Reigniting love and respect for David Sedaris

In my light reading world (as opposed to heavy reading like science lit), I’ve taken a short break from reading Stephen King to David Sedaris. I read Calypso in February, which is a 2018 release. New to me.

Sedaris fell off my radar probably 10 years ago. I don’t remember which book, but I didn’t find any of it funny or entertaining.

By chance, I was checking what was available now on my iPhone’s library app, Libby, and Calypso was available. “Why not?” I thought. “I used to love the guy as an early 20 year old before I moved to Chicago.

My college mentor, Brian, listened to NPR every morning. I know this, because I lived in his home for a several weeks one summer while I interned at a local weekly newspaper called the Black Mountain News. It was a paid internship and as my mentor was singly focused on his students’ successes, he declared, “I will make damn sure you take this opportunity.”

So I moved in to their guest room with a pullout sofa on the first floor. His two young girls at the time, probably 5 and 3, enjoyed having me there. I was privileged with witnessing their routines: breakfast, playtimes, dance offs to videos that Brian had cobbled together of dance scenes in movies and bedtime routines. He was the film professor, after all, and why wouldn’t he have the dance scene from Pulp Fiction playing before dinner so the girls could sweat a little and he could relax with a cool glass of sweet tea with mint that he plucked from the side of his little white house on a hill.

The bedtime routines were magical. The girls would bathe together in a tub on the second floor. That was followed by a reading from usually a somewhat atypical book for children, then a Bible lesson, questions and answers, and then I would leave, to listen to Brian sing to the girls from the bottom of the stairs.

Brian listened to NPR every morning. It was in the background, while I munched on a bowl of Cheerios. I liked it. It made me feel smarter. None of the kind of sensationalism I grew up with. It was quiet. And I got to learn the station’s schedule. On Wednesday, there was a sports commentator. I didn’t and do not care for sports, so it was a peek into a world I cared nothing about, but this particular man made me care. Because he was smart, and I wanted to be smart. Win win.

One of the days, there was always a David Sedaris segment. Sedaris, in his higher-pitched, slight southern accent, read from one of his short stories about life in North Carolina or experiences on the road or abroad. He had a larger family and his humor was intoxicating, and I would dream of being able to have that level of writing talent.

My current reading game is audiobooks that I borrow from the library. Since we have two addresses in two states, I have Chicago Public Library and Winston-Salem public libraries to choose from. It’s glorious.

Audio books were made for someone like me. I already love things like NPR, because I can multitask listening. So I listen while I exercise mostly and it makes me feel productive while I’m not staring at my computer screen removing the plugs from a living room photo or painting out a shadow that a client didn’t want on the wall.

Calypso was a fantastic book and I ended up re-listening to several chapters before returning it.

Then I downloaded Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and read it within a few days.

If I’m not mistaken, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim might have been the book that turned my stomach enough to create a David Sedaris aversion. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood. Maybe I wasn’t wanting to expose myself to his humor or think a little harder or concentrate.

But Sedaris reads his own audiobooks and hearing Sedaris read his own words is how it was meant to be. Hearing his inflections and attack of a sentence means much more than some random talent taking on the words. It takes me back to my 20s when I loved his segments on NPR. He does imitations of his characters, which are largely his family.

While reading Calypso, I was awakened to the idea that he has managed to spend his life writing vulnerably about his family members and they, in some way, have learned to be okay with it. My own experience with writing about family has erupted volcanoes of mass hysteria. I once wrote about my then six year old niece in an unflattering way, and it received a great raucous hoopla. It also exposed my family for secretly reading my blog they claimed they didn’t know existed.

I wasn’t sure which one was worse. Me writing about my niece or my family claiming they didn’t know about my personal forays into exploring my faith, my life and my views.

After re-reading Dress Your Family, I don’t think Sedaris has ever had an easy time of writing about his family. He just got really good at not apologizing for living his life’s work. He talks about how one sister, Lisa, would preface stories with, “You better not repeat this to anyone.” To which he writes:

“She’s afraid to tell me anything important, knowing I’ll only turn around and write about it. In my mind, I’m like a friendly junkman, building things from the little pieces of scrap I find here and there, but my family’s started to see things differently. Their personal lives are the so-called pieces of scrap I so casually pick up, and they’re sick of it. More and more often their stories begin with the line “You have to swear you’ll never repeat this.” I always promise, but it’s generally understood that my word means nothing.” 

Stuff like that, when read by the author, cracks me up so hard that I almost have to stop walking or running.

David Sedaris is gay, and his perspective on his sexual preferences is the stuff that makes me think. In our own ways, we all think we’re individualized snowflakes with rarely a commonality with the idiots and sheep of the world. We think we’re special and somehow superior to the rest. But when Sedaris describes certain differences of point of view, I have to stop and really listen. Sometimes we think that the liberal homosexual is definitely going to ignite flames against social issues or politics. When in reality, he doesn’t share those stereotypes with the rest of us. Because he’s a thinker. And thinkers aren’t joining the marching band or the dance troupe.

For instance, he claims he has no allegiance to the gay marriage stance. In fact, he might just be against it. What he cares about, is that he has a long-term relationship with the man he loves and that’s all that matters. He doesn’t need the moniker of fiancé or husband. I had to stop and think about that.

