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Suspicious Minds 

Wednesday, Oct 2 1996
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Art can be measured. Take pop songs, for instance: Just about any old tune can sound at least OK on a car radio, but how many pass the Dishwashing Challenge? Real music can communicate its intensity over the whir of running water, and the collision of pots and pans. For calibrating comic writing, there's the Bus Barometer. While mildly amusing texts might spark a commuter's subtle smirk, the truly guffawful inspires embarrassment in the form of condemning glances from other passengers, especially when you laugh out loud so hard you spit in their direction.

The first time I read David Sedaris' book of essays and short stories Barrel Fever, I was on a bus. The person sitting next to me got up and moved to another seat. When I turned to the vindictive letter-from-the-grave called "The Last You'll Hear From Me," I had to restrain myself from yelling at my departed neighbor, "What? You've never seen saliva before? Go ahead and stare. But mark my words, this is the darn funniest suicide note/do-it-yourself eulogy I've ever read!"

I found Sedaris through National Public Radio. He's one of the maybe three people who have ever appeared regularly on Morning Edition who can not only tell a story, but tell a story you've never heard. And, another rarity for that show, he has a voice you can live with -- nasal and small, belonging to a real human being compared to those NPR zombies-for-hire. The first one I caught a few years back made me late for work; Sedaris spoke of a vacation to the French village where his boyfriend owns a fixer-upper house, and hilariously recounted the villagers' patience with his less-than-parfait French.

I spoke to Sedaris last week regarding his upcoming appearance at the Solo Mio Festival, and asked whether his French had progressed over his last few summers in France: "It just doesn't ever seem to improve. And the dictionary gives you 10 words for any given word, and I'm guaranteed to pick the most archaic. I wanted to say 'glove,' and I went to the butcher saying, 'It's cold tonight. Perhaps I will wear the heavy steel mitts that one wears into battle.' "

Lately, Sedaris has been making frequent appearances on Ira Glass' new public radio program, This American Life, offering morsels from his forthcoming book, Naked. A few weeks ago, he and his sister performed a devastating little dramatization of his summer vacation at a North Carolina nudist colony. He says that nudity "was always my worst nightmare. I don't even walk around the house barefoot. I've had sex with my clothes on more often than off. I just can't bear being naked, so I never really expected to actually wind up in a nudist colony. But I would suggest it to anyone. It really did help me to kind of get over myself for a while. I saw a guy without a penis and women who had had mastectomies and they weren't uncomfortable about it and nobody else was either. Nudists are the last people that you would want to see naked.

"I went there thinking they were just a bunch of freaks. By the time I left, I had a completely different outlook. They were really the most conservative people I'd ever met. They're all about family. A lot of nudists would come straight after church on Sundays, taking off their shirts and ties and putting them in the back seat of a car. Once, someone said, 'Let's go into town for lunch.' And I thought, 'Why not go into town? There are movie theaters there.' But someone would say, 'Why go into town for lunch? We can stay here and be naked!' If you enjoy golf, that's not going to keep you from the movies, but if you want to be naked, you can't really go anywhere." Still, he adds, he was occasionally befuddled when nudists would get in their cars and drive off without putting their clothes back on. He says, "I would think, 'Where are they going?' "

In another This American Life spot, Sedaris reminisced about catching "the drama bug" as a teen-ager: "A man came to our classroom, sent by the city to inspire us and get us interested in drama, and I just took one look at him in his tights and I knew that was the life for me." While he tragically wasn't cut out for acting, he deadpans, "like a lot of bad actors, I discovered performance art. I didn't have to act. I could just cut a stuffed animal in half and pour the stuffing into a boot!"

At Solo Mio, he'll give a reading: "Reading out loud -- I love it. There's paper there to protect me. Sometimes, I've been asked if I would memorize, but that just seemed so queer to me. I just hate sitting in an audience and having someone looking at me. It's like, 'Oh shit! He's looking at me!' I look up every now and then, but I don't look at anyone."

David Sedaris appears Friday and Saturday, Oct. 4 and 5, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 6, at 7 p.m. at the Bayfront Theater, on the third floor of Building B at Fort Mason; call 978-2345.

By Sarah Vowell
svowell@aol.com

About The Author

Sarah Vowell

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