Owls, Dental Implants, and a Colonoscopy… but No Diabetes
We make jokes about our lives to lighten them. Psychic pain may be too acute or daily burdens too wearying to address them straight on. Once, in a conversation with my husband, in which I was fruitlessly claiming that I should be let off the hook for every adult responsibility, I blurted: “I have diabetes, and I’m pregnant, and, and… I wear glasses!”
The laugh often arrives on the third beat, and I knew in the middle of making that statement that the pressure I was feeling needed defusing. That I wear glasses is no reason to be excused from washing dishes or sorting the bills or (eventually) giving birth, and I knew it. But I was also feeling despair, and instead of climbing down into that hole I wanted to climb out. So I exaggerated my desperation deliberately. We laughed. I felt better. I climbed out.
Humor is also a made thing, a construction, and this we do for an audience. Our listeners may be the people we share a dinner table with, or, if writers or bloggers or comedians, for people who read or listen to us. Sometimes on A Sweet Life we are utterly serious. Other times a blogger may look diabetes in the eye and say, “This is absurd.” Paradoxically, by making light of crazy behavior during a hypoglycemic episode, the writer simultaneously calls up the gravity of the event and offers us some relief. When I read a piece like troubles with an insertion site, I feel both affirmed and released.
This is what David Sedaris does. He is known as a comic writer and performer, and yet the themes of his essays – identity and self-actualization, the search for love, disappointments of the body, family dysfunction, and adult regret — are of great existential seriousness. I read his work for its humor, certainly, but also because I want to enjoy the consciousness of someone carefully studying his own life and, by extension, our lives.
When his most recent collection, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (Little, Brown: 2013), was published last spring, the title made me wonder if Sedaris, who is over 50, was newly diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes or if it was his boyfriend Hugh or father or siblings – all people who make frequent appearances in his work – with a diagnosis. Alas, no. While owls are the subject of one essay, “Understanding Understanding Owls” [sic], diabetes is not. I heard Sedaris give an explanation for the title – it’s a senseless riff on a suggestion a fan made during a book signing – and, frankly, I was disappointed that there was a missed opportunity for a comic master to make diabetes funny. Diabetes is explicitly missing from this book.
But Sedaris’s insecurities about his health and body resonate. He holds up a mirror to himself, not liking the features he sees and wondering if they affect either his attractiveness or lovability. In a 2004 essay, “Old Faithful,” he wrote disgustingly and movingly about a cyst. In this collection, about his first colonoscopy. In all of his work, minute observation paired with exaggeration is a hallmark of his style. Here is a description of an encounter with his French periodontist in “Dentists Without Borders”:
“I have nothing but good things to say about Dr. Guig, who, gumwise, has really brought me back from the abyss. Twice in the course of our decadelong relationship, he’s performed surgical interventions. Then, last year, he removed four of my lower incisors, drilled down into my jawbone, and cemented in place two posts. First, though, he sat me down and explained the procedure, using lots of big words that allowed me to feel tragic and important.”
There is truth to this passage – Sedaris fans know that he has a history of bad teeth and chronic dental problems – and in one sentence he straightforwardly describes the method of dental implants. The humor is in the conversational invention of “gumwise,” and the self-awareness of how the burden of his dental problems “allows” him to feel “tragic.” The immensity of the feeling, and the absurdity of that immensity, is expressed in one stroke.
Sedaris is aware also that his choice of subject matter is limited to himself and his field of vision. In the “Owls” essay, he sustains attention on a collection of owl paraphernalia that he and his boyfriend started accumulating when Hugh, a decorative painter, created a mural of birds on the domed ceiling of a client’s entryway. This entailed some research on birds, which included the purchase of a book from the Museum of Natural History called Understanding Owls. For a short time, Hugh became fascinated by owls, which prompted others to search for unusual owl-themed gifts, like owl cocktail napkins. The centerpiece of the essay is Sedaris’s visit to a London taxidermist for a stuffed owl, which he tells Hugh will be “the best Valentine’s Day gift ever.” The taxidermist shows him the skeleton of a Pygmy, the arm of a sailor, and the 400-year-old head of a teenage girl, all preserved, before he shows him the owl. Later, on the train home, with a stuffed owl in a box on the seat next to him, Sedaris reflects on the encounter with the taxidermist:
“What is rare is not to be misread. The taxidermist knew me for less time than it took to wipe my feet on his mat, and, with no effort whatsoever, he looked into my soul and recognized me for the person I really am: the type who’d actually love a Pygmy and could easily get over the fact that he’d been murdered for sport, thinking breezily, Well, it was a long time ago.”
It’s weird and it’s funny that Sedaris is curious about the world’s hidden oddities. Sedaris captures a more urgent human concern in this quirky story, though, and that is the human desire to be known. Later in the essay Sedaris writes, “A person doesn’t consciously choose what he focuses on. Those things choose you, and, once they do, nothing, it seems, can shake them.” While his book does not overtly argue for self-acceptance, I really like how, by craftily exposing himself and making art from that exposure, Sedaris argues for authenticity. There’s nothing sentimental about this. He writes more honestly about family – with both toughness and humor — than any writer I know.
His humor can also be a shield, defending him from claims of softness or political correctness. (He is neither.) In “Friend in the Ghetto,” he explores a claim, once made by his mother, that he needs people in his life who are different/diverse/other “so you can feel better about yourself.” He describes his middle-school attempts to befriend Delicia, a black girl who joined his school after the system was desegregated, and his parents’ attempts to thwart it:
“On the Monday after the social, I broke it to Delicia that I’d wanted to take her somewhere special but that my parents hadn’t allowed it. “I hate them,” I told her. “They’re so prejudiced you wouldn’t believe it.”
I don’t know what response I expected, but a show of disappointment would have been a good start. If this relationship was going to take off, we needed a common cause, but that, it seemed, was not going to happen. All she said was, “That’s okay.”
“Well, no, actually, it’s not okay, I told her. “Actually it stinks.” I laid my hand over hers on the desktop and then looked down at it, thinking what a great poster this would make. “Togetherness,” it might read.”
We’re all starring in our own made-for-TV movie, and Sedaris writes knowingly about his own gambits at exceeding one’s limits, especially the limits of one’s understanding, in this case the complexity of race relations. In “Loggerheads,” he dramatizes his struggles at trying to figure out how to be a boy and “feeling like someone forever trying to pass.” This is one of the strongest and most subtle essays in the collection, along with “Laugh, Kookaburra,” which is about not being able to escape one’s family or one’s self and realizing that not being able to escape is, in part, what makes a person who he is. Sedaris shows us the humor, and the pathos, in the conflict between our attempts to escape and our acceptance that we cannot.