“We’re both nuts!” David, my late brother joked to me one Christmas, “that’s why we haven’t killed each other!”
“Yeah! Certifiable!” Pat, my sister-in-law added, joining in on the teasing.
As Pride season winds down, the Trump administration continues to separate immigrant children from their parents and bakers with “family values” refuse to bake gay wedding cakes, I’m thinking about families. In his latest essay collection “Calypso,” award-winning, beloved gay humorist and writer David Sedaris riffs hilariously and poignantly on the joys and sorrows of family life.
“Calypso” is Sedaris’ ninth book. Sedaris, 61, got his start as a young, unknown writer (and house cleaner) on public radio where he made listeners laugh out loud by recounting his experience as an elf in SantaLand at Macy’s over the holidays. In “Calypso,” Sedaris, a famous, bestselling author who’s been with his boyfriend Hugh for 26 years, has moved far from his elf days. In “Calypso,” he tells us what it’s like to be middle-aged, thinking about mortality, performing his work across the world, reeling after the election of Donald J. Trump and, above all, a member of his family.
Why does “Calypso?” and Sedaris’ other work resonate so much with readers and listeners of all generations? Because your family – no matter how much you love them – will, more times than you’d care to count, drive you crazy. Yet, LGBTQ or not, many of us wouldn’t want to be parted from our families. No matter how our family is constituted (married couple or a group of friends) or perversely, no matter how bizarre, we’re often proud of our families. We know that, however much we try to stop it, mortality looms before us and our loved ones.
Often, we think of tragedy as being separate from comedy. Sedaris, who received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Medal for Spoken Language in May, throws this bifurcation under the bus from the get-go in “Calypso.” “Though there’s an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle ages,” Sedaris writes in the book’s first essay “Company Man.”
But, just as Sedaris seems to be taking you into Debbie Downer Land, the piece quickly morphs into Sedaris’ musings on how he and Hugh act around houseguests. “The only perk [to middle age] I can see,” he writes, “is that, with luck, you’ll acquire a guest room.”
Like so many of us, Sedaris wants he and Hugh to be on their best — “company” — behavior when they’re around guests. “I remind Hugh that for the duration of their visit, he and I will be playing the role of the perfect couple” he writes. “This means no bickering…If I am seated at the kitchen table and he is standing behind me, he is to place a hand on my shoulder right on the spot where a parrot would perch if I were a pirate instead of the ideal boyfriend.”
Sedaris’ family is its own hilarious, eccentric ecosystem. Hugh observes to Sedaris that most of his family never says good night when going to sleep. His brother Paul is obsessed with juicing his food. Sedaris and his sister Amy buy distressed clothing in Tokyo.
Yet, pain lurks within the humor. In 2013, Sedaris’ sister Tiffany committed suicide. Before her death her family wasn’t aware that Tiffany was mentally disturbed. “All of us had pulled away from the family…in order to forge our own identifies,” Sedaris writes, “Tiffany, though, stayed away.”
Sedaris tries to connect with Lou, his 95-year-old father and Trump voter who once kicked him out of the house for being gay. In the essay, “Why Aren’t They Laughing,” Sedaris confronts his family’s failure to acknowledge his mother’s alcoholism.
Being gay is only one facet of Sedaris’ sensibility and his family is unique. Yet “Calypso” reflects the joys, sorrows and pride of our family life. Check it out.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.