Tony, Britney and Me: Life, Death and Covid 19

“All of us, when we travel, look at the places we go, the people we see, through different eyes. How we see them is influenced by the books we’ve read, the things we’ve seen, the baggage we carry.” Anthony Bourdain.

I don’t get to read much during the year, so summer break is always a welcome oasis of word osmosis. I wake up in the morning with books on my face, glasses askew. By day, I feast on more books, journals, magazines, tv shows, film, podcasts, poetry, social media and more. By night, I sleep beneath their comforting weight, my dreams wild and unbound by the silencing of the six alarms of the work year. I read about Britney, and Anthony, Dolores and 52-Hertz. I read a journal from 11 years ago chronicling the growth of my son in my body, my first born, my sweet ninja. The sunny naivety of the narrative voice therein, the miniature 4x6 inch meanness of the page and the way I had to squint to make out the lilliputian cursive script tell me the author of these words is as strange to me now as the place in which I wrote them. And changing place, necessarily changes perspective.

From the moment our eyes flicker open in the morning, to the last swirling thought before sleep descends, every moment of every day is determined by mindset. Every thought, every perception, every emotion; it’s at once an empowering and intimidating contemplation. Especially in times of crisis, this idea of such ownership, such responsibility seems repulsive. This time last year, I wrote about the personal agony of the Nanjing Monsoon season. Yes, I am Irish. No, I can’t stand the rain. This year, older, and wiser, I planned to spend the monsoon season far away from the toilet flush torrential month of wetness, temperatures on par with planet Mercury, and humid as the inside of an armpit.

As all territories outside of China and Macau remained ‘high-risk’, Nanjing expats and natives alike hit the trains, planes, and automobiles of Middle Earth to get our dose of travel endorphins. We flew to Yangshuo. We flew to Hainan. We flew back to Nanjing to empty and refill suitcases before flying up to…..

Nowhere. 9 Airport workers tested positive for CV19. All but one of my friends had passed through the airport during the high-risk period and the possibility of close contact suddenly became very real. We had worn masks all the time, hadn’t we? Washed our hands like we were Lady Macbeth? And it was only 9 workers, surely it would be a blip, a hiccup, a mere cloud in the sky of our Covid free existence since February 2020. Or it could, as it did, go the other way completely.

Halfway through the refuelling stop in Nanjing, suitcases emptied, washing machine working overtime, our health code, the green Sukangma that has allowed Middle Earth dwellers to live our best lives since March 2020, turned yellow. This was rather unfortunate for several reasons, not least because we had been back a full week at this stage, and true to my best post-beach form, I had been socialising like the clappers- BBQs, Nintendo Nights and Jam sessions were in full swing as many other traveling minstrels took a mid-summer pitstop in The Jing before heading off again. Great minds think alike. Tanned and relaxed, we partied, and social-distanced like it was 2017.

And then, like stars emerging, Sukangma’s turned yellow and testing centres popped up citywide like mushrooms. In two days, 7 million Nanjing citizens completed the first round of nucleic acid tests. Cases began to emerge, first 20, then 30, then the number was in the hundreds as citizens lined up for round two and round three of testing. Hazmat suited angels of the epidemic swabbed our oesophaguses. My littler ninja clung to my elbow. The lines, the masks, the cloying heat filled her with dread. We were All going to Catch Covid and Die.

Had it been this time one year ago, I‘m pretty certain I would have agreed with her.

It’s all relative. Perspective is key.

Take, for example, Britney. She’s been back in the press in recent times, as has Anthony Bourdain, and during my 9 days of splendid home isolation, I had to time to fall down some rabbit holes and dig into narratives.

It’s Britney, B*tch! really needs no introduction. Spears shot to fame in 1998 for her sugary voice and lollipop-licking, school-girl video “Baby One more Time.” Hailed as the Princess of Pop, this single launched Spears to stardom and was named the greatest debut single of all time in 2020 by Rolling Stone Magazine. “One of those pop manifestos that announces a new sound, a new era, a new century.”

One of the world’s best-selling music artists, with a career spanning more than 2 decades, Spears is currently living under the guardianship of her father after wigging out in the 2000’s in the wake of her second divorce and the loss of custody of her children. The media gored on stories of her addictions, stories of speed and molly and crystal-meth. An incident involving a paparazzi car and an umbrella wielding, bald-headed Britney still dominates the media coverage of the artist to this day, a coverage which in no small way contributed to her breakdown, subsequent ‘involuntary psychiatric hold’ and conservatorship led by her father, Jamie Spears. This was in 2008. Now, Spear’s reclaims the right to make her own life decisions and claims that the conservatorship is abusive. In light of recent revelations regarding her restricted rights to reproductive, legal and fiscal autonomy, no one can disagree that perhaps 13 years under the control of a megalomaniac parent may not be in her best interests.

