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Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls

May 9, 2013

Since Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, I don’t read a new book by David Sedaris in public, lest the volume and duration of my laughter leave me helpless and subject to scrutiny. So I sat down with Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls at home and read through the first couple of essays without even cracking a smile. I put my bookmark in and went to do something else, thinking maybe Sedaris had lost his touch. After a while, I came back and got to one called “Easy, Tiger,” which started to make me laugh, at this part:
“In the beginning, I was put off by the harshness of German. Someone would order a piece of cake, and it sounded as if it were an actual order, like, “Cut the cake and lie facedown in that ditch between the cobbler and the little girl.” I’m guessing this comes from having watched too many Second World War movies. Then I remembered the umpteen Fassbinder films I sat through in the ‘80s, and German began to sound conflicted instead of heartless.”

After that, I turned a page and there, in print, was my favorite essay which I’d only ever heard before on an audio collection, “Laugh, Kookaburra.” It is so beautifully written. I’m glad to have it in print, especially because now I can refer more easily to the metaphor about the four-burner stove: “’One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.’ The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful, you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful, you have to cut off two.” I like to ask people which burner they’ve turned off.

As usual, he makes me feel a little of what’s it’s like to be a person like him:
“I was in London during the inauguration and watched the ceremony on the BBC, which reminded me every three seconds that Barack Obama was black and would become American’s first black president. At first I thought this was for blind people, a little reminder in case they forgot. Then it became laughable: Barack Obama, who is black, is arriving now with his black wife and two black children, a group that will form American’s first black First Family, which is to say, the first group of blacks elected to the White House, which is white and not black like them.
It got on my nerves, but then I thought, If America elected its first gay president, I might want to hear it a few thousand times. It might take a few thousand mentions just to sink in.”

A favorite new to me in this collection is “Understanding Understanding Owls,” the title of which comes from a bit that David and Hugh evidently like to do, referencing a book they’ve owned for fifteen years:
“You know,” I’ll say. “There’s something about nocturnal birds of prey that I just don’t get. If only there was somewhere I could turn for answers.”
“I wish I could help you,” Hugh will say, adding, a second or two later, “Hold on a minute…what about…Understanding Owls?”
There follows a story about what a taxidermist showed David when he was shopping for a present for Hugh, and then the most beautiful conclusion, one that makes me think about Ron and about my friends who often notice the same kinds of things I do (yes, Ben, I mean you):
“Hugh and I don’t notice the same things either. That’s how he can be with me. Everything the taxidermist saw is invisible to him: my superficiality, my juvenile fascination with the abnormal, my willingness to accept and sometimes even celebrate evil—point this out, and he’ll say, “David? My David? Oh no. He’s not like that at all.”
It’s the loveliest little love story.

I thought of a bit from this collection last night at an awards ceremony, whispering to nearby parents who got the “best dress” award and having one of them look at me sideways like “is that a real award?” to which I responded that I give it every year, whether the kids are aware of it or not. Hugh and David evidently talk like this too: “as if our pronouncements hold actual weight and can be implemented at our discretion, like we’re kings or warlocks.”

And, for his final trick, David Sedaris nailed what I’ve been trying to explain to everyone from my remaining Facebook friends to my friend Doug, the checkout clerk at Kroger, about how if I get too busy writing down everything I’m doing or shopping for, I won’t have time to actually get out there and do it or buy it, much less bring it in the house and cook it up for supper. I’ve always compared this to Tristram Shandy, unable to get up to the moment of his birth when trying to write his memoirs, or Walker Percy, who says (in The Message in the Bottle) that you can’t actually look at the Grand Canyon if you’re photographing it to look at later. David explains it in terms of keeping a diary: “It’s not lost on me that I’m so busy recording life, I don’t have time to really live it. I’ve become like one of those people I hate, the sort who go to the museum and, instead of looking at the magnificent Brueghel, take a picture of it, reducing it from art to proof. It’s not ‘Look what Brueghel did, painted this masterpiece’ but ‘Look what I did, went to Rotterdam and stood in front of a Brueghel painting!’”

