Going to Parts Unknown

More than once this afternoon I’ve had to wipe tears from my eyes over the death of a rich man I’ve never met. I’ve mourned the passing of celebrities before, but never to this degree, which rivals the emotional reaction I have had to family members passing.

I am, of course, reflecting on the the death of Tony Bourdain and trying to articulate why this one hit me so hard.

I have been travelling the world vicariously with him for a long time, revisiting places I’ve been fortunate enough to see myself and getting to travel to places I haven’t been able to go, whether for lack of time or money.

I was hooked by Kitchen Confidential and sucked into the craft of No Reservations. I’ve had some of my favorite episodes of Parts Unknown on in the background today, including the Punjab, Sichuan, where he force-feeds eminent chef Eric Ripert spicy peppers and alcohol, Massachusetts, with its powerful look at the narcotics epidemic, and now Charleston just so that I can chuckle at the Chef’s Table music played over B-roll of a Waffle House meal being prepared. Each episode is different, but they are all approached with sincerity, curiosity, and humor, as well as an attention to the craft of film-making and even literary stylings that I find particularly appealing. The shows are approachable, but not stupid, smart but not arrogant—that is, unless you are a vegetarian watching anything but his shows on India.

Tony Bourdain reminded me that success is not something that is the sole purview of the young. Tony was not perfect, but neither did he pretend that he was.

But with rare exceptions, it isn’t so much what Bourdain produced that I have found so moving, but the outpouring of anecdotes and stories online from friends, professional acquaintances, and random people who happened to meet him once. The people who have said that Tony’s enthusiasm convinced them as picky eaters to go try something else; the people who related anecdotes about a passing conversation with him in line to get food at some food stall; his hatred of Henry Kissinger; stories about his unwillingness to tolerate people who don’t treat waitstaff with respect or for food waste or for Harvey Weinstein. Above all: the sheer number of people who posted about how his show about a place or people who were theirs, including Arabs, West Virginians, Louisianians (to name a very small few), did right by them. How this aging white Yankee from New York working for multi-million dollar companies came to their place and embraced their food, their traditions, and them in a way that allowed their stories to be told.

As many people pointed out on Twitter, Tony Bourdain pushed a product that encouraged Americans not to be afraid of the world and all that it contains. Without trivializing the Tony’s loss to his loved ones, the supreme tragedy as I see it is that this message of curiosity, openness and enthusiasm stood opposite the dominant political narrative in the United States, which has been hijacked by people who peddle fear and who exploit position of power for selfish ends. It isn’t that he was the only person carrying this standard, but a picture is worth a thousand words and Parts Unknown every week delivered warmth and humanity from some small pocket of the world .

We are fortunate there is such a catalog of Tony’s voice already available, but that doesn’t diminish the sadness at his passing at a time when the relentless cacophony from the other side threatens to drown out the basic decency that he stood for. That voice will be missed.

Parts Unknown, No Reservations…and The Layover

Being a person whose TV consumption is largely beholden to Netflix, I am always excited when new episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s TV shows are added and doubly so when it adds new seasons of “Parts Unknown”, his CNN show. Junkie that I am, I watched all the episodes of “The Layover,” his second Travel Channel show. The premise of “The Layover” is that Bourdain lays out the types of things he would do if he had 36 to 48 hours in a city, how he would get around, where he would stay, and what he would eat. Instead of copious B-roll, there are also brief clips of interviews with locals to get their impression of the town and where to go and what to eat. Bourdain serves as a sort of specialized travel guide.

“The Layover” is not particularly good T.V., but I did watch every episode available to me. Some of the problems stem from the appearance that Bourdain mailed in a lot of the episodes and his demeanor, usually cranky and sarcastic, but still usually gracious and good-natured, became bitter and caustic. Nor did the compressed time frame, giving it the helter-skelter appearance that travelers are all too familiar with, help the aesthetic of the show. Further, the determination to lay out options for, say, getting from the airport to a hotel based on both time and money and a variety of hotels based on cost laid the groundwork for a show to revolve around how much this layover excursion is going to cost. Add these things together and it is the perfect storm for Bourdain to invariably take the more expensive option, all the while noting it is on someone else’s dime, and breaking up his rundown of great gastronomic experiences in order to find any bar in the city that has Pappy van Winkle.

