I just finished Anthony Bourdain’s first book, Kitchen Confidential. He was a celebrity chef turned food adventurer who hosted a cable show called “No Reservations”; wrote several books, both fiction and nonfiction, as well as some TV series scripts. I haven’t ever watched his cable show but heard he was known for trying any kind of food made by anybody in any part of the world. He had an episode where he has beer and Vietnamese food with Obama in Hanoi. (Sounds pretty cool to me.) I, of course, knew of him, he was that famous. I knew he had a beautiful, much younger celebrity girlfriend (Asia Argento, one of the leaders of the #metoo movement, though has been more recently mired in scandal that may or may not have been based in reality or manufactured to deter her. Who the hell knows.) So of course, when he committed suicide, I heard about that too. Kitchen Confidential drops the skinny on behind the scene truths in the kitchen of major east coast restaurants. Whew, the writing is amazing – the book pops with energy. I feel like I can see the kitchen – the overwhelming noise, the insane pace, the jazz piano knife skills, the arduous physical labor, the smell of sweat and delicious food. I mean, this guy – what a wonderful, confident writer. What a prodigiously talented man! And his accounts bounce with a vibe of merriness, a relish, a pleasure in wondering what’s around the corner. And this is the man who killed himself. Really? Really? I guess if I dig deeper, he talks a lot about drugs, alcohol, staying up all night, the addiction of the insane pace of work. I guess there are things he hid from his public self, not that I blame him. We all have public selves, our work drag.
Alan Cumming is a Scottish actor who exudes joy and mischief like nobody’s business. I remember his portrayal of the Emcee in “Cabaret” – he was so funny and charming in this noirish dark, new fangled interpretation. I still remember his face in the song featuring pineapples – he was so good. I recently listened to him on a podcast focusing on mediation, heard he had a book out, and read it for random kicks — and I was shocked. His book Not My Father’s Son is a memoir of getting the crap beaten out of him by his dad for years. He has endured painful, humiliating treatment – in one story, his father took him to the barn and shaved his head on the same table they shave sheep. He shaved his hair as an attack, so poor Alan had a bloody scalp and an irregular hair pattern. His mother could not fix it. So not only did he have to endure the terror of an irrational monster of a father, he had to go through acute humiliating in front of his peers because of his hair. I do not know how he could bear it all and emerge this incredibly joyful performer. (Short answer: therapy.) His Cabaret performance was a career high, but his personal life was falling apart (marriage dying, bad memories pressing him to a reckoning). Luckily, he is close to his mother and brother, with whom he validates all his experiences, eg, “Do you remember…?” “Yes, absolutely, I do!” (As an aside, this is totally why I had more than one child. In case foul them up, I want them to talk smack behind my back and be there for each other.) But watching the ease and lightness with which he performs, I would have never guessed he suffered so terribly as a small child.
A friend from grad school, Jimin, recently published a nonfiction piece that is quite excellent and must have been excruciating to write. I don’t know how she managed to put it down into sentences. I don’t know her that well, but she’s always been so warm and kind. In grad school, she seemed impossibly adult, at age 29, married with one child. I was 23? Twenty-four? And utterly clueless. When I ran into her years later, she busted my chops by saying how I kept saying how she was sooooo old at age 29. She’s a terrific writer, super nice person, and a very generous reader and teacher. Her piece is an account of growing up with a father traumatized by the Korean War who took it out physically on her mom and verbally on the kids. I was really shocked reading it. The piece recounts how her mother suffered dementia and how her father continually threatened to move back to Korea, despite the fact that their children and grandchildren were all in the U.S. They thought her father had given up on the idea of moving back to Korea, but one day, he up and went with Jimin’s mom without telling anyone, sneaking past his kids. So all she had of the remainder of her mother’s life were photos her cousin took during visits, and god, I’m so sad for her. She really loved her mom. It’s painful enough to have a parent go through dementia, but then not get to be there as she is dying — it just makes me grieve for Jimin, for that missed time together. I don’t think I will ever say this stuff to her (though I think she’s open enough that I could), so I will just share it with you — private, exclusive audience of seven.
But anyway, my point is just I never would have guessed any of the above secrets shared. It makes me wonder if we ever really know each other. Or is it just that there certain kinds of suffering that is so intense, causing pain so overwhelming that the person in question can’t bear to share it until they have absolutely no choice. Maybe that’s why it feels like it comes out of nowhere. I have no idea.