So which burner do you turn off? And how often do you shop for groceries? If you live in my town, or the next one over, you’ll see me in there often, wandering around with a nine-item list and a full cart.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2013 1:45 pm

    I rotate burners. Or, really, just turn down the gas every so often so i can think. And then, turn it back up. I shop for full-on groceries once a week. Supplementals are purchased as needed. I rarely purchase something that’s not on the list.

    • May 11, 2013 4:11 pm

      I cut off health most of the time; a lot of my friends cut off friends, in order to give me a chance to be really great.
      You sound so organized.

      • freshhell permalink
        May 13, 2013 7:29 pm

        I’m organized in terms of grocery shopping, yes. I plan the week’s meals and then buy the food.

  2. May 9, 2013 4:23 pm

    I’m so glad to hear you found some gems in this one. I’m a big fan of his work, but the last book (the fictional animal stories) didn’t work for me. I think that burner thing is fascinating. In a lot of ways, I think I turn off the health burner because I haven’t ever had to worry about it… yet. So instead of exercising I spend time with friends and family. I think I’m reaching a point in life when it’s important to incorporate the health part into my life in a bigger way. At times work has been a priority, but that usually depends on the job I’m in. It’s interesting to think about!

    • May 11, 2013 4:13 pm

      These essays are much less oblique than the animal parables. Not that I should even suggest that Sedaris is ever very subtle! In terms of artistry, maybe, but not message.

  3. May 9, 2013 6:03 pm

    I’m looking forward to this! Der Mann and I found “Laugh Kookaburra” in an old New Yorker and read it aloud. At the time we thought it was one of the best things Sedaris had done. We were expecting it to be in When You Are Engulfed in Flames and were surprised when it wasn’t. Did you find it was a bit unlike his other work? I don’t know, more structured? Reaching to a different place?

    What a coincidence. I got back from my bi-weekly grocery shopping just a few hours ago. I used to shop “once a week okay just a little longer, now we’re out of everything green even anaemic old cabbage so I’ll really go” method. A few months ago I realized that every two weeks is all the grocery shopping I can stand, so now I bite the bullet go on schedule with an exhaustive list and push an enormous cart.

    • May 11, 2013 4:17 pm

      I do find Laugh, Kookaburra unlike his other work, and I think it’s much more structured. I like the essays that, like “Six to Eight Black Men,” wind back to their introduction in a surprising way.
      The grocery shopping will probably be less frequent here in the fall, when Walker goes off to college. Feeding a 6’3″ just-seventeen-year-old boy (and friends) requires at least twice-weekly trips to the store. Sometimes I come home and hear the echo of my mom in my head “where did ____go? I thought we could have that for supper” and the echo of my brother replying “oh, I ate that after school.”

      • May 11, 2013 11:12 pm

        Ha! Der Mann used to do that until I taught him a Pavlovian aversion response to containers of leftovers big enough for two supper servings–only took about 10 years.

  4. May 9, 2013 6:55 pm

    I’ve sort of cut off the family burner by virtue of having moved several thousand miles away from them; but not really. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a “success” though so maybe David Sedaris’s friend would look at me and think that I could be so much more if I would just cut off one of my burners.

    I loved everything David said about Hugh. It was all tremendously touching. I like reading essays where people talk about people they’re crazy about. Even Maurice Sendak became totally sweet when talking about his brother.

    • May 11, 2013 4:19 pm

      As I said over at your place, I’ve read that David’s family have become less willing to talk to him lest they end up in one of his pieces, so I think it’s sweet that Hugh continues to allow it–although I notice that there’s rarely anything about him in particular; it’s usually his reaction to something David says or does. That must be what’s meant by “significant other”!

  5. May 12, 2013 5:10 pm

    I do like David Sedaris a lot, problems with family or no problems with family. Your post did spark a memory, though, of a bunch of graduate students at a snack dispenser in the faculty building. One, Jenny, had put her money in, but the carousel rotated twice and did not, therefore, dispense her desired snack. All the students stood there, pointing at it dumbly saying ‘There it goes…’ and ‘Why did it do that?’ and my colleague standing watching this said, ‘Typical arts students. That’s all we do all day, say, oh look, there’s life going past, and pointing at it from a distance.’ This is where tragedy meets comedy!

    • May 13, 2013 9:29 am

      Yes. My favorite kind of comedy is the kind that’s a little bit sad.

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