|A Review By Rebecca James|
|When You Are Engulfed in Flames David Sedaris (June 2008)
I always hate it when receptionists at doctor's offices ask why I need an appointment. There's nothing better than describing bodily fluids, rashes, odors, or protruding bones to a completely untrained stranger over the phone only to have to further embarrass myself with a nurse again before I can actually see the doctor. In my attempts to be cryptic, I never fail to confuse both the receptionist and myself with my answers. This time was no exception: "I can't breathe," I said. Silence. "Well, not really. Not now. I mean, now, it's not easy but I'm talking to you so obviously I'm still breathing. Or I would have called 911. Unless, of course, I really wasn't breathing. Then I'd be dead. Let's just say my chest is tight. Not tight like my students would say instead of hot. Although it is hot. Small, I guess, but hot. Well I think so. Anyway, haha, yeah." Needless to say, when I got there, I had an entire hour blocked off on his schedule and a referral to a mental health facility.
David Sedaris is one author whose ramblings I always enjoy. I like to imagine that he would have a similar experience, if only because we share a certain ineptitude with some social situations like mine above. His latest memoir When You Are Engulfed in Flames is filled with accounts of his odd yet humorous take on everyday experiences: "I've been around for nearly half a century, yet still I'm afraid of everything and everyone. A child sits beside me on a plane and I make conversation, thinking how stupid I must sound. The downstairs neighbors invite me to a party and, after claiming that I have a previous engagement, I spend the entire evening confined to my bed, afraid to walk around because they might hear my footsteps." I have been known to be a little paranoid myself.
My actual doctor's appointment was no better. My doc is smooth and concerned. He orders blood tests, a chest X-ray, and a cardiogram. A heartrate check, he explains. A nurse comes in to apply a dozen little sticky circles with silver nipples in the centers. She then takes what looks like the equivalent of a dozen electrified nipple clamps and hooks them on. Intriguing, but since they are not actually on my personal nipples, I let the jokes remain silent. The machine whirrs to life and begins to fill out what looks like a polygraph test. I begin confessing. "Ok, I really had a bottle of red wine last night, not a glass. I don't sleep eight hours a night. I lied about my last period because I never write that shit down." As I continue to babble, the frantically jerking mechanical arm suddenly veers from its predictable path with a giant swoop downward. Great. Now my heart has stopped completely. The nurse just frowns. I begin to perspire lightly. Deftly, she removes the nipple clamps and packs up. "He'll be in soon," is all I get.
Sedaris, who is also known for his best selling memoirs Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dress Your family in Corduroy and Denim as well as earlier works, has a self-deprecating tone that works well with his subject matter: namely, his family, his boyfriend Hugh, and his own special perspective on life (although I don't recall nipple clamps in this book). He is able to twist his own experiences so much that when he doesn't have to twist, he feels compelled to tell his readership: "When I'd tell people about this later, they'd say, "Oh, come on," because it was all too much, really. An arthritic psychic, a ramshackle house, and either two or four crazy people, depending on your tolerance for hats. Harder to swallow is that each one of us is a clich. It was as if you'd taken a Carson McCullers novel, mixed it with a Tennessee Williams play, and dumped all the sets and characters into a single box. I didn't add that Sister Sykes used to own a squirrel monkey, as it only amounted to overkill." Sedaris's imagination often adds highlights to his writing.
Fifteen minutes go by after my heart stopped, a span of time long enough for me to imagine myself into a snow white hospital bed, my pale, thin cheeks resisting the affections of hordes of loved ones saying their last goodbyes, their tears taking the burden off my bravely dry eyes. I am halfway through my eulogy when the doc walks back in. "Looks good," he says cheerfully. "Let's talk about nutrition. You run about 30 miles a week and are trying to increase that number. What do you eat?" Eagerly, I tell him about my commitment to organic and mostly vegetarian foods. Typical day? Breakfast: Granola bar. Coffee. Lunch: Hummus. Carrots. Pumpernickel pretzels. Milk. Dinner: Glass(es) of red wine and maybe a salad. "Hmm. I think I see the problem. Your body is an engine, Becca. It needs fuel." Apparently not made from fermented grapes. He gives me his orders and an inhaler as a temporary fix (he mimes flicking it open for me and breathing in the powder from the little hole. I try it, feeling like a teenager taking her first hit off the communal bong. He notes that I don't have to hold my breathsee!?and ignores my jokes), and I march off to the vitamin store, list and credit card in hand. I emerge, dazed, hours later, spent in various ways, with an armload of protein powder, liquid B-complex, and numerous pills I will inevitably forget to take.
Readers will have to take in Sedaris's writing as individual short essays; if you try and read the book as a more cohesive unit, its lack of transition between essays may disturb you as a reader. But if you enjoyed Sedaris's other books, then you understand his writing, and When You Are Engulfed in Flames picks out other pieces of his life that are equally humorous.
After the blood tests are back, my doc calls me back in and adds iron supplements ("Your iron level is four, Becca. Four. Not good.") and a stress test (He ignores my bark of laughter. Yes, I'm under stress. I'm a full-time teacher and grad student with all sorts of confusion in my personal life acting as a nice back to work stress.) Back at home, I blend up a chocolaty yet slightly green protein shake and line up my arsenal of pills. Half-marathon, here I come.
Rebecca James divides her time between teaching and studying in Pennsylvania and reading and relaxing in Rehoboth Beach. She enjoys relating books to her own life. If you'd like to recommend a book or make a comment, she may be reached at james.rebeccaa @gmail.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 18, No. 07 June 13, 2008