This is a blog about science and storytelling. It’s about science writing and communication. Science and writing.
This post is a personal reflection of writing, of striving to be a storyteller — a half-ass decent communicator. This is a sharp departure from the science focus but I believe it’s equally important to examine the writing side. We are dynamic, after all, and behind science and stories are the humans engaging in these activities. Both are about satisfying curiosity and attempting to explain the world around us.
” Life is complicated. It’s filled with nuance. It’s unsatisfying…if I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple fucking answer”
My eyes opened into the morning light that leaked out from behind the brown curtains. The open window let a cool 7:00 am breeze filter through the room. It whispered across my bare leg — exposed through the tangles of sheets, quilts and faux fur blankets that served as the bedding on this seven-year-old mattress. I blinked a bit, my eyes puffy from the tears I had found myself shedding all week.
The night before was a particularly catastrophic waterfall that lead to this residual inflammation of the soft tissue around my eyelids and cheek bones; my nasal passages and their mucosal membranes swollen and congested.
It had just been an ambiguously rough week.
Research suggests that emotional tears have a different chemical composition than your every day lubrication or reflexive tears. They have higher amounts of hormones, a neurotransmitter and cations. Vaguely, I remembered a neuroscience prof lecturing about an obscure experiment. Male volunteers viewed porn inside an MRI machine while cotton balls, soaked in the tears of sad women, were pressed to their nose.
They subsequently lost interest in the porn.
The chemical composition of a sad woman’s tears changed their neuronal responses. The areas that blaze brightly when aroused now darkened. The tears may have even dropped the testosterone levels in these men, enclosed in these lonely MRI machines that recorded their brain activity while porn danced across their retinas.
(I can’t find the appropriate reference to this particular study. Perhaps, he embellished it. Perhaps, I dreamt it. I am guilty of having some bizarre dreams.)
“Anthony Bourdain is dead”, he stated from the pillow behind me.
“What?” I gasped out in a voice coated thick from sleep. I didn’t turn to look at him. I keep my eyes fixed on the wall — a pale aquamarine I painted years earlier.
Heart attack? No, that didn’t feel quite right. It was something else.
“He killed himself”, he clarified without my asking.
“What?” I repeated, a little breathlessly “What the fuck?”
I was shocked, but I was not surprised by the news. It made sense. I saw it in his social media posts. I saw it in his episodes. I heard it in his words. It was familiar. I recognized it.
I’ve looked into someone’s eyes as they shouted senselessly about killing themselves. I’ve spent hours negotiating and attempting to talk them through it. I spent hours waiting in a busy emergency room. I spent hours listening as a rotation of medical professionals asked them to explain their plan.
A belt and a door knob.
Before that incident I would have never guessed at this thoughtful design. It was something I would have never anticipated, despite my fairly vivid imagination.
It is June 9th, 2018. Yesterday Anthony Bourdain died, the belt from a bathrobe wound tightly around his neck. Yesterday I started to write again after a severe bout of writer’s block left me struggling to form sentences of any substance.
Whether these sentences have substance now is up for debate, but they are coming easier and that is something.
“Without experimentation, a willingness to ask questions and try new things, we shall surely become static, repetitive and moribund”
I have always wanted to be a writer.
Nearly eleven years ago I sat in a dimly lit grocery store cash office, in ill-fitting khakis, counting out nickels from a cashier’s tray. On the cusp of nineteen years old with flat-ironed chestnut hair that hung down to my scapula and the same sardonic humour I have now. Perhaps it was slightly less refined. It still has room to mature — we are always a work in progress.
I made small talk with the meat manager who sat next to me in the cramped closet that housed the safe. He was a tall, quiet, intellectual — finishing his master’s degree in some esoteric interdisciplinary study that involved new media and philosophy. He was a little mysterious, smoked cigarettes and drank black coffee.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” he asked during a smirking bout of small talk.
“I want to be a writer” I said, as I leafed through wrinkled twenty-dollar bills, laying them down in neat piles to be double counted by his hands.