Given the format and focus of the show, I can’t blame Bourdain, either. It just doesn’t make for great TV. Despite these complaints, the bigger (semi-related) problem is that “The Layover” is unbearably repetitive, with the same formula and concerns in each episode.

If “No Reservations” or “Parts Unknown” were strictly shows about food or cooking I would not be nearly as interested in watching. I enjoy how the shows focus on food, the people who make the food, and the relationship between food and life, but, frankly, Bourdain is not great at describing what he is eating aside from his dedication to muffled declarations of appreciation. What he does do well is describe the ingredients of a dish and discussing how it is made and the crew of the show does a great job of complementing this sort of description with beautiful shots of both the food being prepared and the final product. This sort of camera and production work then bleeds over into the rest of the show. They use an enormous amount of B-roll, for the food, the people, and the places and then edit it together into a beautiful episode.

This style is not an accident, but a feature of the show. When he was on the Nerdist podcast (if I remember the interview correctly), Bourdain discussed some of the artistic decisions in making episodes and particularly how they have a tendency to model episodes on classic films and to spend their prep time reading books, including a lot of literature, about their destination. The idea was both to get a sense for the aesthetic sensibility of the place and to capture something elemental about the people and culture there. Bourdain gets to do and eat some things that most people would never have the opportunity to because of resources and connections that are not readily available to most people and some of these likely cost a great deal, but still other things shown are street food options that probably cost less than eating at McDonalds. The price of these things is not the point and to focus on the cost would diminish the whole enterprise. There are restrictions on what can be done, of course, and there is an overarching celebration of people and places that remains constant throughout, but each episode is its own thing–and rarely is there a shot of the hotel or hotel room, let alone the taxi ride between the hotel and the airport. “The Layover” felt like work–pleasant enough work, but work nonetheless. “Parts Unknown” is art.

What is Making Me Happy: Ha Ha Tonka

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming. This week: the Missouri band Ha Ha Tonka.

I am weird about music. It helps me attune myself to what I am doing and have to have something on while I write. I also like a fairly wide selection of genres and can really get into artists, but am by no means a music snob. It is not an artistic medium that I care a great deal about and my tastes frequently diverge from those of, for instance, the writers at NPR music. Partly for that reason, I usually don’t spend much time browsing for new music in the way that I do for books and recipes. On the other hand, when I usually add things to my playlists when I hear something I like in other contexts. In this case, I saw Ha Ha Tonka on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations when he visited their home region of Southern Missouri (the Ozarks episode). Within twenty four hours of seeing the episode I listened to four Ha Ha Tonka albums and looked up their tour dates for when they will be in Columbia, Missouri next so that I can see them live.

The song that has hooked me the most is “Staring at the End of Our Lives,” from Lessons (2013), but I couldn’t find a readily available link to it. Second, though, is “The Usual Suspects,” Death of a Decade (2011), the video for which is linked below and was featured on No Reservations. I like the combination of catchiness and lyricism and highly recommend all four albums.

Willard is a Funny Name

A while back I read something Anthony Bourdain wrote about his frustrations initially getting into the T.V. business because they explicitly told him to cut back the witty and insightful dialogue and exotic locations for his show and instead focus on grilled meat and anything debasing or demeaning. Or something like that, I am paraphrasing. He also gets fired up about much of what is on the food network, with rants about how Bobby Flay (who can really cook…and seeing him on the gimmicky, but ultimately impressive Iron Chef proves this) is repeatedly drawn in to go cook food that other people are good at in some sort of propped up competition or is limited to cooking on a grill, Emeril resorts to catch-phrases and silly noises, and Sandra Lee’s Semi-Home Made is an abomination to good food everywhere. Again, I paraphrase, not to mention am probably inserting some of my own ideas on his. Many of these people seem like they are perfectly nice individuals and they are in the world trying to make their way, but most of the time their shows make for awful television. Bourdain’s problem with the T.V. industry is that they base all of their decisions on ratings rather than either good food or good television. Why cheesy, gimmicky, and awkward shows continue to get good ratings is an enduring mystery. I much prefer any show that makes me think, and, as such, one of my favorite No Reservations episode is the one where he was in Beirut when the latest war between Israel and Lebanon broke out and Israel had to invade Lebanon. It was not a typical episode, but since they continued to film and then did retrospective about the conflict itself, it made for an excellent hour of television. I want my television to be smart, but, with certain, limited exceptions, I am apparently in the minority on this one.

