Friday, June 10, 2016

On the death of Anthony Bourdain

Dear You,

Saturday, June 9th, the year of our Lord two-thousand and eighteen.

So you've found it.  This essay, placed neither at the front nor the back of this collection, was purposely hidden from everyone except a few adoring subscribers -- the die-hards.  It was hidden simply because I don't want anyone beyond a few people to read it.  I've thought several times about writing something like it and tossed it, only to find the subject resurfaced its ugly head again and again; and now that I don't know what to do with it I'm leaving it here -- with you.  The late-night blog searcher.  Perhaps one of my grown children or my wife finding it after I've passed.  Anyone but the casual peruser, the rando who found me on a third-rate right-wing magazine, wanted to see what else I agreed with him about, and tossed me aside when I couldn't deliver.

Anthony Bourdain passed this week.   Whatever's been gnawing at him these past few months or maybe his whole life finally got him and he hung himself.  Left behind two ex-wives, an eleven-year-old daughter, and a few million bewildered fans who loved him for his easy-going manner, his grace in conversation, his worldly knowledge, and what appeared to be a heart of gold.  Tired eyes, but a kind soul.

Truth be told he really did look tired.  Like the kind of man who'd done a lot but seen too much.  The kind of man who takes others around the world and shows them all the interesting stuff in all the strange places -- which is what he did for a living, and why the world fell in love with him.  He didn't love the world back.  He was entertained but not smitten.  He was 61 years old.

Matt Walsh, following Bourdain's death, immediately wrote an article about our suicide epidemic:  the typical Christian conservative piece -- artless, obvious, the whole gist of it in the over-sized, lousy goddamned title -- "maybe your kids don't respect you because you don't spank them" or "what really lies at the root of our suicide epidemic."  The kind of title that appeals to the man looking not for a new perspective, but a confirmation of his current one.  Walsh's perspective is that Americans wouldn't commit suicide if we'd only adopt his Christian perspective.  He never considers that the reason we don't believe in it is because we don't believe in it.

The truth is that Walsh is boring as hell but, like most Christian conservatives on most of our issues, he has a heck of a point.  The big thing you have to consider when God leaves the picture is whether or not you'll off yourself.  Without God there is no end here but a bad one.  You can get it over quickly and on your own terms but you can't end it nicely; and what the future holds, the death of a spouse or a child, the fall of a great nation, tragedy after tragedy leading to a black, cold, sun-dying-out oceans-rising-up everything-you-know-going-down-the-drain after-today, is absolutely terrifying.

Bourdain tried romance, the standing eye-to-eye with a woman he loved and holding her hands and promising to love her until the day that he died; he tried it at least twice and it failed him.  We have no idea whether his 11 year old daughter loved him and respected him, but considering his stylish fatherly appeal we can only assume the best.  He made millions and was followed by a nameless, faceless horde of adoring followers whose love he probably suspected and at any rate couldn't feel, got near the top of the Anglo-American celebrity game, realized he couldn't go much further, and decided to stop where he was.  In his mind there was no God to welcome him, no Father to judge the bad guys he toured around the world to and met face-to-face, no love which overwhelmed all the hate he saw, no magic to reverse the course of the universe.  He turned off the world like a light switch, and has passed into God-knows-what but probably oblivion.  We miss him and he doesn't miss us.

We have no idea what effect his death will have on those who knew him.  We know Kate Spade killed herself right before him but don't know what effect it had on him.  We know his death sends a signal to those around him that life can be dark and success is fleeting and for many of us it's garbage -- even if we live far outside the dump; even if like Solomon we're living in a palace.  We know that getting to the top and reaching the bottom is often the same thing, and that the relatively pain-free struggle somewhere in the middle is the best place to be, and thank God our dreams are just beyond our reach so we can't shatter them.  We've known the top is a lonely, disappointing place ever since we read Ecclesiastes; and that the end of the book was a reminder that everything is pointless unless there's something beyond what you can see.

The idea of slitting your wrists or blowing your brains out is a comforting thought in times of distress, but this isn't something you tell your children or your wife or anyone you want to keep going -- anyone you need to keep going.  In theory, alone in your room with your problem du-jour, suicide is a great option.  In practice, like free love, it's terrible.  And it's fun to imagine that all the best people would keep going and the worst of us would kill themselves; and maybe we might encourage the worst of us to do it.  But this is rarely the way things work out.  In truth the best of us kill ourselves and the worst of us go on being the worst.  It's what makes them the worst.  The brazen acceptance of worstness.  We lose Robin Williams and Anthony Bourdain and get left with Harvey Weinstein and Judd Apatow and Lena Dunham.  The angels have hearts that are too heavy to fly.  The pigs in the mud have nowhere to fall.

So we encourage our loved ones to go on living and make a blanket policy out of it.  We say suicide itself is the enemy and create hotlines for anybody whatsoever when we really just want to keep somebody particular.  We value the lust for life because we love a few others, and wonder whether we're among the "few others" others want to keep going.  The policy has nothing to do with whether life is worth living, or whether all life is precious, or whether it's less painful to die than go on.  We argue this way because we don't have any other way to argue.  Please stay with us isn't for the criminal but for our family.  We say suicide is sad and it is -- because those who commit it are either a waste or don't know what a waste is.

I've gone through two times in my life when I was very serious about killing myself, first when I lost my first love and the second when I lost my first God.  The fact that I'd get over it both times and go on to be happy was completely unknown to me each instance, and beyond this completely unfelt.  Hope can be lost before a future is lost.  We have no idea what's around the corner and think that because we don't know it we can't have it.  Pain is so real and despair is so touchable that they can outstrip not only our memory but our imagination.  We become blind to the possibility not even of happiness, but of not being in pain.

Many of us don't make it past this point and end it all there.  But it isn't ended there.  Had I ended it the first time I would have put a hole in my parents' heart, and that hole would have never gone away.  Had I ended it the second time, my despair would have been transferred, in addition to my parents, to my wife and my child.  Suicide ends your pain by paining only the people who love you.  The question the suicide asks is not whether he pains his loved ones, but whether the pain of death is unavoidable, and which of them feels it first.

Your fellow traveler in life, dear reader, in happiness and occasional despair,

Monday, June 6, 2016

How to love yourself like a man

Dear Hannah,

Richard Baxter, a minister I consider to be the greatest of the Puritans, once wrote in The Reformed Pastor that a deathbed conversion was likely to be fake.  The reason he knew this was experience.  He would visit lots of people on their deathbeds, get a profession of faith from them, and then lots of them refused to die.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Thoughts on the Dark Ages

Dear Hannah,

The Huffington Post has gone too far by calling Jesus transgender, but the Romans called Christians cannibals and to me getting called transgender is a step forward.  The problem with Christians isn't that they cross-dress but that they cross-count.  They think one is three and three is one and if you didn't agree with them in a whole millenium they'd kill you.  They think bread is body and grape juice is blood and if you didn't assert it they'd light you on fire.  Whether this is better or worse than dressing up like a woman isn't a matter of opinion.  What the Huffington Post claims is kinder than what Christians have actually been.  No -- you don't call Jesus a she-male.  But beyond this you don't murder a good mathematician.