Monday, January 27, 2014

Put It Down: Words That Bring Me To A Tear (Thank you, Mr. Sedaris!)

I can't believe how much David Sedaris and I have in common. Sometimes reading his words is almost like eavesdropping on my own thoughts. If he keeps expressing myself, Oscar Wilde and Ayn Rand might have some competition at the top of the list of my favorite writers, living or dead. Sedaris is already, in my humble opinion, the best of those still among us. I think my high estimation of him has a lot to do with how same but different we are.

I previously attempted to sum up our differences and parallels in one sentence of my book proposal.

The personal recollections recounted within are often as incisive and wry as the musings of David Sedaris, someone who also has documented his experiences as a stranger in a strange land (France, in When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Little, Brown and Company, 2008 -- and abroad, in other best-selling narrative-essay collections), though from a different demographic angle (white, Greek-American).

Our similarities, however, go beyond the superficial lifestyle ones: being gay writers gallivanting around the planet. They run so much deeper than frequent flier miles. He and I share the same concerns about being driven by an overwhelming need to document everything, and the same disdain for clueless tourists wielding cameras around timeless works of art. I like to think he's as much of a loner as I am, which somehow makes me feel less alone when I'm reading his words.

Here's what he had to say in "Day In, Day Out," one of my favorite chapters in Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, his most recent collection of essays (and that's only partly because "Day-In Day-Out" was the title of one of my favorite David Bowie singles of the '80s).

But if you added every detail of everything that struck you as curious or spectacular, you'd have no time for anything else. As it is, I seem to be pushing it. Hugh and I will go on a trip, and while he's out, walking the streets of Manila or Reykjavik or wherever we happen to be, I'm back at the hotel, writing about an argument we'd overheard in the breakfast room. 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.

I made a similar point about tourists in Europe five months ago while I was in Florence.

I quickly grew tired of tourists spoiling my view of masterful works of art (like that glorious Fountain of Neptune) because they just had to pose for photos in front of it.

"Why?" I kept asking myself. Not only was I pretty sure that to most onlookers, it's probably just a naked man or something they've been told is important by travel guides, but why is art only of interest if it's interactive? Would these people go to the Louvre and pose with the Mona Lisa? If they could somehow work their way into the Sistine Chapel ceiling scene, for them, it probably would be the greatest holiday coup.

Watching them descend upon monuments to mythological, historic and Biblical figures, appreciating them only long enough to get another photo of themselves to show their friends on Facebook, cheapened what could have been so many magic moments for me. It was like sitting next to a loudmouth at a concert who insists on singing the wrong lyrics to every song.

Here's why, in the words of Sedaris, I prefer to write in the morning:

Were I to leave the hotel without writing in my diary, though, I'd feel too antsy and incomplete to enjoy myself. Even if what I'm recording is of no consequence, I've got to put it down on paper.

For me, it's not so much about documenting what I observe but rather keeping track of what I'm thinking, which often stems from something I've observed. The details of what I've seen and heard, or even what I've done, matter less than the details of my mental reaction to them. I think that's why I've always been so frustrated with people whose idea of conversation is recounting their day-to-day experiences and even more so with people who demand that I recount mine. I've always been more interested in what people are thinking, not what they're doing.

I'm not so sure Sedaris, a chit-chat voyeur if I ever read one, would agree with me there. While discussing his 35-year-and-counting diary habit in "Day In, Day Out," he spent as much time reliving his own experiences as he did conversations he'd overheard, things other people had done, making their experiences his own experiences, too. It's a little like calling yourself an artist because you write about art. You're an artist because you are creating something yourself, but your creativity is completely dependent on what other people do.

If I were to focus on actions before thoughts, I'd be more interested in what's going on at my own table, but every writer is wired differently. In the end, it's not so much what inspires us as it is what it inspires us to say. While reading the works of Sedaris, I generally find the conversations he listens to far less memorable than his reactions to them.

Near the end of the chapter, he recalled a trip to a petting zoo during which a boy of around 5 years old marveled at one animal in particular.

"Have you ever seen guinea pigs so big," the boy asked. "I mean, Jesus!"

The woman offered Tyler and me an embarrassed look. "You shouldn't use the Lord's name like that, Jerry. Some people might find it offensive."

"Christ Almighty," the kid continued. "Somebody should take a picture."

The story flashed me back to something I overheard two weeks ago while I was watching the penguins on Boulders Beach in Simon's Town. As I took my own pictures, lots of them, a family of six right beside me -- a man, a woman, and their four towheaded sons -- were vocally admiring the coastal scenery, particularly the boys.

They were probably between the ages of 5 and 9 and had soft and delicate features that were enhanced by their posh British accents. They looked like they'd stepped out of a 20th-century Norman Rockwell painting, crossed the Atlantic from middle America, and time-traveled to 2014. Their father was also blond, but he was so big, burly and red-faced that I couldn't imagine him as a kid. Would these now-adorable boys grow up to look like him? They didn't much resemble their mother, who was the only silent one in the group, so it was pretty much a toss-up. She looked like she could use a daughter, if only for a distaff ally in this band of bros.

As I started walking away from the edge of the viewing pier, pondering families on holiday (How much would it cost to take your wife and four kids on a week-long trip from England to Cape Town?) and the ephemeral nature of cuteness, the youngest boy ran up to his father.

"Daddy, would you put me on your shoulders? Daddy, would you put me on your shoulders?" He said it twice, as if repetition would increase his chances of getting a lift.

"No, I need someone to carry me."

I thought it was a strange thing for a 250-pound man say to a little kid. Who was going to carry him? The kid? Was he going to suggest that the little tyke get himself a job as soon as they returned home so that he could pitch in with the family expenses?

I hate tit-for-tat in parent-child relationships. Parents should never treat their children as equals in that sense, regardless of age, but it seemed even more inappropriate with a boy who just a few years ago was as helpless as one of those baby penguins. And at least the little one hadn't taken the Lord's name in vain like the 5 year old at the petting zoo. You had to give him that. Right?

Not that the petting-zoo boy's words offended me. I forgot them a moment after I read them, but it was Sedaris's reaction to them that stuck with me.

Writing about it the following morning, I'd recall how incredulous the boy had sounded. Yes, the guinea pigs were big -- like furry slippers, sizes nine and ten and a half. They were hardly gargantuan, though. Had he possibly confused them with hamsters? The look on his face and his unexpected reaction -- evoking Jesus as a weather-beaten adult would -- were remarkable to me, and standing there in that dinky zoo, my knee throbbing, my little notebook firmly in hand, I knew I needed to keep that moment forever.

I must have wiped a tear from my eye after reading that final sentence, the last one in the chapter, the first of at least a dozen times: I knew I needed to keep that moment forever. Replace "moment" with "thought," which can define a moment as much as any dialogue, and you've nailed exactly why I write.

Thank you, David Sedaris, for so concisely and so beautifully putting it down on paper for me.
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