Anthony Bourdain Showed Us Our World

In the fall of 2006, news came across my yahoo home page that Steve Irwin had died. I was in my first big backpacking trek, riding the Eurail pass, drinking and eating my way through the European capitals. In the early morning hours, I left the cramped room full of seven other snoring and butt scratching budget travelers and signed onto a shared computer in a quiet hostel in East Berlin. The keyboard had buttons with Spanish, German and English letters. After struggling to find the @ sign, I managed to log in to my first and still existent yahoo account. In those days, yahoo was king. It was like HuffPost, Buzzfeed and Google had a website baby.

The headline of that September morning was that the ‘Crocodile Hunter’ died filming on location in Australia. He died doing what he loved most, pursuing wild creatures to show viewers a glimpse of the world that is out there. A world the majority won’t and might not even want to see. A wild world, a world of crocodiles, orangutans, sharks, giant spiders, massive lizards, sluggish sloths and even those damned sting rays. I saw an episode where he jumped into a crocodile infested river in the dark with only his ubiquitous khaki outfit and a headlamp. The croc swam away! That croc probably could be heard exclaiming to its own reptilian camera crew, “Crikey, didya see that human? He came rawght afteh me!”

He was one of the heroes of my youth, among the incongruous others in the list such as Pee-Wee Herman, Mark Recchi, Chris Farley and Jack Kerouac. I loved watching animals and he seemed to put them at ease, almost telepathically informing them they were on TV and could go about their business after a quick picture. In 2005, I was working in my friends’ sandwich shop in Austin, TX, and every day after the lunch rush, Crocodile Hunter reruns came on. While sweeping up the cracked old floors and wiping off the scattered sesame seeds on the tables, I’d watch ol’ Steve take me far away from that repetitive grind to Australia’s outback, Indonesia’s forests, coral reefs, deserts or even Antarctica.

Steve Irwin revealed a world through his travels, but also with his personality. His passion was unmistakably clear. That feeling of having lost an enthusiastic soul, someone who took us out to show us what we were never going to see, came again last week with the passing of Anthony Bourdain.

He was a New Jersey punk, chef, writer, traveler and recently, an activist, all of which was on display in his globe-trotting semi-documentaries. Bourdain’s shows went way past the sparkling Greek islands and elegant restaurants of Rick Steves’ Europe. They had none of the blatant marketing of Samantha Brown’s check out this fancy hotel show. Even when strange food was presented, it wasn’t to be eaten like a dare a la Andrew Zimmern. Anthony Bourdain is a synonym for adventure and discovery. He looked comfortable in even the craziest situations. South Africans shouting at him, cooking on the Congo River with no lights, hunting in Scotland, he’s cool. Only the Tokyo robot show seemed to faze him, he looked like me at twelve watching A Clockwork Orange.

While reading all the memorials on the internet, I saw one quote that collected my feelings. It came from N.Y. Times travel writer Lucas Peterson: “And if success, respect from your colleagues, getting to eat your way around the world and generally just being the coolest person on the planet doesn’t guarantee happiness, what hope do the rest of us have?” That’s what got me. I know outwardly having it all doesn’t fix the metaphorical inner void that feels so real, but damn. It’s heartbreaking when we see people who give so much of themselves, who in the end, seem to have given so much, there was an insuperable emptiness left at the end of the day. Yet, his terminal sadness won’t be what I remember about him.

Reading Bourdain’s graphic Kitchen Confidential while working in a restaurant made me feel like a soldier among the heat of the ovens or battling the thick steam of the dish room, proud of my working sweat, earning that six pack after work. His shows were always DVR’d on my TV. I’m not sure if there was a conscious notion of wanting to travel because of his show, but it definitely made it seem possible.

He didn’t like particular things or people. I thought that was so cool even when I disagreed with him. He spoke candidly. I’m too Libra balanced to let a situation get awkward. He ate everything. I still don’t think I’d eat live octopus, chicken feet or escargot. He wrote in his voice. I write like it’s for a good grade. My natural jealousy and envy of his work was tempered by knowing how hard travel can be, especially the places he went. But, I always respected him. I respected his reporting from the forgotten corners of the globe. I respected his food knowledge, his ability to talk to anyone and his pure joy of a simple thing like a bowl of noodles.

I was in Vietnam. My crappy hostel had no A/C, so I was up at the heat of sunrise. Marching out with my backpack for a long day of who knows what, I stopped at a street stall and order Pho Bo, beef with noodles. I sat on the small plastic stool, motorbikes whizzing past my table kicking up yesterday’s dust, and I took that first bite. Memorable. So are you my man.

AB

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You Never Get a Second Chance.

Missouri football coach, Gary Pinkel, said he believes it’s “wrong” to place sole blame on Joe Paterno for the colossal clusterf#$% that has happened at PSU. He believes Joe would act differently if he could; that if he could “do it all over again” he would have acted differently and done more. Unfortunately, nobody gets that option. If you did have the chance, you wouldn’t make mistakes because you would know through hindsight what was the right decision. If Napoleon could do it over, he wouldn’t “get involved in a land war in Asia” and Bush has said repeatedly he would do things differently if he could go back. Nobody is afforded that luxury, which is what makes life so hard, you aren’t given second chances, ever.

