaning of life and the knowledge of God and their role with Him, do it like the one who lost the sheep or the missing coin, ignoring all other matters until they get it resolved. From this we should try to stimulate a desire for answers to those questions in those we know and meet (starting with the general mystery of “where consciousness comes from”), and encourage them to become honest and dedicated “seekers”; they should also be gently reminded that all other pursuits – including even careers, and the seduction of early success and the accolades that come with it – all always have their conclusion at the grave, regardless of accomplishment, and even the general and honest skeptic of God should recognize, and be motivated by that.
A lesson I take from this musing is that I should be supremely grateful for the lowly, unremarkable, and mundane upbringing I experienced, and in particular being exposed to the most important truth in life – that I was made for a legitimate and important purpose, that life exists beyond the grave and for eternity, the decisions I make here matter in that regard, and I have an eternal destiny to fulfill, and labors to be performed now that will carry over into the next world. To be honest, I did not really have to resist the fast-paced lifestyle, including the early experiments in sex and drugs, because in His grace God simply protected me from it, by giving me good parents, siblings and friends to hang out with apart from that scene (and maybe an inability to attract that kind of girl, anyway). The price I paid for at the time, was feeling inadequate, bored, unnoticed and not fulfilling my potential (at least as seen on TV), but what I got in return was a healthy upbringing, few regrets and life baggage, real friends and a meaningful life that grows in satisfaction, rather than less.
Another lesson I learn from this, and has been on my mind more so lately, is that even with the most successful people in worldly terms like Mr. Bourdain, or other celebrities or businessmen of lesser character, the apparent futility of all their hard work, dedication and resultant short-term success, and lack of personal satisfaction it provides, which suggests to me that the best use of my time today, and any time, is to focus on activities and pursuits that will survive into the world to come. We all need time in our decaying physical bodies and mental states for periodic diversions and recreations to rest our bodies and minds, and spur inspiration, creativity and fellowship, but they should play a supporting role, not be the main function. Those of us Christians “in the know” as to the limited data we know of the emerging “Kingdom of Heaven” would be even more foolish than the “Mr. Bourdains” of the world by not letting this knowledge, which we purport to believe by faith, to dictate how we spend the activities of our days, and our thoughts when we are still. We believe that there are some things, and some works, that will not decay or burn with this world; why are we not more about doing them? Why is our sacred, eternally-important rescue mission not more of a premium? Why not more “cups of cold water” in Christ’s name, and invitations to the Kingdom to all who will hear, and burdened in the heart? Are we not so much more blessed to be aware of the genuine lasting meaning behind such endeavors, rather than those who have no such illumination, and who rather stumble in the darkness of not just uncertainty, but rather utter ignorance of the things eternal, even though they seem to have this world on a “string”? What lasting lessons can we learn, people we can assist, and good works we can accomplish that we could carry with us into the next world?
Lastly, this latter contrast between the believer who has been privy to secret revelations since the Cross that even the exalted angels “desire to look into” as to God’s “end game” and our ultimate destiny, and the “hipster” whom the world loves today and who receives much adoration, but it being short lived and at great price, and ultimately unsatisfying to the secretly-insecure recipient, should cause us to pity such popular and “successful” figures – even presidents – and not to envy them, yet nor despise them. Christ called the rich, successful hipsters at Laodicea blind and poor, from a heavenly perspective. Those who seek good times in drink or drugs – even casually – or seek truth with God on the outside, may seem like divas and arrogant at times, but they really are pitiful and in need of our spiritual help, even if it is resisted by them. Many of the most intimidating people we meet may just be a step away from throwing in the towel on life, and unlike the world, see themselves as a dismal failure, or wondering when it is going to stop, and the world gets tired of them or asks, “What have you done for me lately?”, or have their fears recognized that they are eventually discovered as being a talentless fraud. Robin Williams, the comical genius, had those same feelings, and worked himself to death and despair to dig out of the hole he had gotten in to, both financially and relationship-wise. Who was there with a wise spiritual word for him, and patiently waited while he wrestled with it?
Learning from the pitiful example of Mr. Bourdain, one possessed of many virtues, we need to stop adoring these high-profile figures or trying to emulate them, and also not despise them for any “despicableness” (as a mask for our envy), but rather to pity, in a non-judgmental and non-demeaning way, just as our Lord would do, rightly ascertaining the real spiritual struggles they face, and a lack of a spiritual grounding we take for granted. These types of people in our circles should be subjects for our prayers and ministry of intervention, and not our adoration. And we better be thankful for our boring humble lives, with time to think, pray, fellowship on a real spiritual level with our family members and friends, and participate in our local church and greater spiritual community, as opportunities to be real “successes” in life.