War of the Words

It's a Saturday in early June and it's raining to the south of where I'm sitting. Just to the north the sky has opened up and alien invaders from a distant star have picked this day to make their global presence known, first in our small town, of all places, before they turn the Earth into an open pit carbon mine, and all of us into slave miners. I, of all people, am heading up there to meet them now, wary of their gifts of opioid blankets. I have put together my own greeting “care package” for them, which I'm pretty sure will sink their plans. It consists of McDonald's, pre-packaged mimosas, and a Netflix subscription. Of course, a lot of damage will be done before this is all over. Sheriff cars will be burned and heroes vaporized. Sleep will never again come quite as easily. But for those of us who do survive, all of our problems—some of whose are much, much greater than others—will be put into perspective.

This guy, Anthony Bourdain, died last week, and I was and am a big fan of his, to the extent of feeling—like with many fans of admired people—like I knew him, as a friend—though, of course, I didn't. And though it is none of our business, news came that his death was due to suicide. Inquiring minds want to know, I guess. There's a weird way in which knowing the cause of a person's death lets us breathe easier, in some cases, or in other cases, I guess, breathe less easily. I suppose that has to do with extending your sympathy, on one hand, and the perceived likelihood, on the other, that you will share the same fate. Depending on your empathy and health, of course. People will often perceive anyone who is a mere 20 years older than they are as having had a “good life” and it's “their time.” If someone is hit by a meteor from outer space, we're all gripped by fear, for a period of from one hour to one day (depending on what you've got going on). Almost inconceivably, there are some people who have neither known a loved one who died from suicide nor had suicidal inclinations of their own, and they sometimes call out, even publicly, the deceased as selfish. Though often this anger is misplaced grief—and even though it makes us all miserable, misplacing stuff is the very substance of civilization.

I have not read any of Anthony Bourdain's books, but maybe I will (after a period; I find that it's too sad to read stuff by people who have recently left us; I'm still having trouble with Denis Johnson). But I relate to Bourdain on some basic levels (work, food) and on others, admire him as doing, with gusto and humor, what I cannot do, and that is travel. I envy people who can walk into the unknown and eat things that might not be considered food by most of us (as a celiac, I can't eat anything without an ingredients label). Or stay somewhere without AC. Or have to shit in a hole (I can't even shit if there's someone looking at their iPhone in the stall next to me). Or partaking in the rituals of the locals, whose respectful embrace may well not be gluten-free, and wipe out 20 years of sobriety, or wreak havoc with next week's drug test. Though envy might not be the right word—I relate, and I don't relate—similar and different to my feelings about David Foster Wallace (another person I didn't know whose suicide affected me in a surprisingly intense way) who, just by writing one title (along with the billion words), I knew we were sometimes on a very similar wavelength: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.

We have 1000 words for snowflakes (or is that the Eskimos?) but the word “depression” is used to describe: bummed out about a breakup, that exam on Monday, favorite sports team deciding to suck, three hours of sustained cloud cover, a flat tire, or depression. I have read and heard spoken depictions of serious, clinical, crippling depression by people as articulate (and thorough) as David Foster Wallace, and still I don't pretend to be able to really know what it's like. I personally have had suicidal thoughts due to unpleasantries as mundane as the flu, food poisoning, and migraines (you know, that feeling that, if this was to go on like this forever, get me the pills). Or, I guess, sometimes, paradoxically, that feeling that life is so beautiful, fulfilling, and smells so good, that a fear arrises that it will end, and the only way to deal with that fear is to take matters into your own hands.

When it comes to other people's suffering, it's pretty easy to put up the blinders, and you can even justify that by saying it's necessary for survival (to some extent it is). But the hardest thing to deny is that every time you flush the toilet or get takeout food in a plastic shell, you're face to face with a global crisis. I know that many of our leaders (who know how to tie a Half Windsor Knot and have had a lot more fund-raising luncheons than I have) truly believe it's no problem, and our environment will be just fine, at least for us and our children's children—and who, honestly, can think beyond that? The space aliens don't need to use the death rays on us; if they're smart enough to get here, they probably realize they can just sit back for a few years while humans exterminate themselves and the Earth returns to a lush, self-sustaining garden. They might even build some kind of a museum commemorating the odd, hairless inhabitants that thrived here briefly, built some cool shit, but mostly didn't do much.

Randy Russell, 9 June 2018