I H8 David Sedaris
By Jim Brega
What does “Think Different” mean, anyway? No one really knows, even though it’s been fifteen years since Apple first began to flash that silent, insidious, grammatically suspect invitation across our collective consciousness through TV ads and billboards. Inspired by Apple’s success with sloppy English, the SyFy Network piled on in 2009 wi th “Imagine Greater,” and since then similar verb-adjective assaults have been as continuous and relentless as a dentist’s drill. Several months ago I came up with the idea of trying to document as many examples as I could, intending to write a commentary that would pillory (brilliantly, of course) the popular romance with lazy English usage and disregard for the parts of speech. In the name of research, I stocked up on Anytizers® and Satisfries®, made myself comfortable on the couch, and embarked on a self-punishing weeklong binge of TV ad-watching. I had been accustomed to using the mute button to avoid the distraction of advertisements; now I silenced the shows and waited eagerly for the next commercial break. As your own experience has probably taught you, I never waited long.
Advertising: the scourge of civilization. We’re exposed to so much of it in the normal course of events that we hardly notice anymore. We quickly lose touch with real-life situations when watching the repetitious ads that are especially typical of television. You may initially be suspicious, for example, of the suggestion that some people dance around the room to demonstrate enjoyment of their food, but when you’ve seen it happen enough times—maybe every twelve and a half minutes for eight or ten hours—you begin to wonder if you’re missing out on something, because you’ve never danced with your food, and you resolve to give it a try the next time you find yourself standing upright. If ever.
Lucky for me, my loved ones—who only began to miss me on day five—eventually realized I needed rescue, broke down my door and wrested the TV remote from my Cheetos®-stained hand. But I had accomplished my goal: Alamo had already taught me how to “Drive Happy” and Febreeze how to “Breathe Happy.” I had taken to heart Coldstone Creamery’s exhortation to “Deserve Delicious” and Subway’s to “Eat Fresh,” and was ready to “Rethink Possible” with ATT and “Do Brave” with the help of Degree Anti-Perspirant. Ultimately, I believed, I would “Enjoy Better” through Time/Warner Cable and, one day, “Be More” when I switched to PBS. On the day I had recovered from my ordeal enough to change out of my pajamas, I began to outline my essay, confident that my experience had given me superior insight into a heretofore hidden ad agency plot to further reduce the intelligence and communication skills of American TV viewers.
I will have to leave to your conjecture with what subtle humor and biting irony I might have exposed this creeping evil, because I will never write about it. You will never have a chance to read my (made up) version of the SyFy boardroom debate over the catchphrase “Imagine Greater”—a dialogue that would have comically skewered the complete lack of imagination among the network’s senior management. I will never produce on this topic an essay of such overwhelming persuasion that it will immediately convert everyone who reads it to a strict constructionist’s view of English grammar, cause texters to start spelling out whole words, and single-handedly eliminate from our culture products with names like Pizza Rolls® and Chicken Wyngz® which, whatever they are, you can rest assured have nothing to do with real pizza or actual chicken wings.
Why won’t any of this happen? Blame David Sedaris.
I’ve loved reading David Sedaris ever since, arriving early for a movie at a local mall, I stumbled on a copy of Naked, his third book, while browsing the Gay/Lesbian shelf in a nearby Borders. Since then I’ve eagerly anticipated his release of each new story collection. (Okay, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk was a disappointment. Can he be allowed one stinker?) A short time after beginning work on my career-defining critique of modern culture, I decided to take a break and downloaded a copy of Sedaris’s latest book, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. I comported myself in my most comfortable summertime reading pose—on a lounge chair in the sunny back yard, clad only in boxer shorts, with a plate of cranberry walnut oatmeal cookies from Sprouts and a tall iced tea beside me—and, with eager anticipation, opened my Kindle and began to read.
All went well for about thirty minutes. “Dentists Without Borders:” dental implants, a smile “bittersweet and drearied with blood,” been there, done that, don’t really want the T-shirt, thank you very much. Then “Attaboy,” in which Sedaris’s mother is called a bitch by an anonymous neighborhood kid and Sedaris fantasizes about how his parents might have punished his own transgressions—a fantasy that includes a dinner at which he’s served, in succession, a bowl of paste, then joint compound, and “maybe if I was good, some semen.” Wow, I thought; I don’t know if I could write something like that, even as a fantasy. But, then, that’s one reason we read, I guess.
I turned the page, and my eyes fell on the title of his next story: “Think Differenter.”
Maybe you can imagine my reaction. It was sudden, physical, and uncontrolled, ten times stronger than a sneeze, uninterruptable as an orgasm and without the benefit of afterglow. I might have done a spit-take if I hadn’t just finished my tea. My stomach dropped; my face grew hot while the rest of me went cold. My focus shifted to the exact brain cell at the center of a whopper of a headache that had just started, and would, I was sure, someday turn into Alzheimer’s and kill me. David Sedaris has stolen my story idea, I thought, but of course I knew that was ridiculous. Here his story was, in print, after what must have been at least a couple years of preparation, whereas my masterpiece was still an idea waiting to be born through my excruciatingly slow creative process—one that could end up requiring six months of work to settle on a title. (Which was not going to be the same as Sedaris’s, by the way, but what difference does that make now?)
What made it worse, I realized as I sped through the four-pager, is that “Think Differenter” is not a great story. Resentment surged like bile through my shrinking esophagus as I read this Tea-Party-like rant written in the voice of a redneck with multiple (serial) wives and children, whose names and even gender he can’t reliably remember, who measures his life’s progress by Apple product releases. It was tedious, unfunny. I was forced to confront the fact that my prospects had been ruined by a mediocre piece of work. No matter that our subjects and themes were completely different, that he was writing fiction and I was writing non-. I knew no one would ever be able to read my piece without thinking, “Oh, yeah; didn’t David Sedaris write a story about that? He’s very funny; I love him!”
Why can’t he stick to the tough stuff? I remember thinking. Why can’t he stick to writing about things like being fed bowls of semen and leave the mocking of corporate taglines to those of us with less imagination?
I sought comfort in another bite of cranberry walnut oatmeal cookie while I planned my next move. Maybe I should read one more story….
“Memory Laps” tells of a teenager’s experiences as an unwilling member of the swim team at the poorer of his town’s two swim clubs. In many ways it’s my story, too, though I didn’t stay on my club’s team long enough to compete in even a single match. What rings true for me is the yearning for paternal approval, which ends up being lavished on someone else’s more athletic son. It’s my story, and Sedaris’s, and it’s beautifully written. All I could think was that maybe, someday, I could hope to write like that.
I won’t say all was forgiven, but…. I counted the cookies left. If I rationed them, I would finish the book before it got dark.