Monday, February 24, 2020

Calypso by David Sedaris

Source of book: Borrowed from the Library

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. Although I was at least aware of David Sedaris, I had never read anything of his, and likely would not have picked up one of his books on my own. We had a great discussion about this book, I must say, as Sedaris writes thoughtfully on the complexities of family, mental illness, and life.

Sedaris’ books are officially classified as non-fiction - and they are largely autobiographical in nature. However, he does take some artistic and comedic license with things - he is a comedian and entertainer, not a historian. That said, as we lawyers are all too aware, memories are tricky things, and two participants in a conversation will often remember them differently. Since many of the stories involve conversations within the family, it would not surprise me at all if Sedaris’ accounts are roughly as “factual” as the average memory. 

The Sedaris family sounds rather...interesting. David was one of six siblings in a close(ish) Greek-American family. He and his siblings and his father still get together regularly, and stay in the same house for a week or two at a time. Honestly, there is no way in hell that happens ever again in my own family. (It’s a long story, but there are definitely broken relationships there.) The Sedarises are quirky, to say the least. Very quirky. And David is probably the craziest. (At least, since his humor is self-deprecating, he portrays himself as the craziest. And he may be right.) 

Calypso is in many ways, David’s attempt to deal with his sister Tiffany’s suicide. And also with his aging and increasingly non-functional father. These themes run through the book, and keep coming up as Sedaris tells his stories. The book shows a bit of a darker side to the family. His mother became increasingly alcoholic after the kids moved out, and her ability to hold the family together failed. When she died of cancer in her 60s, Sedaris’ dad descended deeper into his hoarding tendencies. But, the family still continued to get together as best they could. 

The book opens with a description of some of the trips the family took to the Outer Banks, followed by David’s decision to purchase an island home. All of these homes have cutesy names, so Sedaris and his siblings decide their house needs one too. The name they settle on, “Sea Section,” is, believe it or not, the least inappropriate of the options they consider. Dad is mortified. 

Although there are themes running through the stories, they are not truly connected in plot. They were mostly published elsewhere first - Sedaris writes regularly for The New Yorker and occasionally for other magazines and websites. The locations vary from rural England, where Sedaris lives with his partner, Hugh, to Japan, to various places in the United States where David puts on his show and sells his books. 

The England episodes are pretty funny. David is a bit OCD, and ends up a slave to his FitBit. This in turn leads to increasingly long walks where he picks up garbage. (And comments on how commonly he finds KFC and condoms…) Eventually, he has a garbage truck named after him. That’s not fiction or artistic license, by the way. That’s completely true. 

Also hilarious is the time he and his siblings shop at this ludicrously expensive and completely impractical clothing store in Tokyo. Among other things, David ends up buying a smock and culottes. 

Sedaris with one of his several (!) pairs of culottes.

The stories are often amusing, but also bittersweet. David and his siblings are still processing the suicide of a mentally ill sibling, and the descent of their father into right-wing nuttiness. (They forbid all radio and TV at the beach house, and dad nearly drives them crazy looking for his Fox News and Talk Radio fix.) 

There were some specific passages which stood out. One involved politics. David was born in New York, but when he was kid, the family moved to North Carolina, which was, shall we say, a rather different culture. (Because of the age differences of the kids, David doesn’t speak with a southern accent, but his younger siblings very much do.) Apparently, the Sedaris parents were out at a restaurant or bar when the news came that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. And the other patrons stood and clapped. The Sedaris parents were left wondering where they had moved to… It is thus ironic that David’s dad would later go down the racist rabbit hole of Tucker Carlson and Rush Limbaugh.   

I also liked Sedaris’ description of his experience being a short man. (He’s 5’5”, apparently, a bit shorter than I am.) 

I know that straight me sometimes have it hard when it comes to finding a girlfriend, but I thought that for people like myself - “pocket gays,” we’re sometimes called - it was no hindrance. In retrospect, I guess I wasn’t paying much attention. The Washington Post has a regular feature in which they send two people out on a date and then check in to see how it went. Recently the couple was gay. Both stood more than six feet and listed in their “Deal-Breakers” box “short men.” They did not, I noticed, exclude white supremacists or machine gun owners.

Yeah, that is a bit disturbing. I would certainly consider white supremacy to be a deal breaker were I on the dating market. 

Rather amusing was the section on crazy diets. 

As I grow older, I find that the people I know become crazy in one of two ways. The first is animal crazy - more specifically, dog crazy. They’re the ones who, when asked if they have children, are likely to answer, “A black Lab and a sheltie-beagle mix named Tuckahoe.” Then they add - they always add - “They were rescues!”
The second way people go crazy is with their diet. My brother, Paul, for instance, has all but given up solid food, and at age forty-six eats much the way he did when he was nine months old. 

I think Sedaris nails it with that one. Obviously, I know people who make dietary changes due to illness or other legitimate medical reasons. But there is definitely a kind of “mid-life crisis” that involves an obsession with diet - an increasingly restrictive diet. 

Sedaris also scores a nice one with this description of Bible Belt passive-aggressiveness. 

Increasingly at Southern airports, instead of a “good-bye” or “thank-you,” cashiers are apt to say, “Have a blessed day.” This can make you feel like you’ve been sprayed against your will with God cologne. “Get it off me!” I always want to scream. “Quick, before I start wearing ties with short-sleeved shirts!”

I know, not everyone who says “have a blessed day” is intending to give a little religious middle finger to others. But that is the meaning of the saying, and why it originated. And the Southern Baptist deacon look is...accurate. 

Sedaris also hits on a pet peeve of mine, particularly when travelling through the [ahem] white and rural areas of our country. 

