January 29, 2010: London
For the past 20 years or so Nancy (my cousin) has served as the principal of a troubled elementary school in Florida. I recently asked how things are going, and yesterday she e-mailed me pictures of a miniature horse, a live one, who wears sneakers over his hooves and comes in twice a month to be read out loud to by second- and third-graders.
“But why in sneakers?,” I wondered.
“So he won’t slip on the floors,” she wrote.
My next question concerned his purpose. “Why read out loud to an animal, something that can’t correct you or even recognize your mistakes?”
“Well,” Nancy explained, “this is a certified therapy horse.”
That’s how we educate in the United States. A child has trouble reading, so we put sneakers on a horse, give him a certificate, and send him in to fix things.
September 7, 2010: London
I told Zoe that before buying our cottage in West Sussex, we considered one called Faggot Stacks that was located between the villages of Balls Cross and Titty Hill. Americans die laughing at those names but Zoe, who is British, remained straight-faced and told me that as a child she’d spent her summers in Slack Bottom, which is in Yorkshire midway between Slack Top and Big Dike.
October 31, 2010: San Francisco
An excellent joke I heard at last night’s signing: It’s late at night and a man is getting ready to go to bed when he hears a knock on his door. He opens it and looks down to see a snail. “Yes,” it says. “I’d like to talk to you about buying some magazine subscriptions.” Furious at being disturbed, the man rears back, kicks the snail as hard as he can, and storms off to bed. Two years later there comes another knock. The man answers and again he finds the snail, who looks up at him and says, “What the f*** was that all about?”
July 17, 2011: Rackham, U.K.
Again last night I fell down a YouTube hole. All roads lead to people feeding live mice to snakes and snapping turtles, but this time I went beyond that and stumbled upon a woman named Donna who weighs 600 pounds but would like to weigh 1,000. “I guess I’m sort of a reverse anorexic,” she said. “I see myself in the mirror and feel that I’m too small.”
There are a lot of Donna clips on YouTube but this particular one was from The Tyra Banks Show. Banks is a former model, so her response to all this was pretty much what you’d expect. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but what about, like, your health?”
“Oh, I’m healthy enough,” Donna said. They showed footage of her enjoying an average breakfast: a dozen scrambled eggs, an entire pack of bacon, eight slices of buttered toast.
“But you can hardly walk to your mailbox,” Banks reminded her. “If you keep this up, you won’t be able to move!”
The studio audience murmured their support—“Yeah, what about that, ever think of that?”
Donna—bless her—answered that walking was overrated.
“I don’t like movement,” she said. “I like to lay in bed and watch TV, that’s what I like to do.”
It’s like she was designed in a lab to outrage a slender talk-show host. “But … ” Banks kept saying. “But … but … ”
It’s the “You’re not healthy” business that gets to me. That’s the same angle people take with smokers—assholism disguised as concern: “We don’t know each other but I want you in good shape so I can tell you for longer how to live your life.”
To this, Donna leaned back in her tiny-looking chair, saying, in so many other, politer words, f*** you.
October 5, 2011: London
Dad called last night saying, like always, “David? David, is that you?” We started talking about Christmas and when I asked him what he wanted, he answered, “I want for you to get a goddamned colonoscopy.”
“So for Christmas you want for someone to shove a pipe up my ass?”
“You’re damn right I do.”
When I told him I was leaving on tour and would not be back until December 13, he said, “Fine, make an appointment for when your tour is over. How about the 14th?”
“I want a light at the end of the tunnel, but not that tunnel,” I told him.
“Well, you need to have a colonoscopy and you need to do it now.”
Every time I changed the subject, he changed it back, until finally, exhausted, I told him I had to go. We hung up and two minutes later the phone rang.
“Or an iPhone,” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Or for Christmas you can get me an iPhone.” Then, as if adding the word good-bye would substantially drive up his bill, he hung up on me.
February 6, 2013: Rackham
The following is a list of genuine guest complaints filed with Thomas Cook Holidays, a company that arranges vacations for British people.
“On my holiday to Goa in India, I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don’t like spicy food at all.”
“The beach was too sandy.”
“No one told us there would be fish in the sea. The children were startled.”
“There are too many Spanish people. The receptionist speaks Spanish. The food is Spanish. Too many foreigners now live abroad.”
“We found the sand was not like the sand in the brochure. Your brochure shows the sand as yellow, but it was white.”
“I compared the size of our one-bedroom apartment to our friends’ three-bedroom apartment and ours was significantly smaller.”
And my favorite:
“It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England. It only took the Americans three hours to get home.”
