Why I love David Sedaris

It was the year 2007. We were in Banff, Canada. I was reading this book called “Me talk pretty one day” that I had been wanting to read, and finally picked up. Cackling like a crazy old witch to myself. Which got my kids curious.

That was the beginning of my and my kids’ love affair with David Sedaris, one of the funniest people I have ever read. By the way, there is a running argument over who really got the book first. My daughter says she picked it up, but I bullied her into letting me read it first. I can see that happening, but I don’t think it did, in this case at least. I think I picked it up first.

Anyway, this week, David Sedaris was in Jacksonville, and Raj and I went to see him. The show ended around 9 pm. And we stood in line for about an hour and a half on a weeknight to get this book signed by him. It was amazing to watch this man eat his steak, chat with his fans, write something personal on each book, and sometimes even pull something out of a bag he had with him to gift – maybe a cookie? Not sure what he was giving away. All with a smile, and a niceness that was genuine.

When it was finally our turn, I turned to the chapter that made me laugh hardest: “Jesus Shaves.” And told him my version of the story of how we got hooked as a family to his writing. He listened, and said “that looks really soft. Can I feel it?” about my old, soft cashmere sweater.

What could I say? “Sure?”

He made some conversation, signed the page I opened, we said thanks, and I invited him to a home cooked Indian meal next time he was in town. And realized I hadn’t given him my name (other than Sri), my number or my address until the next day, when I was recounting it to my son. Neither had he asked.  Hmm.. wonder what to make of that.

But, the best thing, that special thing that makes this man a humble genius is what he wrote in my book:

“To Sri

I so enjoyed stroking your arm”.

I get a big old smile everytime I look at it! What a genius!

A White Cat In My House

On a recent bird rescue mission to the local bird sanctuary (my son and I had found a baby yellow bird in a rose bush which we thought was dead, but it turned out not to be—just couldn’t move very well and kept falling on its back) somehow the topic of gays and stereotyping came up. My son, who works for the Diversity office in his college, specifically in LGBT affairs, literally pounces if one of us says anything resembling an assumption.

I have had the most meaningful conversations with my kids during car rides. There’s something about car rides that makes kids whose standard response to anything is limited to “fine”, “nothing” and other grunted responses anywhere else, open up about their deepest secrets.

Here’s how our conversation went.

Me: So most gays have a lisp right?

Ad: What? No…those are stupid stereotypes. Why do you believe in them?

(And then he proceeded to really give it to me. Okay, he is 19, is full of ideals and has no patience for adults who grapple with things that are natural and common sense to him. We’ve all been there.)

Me: Okay. You do realize that you exploding like that isn’t really helping your cause, right? I’m now less inclined to listen to you about why I shouldn’t stereotype. If you really want to educate people about tolerance, yelling at them is only going to make them want to punch you in the face.

Silence in the car for a few minutes.

Ad: Okay. Sorry. Can we try again?

Me: Okay. So lisping is not a gay characteristic? But most people I know who are gay lisp.

Ad: Tell me how many people you really know who are gay.

Me: (sheepishly) hmmm… David Sedaris?

(By the way, David Sedaris, if you’re reading this, know that I LOVE you. So do my kids. I would give my right arm to be as half as funny as you’re. I was hooked when I read “Me Talk Pretty One Day” and hope to meet you someday before one of us dies.)

Ad: And?

Me: Well he’s famous.

Ad: So that means he equals zillions of people? Or, as you seem to think, all of the gay people?

Me: So all male hair stylists aren’t gay either?

And so went the rest of the conversation as he shot down my assumptions one after another about the gay population. I learned that while some may fall into the following categories, so do a lot of the heterosexual population, and a lot of my ideas about gay people were just plain nonsense.

–       All gays are not all male hair stylists

–       All gays don’t lisp

–       All gays don’t have feminine or artistic tendencies

–       There’s no such thing as a “gaydar”—meaning, you can’t really tell if someone is gay from just looking at them

–       All gays don’t stink at sports

–       All gays are not neat freaks or dress immaculately

–       In general, there’s no one trait that tells someone is gay

And then I confessed to him where some of my ideas originated. When he was in middle school, he had a lot of girl friends, who liked to talk to him—a lot. When I mentioned this to a couple of my colleagues, who are both by the way, from rural Ohio, they both looked at each other and shared a knowing smile. When I pressed them about it, they said it was a gay character trait. In my defense, I knew nothing about gay stereotypes in those days, and I credit those two for a lot of my “insights” into what makes a gay.

(As a side note, my son is not gay. I’m sharing that not because it’s anyone’s business, but purely to debunk the assumption that 12 year old boys with lots of girl friends are gays.)

While making the above confession to my son, my son called me out on another one from my sizeable bank of bad assumptions with no basis (okay maybe a little basis)—namely that people from rural Ohio nurture and spread stereotypes about gays. Darn, but this one was fun!

While my ideas on gay people were harmless on the surface, and never made me act in a way that I wouldn’t like to be acted towards, I have to admit that it’s these and other such stereotyping that develop into fear and hatred—and make people act on those emotions, causing physical and mental harm to other people who are not like them. Even though those people who we think are different from us in any way –they speak a different language, their skin color is different, they worship a different god—are made of the very same organic material that you and I are made of.

That car ride with my son tops the list as one of the best with him, knocking to second place the one when he and I sang along with the Beatles all the way from Indianapolis to Muncie one December night when he was an eighth grader.

I don’t know if the poor little bird in the cardboard box survived, but it looked to me like one enlightened bird when we dropped it off in the kennel outside the bird sanctuary.

I started writing this article to share my newfound, long overdue wisdom on stereotyping gay people, and was going to end it there. But then the George Zimmerman trial ended.

On Trayvon Martin and racial profiling:

There’s an abundance of discussions on the internet on the George Zimmerman trial and the unfairness of him walking free, after shooting 17-year old Trayvon Martin on the basis of an assumption that he looked suspicious. I don’t have anything new to add to that, except to say that it’s obvious racial profiling was at the heart of this tragedy. It was in the crime that was committed, and the way the jury seems to have evaluated the facts.

The following story I heard on NPR yesterday was heartbreaking to say the least.

A mom talked about her son who dog sits for a neighbor who lives three doors down the street in an upper middle class neighborhood. He lets the dogs out between 9 and 9:30 pm and walks home. He has always objected to mom coming to walk him back home (again, 3 doors down the street) but after the Zimmerman trial ended, mom had a conversation with him. The next day, he called her from the neighbors to make sure she was coming to walk him home. Yep, he is black, old enough to dog sit, big enough to protect himself (5’10”), but now too scared to walk home without his mom (5’6”) at night.

The one question nagging me is this: While the internet is full of stories about the conversations black parents are having with their black children, are there conversations that non-black families are having at their dinner tables about not profiling someone based on the color of their skin?

I would like to end this with the words of the visionary poet Bharathi who lived in India in the early 1900s.

In Tamil: 

Vellai nirathoru poonai – engal Veettil valarudu kandeer

Pillaigal petradu poonai – avai Perukku oru niramagum

Saambal niram oru kutti – karun Chaandu niram oru kutti

Paambu niram oru kutti – vellai

Paalin niram our kutti

Enda niram irundalum – avai Yaavum ore taram andro

Inda niram siridendrum – idu Etram endru sollalamo?

Rough translation:

“There was a white cat in my house

It gave birth to kittens each a different colour

One was grey in color

One was black

One was the color of snake

And one was milky white

Irrespective of what colour they are

Aren’t they all the same kind

Is it fair to say one colour is superior to the other?”

Where are you when we need you, Bharathi?