Category Archives: Real Talk

I’m The Rock

don't take me for granite

No, I’m not Dwayne Johnson. But through the years, there have been many people who have told me I’m their rock. It’s always well-intentioned, the metaphor meant as a compliment. One that says they consider me reliable. That my constancy in their life is important. That when all hell breaks loose in their world, there’s a comfort in knowing that I’m there no matter what, unwavering and unchanging. It’s a point of pride for me. It’s the reason months can pass between us yet when you ask me “What’s new?” I can cheerfully say “Not much”. No drama, no turmoil to speak of. Sure, it’s the boring answer. And I’m self-aware enough to know that being boring isn’t a good look, but usually it’s the truth, and I’m ok with it precisely because that’s what makes me the rock for the people I care about. But beyond just being a little dull when it comes to small talk, there are more disheartening aspects to all of this which have been on my mind lately.

When you’re the rock, you’re going to have your deepest connections with others when they are going through tough times. This means you’re going to see them when they’re hurting. You’ll want to help but often feel helpless. And if things spiral out of control, you’re going to see some ugly shit. But you can handle it, you need to handle it, because you’re the rock for them. But the other side of the coin isn’t all bright and shiny either. When things are going well, people don’t need a rock and you’re going to be more of an afterthought. Most of the time, the tradeoff is more than worth it; knowing the ones you love are in a good place trumps everything else. Or at least it should. But beware those times where you start feeling sorry for yourself when you should be feeling happy for them. Then you’re going to have an existential crisis on your hands. Maybe you aren’t the rock you thought you were. Maybe you’re not even as good of a person as you thought you were. As Bert Gordon said to Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler, “One of the best indoor sports, feeling sorry for yourself. A sport enjoyed by all”. When you’re playing that sport, all bets are off. Your judgment will be clouded and self-doubt will pervade everything that runs through your mind. But I think that’s ok, as long as you can keep it in perspective. In the casino of life, feeling sorry for yourself is like a game of Double Zero Roulette, a losing proposition in the long run, but its allure in the short term is undeniable. You can choose to play it but you have to keep your sessions short and know when to cut your losses. Don’t let it seduce you into losing control. Especially when the game is beating you up, you have to remember that this isn’t happening *to* you. It was and still is your choice to continue playing or to step away from the table. It’s also important to understand why people are drawn to this shitty game in the first place- it’s because it relieves some of the burden of responsibility. It’s so much easier on the psyche to tell yourself that you’re unlucky or that life just isn’t fair rather than owning what has happened and what is yet to come. The truth is, you’re still in control and always have been.

Some things will be out of your control though, and that’s perhaps the hardest part of all this. When you’re someone’s rock, you’re going to feel a sense of responsibility. It’s a weight which nobody ever asked or even wants you to bear, but it’s there nonetheless. Now try to imagine, what happens when you fail at this responsibility? What if you weren’t strong enough or smart enough to be there at a critical time when someone needed you most? What if you couldn’t recognize the signs that someone was in much more dire straits than you realized? What if you lost somebody because of it? You might not have had anything to do with the circumstances of their troubles, but if you were supposed to be their rock and you weren’t there when it mattered, then what are you really? It’s an existential crisis again. In a way, feeling responsible for someone else’s life is narcissistic, indicative of an inflated sense of self-importance. You shouldn’t blame yourself for what happens when others make their own choices and end up with negative outcomes, just as you can’t take credit for their successes when things work out well. Everyone ultimately expresses their own free will and the role of the rock in their lives is not as significant as you would like to believe. As much as someone may share of themselves with their rock, there are always layers that stay hidden and it’s often at those depths that their most important choices are really decided. While you may have been important to them, it was never to the degree where you were responsible for their success or their failure, their life or their death.

But not everything swirling in our heads are based on delusions of grandeur. Some of it is very real, most significantly the sense of loss. If once there was a presence in your life and now it’s gone, the vacuum it leaves behind sucks a bit of the life out of you. You can wreck yourself trying to replay events in your mind- things you should have picked up on, what you could have said or done differently. You will miss them. It will hurt. But here’s the thing- the universe is way grander than that void in our little patch of spacetime. Out of that vastness it’s an absolute certainty that something will come and fill the emptiness eventually. When that happens, the sadness emanating from the negative space will subside. That doesn’t mean you’ll ever forget the departed or ever stop wishing they were still with you. It just means time moves forward. Even if you’re a rock.

Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain killed himself yesterday. That’s as bluntly as I can state it. Just like doctors are supposed to be direct when informing someone that their loved one has just passed away, I think it’s best to just say it plainly. Acknowledge it, and then cope with the realities of it in whatever way works for you. Anthony Bourdain is gone and it is a very great loss.

Like many people, I was first exposed to Tony from watching A Cook’s Tour on television and then I went on to buy his book Kitchen Confidential (from an actual bookstore!). I loved that book, not just for the subject matter which was right up my alley, but also because of his writing style. Prior to that, my favorite food-related reads came from a monthly column by Alan Richman in GQ (an actual print publication!). What Bourdain and Richman had in common was a hilarious way of phrasing things, especially when it came to doling out sharp criticism. But Bourdain was so much more irreverent and that added an extra layer of cool. As his television career progressed, it was really his eloquence that made every episode so impactful. Whether it was clever quips during narrative voiceovers or thoughtful reflections at the end of each episode, he really had a knack for finding the perfect words for every scene. They were words that could range from the poetic to the absurd, whatever it took to punctuate a moment as either funny, poignant or profound. Over the years, there were countless times I would rewind a scene just to hear him repeat a particular line and think to myself, “wow, that was just beautiful”. And that’s what made him remarkable- he was perhaps even better at expressing positive things than he was at ripping into people like Sandra Lee or Guy Fieri (and he was very good at that). If the current state of American society is any indication, it’s so much easier to tear things down and insult people. Any insolent hack can do that. But to be able to connect, unite and inspire is a far greater challenge. Bourdain was a master at both.

This morning I pulled up an old blog entry of mine from 2006 when I was clearly already a total Bourdain fanboy. My appreciation of him even back then made me realize some things about my own writing. It’s natural to try and imitate those that you admire, and I think I’ve always wanted to find a writing voice that sounds like Bourdain’s. I am of course miles away from that. Whenever I re-read things I’ve written, the voice I hear coming off the page is often rigid and sterile, void of the color that animates Tony’s writing. Other times the voice sounds whiney, as if pleading for the reader to agree with my point whereas Tony’s style naturally carries a confidence that says “I don’t give a fuck”. But it made me wonder if perhaps every writer doesn’t carry that same self-doubt…and in light of what happened yesterday, it made me wonder what kind of voice Tony heard when he read his own words.

When I first read that Tony had committed suicide, I thought it had to be a hoax. Even after the major news outlets confirmed the story, I still didn’t quite believe it. Maybe there was foul play involved? Maybe a maniacal Trump supporter ambushed him in his hotel? Did Harvey Weinstein send a goon to take him out and frame it as a suicide? Somehow those scenarios seemed more plausible to me than him taking his own life. How could a man who loved his daughter so much do this? A man who had the best job in the world, traveling and eating. A man who was dating the beautiful Asia Argento and by all accounts seemed to be quite happily in love. Plus Tony trained Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, sometimes 7 days a week, so we know he had a fighting spirit. What could possibly make someone with all those things going for him decide to commit suicide? I suppose it could have been something chemical, but it seemed like his days of drug use were well behind him. It just doesn’t make sense.

But ultimately, I’ve decided I won’t do him the disservice of trying to come up with an explanation. It would be wrong, and I mean that in several ways. Wrong in t
hat whatever I come up with isn’t likely to be correct. Wrong in that it would be too simplistic. And ultimately, wrong in that its only real purpose is to provide
closure for myself. Taking something as serious and tragic as suicide and trying to wrap it up in a tidy little explanation just for my own peace of mind would just be narcissistic, so I won’t do that. Let’s all not do that.

Putting aside the unknowable, all that remains is what Anthony Bourdain’s life and death meant to each one of us. The number of heartwarming tributes to him across all forms of media today are overwhelming evidence of just how many lives he touched across so many walks of life. He leaves us with a well-documented legacy in his books, shows, articles, interviews and social media. The common thread running through it all is a humanistic one. Wherever he went he always sought to make real connections with real people. And despite, or maybe because of, his snarky and cynical tendencies, whenever he made those connections, you could sense he was humbled by each and every one and his appreciation ran deep. I hope he knows how much the world appreciated him in return. May he rest in peace.