January 22, 2014: Melbourne
Joining us for dinner after last night’s show was an actor and comic named Josh. He’s gay, and after a show last month a young man approached him, saying, “Your act gave me the confidence to come out to my girlfriend.” “Isn’t that awful?,” Josh asked us. I agreed that it was, adding that there ought to be a different word when the honesty involves someone you’ve been actively hurting for the past few years. You come out to your parents. You destroy your girlfriend.
August 24, 2014: Rackham
I’m thinking that the Washington Redskins should keep their name but change their logo from an American Indian to either a red-skinned peanut or a red-skinned potato. It really is the perfect solution.
April 12, 2015: York, Pennsylvania
At 9:45 yesterday morning, Marlena picked me up at my hotel and drove me to the Cracker Barrel, where we met up with her dad, her husband, one of her sisters, her brother-in-law, her nephew Alex, and her two nieces. It was a Saturday and the place was packed with large groups.
At the long table next to ours sat four chubby kids and two women, one of whom was cradling a monkey dressed in baby clothes. “It’s a service animal,” our waiter explained when we asked about it, adding that the customer comes in all the time and has trouble with anxiety. The woman’s back was to me, so I saw her monkey only twice, and very briefly. It looked like one of those kids with premature aging disease, though smaller, of course, around the size of an adolescent house cat.
“I want to see it,” six-year-old Alex said, fidgeting in his seat. “Make her turn around or something.” The woman, who had blonde hair that fell loosely to her shoulders, moved like a celebrity—like someone who knew she was being watched—and it bothered me that when it came time for her to leave, she took great pains to conceal her monkey. “Where did it go?,” Alex whispered. “Did she put it in her purse?”
She struck me as someone who wanted attention and then got all snippy when it came her way. I mean, really, if you don’t want to be looked at, don’t bring a monkey dressed in baby clothes into a family restaurant loaded with children on a Saturday morning.
August 26, 2015: Copenhagen
Over dinner last night at a place called U Formel (“Oof Ormell”) I learned about a Danish man who had recently killed a rabbit live on the radio. “Listeners complained afterwards that they were traumatized,” said Charlotte, a woman my age who works with my publisher. “His point was that they’re murdered every day in the slaughterhouse, so how was this any different?”
I guess it’s a question of doing something in the place where it’s not usually done. You don’t shit on the floor at the airport or practice archery in a library, so his point seems pretty weak to me. The restaurant was fancy, and while eating I learned that having sex with animals was only very recently outlawed in Denmark.
“So it was O.K. before now?,” I asked.
My companions looked at each other and shrugged. “I think it was always … frowned upon,” Susanne, my publisher, said. “Law-wise, I guess the government had other things to get to first.”
October 22, 2015: Portland, Maine
Twenty-five years ago today Lilia Montero took me to Canal Street, where I met Hugh. I knew on seeing him that I would make him my boyfriend. I don’t think I knew it would last so long, especially during those first few years on Thompson Street when we were fighting so much. The only thing standing between us and a 50th anniversary is age. In another 25 years I’ll be 83 and probably dead, hit by a car, most likely. But let’s not think of that today.
November 30, 2015: Emerald Isle, North Carolina
I heard yesterday that the day after Thanksgiving is the busiest time of the year for plumbers, who refer to it as “Brown Friday”.
March 29, 2017: Rackham
According to an article in The Washington Post, if spiders felt like it, they could devour everyone on earth between now and next Saint Patrick’s Day. As it is, they stick to insects, 400 to 800 million tons of them a year. It’s a lot, given that there are only 25 million tons of spiders in the world. The Titanic weighed 52,000 tons, therefore the weight of the planet’s spiders is 478 times the weight of the Titanic. That’s really something to think about.
The author of the article says that wherever you are, chances are good that there’s a spider watching you. Pishposh, someone in a high-rise apartment might think. Here, though, there’s no doubting that statement. I bet there are at least 50 in the room with me right now.
Every morning the first thing I do is check the tub and the kitchen sink to see who fell in while I was asleep. Then I pluck him or her out, always wondering what they think. One moment they were scrambling for purchase on the porcelain, and the next, they’re free. It’s nice to believe that they see me as a benevolent god, but more likely they just think I’m clumsy, that I tried to eat them and they got away. If it’s gratitude you’re after, rescue a dog. That said, I’d take a spider any day.
July 18, 2017: London
As of yesterday, the London Underground announcements will no longer begin with “Ladies and gentlemen.” Gender-queer people said it made them feel excluded, so from now on the conductors will say, “Hello, everyone.”
