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Additional Bourdain Thoughts

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I wanted to add to Paul’s thoughts on Anthony Bourdain. The outpouring of grief is something we probably haven’t seen since the 2016 musical apocalypse when Bowie, Prince, Cohen, and Merle all died. It isn’t just because he was famous. It’s that for a lot of people, Bourdain represented the best of what Americans can be. He was the global citizen that lots and lots of people would like to see the nation emulate, albeit probably more than half the nation feels differently, as we know all too well. He was also a combination of a regular guy, a cantankerous asshole, and an incredibly curious and genuine person who wanted to learn everything about everything. That’s kind of an appealing combination, especially when it makes for such good TV. Two of the best pieces I’ve read is by Ryu Spaeth noting how remarkable it was that Bourdain chose to capitalize by fame by working incredibly hard as one of the nation’s best journalists instead of just resting on his laurels and this really great personal essay by Helen Rosner in The New Yorker, which launched Bourdain’s career in 1999 when it published his essay about the restaurant world that became his famous book.

I didn’t like everything Bourdain did. As something of a political neophyte when he started all this, he could be sucked in by conventional wisdom pretty easily, such as the period when he was repeating a lot of pablum about charter schools and Teach for America on his Twitter feed, before these scams were exposed. I didn’t overly appreciate his interest in guns either, particular in the New Mexico episode, which not only featured someone I knew but did not much like as one of the cooks but which also, at least according to New Mexican friends in the know, was an exercise in the tribes fooling the silly white man by having eat bugs, which they didn’t really eat except in starvation mode. Of course, the latter point is part of the charm. He was willing to engage people in any number of ways and even if they were seeing what the crazy guy would actually eat, he was game. His continued self-questioning was also welcome and his evolution on feminism and embrace of #MeToo, including publicly shutting down Mario Batali’s comeback attempt, were quite welcome. That he was dating Asia Argento at the end of his life no doubt was a huge part of this, but he also supported her through the extreme trauma of her going public with Harvey Weinstein raping her and the loathsome Italian press making fun of her over it.

A remarkable man and a very sad loss.

One other point that I have noticed quite a bit recently, which is a real shift in how we talk about suicide. Other than a couple of assholes on Twitter, we were largely spared of the “how dare Bourdain be so selfish!” talk that has so often framed our discussion around suicide. Depression is a hell of a terrible thing and Bourdain had more than his share of it. It finally got him. Perhaps the turning point was Robin Williams’ death, which revolved more around the hell of mental illness and less moralizing about selfishness. I’ve been watching Treme and was struck by the way that the suicide of the John Goodman character was handled, with Melissa Leo’s character incredibly angry, calling him selfish, and refusing to have a Second Line for him despite his wishes. Maybe that’s just the character, maybe it’s David Simon, or maybe it’s just how we talked about suicide as a nation a mere decade ago. But as suicide numbers sadly skyrocket nationally, there seems to be less moralizing and more seeing it as a public health issue, which is useful.

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