We don’t choose our influences. Before we come online as creators, we’ve just been spinning through the dark of childhood or adolescence, not understanding this impulse within ourselves to live a double life of not just experiencing things but constantly processing them into art. Then somebody comes on the scene that arranges this mass of traits we have into an identity. I must have noticed in my preteen years that often I would come away from a family event or a day at school or even a meal with a story and that impulse made me something that probably had a name. An “aspiring” something. I conceived of one day being a writer but thought of writers as these people who had everything figured out, who wrote finished products as their first drafts, people free of the agony and second-guessing and self-doubt I felt even writing little poems in my wide-ruled childhood notebooks. Writers, as far as I knew, were serene and complete. They knew who they were. And I didn’t (don’t) and therefore I was a long way off from being the only thing I could imagine myself becoming.
Then No Reservations came on the air. I was in high school when I found Anthony Bourdain on the Travel Channel and made a daily habit of doing my dreaded math and science homework while watching TV. Prior to this discovery, I was a picky eater and a fearful indoor child to the bone. I was known up to the age of probably 11 or 12 for scraping all the toppings off my pizza and refusing to leave the house if it was too windy. But I found myself magnetically drawn to this guy who was throwing himself into the unknown with a wry smile episode after episode. Bourdain was cool, he was derisive, he was fucking funny and irreverent while still being in total awe of our world and everything in it. He had a joie de vivre that wasn’t nauseating or tainted by artificial positivity, but showed us a way of loving and attacking life in the name of your demons rather than in spite of them. And I was absolutely dazzled.
But what I was struck with this morning when I thought of Bourdain wasn’t just the travel and the adventure he inspired. Which was a lot for me, his show transformed me from that kid at the pool who would sit on the edge of the diving board sobbing for fear of jumping into the water into a young woman with an insatiable taste for travel and pushing myself out of my (extremely narrow) comfort zone. No, what Bourdain did that gets forgotten in everything else we idolize him for was the creative transparency inherent to everything he did. He demystified the concept of being a writer and made it attainable. Say what you will about unscripted television but Bourdain used every episode to show us raw experience funneled into a completed piece. Some were better than others. Sometimes he was lucky enough to get beaten in a turkish bath or drunk in a Japanese robot bar and come out with a killer story. And other times the experiences were more mundane. But watching a real person get in a car, go somewhere new, experience something, and then write that beautiful voiceover at the end of the episode, absolutely blew my brain wide open. Bourdain wasn’t just showing us the world, he was showing us the creative process. The nitty-gritty, the unglamorous, the sweating it out of taking a trip or eating a meal and funneling it into a take, an anecdote, a narrative. Right before our eyes, episode after episode, he arranged raw, random life into poetry.
His perspective on the world and that feeling that he was a sensitive creative doing his best kept his work my touchstone ever since I first discovered his show. Kitchen Confidential was my talisman when I first traveled to China, spurring me to eat adventurously, consequences be damned. Parts Unknown was the warm hearth that made my post-breakup apartment a home. Forget smudging - the only way to clear demons is to binge Bourdain eating noodles for 10 hours at a time. No matter what, Bourdain felt like the guiding light leading me towards my best, most adventurous self. The one that keeps going in spite of whatever's going on. Sure, sometimes living the creative life feels like those episodes when they took him fishing on bad waters and put a store-bought fish on the end of his pole, but other times you unexpectedly happen upon the al pastor taco or home-brewed moonshine that fills you with wonder again.
Yesterday I sat in therapy in Santa Monica and cried. I’m not usually a crier in therapy. Normally my therapist has to draw me out, cut through the gallows humor and verbose ranting and find what I’m feeling way beneath being cleverly deflective. But yesterday I was crying because when you have anxiety or depression it’s so exhausting to live with your demons and not be recognized for making it through the day. Because the mark that you are working really hard and succeeding at taking care of yourself is that you “seem fine.” This is what we often say about people who take their own life as well: “oh, he seemed fine.” In reality, seeming fine is barely breaking even in a nonstop, 24-hour a day, seven-day a week arm-wrestling match with everything you hate about yourself, everything you’ve ever done wrong, everything you’ve yet to accomplish. There are no gold medals for barely coming out of this silent fight alive day after day, year after year. And when you wake up to find out that one of your idols didn’t made it out alive one day, you think “he had everything I want and it still didn’t make it better.” And you’re gutted.
We shouldn’t have to outlive our idols. I don’t want to be at the end of an essay about another dead fave. I don’t want to have taken the experience of waking up to this news and crying all the way to work and put it into this thing you’re reading now. Somehow they should arrange life so everything good is immortal or so we all die at once holding hands after eating better than we deserve. Until they figure that out, we’re still here. We’re still slogging through the shit. We’re still grieving everything we’ve lost with each successive dead celebrity. It’s ripples and it’s tidal waves. But at the same time that we have to pick up the pieces over and over, we get to. We get to live. And as fucked up and shitty as it is to keep going some times, that’s just the bitter that makes the sweet all the better. It’s the food poisoning that makes you appreciate your next perfect meal.
So here we go again into another day, week, year, armed with the same trite nonsense that at the same time is the only rallying cry that makes any sense, the one Bourdain made the center of his life’s work: let’s go have some fun and eat some food and make the best of this weird ride. But even more, keep doing your work. Keep being imperfect and dark and exactly who you are. Because someday you could end up on TV telling some little anxious girl to eat the food, to call herself a writer, to take a breath and jump off that diving board. Because who knows what amazing story waits in the water.