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Man's informality to Man
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
For the longest time I simply couldn't understand why humorist David Sedaris was such a big deal to the American book-buying public. The writer, whose collections have sold in the millions since the mid-90's, has become one of the biggest rock starts of the literati-and-lecture set in the past 20 years; each of his books, from "Barrel Fever" (1994) to "When You Are Engulfed in Flames" (2008) has reached the top of the New York Times Best Seller lists, and his phenomenally well-received lectures have been sell outs virtually from their inception. For nearly two decades I've had many smart, literate friends push his books at me, convinced that I'd "totally get this guy," and for years I've pushed them back, saying, No thanks: I totally don't.
Of course I knew who the guy was — as a long-standing, dedicated New Yorker subscriber I'd come across a number of his pieces in the magazine — but I'd never clued into what made him so popular. I remember reading one of his initial published essays in the 90's, and at the time I thought it was amusing, self-deprecating, whimsical, but definitely not my cup of tea. I was more into flame-throwing, snarling hatchet guys back then, guys like Joe Queenan, mean-spirited humorists whose style always struck me as harrowingly funny and true and superior. I thought Sedaris was overrated and too celebrated, and too soft; a NPR favorite, perfect for the Mostly Mozart and white wine fans but without the necessary muscle and grist to interest a misanthrope like me. And it galled me that he was always the "favorite writer" of a bunch of people who didn't read all that much.
Obviously my opinion was tainted by a rather alarmingly sad amount of personal envy. Any writer who tries to scratch jokes into his work is always disconcerted when he discovers someone who is doing it a lot better and a lot smarter (and making a pretty handsome career of it, to boot.) As much as I try to be even-handed and fair-minded in my criticism, there's always a bitchy high-school cheerleader residing at my core, and I can never get her in line. So anybody who plays with my toys, then, is always bound to get the fish-eye from me. It's an astonishingly petty pattern of behavior that I engage in, and please know that I'm not delusional, I realize that David Sedaris worries about my precious bon mots about as often as a bald eagle frets over a goldfish.
Nevertheless, I'm sure David Sedaris will sleep easier to know that I recently read one of his essays in The New Yorker and found it hilarious. The piece, "Standing By," from the August 9, 2010 issue, is a very funny examination of the myriad horrors of modern air travel, and it contained one sentence that made me laugh out loud. Sedaris was talking about the disturbingly slovenly dress of most contemporary air passengers, and he explained it thusly: "It's as if the person next to you had been washing shoe polish off a pig then suddenly threw down his sponge, saying, 'F--- this. I'm going to Los Angeles'."
And like that, I'm a fan. I'm not going to try to break down the joke, for that always curdles humor, but I will say that Sedaris nails something here that I've always been incredibly disconcerted by: the almost complete lack of decorum endemic to modern public dress.
Look, I know it's been hot as blazes for months now, I recognize that the extreme heat and humidity has taken a toll on everybody — but does that really justify anyone wearing drawstring pants in public? I'm a big fan of loungey pants, hell, I've got three pairs at home, but that's where they belong: they're pajamas, for God's sake. Yet last week I saw at least five people wearing drawstring pants outside, in public view, and it was a horrifying sight. And look, I know, people need to express themselves, clothing is expression, et cet., but mother of God, can't we agree on a few basics here? Like when you "dress" to go outside, you "dress" to go outside? It's like we've become a nation of people who roll out of bed, take one glance at the mirror, say, Eh, good enough, and then head out without another thought. And I know people like to "let their hair down" in public every once in a while, but it's getting out of hand. I've seen nothing but downed-hair for a couple of years now and I don't want to see anymore.
I know it's a radical thought, but I like to imagine that when I go outside to greet the world there's a chance that someone might actually notice me. Therefore, it's sort of an unwritten rule that I try not to look like a psychopath or a carnival geek or someone who just swam in a retention pond. And yet I've seen people walking the streets of my fair city wearing clothes in a style that can only be described as "deer hunters on acid" or "Cirque du Soleil meets Hookerville." I don't know whether to run, call the cops, or give them my spare change . But I know, I know: "The clothes are so comfortable!"
And I'm not limiting my scope to just lunatics or MIA's here--even the business types, the "good citizens" have degenerated their public costumes to an incredibly informal degree. The whole concept of "casual dress Fridays"— a bad idea to begin with — has devolved so profoundly that now it's common that former Brooks Brothers types are now wearing get-ups that I wouldn't put on to clean the pool. Is this truly what the business innovators had in mind when they instituted the policy? To have their employees end the week looking like Little League coaches? It's a question that even a great thinker like David Sedaris might have trouble with.