We’re Only Human: Calypso

Originally published June 2018

So, David Sedaris would likely admit he’s never going to be confused with Malala Yousafzai. Or the Dalai Lama.

Nonetheless.

Sedaris is one of my favorite writers, and seeing him read live this past spring, would appear to a stranger as a rather gentle, maybe even nurturing, soul. He’d likely attribute this characterization to his slight stature — shorter people, after all, wouldn’t be who you’d naturally tag with an particularly caustic wit until they speak at length.

Yet, as anyone who’s read his work or see him live could attest, Sedaris isn’t exactly overtly empathetic. But he is a humanist, and a fine one at that. The world needs more people to call attention to those modern-day annoyances or eccentricities, that like a Venn diagram, link us all together.

Calypso, like his previous work, does just that — through essays about the day to day of life both abroad (West Sussex) and here in the States (predominately the Emerald Isle shoreline), Sedaris shines a cynical, but laugh-out-loud funny, light on humanity. This most recent work also feels like his most intimate, as he examines his relationship with his sister, Tiffany, who died by suicide; his mother, an alcoholic that died from cancer in her early 60s; and his father, with whom he’s had a strained relationship since childhood that has transitioned to a softer, more accepting pairing as they both grow older.

“It’s not that our father waited until this late in the game to win our hearts. It’s that he’s succeeding,” Sedaris quips to his longtime partner, Hugh, as they discuss the fact his father indeed is softening in old age, only to point out that negativity can be a default for so many people.

“Is it my fault that the good times fade to nothing while the bad ones burn forever bright? Memory aside, the negative just makes for a better story: the plane was delayed, an infection set in, outlaws arrived and reduced the schoolhouse to ashes. Happiness is harder to put into words. It’s also harder to source, much more mysterious than anger or sorrow, which come to me promptly, whenever I summon them, and remain long after I’ve begged them to leave.”

So, yeah — he’s probably not going to be picked up by Oprah for the book club. But, spot on, no? Say what you want about the tendency to be a Debbie Downer — Sedaris nails romantic relationships, family relationships, and those personal attachments we have with the universe that are so often anxiety-inducing, that it’s hard not to laugh or at least nod in agreement.

Everyone likely has their favorite source of material when it comes to his essays, but for me, I love that he is loyal to an honest story, There’s no sugarcoating the ups and downs of a long term relationship and the commitment both he and Hugh make to it. There’s no backing away from honest assessments of family. That what you may see on the outside looking in isn’t always the most accurate portrayal. That even people who seem to have it all together don’t. And as funny as Sedaris continues to be, there were parts of Calypso that were particularly tough to read — especially the last time he saw Tiffany. That’s heart scarring material.

Calypso — a spectacular read and perfect in its essay form for trips to the pool or rides on the train. Now, I sit back and wait for the second book in his diary series. You are a fine, fine soul, David.

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