I feel the same way about my political commentary and satire. One of my great frustrations with the recent political satire for the presidential election is that there seems to be one repeated joke: oh, boy! Willard Mitt Romney is a funny name! Failing that bit of uproarious humor, there is also the joke that he is so detached that he is actually an android or robot. Then, if nothing else is working, there is always his Mormonism, as Mormonism is an inherently funny religion, what with the taboo against drinking, their polygamy, and their magic underpants. The list of the “funny” things about Mormonism could go on, but really boils down to nothing more than pointing and laughing at a group of people who are different from the rest of us. I mean, the rest of us have as many differences amongst ourselves, too, but we’ve collectively decided that Mormons are weird. As far as I am concerned, Mormonism ranks above average on the cult-behavior scale, and is significantly more patriarchal, insular, authoritarian, and bigoted than I am comfortable with, but I’ve also outgrown my need to make light of any particular religion. Well, at least for superficial and petty reasons. I have my own concerns, but I have never been directly harmed by a Mormon, so I have more pressing concerns in the meantime.1 Most of all, those jokes are boring, but based on how often people makes those jokes, I can only assume that reminding people ad nauseam that Mitt’s real name is Willard, or that calling him “Mittens” results in a ratings bump and cheap laughs, else why do it?

So, yes, Mitt Romney has a funny name. What I don’t understand is how this is any different from someone calling Joel “Drool” in first grade (or, for that matter, Aaron Sorkin falling back on “Mohammed al Mohammed bin Bezeer” when in need of a recognizably Muslim name). Yes, people have names, names can be distorted, and some of the names are funny. That said, it is his name and I feel no more need to make fun of him for it any more than for his religion. The standards are different for public figures, but this is the same type of behavior that makes children in elementary schools cry, becomes outcasts, and, particularly if he ever asked people to stop, could constitute harassment in any other situation. I mean, yes, I laughed at a lot of the stuff that came out about George W. Bush during his presidency, but for most of those years I was a teenager. Looking back at all of it, I am rather embarrassed and, frankly, appalled at my taste. I’ve been there and I’ve moved on. Now, I am wondering what it says about our voting (or T.V. watching public) that much of the political satire has devolved to schoolyard taunts, (literal) name calling, and superficial observations. Mitt’s name is Willard. Get over it.

I am also willing to concede that there is a non-negligible chance that in some aspects of governance Mitt Romney would make an excellent president. I also believe that there is a significantly higher chance that Mitt Romney as president could make for a catastrophe nearing or reaching Bushian proportions. I think a lot of this would depend on who his advisers are and how much he bows to the his base. One of the repeated assertions about Romney is that he is smart and deliberate, so if someone is able to sit down and explain to him how his actions could destroy the country, I genuinely believe that he would listen. Moreover, I think that he would not be an unmitigated disaster in foreign policy, a realm in which even the foreign affairs Wunderkind Barack Obama (he did, after all, win the Nobel Peace Prize) has begun to regress. Despite these assertions, I also do not believe that Romney brings anything new to the table that Obama does not. Since President Obama is somewhat more liberal on social issues than Romney and has a slightly better track record on issues like taxes and debt than Romney, who, by all accounts, resorts more to tricky accounting than real solutions.

But I also don’t particularly care about Romney’s tax returns. I think he should release them for the sake of clarity, but given the few pieces of information we do have and the publicly acknowledged loopholes in the tax code that results in men and women with as much wealth as Romney has to pay significantly lower tax rates than the general public, the basic shape of the answer should be clear. At this point, the repeated demands are a form of rabble-rousing with a principled facade. Moreover, it is boring. I get it, Romney has a lot of money, but that this really constitutes news anymore. Some of the lurid details could be interesting to the general public inasmuch as we live in a voyeur society–which is how I attempt to explain reality t.v. shows and the celebrity of people who have no discernible accomplishments other than to be born rich. So, yes, the tax returns could be interesting for a variety of reasons, but when it comes to his qualifications to be president, I think that asking what he is hiding in his taxes is the wrong question. Closer, but still off the mark (at this point) are the questions about his record. I am sure that much of the Obama reelection campaign policy is to continually drive home to the voters that Romney has no principles and can be found on record professing adherence to both sides of pretty much every major issue, though The Onion maintains that Romney has a deeply principled side. Even closer is Romney’s record with Bain Capital and as Governor of Massachusetts. But these questions have all been asked and examined and so the answers have become increasingly stale and netting more and more marginal returns.2

There is one question in particular that I want someone to ask Romney: where does he stand on his father’s record and policy stances?