Sci-fi movies have looked into this idea on many occasions, hardly ever with a positive outcome. Although theoretically, the idea of relativity posits time as an unending line of outcomes whereby the past, future and present exist in one eternal moment, and all your choices have already been chosen, by you, so if we can bend it by speeding rapidly between two points on that line, we could move through time. However, we are far from the light speed, or even “ludicrous” speed necessary for such travel. Until then, we are left in our limbo of present.

I believe it’s unfair to place sole blame of child abuse on Paterno. He was not the one responsible for it, but he did not stop it. Paterno ran that show; he could have had them erect ten statues of him on campus. As soon as he found out about wrongdoing to children, he should have ended it, because that is what you do when you have power to end suffering. But, anyone old enough to have moved past the powerful naiveté of the post teenage years knows that once you have power, you are more susceptible to misconduct. Look at politicians who harass, caress and sexualize the women around them. Look at priests who do the same to the alter boys around them. Look at the CEO’s of AIG or Lehman Brothers who duped their stockholders, but kept their jobs because they were in charge of hiring and firing. It takes a special kind of person to remain judicious and fair once given the keys to a kingdom.

I’m so upset by this scandal, and how a man who I used to watch (with great admiration) on Saturdays, all my life, could have had such indifference to one group of people, while having such misplaced dedication to another. He reminded me of my grandfather; he was such a goofy looking guy with his giant (hipster before hipster was fashionable) glasses, huge Italian nose and floodwater rolled khakis. Appearances can be deceiving. He lost his truth in the vacuum of fallacy that is modern college athletics. Division 1 football is a moneymaker, and once money reaches a certain priority, it is protected at all levels, at all costs. Although the good he did cannot be erased by what he failed to do, it is marred and scarred forever.

Today, I finished reading the biography of Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin, written by his wife, Terri. I was always a fond fan of his shows, his Australian patois, his ceaseless energy, his complete love of all wildlife and his dedication to conservationism. I knew how the story ended, I knew almost all the events, but it was nice to get the inside version of how it happened. Throughout the book, I learned that Steve had premonitions of not making to age 40. He was committed to making each moment count. I cried when I got to the death section, even though I knew by the title it was coming. I tried to remind myself, here was a man who lived his life, how he wanted to, with pure energy and elan, and presumably had no regrets. It got me thinking.

I used to think I wanted to live my life with no regrets, but as I am learning—that is impossible. I regret not talking to this or that girl who passed me in the street. I regret not seeing the Musee D’Orsay. I regret not spending more time with my 3 deceased grandparents when they were alive. I totally regret not seeing Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo when I passed through Brisbane in 2003. He might have been there and I might have seen him do a show in the “crocoseum,” his specially built gladiator ring to show off the big “salties.” Beside the Museum in Paris, I missed those chances. Regret is just another part of the anxiety of life, unavoidable at times. It is remorse we must avoid.

Steve Irwin won’t be remorseful for diving with those stingrays, he did it before; he also wrangled venomous snakes and fish, wrestled four-meter crocodiles, chased down emus, and climbed trees with orangutans. He did it for a living, and he knew he couldn’t last long with those odds stacked against him. He may regret leaving his young children and true love behind, but he loved them while he could. What early, untimely death isn’t filled with that stinging regret of lost time to give more love where it was needed? He died leaving his love spread as wide as the outback.

Paterno has a different culmination. He most certainly died filled with remorse. He was probably a good man, lost in that vacuum that supreme power can create. He probably let the regret of keeping Sandusky around bite into him every day until it became a cancerous mound of remorse. I know he was 85, and had lung cancer, but he died three months after the indictment of Sandusky. Could the regret have metastasized into a cancerous form of deathly remorse?

One of my favorite Beatles songs, “Within You, Without You,” written by George Harrison, has a line that seems apropos to this situation. “And to see you’re really only very small, and life flows on within you and without you. We were talking about the love that’s gone so cold and the people who gain the world and lose their soul.” Poor Joe definitely had the world of football in his hands: respect, awards, championships, and unbreakable records. He lost his caring, giving soul (the one that must have led him to coaching) in the process of reaching those dizzying heights of success.

The Dalai Lama understands people, and the human condition; he feels the flow of the universe in his veins. Steve Irwin understands animals this way. You can tell he actually believes that that cobra in his calloused hands is “gorgeous,” or that the thorny devil with her mottled brown spots and scaly exterior is truly a “pretty little bugga.” I have cried during every single “Crocodile Hunter” episode I’ve ever watched. At some point in his bush excursions, Steve would come upon a dying echidna or a kangaroo that was hit by a car, and you couldn’t help but be affected by Steve’s genuine concern for them. He would sit by them, stroking and consoling them, but realize they were too far-gone and tell the camera, “It’s too late, all we can do is stay here as long as we can and make them as comfortable as possible.” I remember one episode where there had been a huge bushfire due to drought conditions, and Steve and Terri ran around frantically collecting spiders from the burning charred desert landscape. He cared so much for the plight of wildlife, and it was contagious. Steve Irwin is a recognizable and legitimate hero. I don’t even want to think how let down I would have been to find out that Steve was arrested for allowing people at his zoo to sell crocodile skin for tacky shoes or shark fins for some overpriced soup.