More often than not, your breakfast room will have a TV in it, tuned to a twenty-four-hour cable-news network. Sometimes, you see two TVs or more. At a place I stayed at in Kentucky one year, there were eight. After I ordered, the waitress went around with her remote and activated each one, making me think of a lamplighter, if lamps were instruments of torture rather than things that make it easier for you to see how old and tired-looking you’ve gotten. “People like it,” she said when I asked her if it was really necessary at six o’clock in the morning. 
You hear this a lot in America, especially when you’re complaining about televisions, or loud music, or, more common still, television and loud music together in the same room. “People like it.”
“Yes,” I always want to say, “but they’re the wrong people.” 

Preach it, David! While you are at it, how about mentioning the people who cannot seem to hike or sit on the beach or chill around the campfire without blaring some loud music. 

Quite fascinating was the chapter on how David came out as gay. Here are some excerpts. 

When my mother called me a queer, my face turned scarlet and I exploded. “Me? What are you talking about? Why would you even say a thing like that?”
Then I ran down to my room, which was spotless, everything just so, the Gustav Klimt posters on the walls, the cornflower-blue vase I’d bought with the money I earned babysitting. The veil had been lifted, and now I saw this for what it was: the lair of a blatant homosexual.
That would have been as good a time as any to say, “Yes, you’re right. Get me some help.” But I was still hoping that it might be a phase, that I’d wake up the next day and be normal. In the best of times, it seemed like such a short leap. I did fantasize about having a girlfriend - never the sex part, but the rest of it I had down. I knew what she’d look like and how she’d hold her long hair back from the flame when bending over a lit candle. I imagined us getting married the summer after I graduated from college, and then I imagined her drowning off the coast of North Carolina during one of my family’s vacations. Everyone needed to be there so they could see just how devastated I was. I could actually make myself cry picturing it: How I’d carry her out of the water, how my feet would sink into the sand owing to the extra weight. I’d try mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and keep trying until someone, my father most often, would pull me back, saying, “It’s too late, son. Can’t you see she’s gone?”
It seemed I wanted to marry just so I could be a widower. So profound would be my grief that I’d never look at another woman again. 

Not only is this hilarious, but it is a pretty good explanation for why telling gay folks to just suck it up and have a heterosexual marriage is not merely ludicrous, but profoundly damaging. I mean, David Sedaris seems pretty harmless, but I can’t imagine knowing your spouse fantasized about your death so he could eliminate the pressure to be heterosexual. Later, David puts his finger on a key dynamic. I think a lot of people, particularly of my parents’ generation and older, just wish they didn’t have to deal with the fact that LGBTQ people exist in our world. 

“I just don’t see why you have to rub everyone’s noses in it,” certain people would complain when I told them. Not that I wore it on T-shirts or anything. Rather, I’d just say “boyfriend” the way they said “wife” or “girlfriend” or “better half.” I insisted that it was no different, and in time, at least in the circles I ran in, it became no different. 

Times are definitely changing, though. My kids talk about same sex relationships, transgender people, non-binary people, and so on, with a natural ease that I have never known. It turns out that the “confusion” that we were warned would come about if our children saw gay or transgender people was really this: the kids would have no confusion at all, but the old folks would continue to lose their shit. And us Gen Xers kind of experience the whiplash of going between our parents’ and kids’ generations and having to code switch. A lot. 

There is another interesting episode in England that I want to mention. Sedaris befriends this fox, kind of going against a lot of his neighbors who consider them pests. He describes this interview on the subject thus:

“I know how much people love to save wildlife, but how would you feel if a fox killed your chickens or turkey?” someone named Pat Stokes asked. 
To this a man responded, “My chickens are cunts.”
I don’t know if this made him pro-fox or if he was just stating the facts. 

I definitely am on the “just stating the facts” side. Chickens are assholes. All of them. Every last one. They are horrid to each other, and as soon as the alpha gets made into soup, the next biggest chicken terrorizes the rest. I don’t like killing, and I could see feeling bad about eating other delicious animals. But I have never ONCE felt guilty for eating a chicken. Nasty, cruel, mean buggers, the whole lot. 

Speaking of assholes, I really felt with Sedaris the disorientation of the election of Trump, and the way that so many of my friends and family supported him - and his most evil, toxic policies. This exchange kind of sums it up: 

I join my family on Emerald Isle for Thanksgiving and have a great screaming fight with my Republican father, who yells at one point, “Donald Trump is not an asshole!” I find this funny, but at the same time surprising. Regardless of whether you voted for him, I thought the president-elect’s identity as a despicable human being was something we could all agree on. I mean, he pretty much ran on it. 

Exactly. I have heard this whole “Trump isn’t racist” bullshit from so many. But, he pretty much ran on it! That was always the whole point. That was his platform, those are his policies, and that’s who he is. And yes, if you support his racist policies, you are a racist. Own it. Just don’t try to claim that it is compatible with following Christ, because it isn’t. 

One of our book club members saw David Sedaris live a few years back, and she said he was hilarious. And also came hours before the show to talk and sign books - and stayed literally for hours afterward. If he comes this way again, I might have to go to a show. 

One final thought. One of the themes of our discussion of this book is how Sedaris walks a fine comedic line. On the one hand, he isn’t particularly politically correct (whatever that means these days), and he reveals some pretty personal stuff about his family. But, as one member pointed out, Sedaris is never mean. He isn’t cruel. He isn’t laughing at people or humiliating them. He does point out foibles - but he doesn’t make it personal. He does not wish to embarrass people, but humanize them. And a lot of his humor is self-deprecating. He is one of those comedians who doesn’t make you feel dirty for laughing along - or afterward. 


Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 

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