The Line

by Garrett Zecker


"He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown."  - Barack Obama on Anthony Bourdain, June 8, 2018.

I knew I wasn’t right halfway through the sentence, “I haven’t known anyone directly that it happened to.” My girlfriend was silent beside me in the car. The specter of suicide and death can suck the air out of a conversation. “Well, except for Clark*. I forgot he was dead.” The specter du jour was the sudden and unexpected death of the chef and writer Anthony Bourdain.

My experience with Bourdain’s work mirrored a reality I was intimately familiar with. I slung drinks and barbecue on Boylston Street in Boston, and with every life change, I changed restaurants and moved further and further westward in the state. I plated pasta and uncorked wine, poured coffee and sliced pie, shook margaritas and shimmied chimichangas. There was an ‘I ate the worm’ club. There were t-shirts. Those years were humbling, exciting, exhausting. They were unsustainable.

When I first entered the industry, Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential had just come out. I took it out of the library. I devoured it, one of the first books that depicted my experience: chefs hopped up on coke to keep the plates flying, waiters and waitresses fucking on the bins holding food they’d serve to our customers, the horrors, the absolute horrors of rotting food behind the swinging doors, the constant opening and folding of restaurants, the dreams, the stress dreams, and the nightmares that accompanied what we all wanted to accomplish. Bourdain nailed it with his unapologetic, brutal, energetic presentation of it all. What’s more, Kitchen Confidential arose from a deal he got when he accomplished that single-random-slush-submission-to-fame New Yorker story that all writers fantasize about but few accomplish. His gritty, stained life was the life I romanticized about.

Bourdain was a virtuoso. He didn’t care what anyone thought.

I knew Clark from the gym. He was a kind, friendly man. We became acquaintances when we found out that we worked for the same school. He was a part-timer, and always sounded like he was hurting for money. We’d text each other occasionally, share writing. He showed me the photography he took with his flip phone. He’d confide in me a relationship he was having with a man who was married to a woman that never reciprocated his advances. He wouldn’t leave his wife. He confided his long legal battle with his landlord over affording his rent. Every Sunday he chopped firewood to earn money. His last six text messages were about earning enough money. He didn’t think school would ask him back to work part time in the fall.

A few months later, he was gone in a small fire he set as he was being evicted. Some friends organized a small memorial at a local restaurant to collect money for his funeral. Someone collected his remaining belongings, what wasn’t destroyed. We chatted about Clark’s thoughtful and selfless ways. Binders upon binders of his photography were recovered. He had an entire photography career in the eighties, taken not with a Motorola but on film. Beautiful pieces explored the body and nature. There were awards, magazine layouts. We were allowed to take some home to remember him by. Everything smelled of embers.

Clark was humble, but no less a virtuoso. From what I hear about Bourdain, he was just as kind, friendly, and true to those he loved.

Neither of these men’s stories are mine to tell. I only have one of their phone numbers and text messages still in my phone as if keeping them might evoke one last call or message from him. But they both brought me joy.

A chef's mise en place and prep area is called "the line," like war, like that thin knife's edge, so hard to see in in two dimensions. Sometimes, that line is so thin it’s invisible. 


*Some names have been changed for this story. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Writing After Tragedy

by Michael Hendery


It starts with simple declarations. Active shooter on campus. Gunman attacks nightclub. Explosion near finish line. These alerts course through social media and across the chyrons of news channels. Think about how your body responds. Some catch and hold our attention, usually those with the most cinematic tension. Guns. Wreckage. Americans. As more news ekes out, we are looking at once for signals of a resolution and the sobering digits of a body count. The writing aims to convey basic facts, a sense of scale, and to capture the changing textures of emotion as they surface. Reporting is valued more for its immediacy than its accuracy, providing readers with evolving portrayals of terror, allowing them to participate in a shared traumatic experience via tweets and hastily-written news articles.

The following morning, after the initial shock has waned, the writing begins to take on a new purpose, one that attempts to identify the antecedents to the massacre. Key constituents are proposed; a gunman’s last Facebook post, his ideological ties, any of the clues that might have been seized upon had we only been more cognizant. As humans we look for this structure, a causal lineage that helps us rationalize and assess. Perhaps something preventative could have been done. This fantasy of control becomes the new focus, and in doing so, we begin to move away from the profound pain, sadness, and fear evoked by the exposed fragility of human life. This is the psychological turn. We are not feeling the harrowing helplessness of inaction. We are now in pursuit of remediation. We are no longer in awe or mourning.

The rush to find answers and initiate action has become predictable in the days and weeks following mass murder, but at what cost do we accelerate into such concrete ways of thinking? After decades of terrorizing gun violence in this country, there remains no congressional consensus on assault weapons policy. Opposing viewpoints are deemed delusional one way or the other. There has been no reduction in the number of alienated individuals willing to shoot strangers. The only significant development around this issue seems to be that we are no longer surprised when it happens. We have become inured. What role do writers play in this process? What stories can we tell that might disrupt the expected narrative, and ultimate fruitlessness, of the post-tragedy time period?

While language can expose and clarify our thoughts and feelings, words too can conceal our experience. Consider how language intersects with emotion. In response to stimuli, be it breaking news or banal interactions in our daily lives, our bodies react with sensations linked to fear, anger, and other core emotions before any words enter our consciousness. Our internal language—questions such as “what is happening in my body right now?”—can be used to welcome these emotions, an invitation to deeper, unfiltered experience that, though it may test the bounds of our comfort, can also deliver us a natural working-through of competing feeling states. This takes time and focused energy, two resources that most of us feel are in short supply in the modern age. And so, our language can also be used to distance ourselves from those sensations that seem too powerful, complex, or unsettling to bear. Questions like, “why is this happening?” or “what can be done?” act to disconnect us from our sensory experience, often inciting a new feeling of restlessness and a premature call to action. As meditators over the course of millennia (and more recently, psychologists) have taught us, a protracted suffering occurs when we cling to some desired outcome rather than more thoroughly experience conditions as they are, with all of the challenging, conflicting emotions that arise as we pay careful attention.

Articles written in the wake of tragedy too often engage in questions of Why? and What can be done? This form of writing creates spurious order by weaving together loose strands of presumed cause and effect into a discernible, yet illusive, tapestry. Meanwhile, a much-needed emotional gestation is overlooked, an organic mourning process that grapples with our inevitable mortality and colors the world in discordant hues. What if our writing acted more as midwife than pathologist, aiding in the delivery of untidy creations, soiled and screaming, but ultimately more closely connected to the authentic human experience? In those now-familiar period following a massacre, perhaps we can trade our fantasies of certainty and invincibility and give voice to the inescapable vulnerability that all humans encounter in times like these.

Dr. Michael Hendery is a clinical psychologist and Associate Professor in the psychology department at Southern New Hampshire University. He is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.