David Sedaris on Health Care
David Sedaris is king of the humorous essay. Even if you've never read one of his books (Me Talk Pretty One Day, When You Are Engulfed in Flames), you've probably heard his "SantaLand Diaries" on public radio at Christmastime. For nearly 20 years, he's hooked readers with his stories about growing up in the South, quitting smoking, traveling, searching for the perfect skeleton to give to his partner-you know, day-to-day stuff that leaves you hooting with laughter.
Diabetes Forecast heard that his latest book is called Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls, so of course we were intrigued. And what a book it is! Sedaris touches on topics ranging from taxidermy to waiting at the airport, from picking up trash in his neighborhood to getting his first colonoscopy.
We read it cover to cover. No mention of diabetes. What gives? We spoke by phone with Sedaris, who was at his home in France, to get some answers, to hear about his experiences with health care systems in the United States and Europe, and to get a few laughs along the way.
So I read your book and I loved it, but there's no mention of diabetes. Yet there is a story about owls. Where'd you get the title?
I was signing books a couple of years ago-I love signing books. I always imagine that every book is going to end up in a thrift shop. That's OK. I understand. But when someone goes to a thrift store and they open the book, I don't want them to read an inscription that says, "Keep laughing!" That's not something I would ever say.
But every now and then you get somebody who's kind of pushy. This woman wanted me to write to her daughter and say, "Explore your possibilities." So I said, "I'll keep the word ‘explore.' Explore ... diabetes ... with owls. Oh my God, that's the title of my next book!"
I don't think I ever would have written it unless that woman had tried to strong-arm me. It kind of sounds like those Golden Books: Let's explore diabetes with owls; let's explore iron alloys with, oh, I don't know, who would be a good creature to explore that with? Or maybe explore everything with owls! Let's explore tax deductions with owls. You're either the kind of person who's going to reach for that book or you're not.
And owls and diabetes don't necessarily go hand in hand. You wouldn't think of them together, so it's a catchy title.
I shared it with my agent, who's really capable. And she said, "I did some reading, and it turns out owls have an all-protein diet."
A low glycemic index diet, for sure! But what should people with diabetes think of the title?
People think if you write humor, you're automatically making fun of something if you're mentioning it. Someone had said to me, is the book making fun diabetes? And, no, I don't think it is. It's such a beautiful title, I think I'll be OK.
Do you have diabetes? Or does someone you know live with it?
I do seem to know a lot of people who are diabetic now. My sister-in-law has diabetes, and [it seems] all of a sudden I just woke up one day and half my address book had diabetes. I don't know if it's my age, because I'm 56 now. I know a couple of people who've had it since they were young. But the majority of people [have gotten it recently].
[I have a friend in France who,] the very first time we went to his house, he gave himself an [insulin] injection in the stomach at the table. I was just so delighted that he'd do that! And he answered all my questions. It is so un-French, but I liked that he did that.
You write so openly about health, including your own. In fact, my favorite story of yours is the one with your boil ("Old Faithful"). It's brave to write about your own health! What makes you write about health?
I think it is because everybody's gone through it. Even if I'm writing about a topic that might seem, oh, I don't know, specific, like trying to learn another language. I don't know that there's anything you're writing about that you can't approach it in such a way that people can relate to it. When I write about my relationship with [his partner] Hugh, hopefully I write about it in a way that anyone in a relationship can relate to it. You don't have to be gay. They're really just stories about trying to make a life with someone or trying to sustain a life with someone. So, I guess I just figure, even with that colonoscopy story ["The Happy Place"], everyone over 50 can relate to that.
And you liked your colonoscopy!
I absolutely loved it. I can't wait for my next one.
Some of my favorite stories are about your experiences living in other cultures, and some of those are health stories, too.
In the book, I wrote about my French dentist ["Dentists Without Borders"]. Somebody said, "You're writing about the perils of French dentistry." But there's no perils at all! That's just my experience. How many people who come [to Europe] say, "Oh, I would never go to the doctor there"? Like they think doctors don't have to have any training here. If I broke my leg in the United States, I'd crawl to the airport, get on a plane, and go to a hospital here.
I had a kidney stone in France, and I'm in the hospital for four hours, and then they insisted that I come back for some follow-up the next week. They sent me a bill for $70. Then I had a kidney stone in Westchester [County, N.Y.], and the bill was $4,500.
Now I live in England. We have a house in West Sussex. I was supposed to go to Sweden, and I was convinced something was going to screw up my trip. Then I had a taste in the back of my throat and decided I had an abscessed tooth and pus was dripping down the back of my throat. I called the dentist and said, "I have an emergency situation." It's 9 in the morning. They said, "Can you come in at 11?" I came in and she said, "I honestly don't see anything wrong here." But she took an X-ray.... I went to pay ... and it was $70 again.
That's so different from what many people in the U.S. experience. We hear from readers all the time about the costs of medication, of diabetes testing supplies.
It's different ... for the people who are sick and who get sick [in the U.S.]. My brother-in-law-he's 63, he lost his job. He got that COBRA, but it's about to run out. And my older sister got a job at Starbucks because someone had to have health insurance. There's a lot to be said to not have to worry that you're going to have to sell your house; that you'd lose everything. It just seems so undignified, when I go back to the U.S., when I see people whose financial worries mean they can't get the help that they need or they can't afford the help that they need.
One of the reasons that I can't break up with Hugh: You know, every now and then you'll see someone with a goiter the size of a cantaloupe before they see a doctor? That's me, completely. I would wait and think it's going to go away. I just can't deal with this; I pretend it's not happening. The first [kidney stone] I had when I was in New York City. I had no health insurance, and I had no idea what was happening to me, but I knew I couldn't go to the hospital because I couldn't afford it. ... The pain lasted for 12 hours. I peed what looked like a piece of gravel from an aquarium. I thought, "Oh, I bet it's a kidney stone," but [to have gone to the hospital for it], it would have cost me thousands of dollars, which would be like tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands to me now.
Another yikes! OK, so you're going on a bookstore tour. What should people expect?
When a book comes out, I always think it's important to go to bookstores. When you're in theaters, those are people who can afford-what?-a $50 ticket, $60? Maybe a babysitter, maybe they had dinner. That's a really expensive evening. But when you're in a bookstore, you can just come. It doesn't cost you anything. Someone can stand in line and maybe have a book signed, or maybe don't have a book signed, maybe just ask me a question.
People ask, "Don't you get tired of it?" It's all I ever wanted; it's all I ever dreamed about. My record signing books is 10½ hours. But that's 10½ hours of people waiting in line to tell you they love you. That's like my childhood dream. It's not wasted on me. I could never get enough. Never.
I love that. And what about your readers with diabetes-what should they expect?
I wonder if they'd be really disappointed, if they'd think they'd read the whole thing thinking maybe the word "diabetes" will be on the next page! I would say, focus on the word "owl." Owls are mentioned quite a few times.