As a so-called atheist, whatever that means, I can’t help but think I’m alone in the world. Atheists are splintered and vary as much as any group. Christians love to passively aggressively love their position and consider it the absolute superiority while somehow disparaging the idea at the same time. Put two Christians in a room and you’ll get diametrically different opinions on theological issues (if they are smart enough to have developed them).

“Lean not on your own understanding,” they say. But the understanding of that understanding is their own? Or is it that they are leaning on God’s understanding, of which, by very definition is impossible to understand. The circular nature of the faith argument is what everyone else calls confusing, but God is not confusing so your confusion is lacking clarity in God’s ultimate plan.

But the lonely world of non-belief puts me in a class that is disliked by many and controversial to the rest. “How do you practice your belief of non-belief, Jeremy?”

“It’s easy,” I say. “I drink lots of alcohol, take mind-altering drugs, drink the blood of babies and frequent pizza shops where they serve young woman as sacrificial lambs. How do Christians do it? Oh, you drink the blood of christ and eat his flesh? Okay, so we’re not that different after all.”

I talk to myself and encourage myself to be a good person. You talk in your brain to the creator of the universe and encourage yourself to be a good person? See! We’re practically separated at birth.

I loved this one part in Dress Your Family when he talks about how he imposes himself and his opinions on his family unsolicited. In one story about his sister Lisa, he writes:

“I can’t seem to fathom that the things important to me are not important to other people as well, and so I come off sounding like a missionary, someone whose job is to convert rather than listen. … It’s not that I don’t like [Lisa] – far from it – I just worry that, without a regular job and the proper linoleum, she’ll fall through a crack and disappear to a place where we can’t find her.” 

My ears perked up in one story about meeting a Dutch person in Holland while on a book tour. Sedaris made a habit of learning about different aspects of the cultures he visited. The conversation with this dutch man named Alex turned to Christmas. My dad is Dutch. He arrived by boat with his mom, dad, two brothers and two sisters when he was 13. They were part of a program that allowed war torn poor people from Europe to come to America and mooch off our system.

Dad has frequently told us about his version of St. Nicholas. But never did he broach the topic that David Sedaris’s heard about that preceded his version. Dad’s version was one St Nick and one black man “servant” named Black Pete to help St Nick pass out treats for the good kids and coal to the baddies. Pre-1950s, however, according to David Sedaris’s source, St. Nicholas traveled with six to eight black slaves who helped him deliver gifts to good children and beat the shit out of the bad ones.

According to Alex, Sedaris says that the story changed in the 1950s due to social pressures. And now St. Nicholas, a saint from Turkey who lives in Spain and not the North Pole, is now accompanied by one black man, which in Holland is a tall white man in black face.

My dad’s memories are of St. Nicholas and Black Pete bringing an orange or some other fruit to put in his wooden shoe as a gift. He loves the idea of this dynamic duo and their mission to bring goodwill to Dutch children. But my dad grew up poor, and I imagine while he was getting shit treats, the rich Dutch were gifted with Apple Watches or iPads, even back in the 60s, because they were so advanced and everyone knows rich Dutch people can time travel.

My dad tells the story that the country currently is divided down the middle on the tradition of Black Pete and whether they should continue to have St. Nicholas ride his white horse with a black-faced slave in tow. To many, it’s an innocent tradition. It simply speaks to how black people were once at the behest of the whites and they should stay like that, if not in real life, in metaphorical story telling.

To others it is what it is: super fucking racist.

One bit from the story, David imagines parents telling their children before they go to bed the night St Nick and his six to eight black slaves are to visit over night:

Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before going to bed. The former bishop of Turkey will be coming tonight along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you into a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don’t know for sure, but we want you to be prepared. This was the reward for living in the Netherlands. As a child you get to hear this story, and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat it.” 

As a child you get to hear it, as an adult you get to repeat it. Isn’t that the real explanation for religion? If you don’t repeat what your parents told you to your own offspring, somehow you’re breaking the cycle of tradition. Somehow you’ll somehow let your ancestors down. If the story is St Nicholas and six to eight black men delivering gifts or beatings to Dutch kids or St. Yeshua sending some to heaven and the rest to hell over a thought crime, no harm no foul. It’s not bad to teach kids these things. The overall outcome is encouraging better behavior in public right?

Rebellion from verbal viruses should almost be the way kids are preserved from the sick ideas of the past. But yet, Munchausen by Proxy ain’t just a river in Egypt. If parents don’t teach kids they are sick or disabled literally, they teach them that the disobedience of the first humans has made them sick and in need of healing.

I’ll leave you with this one story that made me stop in my tracks while on a run and heave bent from the hips in laughter. Sedaris’s brother Paul was getting married in one story. He describes Paul as a super redneck hillbilly with a high-pitched voice who is often confused for a woman on the phone. Staying at their dad’s house for the weekend, Sedaris describes a scene in which Paul comes into the kitchen one morning:

“He took a sip of my father’s weak coffee and spit it back into the mug. “This shit’s like making love in a canoe.”
“Excuse me?”
“It’s fucking near water.” 


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