For part I of my “Lets Explore Diabetes With Owls” review, click here.
Instead of posting something midway through David Sedaris’ latest book of essays – “Let’s explore diabetes with owls” – like I intended to do, I plowed through the final 190-plus pages in a handful of sittings over the last week or so because I was committed to answering our initial question.
What in the hell could a title like that possibly mean?
In the first post, I wrote “I suspect I’ll have an inkling” at the end of the books as to what the title means, and here I am, with no more pages left to parse through for clues, and … I don’t have a great answer for you.
Here’s my best wild guess: “Diabetes” could be taken as a representation of Sedaris’ relationship with his family or, more specifically, his father.
It’s a disease. Some days it makes him deathly ill. Other days it’s merely an inconvenience. Curable? No. But it’s manageable with the proper amount of care and attention.
If you really want to stretch the metaphor, Sedaris’ wit and self-deprecating nature are his insulin, the only things that allow him to survive a lifetime of barbs and condescending remarks without being pushed to the point of vacating all sense of heritage and ancestral connection.
The “owl” part could be taken a couple ways. The chapter “Understanding Understanding Owls” begins with this:
Does there come a day in every man’s life when he looks around and says to himself, “I’ve got to weed out some of these owls?” I can’t be alone in this, can I? And, of course, you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Therefore you keep the crocheted owl given to you by your second-youngest sister and accidentally on purpose drop the mug that reads “Owls Love You Always” and was sent by someone who clearly never knew you to begin with.
In this context, the owls could be pieces of a preexisting life that you adopted for various disingenuous reasons. It’s what you thought your parents want; it’s what you believed was necessary to fit into a desirable crowd; it’s part of a young dream that you’d grow to realize was nothing more than fantasy.
Not until you grow older and come into yourself as an adult do you see the shards of adolescence that must be shed if you’re going to live your life and not another’s version of it. I suppose this could be one interpretation of “owls” in the title.
I prefer to see the “owl” here as David himself. He describes a time in the late 1990s when he was living in New York with his boyfriend Hugh, who had a painting business. Here’s the next part, quoted from the book:
One of his clients had bought a new apartment, and on the high, domed ceiling of her entryway she wanted a skyful of birds. Hugh began with warblers and meadowlarks. He sketched some cardinals and blue tits for color and was just wondering if it wasn’t too busy when she asked if he could add some owls.
It made no sense naturewise – owls and songbirds work different shifts, and even if they didn’t they would still never be friends.
Through the contentious interactions with his family and the serially awkward events of his childhood, it’s clear Sedaris struggled to fit in with the warblers and meadowlarks of his younger days.
He worked his own shift and for a variety of reasons – from his sarcastic intellect to his sexuality – didn’t mesh with the primary occupants of his life at that time (i.e. father, other family members, neighborhood kids his dad wish he’d be like, etc.)
So through my admittedly liberal translation of “Let’s explore diabetes with owls,” I read it as exploring Sedaris’ relationship with his father/family through all the uncomfortable ways Sedaris could never be what he/they wanted him to be, but only his own imperfect, estranged self.
This is the point where I self-consciously envision Sedaris laughing his ass off in a London coffee shop, as I carelessly put words and meaning in his mouth and publish them to the world, and thinking, “You idiot – you’re not even close to understanding what I meant.”
I blush at the mere taste of that shame. But, alas, I’m grasping at short straws and this is my best shot at interpretation. So please, Mr. Sedaris and readers, forgive me if this is a woeful failure.
I want to end, appropriately I think, with a note about the second-to-last chapter in the book called “The Happy Place.”
On the surface, it’s about getting a colonoscopy. Sedaris’ father told him for years to get one, but it wasn’t until his sister, Lisa, told him how great it was – because of the drugs they give you and the wonderful feelings those induce – that he decided to do it.
When the anesthesiologist is loading patients up, they tell them to go to their “happy place” right before they pass out. For Sedaris, that ultimately was a place with much deeper meaning. Here’s Sedaris, in his words, after he got home from the procedure and his father called:
I wanted to thank him for all the years of pestering me, to concede that he’d had my best interests at heart, but instead, unable to stop myself, I said, “Dad, they found something. And Dad … Daddy … I have cancer.”
It’s horrible, I know, but I’d somehow been waiting all my life to say those words. During fits of self-pity I had practiced them like lines in a play, never thinking of the person I’d be delivering them to but only of myself, and of how tragic I would sound. The “Daddy” bit surprised me, though, so much so that tears sprang forth and clouded my vision.
This made it all the harder to see Lisa, who was listening to me from the other end of the sofa and mouthing what could have been any number of things but was probably, emphatically, “You will go to hell for this.”
“The important thing is not to give in to defeat,” my father said. He sounded so strong, so completely his younger, omnipotent self, that I hated to tell him I was kidding. “You’ve got to fight,” he said. “I know that you’re scared, but I’m telling you, son, together we can lick this.”
Eventually I would set him straight, but until then, at least for another few seconds, I wanted to stay in this happy place. So loved and protected. So fulfilled.
There’s both tremendous beauty and pain in that passage.
Your first reaction is negatively visceral – how utterly horrible it is to lie to anyone, let alone a parent, about having the deadliest of illnesses.
But, for me, that quickly morphed into empathy for Sedaris.
All along, there’s this great distance between him and his father that has never closed and likely will never close, and Sedaris does a masterful job of crafting a self-serving façade with the uncanny sharpness of his humor. But tear that down, and what’s left is universal: a son seeking a love and validation that can be passed down only from a father.
Sedaris has a great talent for making fun of the oddities of his life, for creating humor at the expense of his own ostracized character, but his true gift is a poignancy that reminds us all lives share the simplest of bonds.
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