Now, I am by no means an expert on George Romney; in fact, I am only slightly knowledgeable above George Romney’s Wikipedia page. George Romney began his missionary work in a Glasgow slum and ended up as the president of the Scottish missionary district. Later he credited his missionary work as one of the major formative experiences for his career. Later, while chairman of the American Motor Company, Romney fought against both big labor and big business as impediments to a strong economy. He also had a good relationship with the United Auto Workers, and supported the implementation of the state Fair Employment Practices Act. As governor he supported the Civil Rights Movement, going so far as to walk with NAACP marches over housing discrimination, and designating the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Detroit March as Freedom March Day–sending a representative, but going to Church himself since it was Sunday. These actions were taken against the wishes of the Mormon Church. Perhaps even more telling, George Romney helped institute corporate and personal income taxes in Michigan and supported programs to help student afford college. He increased the size of government, but also left office with a surplus. He became the secretary of Housing and Urban development after losing the presidential election to Nixon in 1968 on account of his support for the war in Vietnam and various other gaffes (one insider said that Romney gave “the impression of an honest and decent man simply not cut out to be President of the United States.”)3, a role in which he actively campaigned for the desegregation of housing. This is an excerpted account of his life and career, mostly gleaned from Wikipedia, but he comes across as a highly capable individual who, other than the support of the Vietnam War) would make a fair president in my book.

So, I want someone to delve into his father’s legacy on taxes, on civil rights, on student loans, and many of the other issues I haven’t had time to research, and then, in some sort of insistent and comprehensive fashion, ask Romney what his stance on these issues is. For that matter, I wouldn’t mind someone asking the same questions to Barack Obama, though, clearly, he has less of an immediate connection to George Romney.

I should also note that George Romney has been covered somewhat during this particular campaign, including some discussion about how George Romney tried to stand up to the conservative wing of the Republican party and lost the election because of it. But though the point is probably a good one, it is more punditry. Nowhere in the (somewhat limited) searches I have done have I found anyone taking a hard look at George Romney’s stances on policy in both his corporate and political careers and asking Mitt Romney where he stands. The closest I have found is one piece of political punditry at the Huffington Post that examines the how Romney is running his campaign (thereby coming to conclusions rather than asking questions). But political punditry is practically useless, a small step up from athletic punditry.4

No more name calling. No more asking the same, boring questions again and again and again. I want real answers. If the next presidential debate solicits questions from the public, I encourage everyone to insist that they use some variant on this question because that might be the only opportunity to get an answer. It might get rejected. It may be that there is no useful answer to be had even if it gets asked. That should not stop us from calling for the question to be asked. If you feel the same way or feel that there is any sort of legitimation in this question, I encourage you to raise this issue with others.


1Even if I am related to this guy. Mormons are higher on my watch list than most religions, in part for the reasons listed above, and in part because of A Study in Scarlet, which led me to believe that they make marvelous villains. Let’s just say that I have my concerns about the extent to which the Mormon church exerts influence over its members, but that is no reason for me to mock them for being different from me.
2This phenomenon is not limited to politics. It seems that every media outlet picks its several top stories and every story has its own few facets. Derek Jeter, therefore, had an interesting comment on his reputation as a boring subject of an interview over All-Star Game Weekend, saying that he has this reputation because he keeps getting asked the same questions. If a reporter asked him anything new, then he would have new answers.
3It was the 1968 campaign where George Romney helped begin the trend of releasing tax information by releasing multiples years of tax returns for public scrutiny.
4I am endlessly frustrated at the number of words sports analysts use to “analyze” the Knicks’ decision not to sign Jeremy Lin, or the fact that Tiger Woods is doing his best washed up golfer impression going on four years now, or whatever the flavor of the week is.