Food, death, and creativity (but not all at once)

1.

Yesterday, celebrated and prolific food writer Josh Ozersky was found dead of as-yet-undetermined causes in a Chicago hotel room at age 47. Much has been said about his brashness, his strength of conviction, his divisiveness, his vivid hyperbole – all by people who are far more qualified than I am to offer a remembrance. There’s no especial need for me to traverse that territory. But what I love about Ozersky’s writing is the reckless abandon of his affection for the subject matter.

Ozersky wrote about food the way a high school girl writes about a crush in her diary – theatrically, emotionally, with soul laid bare. Indeed, one gets the sense when reading his work that Ozersky could have perhaps left some of the more sordid details out, kept some of the secrets to himself. It often requires a bit of patience from the reader, like a young man nodding when his frat brother goes the tiniest bit overboard describing his maneuvers or the curves of his lover’s body during a drunken one-night stand the next day. It’s hard for any writing to elicit this kind of response, much less a food writer. I love Jay Rayner for making me laugh with wicked impunity; I love Pete Wells for challenging my culinary assumptions. I love Ozersky because of his loud earnestness, for his ability to make me feel, for writing something worth reading a second time to revel in its substance and heft, then once more to place it in the larger context of his oeuvre.

While most of his writing was about food, it was never just – whether the topic of discussion was cooking the way to a person’s heartthe inadequacy of modern food writing, or simply the hamburger, each piece seemed to contain a nut graph of truth – a rhetorical objective only tangential to, for instance, why bacon is overrated. To read Ozersky is to approach him personally. Slowly, like a graph against an asymptote, the reader will not quite reach the axis of who Ozersky is; but I’d hazard a guess (and most of the eulogizing and memorializing seems to corroborate) that his writing was an accurate précis of the man himself.

2.

Ozersky’s death is especially poignant to me given that the very fact of his death – his death; his death – harmonizes (albeit tenuously) two things with which I’ve been rather preoccupied lately: writing (particularly my recent lack of the craft for therapeutic and creative purposes) and mortality (which I’ve also been fortunate, I suppose, to lack, at least at its end result). At this point in my life, I’m blessed with a perspective I’ve never previously been an heir to and will assuredly eventually lose. Which is not to say that that’s unusual – I’m reminded of Alice’s words to the Mock Turtle: “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” I’ve decided that I might as well chronicle my thoughts while I’ve got time and half a brain or so. No, I don’t owe anyone an explanation for why I’ve decided to put pen to paper, but there you have it.

Now that’s out of the way.

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of “babysitting” my 20-year-old brother, whose struggles with heroin are well-documented on social media (and fortunately not in newspaper headlines). He’s stayed clean long enough to start intravenous naltrexone treatments, which blocks the euphoric effects of opioids; miserably, his body reacted poorly to the first dose, and he spent most of the weekend curled up in a wiry, greasy ball of sick and sweat on his twin bed. I tried to feed him, but he wasn’t hungry; I tried to get him to drink something, but he wasn’t sure he could keep it down. He existed in his few waking moments over the hours I spent with him in his dark bedroom, his bathroom, and the hallway that joins the two on the second floor of my parents’ house. It was as desperate as I’ve ever seen him, and I’ve witnessed some horrifying withdrawals.

Yesterday, I visited my nephew in the children’s wing of the Penn State Hershey Medical Center after he had surgery to repair a cleft palate. His eyes, usually so sharp and focused, were half-open, glassily and glacially moving from one stimulus to the next. His arms, so strong and spry from all of the crawling he does, hung limply to his sides as my twin brother held him, rising only slightly to motion that he wanted to be comforted by his mommy for a little bit. His daddy walked around with him slowly, cradling his head in one hand, singing softly into his right ear:

Oh you got to
Hold on, hold on
You got to hold on
Take my hand, I’m standing right here
You got to hold on

Post-surgery was supposed to be the easy part – and while it was less difficult than the agony of waiting for a positive result, it wasn’t less painful. I fought back tears considering the poor baby’s confusion, his discomfort, and the strange and singular type of mutual love that only happens between a sick child and a concerned parent.

Whether it’s in a dirty corner of an ugly room with a subcutaneous needle sneering angrily from a vein, behind the wheel of a two-door sedan driving a bit too carelessly down the interstate during a rain, or in the midst of an afternoon nap in an easy chair before the great-grandchildren show up for ice cream, my little brother is going to die.

Whether it’s under anesthesia during a routine procedure with a surgeon who’s simply not having his best day, in a desert across the ocean riding in the back of a Humvee through unfriendly territory, or in bed after a delicious home-cooked meal and television with a wife of 63 years, my nephew is going to die.

Whether I’m hooked up to tubes in an intensive care unit surrounded by flowers and flanked by my pastor, drunkenly falling onto a glass coffee table in my apartment while getting up to pour myself another, or I’ve simply decided to dash in front of a car during a walk as the sun sets on a warm late spring evening, I’m going to die.

3.

I doubt Ozersky chose to die. Few of us do – a quick Google search turned up the statistic of 86 people per day; a far cry from the 3,287 on average who die in automobile accidents daily. Nevertheless, I sympathize with those who decide to end their lives. To paraphrase David Foster Wallace (which is, admittedly, not my brightest idea), one can judge a man for leaping out a window, but only he feels the heat of the flames behind him.

Truly, I don’t advocate taking one’s own life. I’m not sure I’d ever take my own. Sadly, though, the reality is that such mental health crises are overlooked, under-reported, and vastly misunderstood. Society en masse only seems to care when it’s Robin Williams (look, it took the wind out of my sails for several weeks) – and even then, it’s never too terribly long before a Matt Walsh comes along and vomits puerile and unscientific bile onto page with all the grace and dignity of a nude, stoned defensive tackle completing a field sobriety test.

Suicidal ideation is common among people with a variety of mental illnesses, including the one with which I suffer. It is especially prevalent during times of great personal stress, which I’ve been experiencing frequently over the past several weeks. Perhaps it’s no surprise that my mind would revert to some of its darker and less-explored recesses. I didn’t intend, when I set out to write this slight essay, to make a message piece about how to treat people with mental health issues (my brother wrote a bit about this for Relevant Magazine last year; my friend Tim discussed it as it relates to work, creativity, and output in a blog post); but its worth understanding that people who are diagnosed with these clinical conditions are generally high-functioning, pleasant, and perfectly happy.

All of this is a long-winded way of reiterating my personal relationship with the concept of mortality. I’m not as uncomfortable with it as some tend to be – funerals don’t scare or bother me; I eagerly ponder death with awe, amusement, and sometimes a comic cynicism that can be helpful in very small doses, like a vaccination. (I apologize and beg forgiveness if that comes across as pretentious or ponderous, but I can’t help myself that I’m verbalizing now what I’ve been internalizing for the past several weeks.) Sooner or later, we’re all going to consider it – maybe it’ll come after a diagnosis, a phone call in the wee hours of the morning, or when the next celebrity passes away suddenly and shockingly – but it will happen. Soon enough, it will happen.

Before the poet John Keats died of tuberculosis at age 25, he published an extraordinary amount of work within the span of four years. Much like his Romantic-era colleague Percy Bysshe Shelley, he wasn’t exactly well-received in his lifetime, but his presence looms over the poetic landscape today like the shadow of Shelley’s Ozymandias. In his piece When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be, Keats reflects on the brevity of life; how, when one reaches one’s own finality, “love and fame to nothingness do sink.”

Similarly, the Christian tradition teaches us that life is a mere vapor, as in James 4:14. In 1 Corinthians 15:55-57, Paul briefly describes what is often considered the Christus Victor atonement theory which celebrates Jesus Christ’s defeat of the powers of evil, death chiefly among them (as opposed to other models such as Penal Substitutionary Atonement which views Christ’s death and resurrection as something of a legal transaction). I don’t want to get too “inside baseball” with Christian theology, especially as watered down as I’ve just made it, but I’m approaching a point: Keats and St. James, brother of Jesus and St. Paul the Apostle deftly deal with the very thing of death – but rarely does one encounter a completely satisfying response regarding the ontological or existential question of “why.”

Save me a conversation about close-readings and textual criticism. I’m not interested. No one ever stopped someone from jumping off of a bridge by telling them the eschatological implications of death, or the beauty of life’s shortness, or even, very simply, that they shouldn’t do it.

4.

I’ve meandered and lost the plot and woven within and without of multiple narrative lapses over the last, I don’t know, 1,500 words, give or take. Some people call that “stream of consciousness,” but I think that’s often used as a crutch to justify the laziness of a poor writer who can’t self-edit, can’t stay on topic, and ultimately can’t make sense. But I did write this for a purpose.

Mere hours before Ozersky’s body was discovered in his hotel room, he was gloriously singing karaoke at 4 a.m. And his words – packed with such joie de vivre – give absolutely no indication that the man was anywhere near to being finished with writing, eating, writing about eating, eating while writing, and enjoying the absolute heck out of life. Such an inimitable, dominant, boisterous spirit is truly something to behold and admire, like the majesty and fury of a pissed-off bull running through Pamplona.

And that’s why he wrote. Because he loved doing it. Because he was fantastic at it. Because he got to do two things in concert that he desperately needed to do.

For my (scant) purposes, I believe that God wants me to enjoy life. If life is just a vapor, it’s an important one. It’s that hint of perfume on a first date that is remembered and treasured far after the memory of the dinner and the conversation fades. And there is no enjoyment to be culled from a life without the risk of creativity, the horrifying prospect that exists not only in the doing, but in the sharing of a particular output. My own personal, emotional, and theological proclivities aside, I need to fully embrace the desperation of my need to produce and communicate. The greatest desire of my heart is to love others – but how utterly ridiculous is it for an auto mechanic to fix cars for a living, then take his own to a shop when it’s time for an inspection? (Note: After my brain crafted this analogy, logic forced its hand, and I realized it’s probably totally illegal for an auto mechanic to inspect his own vehicle. The analogy isn’t perfect. The editorial staff regrets the error.)

I’ve been sitting on my hands for a good while, now. I’m eager to dive more deeply into some of the projects that have been left on the shelf as my depression, anxiety, and circumstance dictated my agency. For one thing, I’ll be writing more – for pleasure, for entertainment, for ameliorative release. I’ve also been working on a long-stagnating music project with a good friend which I dearly hope will be finished in the summer. Finally, I’ve perfected the chemistry for a product I call hice – it’s a portmanteau of “hot ice,” and it’s essentially cubes that can be placed into a warm drink to help it retain its heat in the same way that ice cubes chill a cold drink. Patent pending. Once I sell it to Elon Musk, you’ll likely never hear from me again. Just call me Dick Whitman.

Thanks for bearing with me. When I have something to say, I’ll say it here. God bless you.

One thought on “Food, death, and creativity (but not all at once)

  1. Pingback: The songs that saved your life, pt. II | Bryan Daniel Peach

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