There’s something sad about this to me. It’s like a casual Friday for language, only it’s not just on Friday. I rather liked being thought of as a gentleman. Yes, I’d think whenever I heard it, I believe I’m up for this. As for the people who once felt excluded, what will this honestly do for them? Whatever news follows “Hello, everyone,” like whatever followed “Ladies and gentlemen,” is bound to be bad—a stalled train ahead of us, a signaling failure—so actually, they should just change it to “Sorry, everyone.”
March 21, 2018: Rackham
Over dinner Ingrid talked about an office she worked in for a year or so back in the 80s. “It was me and seven men,” she said. “And this group, my God! They were constantly pulling their pants down to jump up on the Xerox machine, taking pictures of their bare bums and balls, which they’d leave on my desk. There was this one fellow, Devon, who’d approach with a ruler and pretend to measure the distance from my lips to the back of my head, calculating how far he could fit his cock in. Oh, we’d have such a laugh! It hardly felt like work, the days were so fun!”
It’s shocking to hear that now. I mean, a Xerox machine!
October 22, 2018: Rackham
Hugh roasted a chicken for dinner and after telling him about the book I had just finished—Missoula—I asked him if he had ever been raped. Funny that we’ve been together so long but have never discussed it. He told me about a Brazilian guy he met when he first moved to Paris. “I thought he was in my class at the Alliance Française, but maybe not. I never saw him again, thank God.”
I told him about X and about that guy in Hood River. There was actually one other person, a man from Spain I met at a bar when I was 23. Is it because I’m small, I wondered. I mean three, that’s a lot. “Rape” is not a word I use lightly, though at the time I wouldn’t have used it at all—didn’t know I had the right to. It’s like complaining about the blisters the ax brought on while you were chopping up the statue of Christ. Gay rape—“It’s what you get,” people would have said at the time. So you’d never have gone to the police.
February 19, 2019: Paris
My father is dying, maybe. He went to the hospital saying he couldn’t breathe and they discovered that his left lung was full of fluid. This according to Paul, who started sending messages last night.
February 20, 2019: London
This morning Hugh’s eyes welled with tears for my father. “You want to be the emotional one on this?,” I asked. “Fine by me.”
I talked to Lisa again last night. “A palliative-care nurse came by yesterday and explained that Dad’s in really bad shape,” she said. “He’s experiencing heart failure, and with his lungs continuing to fill with fluid, it’s really not good.” I ought to be freaking out, but the fact is that I feel nothing. That’s why it was so odd to stand there and watch Hugh cry.
I keep getting stuck on a 2012 visit to Raleigh. Dad started in the moment I arrived and didn’t let up all weekend: “You look terrible,” “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” etc. That was when he voted for the proposition that would make gay marriage, which was already unconstitutional under North Carolina law, extra-extra-unconstitutional. He was just a dick.
Why can’t I think of a better time, I wonder. For surely there was one, wasn’t there? Was there ever a moment I didn’t expect him to turn on me, sort of like a cat you’ve been stroking who sinks his teeth into your hand? Was there ever a conversation that wasn’t banal or didn’t end in an argument? I know there were times we’d get off the phone and I’d think, Oh, he’s not so bad, I should call more often. Then I would call and he’d just berate me until we hung up. Then, too, it really hurts that he cut me out of his will. It’s not the sum but the fact that nothing—nothing—means more to him than money, and in denying me an inheritance, he’s kicking me with all his might, saying, in effect, I do not love you either. Ah, the “either.”
April 11, 2019: Boston
A woman named Meagan approached my book-signing table to say that her mother had recently died. “I’m sorry to hear it,” I said. “It was a difficult time,” she continued, “so I was touched when one of our neighbors asked if he could say a word at her funeral. Of course I told him that I’d be honored, so he got up before us all and said, simply, ‘Plethora.’ ‘Thanks so much,’ I told him afterwards. ‘That means a lot.’” I love it when someone sneaks in a joke like that.
A 29-year-old woman in Taiwan went to the hospital with a swollen eye, and the doctor found four live sweat bees under her lid, feasting on her tears. That was the word all the reports used: “feasting.”
June 1, 2019: Rackham
I’d just sat down at my desk last night when Lisa called. It seemed she’d just gotten a phone call from Dad, who has left the hospital after his most recent stay and returned to Springmoor, his assisted-living place. “You say you like to read and that you have a lot of friends,” he said. “But what kind of existence is that? What have you really done with your life? Nothing.” He’s back!
October 18, 2019: Greensboro, North Carolina
The doctor who performed my colonoscopy a few years back came to last night’s show and stood in line to have a book signed. “Do you have to get up early tomorrow?,” I asked. “At the crack,” he said, which I guess is a common joke among gastroenterologists.
