Sara Brenes-Akerman | Humanizing cape-less heroes
A Likely Story | Remembering Sedaris’ humanity made meeting him more rewarding
October 20, 2011, 12:46 am·
A Likely Story
As I walked into the theater lobby, I was flabbergasted. Right there, less than a couple of feet away, sat the man himself. Signing books, smiling and schmoozing was the writer that I had grown so immensely fond of over the last few years. My love began, as for many others, with the “SantaLand Diaries”: colored with biting observations, unexpected depth and the best impression of Billie Holiday ever, this recollection of days spent as a Macy’s elf won me over immediately. Since then, I have laughed to tears reading “Jesus Shaves” and “Six to Eight Black Men” and have sent links to his pieces to anyone who has cared to click. Which is to say that I have granted him the title of faultless personal hero. And this is where my problem lies.
Perhaps what has always impressed me most about David Sedaris is his capacity to be as ruthlessly critical of others as he is to show his own deep-seated vulnerability. Whether he is recounting stories about flying business class, finding love, shopping at Costco or growing up, he is sure to remind the reader that he is every bit as human — with all of the embarrassment and blunders that the condition entails — as the reader herself.
There is, I believe, great generosity in this — both toward himself and others. He is both the guy with the unbeatable wit and the man who wore an elf outfit for two years. And he doesn’t expect you to overlook either one.
This is a generosity that I myself lack.
I expect my personal heroes to be perfect — to be the people whom I have meticulously imagined them to be.
As the lights of the theater went down, I took a seat. It was only a couple of minutes before Sedaris came on stage and began to read some unpublished work. His distinctive voice warmed the room as he showed off his flawless comedic timing. I laughed out loud for most of the two hours, glowing with the joy of fulfilled expectations. His approachability during the Q&A that wrapped up the show only rendered him more likable. He talked about his writing process, his upcoming vacations and his sister. All the while, invigorating my image of him as an always funny and effortlessly awesome individual.
It is no surprise, then, that as I was lining up to get my own book signed, I scrambled for what to say, afraid that it would suck. After all, it had happened before. Not with Sedaris per se but with others that, like him, I had idealized out of proportion.
My previous encounters with Guillermo del Toro and Junot Díaz — two people for whom I had amassed vast seas of admiration — had both left me feeling empty inside. Not because they themselves weren’t remarkable but rather because I expected them to change my life with a look. By failing to recognize them as human and pegging them as superhuman instead, I had left room for nothing but disappointment.
So when I lined up to speak to Sedaris, I knew that if I wanted this to go differently, something had to change. I had to change. My meetings with del Toro and Díaz helped me come to the hard-earned realization that true admiration lies in being able to love what is flawed in your heroes as much as you love what is flawless in them. In fact, they forced me to go as far as admitting that this desire for cape-less superheroes was nothing but a remnant of childhood. A time spent assuming people to be either perfect or imperfect and allowing very little space in between — which might just be the space where all people fall.
When my turn finally arrived, I went up excitedly. Sedaris signed my book, we exchanged kind words and I left, happy. It wasn’t life altering, but it didn’t have to be.
Seeing Sedaris as both an ordinary man and an astonishing writer, instead of foolishly insisting on recognizing only the latter, felt like the much wiser choice. Demanding earth-shattering perfection seemed not only unfair but, more importantly, blind to the fact that he wouldn’t be any less extraordinary if he were imperfect. After all, if what I admire most about his work is the beauty and the humanity contained in his shortcomings, why not extend the same courtesy to the real-life man?
Sara Brenes-Akerman is a College senior from Costa Rica. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. A Likely Story appears every other Thursday.