“Isolated, medicated, financially exploited and emotionally abused,” is how Spears described her 13 year ‘conservatorship’ in a twenty-minute-long statement in open court in July, 2021. What she described would not have been out of place in a Magdalen Laundry transcript or a turn of the century suffragette plea for sovereignty. Her father declared her as suffering from dementia. He is notorious for his outbursts of “I am Britney Spears.” This was 2008. A man speaks for his female child’s mental health, despite her protestations to the contrary. In her 20-minute testimony, Spears claims her children were used as pawns to ensure her compliance. Silence is violence, in one form or another. Her conservatorship is still in place, though Jamie Spears has recently stepped down as conservator amid accusations of embezzlement and increased media attention to the case. Spears turns 40 this year. Her pleas for autonomy fall on deaf ears.

Anthony Bourdain was world renowned chef, author and documentarian who died by his own hand in June, 2018. Revered by fans of his award-winning foodie-travel documentaries, he catapulted to fame in 1999 for his book Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain’s acerbic memoir “laying out his more than a quarter-century of drugs, sex, and haute cuisine” ( blurb) paved the way for his TV career and No Reservations and Parts Unknown firmly established Bourdain as a charismatic storyteller, a friend magnet, a wanderlust.

An outspoken supporter of the #Me Too movement, “Can we use the word “rapist” now? #Weinstein”, (Anthony Bourdain on Twitter), he also spoke candidly of his polymath addictions, heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol, to name but a few of the more illicit ones. He advocated for a more humane approach to helping addicts rather than stigmatizing the addiction and punishing the sufferer. Having overcome his addiction to opioids, Bourdain traveled the world making friends, chowing down and getting trashed. On a wander around Buenos Aires in a Parts Unknown episode (Nov. 2016[1]) Bourdain details “spirals of depression” that plague him. He notes, as is common in the depressive experience, “how an insignificant thing, […] a small thing, […] a hamburger,” can draw the curtain of darkness, depression. He said, “I feel kind of like a freak, and I feel very isolated.” He said he never looks out the window and feels happy. He told us. More deaf ears.

Concepts and theories frame our thinking on certain topics. Raw facts don’t interpret themselves. Simple descriptions of an empirical reality do not create meaning. Bourdain spoke of the black hole of depression but no one took the reins of his life to protect him, to save him from himself.

Mental illness, such as depression is the number one cause of suicide, up to 90% of all victims suffer from a mental illness. The number two cause is addiction.[2] Both Spears and Bourdain have shared their experiences with mental health candidly. Addiction is also evident in their lives, to drugs, to work, to excellence. What would Bourdain have made of Britney’s 18th century crazy-woman-in-the-attic experience these last 13 years? The #FreeBritney movement was born in 2019, the year after Bourdain’s death. But if we extrapolate from his remarks on #Me Too, “In these current circumstances, one must pick a side. I stand unhesitatingly and unwaveringly with the women,” it’s not unfair to assume that Tony would have been on board with freeing Britney.

Our code stayed yellow for 9 days. Each time I checked our test results, a small pebble of fear rattled in my throat. Each negative result was a wave of relief. Each morning the still-yellow pixels of the Su kang ma made me sigh, but Typhoon Fireworks and Typhoon In Fa helpfully deluged outside, washing away any pretensions of leaving the house for any reason whatsoever. We read, we cooked, we danced to our favourite music. I thought, if this had been last year, we would have spent all summer in the rain, in the house. If this had been last summer, we might not have gotten out of it with our lives. Friends and family in Ireland sent emojis of gaping disbelief at the measures implemented by the Nanjing Municipal Government, and the speed and efficiency with which these were rolled out. 9 cases, and citywide testing, they said. Here we have 12,000 cases a day, and everything is opening again.

Multiple perspectives. Diversity. The perspective you take guides questions you ask and assumptions you make. Perspectives on life, perspectives on death, perspectives on living. On how we treat the women and men struggling under the weight of life, how this treatment is influenced by so much more than the problems of each individual. Understanding that the care, compassion and control for those struggling under the weigh of life is conditioned by assumptions is key. In some cases, it is the difference between life, and death.

One part of me, quite a considerable part, has its hands on its temples. “What about travel this Christmas?” it askes whilst dreams pop like soap bubbles to sad violin music in the background. Soft lockdown is ongoing. The pandemic sees us Nanjingers masked up, handwashing and wary. We cannot leave the city. But at least we are freer than Britney. We cannot begin to think of the long-term implications of this new outbreak. But we are not alone in our dread. We cannot envision a future when CV19 is ‘over’, done with, gone. But we still have a future to embrace. Our mindset is our own to hack.

All these things I have lived and read this summer. Yes, CV19 is back. And yet, I’m strangely grateful. Grateful for having travelled early, grateful for the support of found family here in the eye of the storm, grateful for the epidemic crisis management on a micro and macro level across the city during this second wave. Most of all, I’m grateful for the perspectives gained by living another year, reading everything not nailed down this summer, and for the baggage I carry.

“All of us, when we travel, look at the places we go, the people we see, through different eyes. How we see them is influenced by the books we’ve read, the things we’ve seen, the baggage we carry.” Anthony Bourdain.

[1] [2]

First published in The Nanjinger, Aug, 2021

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