December 31, 2020: Emerald Isle
A fellow named Kevin who is in his mid-40s and is missing a number of teeth has spent the last few days in our ground-floor laundry room replacing the chewed-up Sheetrock with plywood. It’s screwed into place with the aid of a kitted-out drill and makes a wrenching noise so loud I can feel it two stories up. We’re hoping this will keep the rats out, but, as he predicted yesterday afternoon, they’re still likely to find a way in.
“Can’t nobody tell,” he said. “One way is through them vents.”
Kevin gestured with his lit cigarette to the ceiling of the carport. “There’s plenty of ways for them to cause damage. Squirrels too. I got a friend and one of ’em even took his Christmas lights.”
“Wait,” I said. “A squirrel stole someone’s Christmas lights? What did he want with them?” Kevin crushed his cigarette and shrugged. “Just wanted to have ’em, I guess.”
Why does that seem like such a fitting conclusion to this past year? A squirrel takes your Christmas lights just because he wants them, and there’s not a goddamned thing you can do about it.
That said, my 2020 wasn’t nearly as bad as most people’s. Yes, my tours were canceled, but at least I wasn’t stuck in a studio apartment with three children. I had space. The only person in my family to get the coronavirus was Dad, who not only survived without being hospitalized—at 97!—but shed 10 pounds. “No fair!” we all cried.
Without the tours I still managed to make some money, but that was never what I was in it for. What I loved was the attention. How had I never realized the extent to which it sustained me? Without an audience I exhausted poor Hugh and my family. Look, I’m crossing the room! I’ve taken my jacket off! Why aren’t you applauding?
When the pandemic hit, my first thought wasn’t “Oh, those poor dying people” but “What about my airline status?” Because of all my tour travel, I was Gold on United and Executive Platinum on American. Neither is a lifetime appointment. Stop flying and the next thing you know, you’re boarding with group five, a nobody. At what point did my airline status come to determine my identity? I like to think that I haven’t changed, that fundamentally I’m the same person I was 40 years ago, still nervous and insecure.
While the best day of the year was when the election was called for Biden, the second-best was when I found £30 by the side of the road as I was picking up trash in West Sussex—free money! The more of it you have, the better you’re treated, and I’ve grown used to that over the years. The lounge is right this way, Mr Sedaris. Thank you—squint at name tag—Anderson.
I found it interesting at the start of the pandemic when celebrities began broadcasting from home or sending out videos of themselves and their families “coping.” “Hey!” the public cried, outraged. “That talk-show host is living in a mansion!” Well, yes, I wanted to say, a mansion bought with money that you gave her.
There was something British in the sudden disdain people expressed. Americans always celebrated wealth and celebrity, or at least afforded it a grudging respect. Something changed last spring, though, something that was started years ago with YouTube and the growth of the Internet. I remember Amy telling me about DoggFace a few months back. “He’s everywhere,” she said, showing me a brief video in which a grown man rode a skateboard and drank cranberry juice while lip-synching to a Fleetwood Mac song.
“O.K.,” I said, “but what does he do?”
“He’s doing it!” she told me. “Isn’t he great!” It was like me trying to elicit praise from Dad after the performance piece Ronnie and I did at the North Carolina museum in 1980. “But all you did was pour sand out of a boot!” he said. “Yes, but it was the way I poured it.”
I didn’t just turn older this year—I turned old. There wasn’t a specific single moment when I slipped over from middle age; rather, it was gradual, the change not so much physical as mental. There are so many things I don’t understand now. Our constant need to rebrand, for instance. Someone politely referred to me as “queer” not long ago, and I was like, Oh no, you don’t. I was queer in the 1970s and that was enough for me. The same people using “queer” have embraced “Latinx,” which, according to a recent article in The Washington Post, only one in four Latinos is even aware of. Fewer still are interested in adopting it, in part because, at least in Spanish, it’s so difficult to say.
I also don’t get holding people who lived dozens of years ago—much less hundreds of years ago—to the moral standards of today. Can we really condemn Dolley Madison for not supporting trans rights? If the figure on the pedestal is wearing breeches and a powdered wig, can’t we forgive him for being a product of his time, just as we’re all products of our time?
If you want to replace statues, I understand. But couldn’t the reason be that, say, Paul Revere had 120 years to scowl down at some godforsaken traffic circle in Palookaville and now it’s time to give someone else a chance? Someone like, well, me? Or we could just choose candidates at random from the phone book. Of course, there is no phone book any more, which brings us back to me being old.
Excerpted from A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries (2003 to 2020), by David Sedaris, published this week by Little, Brown