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Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number: The Best Lesson I Learned from Anthony Bourdain

Bourdain in Cuba. Image c/o CNN “Parts Unknown”

I‘m still processing the idea that Anthony Bourdain lost his battle with mental illness (alleged). He was the envy of anyone like myself, exploring food and cultures around the world, living a delicious and seemingly amazing life. To us, it was just that: robust in experiences, rich in visuals, full of global cuisine, and surrounded by a well-to-do group of friends who loved what he did and supported him in it. Life just seemed perfect. 

His tragic ending is a subject matter for another post meriting a deeper conversation about perception vs. reality, mental illness vs. healthy facades. And while I’m still shaping some ideas and penning my thoughts, his life mattered to me in so many ways beyond the clear similarities in what he did and what I do for a living. What I still dream of achieving. 

I’ve been a fan since his debut show on the Travel Channel, No Reservations. He carved out this perfect slice of pie we all enjoyed biting every time Parks Unknown aired, later on CNN. Of all the things I loved and admired about him, one visible fact had the strongest impact on my perception of him as a professional and gave me an unsolicited joi de vivre no other TV personality had given: he was older than most dishing out daring narratives.

I think it’s fair to say what we all enjoyed most of Bourdain was a very public life which wasn’t glamorized until his mid-40s. By all American standards, mid-40s could mean the nearing of mid-life and with that comes the “crisis.” It could also mean aggressive future and retirement planning. To some it could mean the window of opportunity to have children and starting a family is closed. Some would argue that by then your career and path should be on lock without a key to turn the motion.

Mid 40s are life-changing, so they say. So much stress (family, aging parents, kids, slowed metabolism, aches and pains, etc.) they have to manage. It’s just that: approaching a midlife crisis.

Bourdain’s authentic, raw, and very transparent debunking of that American myth is what intrigued me the most as I studied the ebb and flow of his international jaunts.

By his own account, Bourdain’s life at 44 was indeed a crisis. He was broke, had incredible debt, didn’t have insurance or credit, didn’t own anything, was sleeping on couches, and who knows what else unstable variable we don’t know of.  At 44 years old. Imagine that. 

Oh, man, at the age of 44, I was standing in kitchens, not knowing what it was like to go to sleep without being in mortal terror. I was in horrible, endless, irrevocable debt,” Bourdain told Jensen. “I had no health insurance. I didn’t pay my taxes. I couldn’t pay my rent. It was a nightmare, but it’s all been different for about 15 years. If it looks like my life is comfortable, well, that’s a very new thing for me.” – Anthony Bourdain

By American standards, he was a failure at just 44.

We have placed these expectations to meet and measure at every age bridge. By 44, surely we should be married, have kids, possibly living in our second home, our careers are super well-established if not even already looking into a second one. Our finances should be curated like the MET’s exhibits. And so on.

But he defied that faulty and very limited blueprint. Call it luck or one strike of genius, life for Bourdain changed just.like.that.

At this so-called mid-life crisis, his turned into the acquisition of a brand new life full of veracity, passion, and an eagerness to explore the world’s cultures with an agility and level of energy I don’t see in a lot of College graduates. He had a child in his 50s.

To travel the world and maintain the schedule he had towards the end of his life requires a level of energy even I have a hard time processing sometimes. The jet lag, living and operating in multiple time zones, potentially poor sleeping habits, sometimes even questionable food consumption. He made it work.

By 61 years young, he had recovered from cocaine and heroine addiction; he had reinvented himself, having built a life some insist could only reach that echelon of success had one started in their early 20s.

What Bourdain taught me beyond piquing my interest in  Bangkok or Detroit, MI, is that age is really just a number.

His life, even before his stardom, reminds me still that it’s never too late to do what we’re missioned for. To chase our passions and live within our convictions.  That even our challenges, no matter the age or expectation, should not preclude us from enjoying what life offers. His was a visceral rejection of that self-imposed, unhealthy, American standard of living.

I’m personally working on unpacking those boundaries we’ve boxed ourselves into. I started cycling again three years ago with the intention of racing, something cyclists start doing in their pre-teens. And here I am, training, working hard to become a stronger cyclist. In the process, I’m enjoying the stats I’m taking from women (and even some men) whom are significantly younger than I. Because when you apply yourself, do the work, and train –physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually —  age is nothing but a number.

Truly, 40 is the new 30 and 30 is the new 20. Or maybe even, life begins when you own it.

Anthony Bourdain would have been 62 yesterday, June 25th.

*I was invited by Women Online and the AARP to write a personal story that debunks the myths about aging. All opinions, thoughts, and feelings are 100%, my own and authentic.

Eat well, love unapologetically, pray with true intention, and take care of yourself.

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