My answer rendered him speechless for a moment. I can’t recall what we spoke of after that.
He read some of my pieces — poorly written fiction that went no where and reflected my age. I wanted to be a writer but I had nothing to write about then. I hadn’t found the right story to tell
He thought I had talent. He said I made him nervous.
I ended up marrying him.
And then I stopped writing. I stopped seeking out stories. I went dormant — mimicking the elegant process of endospore forming bacteria.
I packaged up everything that I contained and drew inward. Staying in this liminal state for years. Resistant. Persistent. Silent.
It was only within this past year I stumbled across the stories I wanted to tell. Carve out a space where I could explore my curiosity. Tell a tale with substance.
” Maybe that’s enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom..is realizing how small I am, and unwise and how far I have yet to go”
Anthony Bourdain was a storyteller. He was a writer, a communicator, an astute illustrator of the grittiness reality had to offer.
He explored the humbleness of humanity.; examined the beauty contained within the ugliness and the seemingly mundane scenes that most people wander through absentmindedly. Existing — blissfully unaware or simply focused to far inward.
He was a food writer — a food and travel host — but it wasn’t about the food.
The food was merely a vehicle for storytelling. It was an access or reference — a vantage point for the human story he desired to tell. The unique stories of individuals that revealed the small, familiar tales everyone could identify with.
He was a master at showcasing the non-discriminatory nature of the human condition.
What was really compelling about Bourdain’s work is that he was not afraid to explore people and places. He was certainty not afraid to explore emotions and the deep ethos that makes us human.
He got his hands dirty. He immersed himself in it.
He was ravenously curious — questioning things, seeking to understand all that was around him. He deeply desired to understand people and the nuance of the things that comprise the world.
A voracious reader and consumer of music and film, Bourdain sought to understand himself and others in different contexts and settings. The human condition and human experience is subtle and dynamic. One needs a knowledge base, an understanding, or simply a platform to leap from.
Read — devour those books. Consume all you can. Attempt to satisfy your curious cravings. Explore from there. Never stop learning.
As a curious person myself — as an aspiring writer and storyteller — I understand his insatiable curiosity. I deeply identified with it. I recognized it.
The loneliness too.
A permeating sadness that crests and breaks like waves. A dull hum.
Thinking and writing are often very insulating activities. Sometimes you may get lost in observing the world and others. Most of the time it’s a deeply comforting feeling. Sometimes it can be overwhelming.
I was able to understand the voracious determination to accurately represent the tales one tells and the sheer desire— the need— to share them with others. In stories, you can actively engage with various ways of explaining the world and explaining ourselves. Ways of describing and understanding. However isolating the act of observing and writing can be, the end product must be a communal experience.
It must be shared —like a meal.
There is no honesty in storytelling without the vulnerability. You must have the narrator — the guide— asking questions, seeking truths, giving a voice to things that would otherwise have none. It leaves the narrator exposed.
Writing opens you up in ways that can be torturous. It’s a revealing and deeply personal act, that leaves you liable. You reveal small truths about yourself in your words — a deeply intimate gesture that is not always well received.
What Tony did with food writing I can only aspire to do with science writing. That ability to seek out the humanness within the subject. To tell a tale that piques the interest of others. To do it all honestly and accurately. To do it well.
Science, like food, is a very human activity — one that brings out the many facets of our nature. One that may assist in explaining it.
It quenches curiosity and satiates the mind. At the same time, it opens us up for conversation, thought, and exploration.
We can find all the parts previously unknown over a bowl of food and a beer with strangers or with friends. We can do the same over plates of media, microscopes, data and gels. We can learn about one another, we can catch glimpses of people and their origins. It opens up dialogue and discussion.
They are both ways for us to describe, discover and explain our nature and our existence. Food and science are merely vehicles for us to explore our humanity.
It isn’t about the destination, is it? You must be compelled to stop and collect the stories along the way. Observe. Write. Communicate. Share.
Thanks for inspiring us, Tony.
“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly. You leave marks behind however small. And in return life — and travel— leaves marks on you. Most of the time those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt”