87: A Very Special Sedaris Christmas

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Ira Glass

So David was working, making his living as a maid, basically, cleaning apartments, when the whole Christmas thing hit him. And it hit him by accident. It was all completely by accident that he became a Christmas writer. He never planned it. He basically wrote a story that was excerpts from his diaries when he was working as an elf at Macy's Department Store during the Christmas season.

David Sedaris

I wear green velvet knickers, a forest green velvet smock, and a perky little hat decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform.

Ira Glass

This story was this very popular story. Book deals, movie offers, all sorts of other work poured in, and then after that, every year somebody would ask him to write another Christmas story-- NPR, The New Yorker magazine, the New York Times Op-Ed page. It was a strange assignment to get year after year. And something about it just gave him this strange feeling. He just did not want to be that Christmas guy, the elf.

So he proceeded to write a series of stories that are so dark, and so full of greed and pettiness and spite, that sometimes it seems like David is on a single-handed mission to try to destroy Christmas. But that is an accident too, because the thing about David Sedaris in real life, really, he loves Christmas. I talked to his sister, Tiffany, about it this week from Boston.

Tiffany Sedaris

It's a very serious thing to him. He'll call you in June and say, I'm all done with my Christmas shopping. And I'm like, is there some kind of time change between here and New York that I don't know anything about? Because it's, like, 110 here.

Ira Glass

His sister, Amy, confirms this.

Amy Sedaris

Man, he is. He gets dressed up. He stays up really late on Christmas Eve, on the tree, just staring at the tree, and shaking presents so hard that they would break, until you would hear some kind of rattling going on.

Ira Glass

David's father, Lou.

Lou Sedaris

My money didn't mean anything. To him, it was important that everybody spent as much money, I guess, as he spent on them.

Ira Glass

Oh, really?

Lou Sedaris

Oh, yeah.

David Sedaris

I keep a list every year of what I gave everybody and how much it cost, and what they gave me and how much I think that cost.

Ira Glass

Incredibly, David did confirm his father's story.

David Sedaris

Because a lot of people, you can ask in February, what did you get for Christmas? And they won't even remember. So this allows me to remember. It also allows me to think, to look over that list and maybe give it a little thought before the next Christmas.

Like last Christmas, Hugh gave me a pillow. A pillow.

Ira Glass

This is your boyfriend, Hugh.

David Sedaris

Yeah, and he disguised it, he put it in a big box, he made it heavy. I had no idea what it was. But I didn't think it was a pillow. A pillow's one of those things you buy together. He gave me a comforter also, as if I slept on the couch, and this was my comforter, and he could never use it.

Ira Glass

So you noted that in the list.

David Sedaris

Yes, I noted it.

Ira Glass

And what's it going to mean this year for Christmas, for Hugh?

David Sedaris

Well, it should've meant trouble for him. But actually, I got him something-- he's going to have to be nice to me for the next 12 years. Another good thing about it, is you just know how much it cost. Usually, if I give a present that's over a certain amount, I leave the price tag on and say, that's in case you wanted to exchange it. Or sometimes I'll add zeros or ones to the price tag that already exists. If you're going to spend that much money, people to know.

Ira Glass

I should probably explain what's going on here to anybody listening to the radio right now. We are broadcasting today from a huge auditorium in Los Angeles. And I'm on stage.


Thank you. I'm on stage. There's a Christmas tree, and there's a toy train set. And there's lots of poinsettias, and stockings are hung by the chimney with care. And besides that, there are no lights on at all. And the audience here in the theater, I think, is beginning to wonder, is the whole show going to be this way? People, I think, are saying, this is a little too much like the radio show. We paid 21 bucks, So let's bring the lights up.

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program--


Today on our program, A Very Special David Sedaris Christmas. Thanks to public radio station KCRW in Santa Monica, we are here today in the thrillingly large Wadsworth Theatre in Los Angeles. On our program today, stories from David Sedaris' new book of Christmas stories, Holidays on Ice, read by David, Julia Sweeney, and Matt Malloy. Act One of our program, Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol. A high-powered drama critic deploys his skills to critique the Christmas pageants at local elementary schools.

Act Two, Seasons Greetings to Our Friends and Family! The annual holiday letter from one typical American family.

Act Three, Based on a True Story. What happens when you mix a TV producer, a small town church, a miracle, a side-by-side refrigerator, and $1,200 cash. Stay with us.

Act One: Front Row Center With Thaddeus Bristol

Ira Glass

Act One, Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol. Our first reader is David Sedaris.

David Sedaris

Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol. Trite Christmas-- Scottsfield's young hams offer the blandest of holiday fare.

The approach of Christmas signifies three things-- bad movies, unforgivable television, and even worse theater. I'm talking bone-crushing theater, the type our ancient ancestors used to oppress their enemies before the invention of the stretching rack. We're talking torture on a par with the Scottsfield Dinner Theater's 1994 revival of Come Blow Your Horn, a production that violated every tenet of the Human Rights Accord.

To those of you who enjoy the comfort of a nice set of thumbscrews, allow me to recommend any of the crucified holiday plays and pageants currently eliciting screams of mercy from within the confines of our local elementary and middle schools. I will, no doubt, be taken to task for criticizing the work of children. But as any pathologist will agree, if there's a cancer, it's best to treat it as soon as possible.

If you happen to stand over four feet tall, the agony awaiting you at Sacred Heart Elementary began the moment you took your seat. These were mean little chairs, corralled into a theater haunted by the lingering stench of industrial-strength lasagna. My question is not why they chose to stage the production in a poorly-disguised cafeteria but why they chose to stage it at all. The story of the first Christmas is an overrated clunker of a holiday pageant, best left to those looking to cure their chronic insomnia.

Although the program listed no director, the apathetic staging suggested the limp, partially-paralyzed hand of Sister Mary Elizabeth Bronson, who should've been excommunicated after last season's disasterous Thanksgiving program. Here again, the first through third-grade actors graced the stage with an enthusiasm most children reserve for a smallpox vaccination. One could hardly blame them for their lack of vitality, as the stingy, uninspired script consists not of springy dialogue but rather of a deadening series of pronouncements.

Mary to Joseph, I am tired. Joseph to Mary, we will rest here for the night. There's no fire, no give and take. And the audience soon grows weary of this passionless relationship.

In the role of Mary, six-year-old Shannon Burke just barely manages to pass herself off as a virgin. A cloying, preening stage presence, her performance seemed based on nothing but an annoying proclivity towards lifting her skirt and, on rare occasion, opening her eyes.

As Joseph, second-grade student Douglas Trazzare needed to be reminded that although his character did not technically impregnate the virgin mother, he should behave as though he were capable of doing so. Thrown into the mix were a handful of inattentive shepherds and a trio of gift-bearing seven-year-olds who could probably give The Three Stooges a run for their money.

As for the lighting, Sacred Heart Elementary chose to rely on nothing more than the flashbulbs ignited by the obnoxious stage mothers and fathers who had created those zombies, staggering back and forth across the linoleum-floored dining hall. Pointing to the oversized crate that served as a manger, one particularly insufficient wise man proclaimed, a child is bored. Yes, well, so is this adult.

Once again, the sadists at the Jane Snow-Hernandez Middle School have taken up their burning pokers in an attempt to prod A Christmas Carol into some form of submission. I might have overlooked the shoddy production values and dry, leaden pacing, but these are sixth graders we're talking about, and they ought to know better. There's really no point in adapting this Dickensian stinker, unless you're capable of looking beyond the novel's dime-store morality and getting to what little theatrical meat the story has to offer. The point is to eviscerate the gooey center, but here, it's served up as the entree. And a foul pudding it is.

Most of the blame goes to the director, 11-year-old Becky Michaels, who seems to have picked up her staging secrets from the school's crossing guard. She tends to clump her actors, moving them only in groups of five or more. A strong proponent of trendy, racially-mixed casting, Michaels gives us a black Tiny Tim, leaving the audience to wonder, what, is this kid supposed to be adopted? It's a distracting move, wrongheaded and pointless.

The role was played by young Lamar Williams who, if nothing else, managed to sustain a decent limp. The program noted that he'd recently lost his right foot to diabetes, but was that reason enough to cast him? As Tiny Tim, the boy's spends his stage time essentially trawling for sympathy, stealing focus from even the brightly-lit exit sign.

I was gagging from the smell of spray-painted sneakers, and if I see one more top hat made from an oatmeal canister, I swear to god, I'm going to pull out a gun. The problem with all of these shows stems partially from their maddening eagerness to please. With smiles stretched tight as bungee cords, these hopeless amateurs pranced and gamboled across our local stages, hiding behind their youth and begging-- practically demanding-- we forgive their egregious mistakes.

While billing themselves as holiday entertainment, none of these productions came close to capturing the true spirit of Christmas. This glaring irony seemed to escape the throngs of ticket holders who ate these undercooked turkeys right down to the bone. Here were audiences that chuckled at every technical snafu, and applauded riotously each time a new character wandered out onto the stage. With the close of every curtain, they leapt to their feet in one ovation after another, leaving me wedged into my doll-sized chair and wondering, is it just them, or am I missing something?

Ira Glass

David Sedaris.

Act Two: Seasons Greetings To Our Friends And Family!

Ira Glass

Act Two, Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family! Well, our reader for this next story is Julia Sweeney, who completely rocks. Julia is a writer and actress. She was a cast member on Saturday Night Live for four years. Her sad and comic memoir of life with cancer, God Said, "Ha!", ran on Broadway this year, and a film of that one-woman show is going to be released next year in theaters. Please welcome her.

Julia Sweeney

Season's greetings to our friends and family. Many of you, our friends and family, are probably taken aback by this, our annual holiday newsletter. You've read of our recent tragedy in the newspapers and were, no doubt, thinking that with all of their sudden legal woes and hassles, the Dunbar clan might be just sticking their heads in the sand and avoiding this upcoming holiday season altogether. Well, think again.

Our tree is standing tall in the living room. The stockings are hung, and we are eagerly awaiting the arrival of a certain portly gentleman who goes by the name of St. Nick. Our trusty PC printed out our wish lists weeks ago, and now we're cranking it up again to wish you and yours the merriest of Christmas seasons from the entire Dunbar family, Clifford, Jocelyn, Kevin, Jacki, Kyle, and Khe Sahn.

Some of you are probably reading this and scratching your heads over the name Khe Sahn. That certainly doesn't fit with the rest of the family names, you're saying to yourself. What, did those crazy Dunbars get themselves a Siamese cat? Well, you're close. To those of you live in a cave and haven't heard the news, allow us to introduce Khe Sahn Dunbar who, at the age of 22, happens to be the newest member of our family. Surprised? Join the club.

It appears that Clifford-- husband of yours truly and father to our three natural children-- accidentally planted the seeds for Khe Sahn 22 years ago during his stint in, where else, Vietnam. Clifford Dunbar, 22 years ago, a young man in a war-torn country, made a mistake, a terrible, heinous mistake. A stupid, thoughtless, permanent mistake with dreadful, haunting consequences.

But who are you-- who are any of us-- to judge him for it, especially now with Christmas at our heels. Who are we to judge? Khe Sahn arrived at our door on, as fate would have it, Halloween. I recall mistaking her for a trick-or-treater. She wore, I remember, a skirt the size of a beer cozy, a short, furry jacket, and on her face, enough rouge, eye shadow and lipstick to paint our entire house inside and out. She's a very small person, and I mistook her for a child, a child masquerading as a prostitute.

I handed her a fistful of chocolate nougats, hoping that, like the other children, she would quickly move on to the next house. But Khe Sahn was no trick-or-treater. It is frightening that after all this time, a full-grown bastard-- and I use that word technically-- can cross the seas and make herself comfortable in my home, all with the blessing of our government. 22 years ago, Uncle Sam couldn't stand the Vietnamese, and now he's dressing them like prostitutes and moving them into our houses. Out of nowhere, this landmine knocks upon our door, and we are expected to recognize her as our child.

But Khe Sahn hasn't got the ambition God gave a sparrow. She arrived in this house six weeks ago speaking only the words, "daddy," "shiny," and "five dollar now." Quite a vocabulary. While an industrious person might buckle down and seriously study the language of her newly adopted country, Khe Sahn appeared to be in no hurry whatsoever. When asked a simple question-- such as, why don't you go back to where you came from?-- she would touch my hand and launch into a spasm of Vietnamese drivel, as if I were an outsider, as if I were expected to learn her language.

Clifford suggested that we hire an English tutor, but I am not in the habit of throwing my money away. And that, my friends, is what it would have amounted to. Why not hire an expensive private tutor to teach the squirrels to speak in French? It would be no more ridiculous than teaching Khe Sahn English. A person has to want to learn. I know that. Apparently, back in Ho Chi Minh City, her majesty was treated like a queen and sees no reason to change her ways.

Her highness rises around noon, wolfs down a fish or two-- all she eats is fish and chicken breasts-- and settles herself before the make up mirror, waiting for her father to return home from work. At the sound of his car in the driveway, she perks up and races to the door like a spaniel, panting and wagging her tail to beat the band. Suddenly, she is eager to please and attempt conversation. Well, I don't know how they behave in Vietnam, but in the United States, it is not customary for a half-dressed daughter to offer her father a five-dollar massage.

After having spent an exhausting day attempting to communicate a list of simple chores, I would stand in amazement of Khe Sahn's sudden grasp of English when faced with my husband. "Daddy happy five-dollar shiny now, OK? You big feet friendly with ABC Khe Sahn you Big Bird daddy Grover." Apparently, she'd picked up a few words while watching Sesame Street.

It was a taxing experience for us all, especially our daughter Jackelyn, whose nerves have been, well, permanently jangled by drugs. You may have heard something about this and, no doubt, understand that it wasn't our fault. We had, of course, warned Jackelyn against marrying Timothy Speaks. We warned, we threatened, cautioned, advised, what have you, but it did no good, as a young girl with all the evidence before her only sees what she wants to see. The marriage was bad enough, but the news of her pregnancy struck her father and me with the force of a hurricane.

Timothy Speaks, the father of our grandchild? How could it be? Timothy Speaks, who has so many pierced holes in his ears you could have torn the lobe right off, effortlessly ripped it loose the same way you might separate a stamp from a sheet. We, of course, saw it coming. Faced with the concrete responsibility of fatherhood, Timothy Speaks abandoned his sick wife and child. Suddenly. Gone. Poof.

Surprised? Well, we saw it coming. We have all read the studies and understand that a drug-addicted baby faces a difficult, uphill battle in terms of living a normal life. This child, having been given the legal name Satan Speaks, would, we felt, have a harder time than most. We were lucky enough to get Jacki into a fine treatment center on the condition that the child remain here with us until which time, if ever, she was able to assume responsibility for him.

The child arrived at our home on November 10, and shortly thereafter, following her initial withdrawal, Jacki granted us permission to address it as Don. Don, a nice, simple name. While I could not describe him as being a normal baby, taking care of young Don gave me a great deal of pleasure. Terribly insistent, prone to hideous rashes, a 24-hour, round-the-clock screamer, he was our grandchild, and we loved him. Knowing that he would physically grow into adulthood while maintaining the attention span of a common house fly did not in the least bit diminish our feelings for him.

Clifford would sometimes joke that Don was a crack baby because he woke us at the crack of dawn. I would then take the opportunity to mention the Khe Sahn was something of a crack baby herself, wandering around our house at all hours of the day and night wearing nothing but a pair of hot pants and a glorified sports bra. Clifford suggested that I buy her a few decent dresses. So I made her several outfits, sewed them with my own hands, two floor-length dresses, beautiful burlap dresses. But she [? didn't ?] wear them.

When the winter winds began to blow, she took to draping herself in a bed blanket, huddling beside the fireplace. She carried on, following at Clifford's heels until Thanksgiving Day, when she was introduced to our son, Kevin, home for the holiday. After graduating Moody High with honors, Kevin is currently enrolled in his third year at Feeny State, majoring in chemical engineering. He's made the honor roll every semester, and there seems to be no stopping him. We love you, Kevin.

But one look at Kevin and it was "Clifford? Clifford Who?" as far as Khe Sahn was concerned. One look at our handsome son and the shivering victim dropped her blanket and showed her true colors. She ruined our holiday dinner with her giggling, coy games. She sat beside Kevin until, insisting she'd seen a spider in her chair, she moved onto his lap.

"You new funky master jam party mix silly fresh spider five dollar Big Bird."

Now, those of you who know Kevin understand that while he is an absolute whip at some things, he's terribly naive at others. Tall and good looking, easy with a smile and a kind word, Kevin has been the target of many a huntress. I could barely choke down my meal and found myself counting the minutes before Kevin, the greatest joy of our lives, called an end to the private English lesson he gave Khe Sahn in her bedroom, got into his car, and returned to Feeny State.

He's not for you, I yelled at her. I have been criticized for yelling, told that it doesn't serve any real purpose when speaking to a foreigner, but at least it gets their attention. Both my son and my husband are off limits, as far as you're concerned. Do you understand? They are each related to you in one way or another, and that makes it wrong-- automatically wrong. Bad, bad, wrong. Wrong and bad together.

I gave up. Trying to explain moral principles to Khe Sahn was like reviewing a standard 1040 tax form with a house cat. She understands only what she chooses to understand. We were approaching Christmas, December 16, when I made the thoughtless mistake of asking her to watch the child while I ran some errands. It was nine days before Christmas, and as busy as I was, I hadn't bought a single gift. Santa, where are you?

Watch the baby, I said, as we stood over the crib and observed the wailing infant. I picked him up and rocked him gently as he struggled in my arms. Watch the baby.

Watch baby, Khe Sahn responded, holding out her arms to accept him.

Ugh, what a fool I was! Now, I can't account for every moment of my afternoon. Never did it occur to me that I would one day be called upon to do so, but that being the case, I will report what I remember. I can comfortably testify that on the afternoon of December 16, I visited the White Paw Shopping Center where I spent a brief amount of time in The Slack Heap, searching for a gift for Kyle. I stuck my head inside Turtleneck Crossing and search for candles at Wax and Wane. There are close to 100 shops at the White Paw Center, and you'll have to forgive me if I can't provide a detailed list of how long I spent in this or that store. I shopped until I grew wary of the time.

On the way home, I stopped at the Food Carnival and bought a few items. It was getting dark-- perhaps 4:30-- when I pulled into the driveway of our home on Tiffany Circle. I collected my packages from the car and entered my home where I was immediately struck by an eerie silence. This doesn't feel right to me, I remember saying to myself. It was intuition, a mother's intuition, that unexplainable language of the senses. Something is wrong, I said to myself. Something is terribly, terribly wrong.

Before calling out for Khe Sahn or checking on the baby, I instinctively phoned the police. And then I stood there, stock still in the living room, staring at my shopping bags until they arrived 27 minutes later. At the sound of the squad car in the driveway, Khe Sahn made an entrance, parading down the stairs in a black lace half-slip and a choker made from the cuff of Kevin's old choir robe.

Where is the baby? I asked her. Where is Don? We combed the entire house, the officers and I, before finally finding the helpless baby in the laundry room, warm, but lifeless in the dryer. The autopsy later revealed that Don had also been subjected to a wash cycle-- hot wash, cold rinse. He died long before the spin cycle, which I suppose is the only blessing to be had in this entire, ugly episode. The shock and horror that followed Don's death are something I would rather not recount.

Calling our children to report the news, watching the baby's body, small as a loaf of bread, as it was zipped into the heavy plastic bag, this image has nothing to do with the merriment of Christmas, and I hope my mention of them will not dampen your spirits at this most special and glittery time of the year. The evening of December 16 was a very dark hour for the Dunbar family. At least with Khe Sahn in police custody, we could grieve privately, consoling ourselves with the belief that justice had been carried out.

The bitter tears were still wet upon our faces when the police returned to Tiffany Circle where they began their ruthless questioning of yours truly. Through the aid of interpreter, Khe Sahn had spent a sleepless night at police headquarters constructing a story of unspeakable lies and betrayal. While I'm not at liberty to discuss her exact testimony, allow me to voice my disappointment that anyone, let alone the police, would even think of taking Khe Sahn's word over my own. How could I have placed a helpless child in the machine? And even if I were cruel enough to do such a thing, when would I have found the time? I was out shopping.

You may have read that our so-called neighbor, Cherise Clarmont-Shea, reported that she witnessed me leaving my home at around 1:15 on the afternoon of December 16, and then, 20 minutes later, allegedly park my car on the far corner of Tiffany and Papa George and, in her words, creep through her backyard and in through my basement door.

Well, if the make up she applies is any indication of her vision, then I believe it is safe to say she can't see two inches in front of her, much less testify to the identity of someone she might think she's seen crossing her yard. She's on pills, Everybody knows that. She's desperate for attention, and I might pity her under different circumstances. Cherise Clarmont-Shea has no more sense than a hand puppet. She has three names.

These charges, of course, are ridiculous, yet I must take them seriously, as my very life may be at stake. A hearing has been set for December 27, and knowing how disappointed you, our friends, might feel at being left out, I've included the time and address at the bottom of this letter. The hearing is an opportunity during which you might convey your belated Christmas spirit through deed and action. That heartfelt concern, that desire to stand by your friends and family is the very foundation upon which we celebrate the Christmas season, isn't it?

While this year's Dunbar Christmas will be seasoned with loss and sadness, we plan to proceed as best we can toward that day of days, December 27, 1:45 PM at the White Paw County Courthouse, room 412. I'll be calling you to remind you of that information, and I look forward to discussing the festive bounty of your holiday season. Until that time, we wish the best to you and yours. Merry Christmas, the Dunbars.

Ira Glass

Julia Sweeney. Coming up, Hollywood makes you a Christmas offer you cannot refuse. More David Sedaris Christmas stories. It's in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three: Based On A True Story

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Most weeks on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories from a variety of different writers and reporters and performers on that theme. But today, for the holidays, we bring you a set of Christmas stories by David Sedaris, read by David and others. We are broadcasting from the Wadsworth Theatre in Los Angeles.

We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, Based on a True Story. Christmas stories are a lucrative business, and nobody knew that better than Charles Dickens. Charles Dickens actually-- this is a true story-- he actually wrote his classic story, A Christmas Carol, to get out of debt. And the book was this big hit. And this is 1843. And he proceeded to write another Christmas book every year from 1844 through 1848. And then every year between 1850 and 1867, he would write a Christmas something, somewhere in some magazine.

Dickens, more than any other person, created. or at least popularized, our modern idea of Christmas. Before A Christmas Carol and his other Christmas stories, most people still thought of Christmas as a religious holiday. Dickens basically took the Christ out of Christmas. For Dickens, Christmas was basically just a big party, time to get together with family, drink punch, eat a huge meal, give gifts. John Jordan heads the Dickens Project at UC Santa Cruz.

John Jordan

So the Cratchit family or Scrooge's nephew are models for how to hold a one-day family celebration with the goose or the turkey or whatever.

Ira Glass

Now if Dickens kind of made modern Christmas in his books, what would you say David Sedaris is doing in his new book of Christmas stories?

John Jordan

Well, I think David Sedaris, he reminds me a lot of Scrooge, in a sense, in that he's saying "bah humbug" to the notion of Christmas. And the thing that's different about Sedaris is that Sedaris sustains that pose of disenchantment all the way through the stories, although I don't really believe that he's as dark as he pretends himself to be.

Ira Glass

Oh, really? Why is that? What are you saying?

John Jordan

Well, he's a satirist. And in order to be a satirist, you've got to have implicitly-- if not explicitly-- some standard of value against which you hold up all the things that you're making fun of.

Ira Glass

On of the producers of today's show, Julie Snyder, when we were researching this Dickens stuff, she summarized David's contribution to the Christmas genre this way, "Dickens took the Christ out of Christmas. David takes the fun out of Christmas."

David Sedaris

I guess I could be accused of that. I don't know. I just can't help myself. I'm not trying to ruin-- I'm not trying to bring people down. I think I just tend to write Christmas stories that would make anyone else feel lucky.

Ira Glass

Christmas was an important part of Dickens' livelihood through the end of his life. He was a wonderful reader, and he loved, actually, doing readings on stage, and toured. He toured. And he often read from A Christmas Carol. But sometimes, it bothered him. At some point, it became clear to him that he could not escape Christmas. He had done this thing that he could never get out of, that he could never turn his back on. He was permanently associated with it, and he was stuck.

He wrote, in a letter to his daughter, Mamie, "It was as if I had murdered a Christmas a number of years ago, and its ghost perpetually haunted me."

David Sedaris

That sounds like something I wrote in my diary.

Ira Glass

What'd you say?

David Sedaris

Well, it's the same way I feel about that Santaland story. It will haunt me forever. But I can't escape that. I'm an elf now. It'll be on my headstone.

Ira Glass

And your feelings about that?

David Sedaris

Well, the worst thing about being called an elf is that I really look like one. That's the worst thing. Like, if people were to call me a werewolf, I would think, well, that doesn't matter. I don't look anything like a werewolf. But today's elf is tomorrow's gnome. All it takes is a few more pounds and a little hair loss. I look like I should be living under a bridge with some goats.

Ira Glass

Well, our next story is the story of someone trying to cash in on Christmas by creating a big Christmas story. I heard about this next reader from David, actually. David and I were on the phone one day, and he had just seen the movie In the Company of Men. And he was urging me to see it and doing that by performing large sections of the movie for me over the phone. It's that kind of movie. And I saw it, and I loved it too. And I was really struck by one of the stars of the film, Matt Malloy, who gives, in the film, this great, squirmy, memorable performance. So it is with great pleasure that I welcome Matt Malloy here today on our stage.

Matt Malloy

Good morning, people, and Merry Christmas. Seeing as your minister, Brother Phil Becky, is running a bit late, I thought I'd take this opportunity to say a few words before he wheels himself back in to begin the traditional holiday service. So here I am, folks, filling in for Phil.

"Who is this guy in his hand-tailored Savile Row suit?" you're asking yourselves. Those of you with little or no education are no doubt scratching your heads and thinking, "We ain't never seed him before. How you reckon he keeps his shoes so clean?"

Now, friends, don't get me wrong. I'm not criticizing the way you talk. In fact, I kind of like it. As a people, you so-called hillbillies have made a remarkable contribution to the entertainment industry. And I, for one, thank you for that.

So who am I? For those of you who don't know me, my name is Jim Timothy. And as you probably gathered from my full set of God-given teeth, I'm not from around these parts. You see, folks, I work in the television industry. No, I'm not a repairman but what you call an executive producer. I guess you could call me the guy that makes it all happen.

Due my highly-advanced sense of humor, I spent the first 10 years of my career developing situation comedies, or what we in the business like to refer to as "sitcoms." It was me who helped create such programs as Eight on a Raft, Darn Those Fleischmans, The Dating Cave, and Crackers and Company, a show you are probably familiar with, about a group of ignorant rednecks such as yourself. And I mean that in a good way.

According to old man Webster, ignorant means lacking in knowledge and experience, which, let me tell you, can be something of a blessing. There's not a day that passes when I don't spend a few moments wondering if some of us aren't just a little too smart for our own good. You people with your simple, unremarkable lives know nothing about production schedules or the sky-high salaries demanded by certain so-called entertainers, who could give the Arabs themselves a few pointers on terrorism.

I, on the other hand, know nothing about scabies, so maybe we're even.

Due in large part to my extraordinary interpersonal relationship skills, I was eventually snatched up by a rival network and put in charge of dramatic programming. No, I'm not talking about the vapid soap operas people like you tend to enjoy. I'm referring to the hard-hitting, socially-relevant, and meaningful programs that reflect what's really going on in this country of ours.

Without a laugh track or a standard 22-minute time frame, these are the shows that touch your heart rather than tickle your funny bone. These are programs in which good-looking people attempt to cope with life which, as many of you obviously know, isn't always as pretty as you'd like it to be. Sometimes these good-looking people are forced to visit poorly-decorated homes or even trailers.

I'm talking about such award-winning programs as Cynthia Chin, Oriental Wet Nurse, Hal's Tumor, and White Like Me. I found my voice with situation comedies, proved myself with dramas, and felt it was time to move on to the ratings boosters we like to call the miniseries. Sometimes these programs are based upon novels written by many of your favorite authors, such as James Chutney and Jocelyn Hershey-Guest. I like to think we did a real justice to Olivia Hightop's Midnight's Cousin and E. Thomas Wallop's searing historical drama, The Business End of the Stick.

As I said, often these miniseries are based upon works of fiction. But just as frequently, we find equally-compelling material simply by opening our daily newspapers, contacting the survivors or perpetrators, and buying their stories, which are then adapted by any number of our skilled writers. This was the case with The Boiling of Sister Catherine, a tragic event which I think we explored with a great deal of dignity.

We recently aired another heartbreaking true-life drama, this one based upon a single mother forced to drown her own children, driving them into a lake in a desperate attempt to hold onto her new, handsome boyfriend. Sunroof Optional touched a lot of nerves. And I was proud to be part of it.

Well, the miniseries based upon novels generate a good deal of interest. It's these real-life dramas that tend to draw a larger audience. Why? I chalk it up to five simple words we use in every print or televised promotion. Five words. Based upon a true story. Not made up in the mind of some typist but true.

There also happens to be a fair amount of money in it for the savvy criminals or unfortunate victim who wants to turn his or her grief into something with a little more buying power than the tear-stained pillow. Yes, Mr. Timothy, that's all very interesting, but what does it have to do with Christmas, and where the H-E- double toothpicks is Brother Phil Hickey? Well, I'm getting to that.

As I've explained, we've got our dramas and our miniseries. And then, ever mindful of the calendar, we've also got our holiday specials. You've no doubt seen or heard of them. Vince Flatwood's Christmas in Cambodia or Christmas Rappin' with Extraneous BVD and the Skeleton Crew. I could go on and on.

But every now and then-- and it's rare-- once every blue moon, we come upon a marriage of the true-life miniseries and the holiday special. And that is what we in the television industry like to call art. Our viewers saw art last Easter with a two-part Somebody's on My Cross. And they saw it again in A Wishbone for Little Sleepy, in which a hardened gang member carjacks two Dutch tourists so that he can spend Thanksgiving on his grandfather's turkey farm. Oh, these programs both won Emmy awards on the basis of their hard-hitting portrayal of a typical American life.

This creature we call art is just as special as the day we call Christmas. And you people wouldn't be sitting here if you didn't agree with me. I'm standing before you, the congregation of this simple, shack-like Pentecostal church, because I care. I care about all of us.

Now, I'm not stupid, and I won't pretend to be. I read the papers and magazines and know full well that one of your members is somewhat famous. She gave unto her only son a very special Christmas gift. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. A court order prevents me from saying her name, but you know who she is. She's seated right now in this very room. Oh, she drew quite a bit of attention one year ago today when she presented her child with the greatest gift a person can give, the gift of life.

Being local people, you're no doubt familiar with the story, but please allow me to recount it in my own way, because I like the sound of it. Call me crazy, but this does something to me. One year ago, on a frosty Christmas morning, a young, widowed mother, poor as dirt but still attractive in her own way, took drastic measures in order to save the life of a five-year-old child who was dying of kidney failure.

She had no health insurance or dialysis machine. But she did have a heavy Bible which she used to whack the boy against the back of his head, knocking him out in order to spare him from the pain that would follow. Taking a rusty pen knife and a simple, dime-store sewing kit, the young woman proceeded to remove one of her kidneys and successfully transplant the vital organ in her son's vulnerable body.

She did this with no prior experience, completely ignorant of even the simplest of medical procedures. The child had a different blood type. And the kidney was much too large for his small, vulnerable body. But still, the organ took, defying all laws of science. This operation was performed not in a sterile surgical environment but in a dark and dingy hay-filled barn, not unlike a manger.

There was manure in that barn. There were spiders and fleas. But still, the transplant was a success. The boy awoke, and shortly afterwards, was noticed happily playing in the bramble-filled ditch which constituted his front yard. When asked how she managed to perform such complex and delicate surgery, the ignorant young woman said only, "I done it with the help of the Lord."

Now, either she's the biggest liar since my third wife, or a miracle took place in that squalid, tin-roof barn. A miracle witnessed by only two goats, half a dozen chickens, and a game cock with a broken leg. And unfortunately, these animals, like the young woman herself, are refusing to talk. Reporters crawled out of the woodwork, nosing around for answers. But still, she held her tongue.

Let me point out that there are quite a few perplexing questions involving this incident. For example, isn't it funny how this poverty-stricken young widow could have an attorney but not a washing machine? That's right. She's being counseled by her brother, who just barely managed to pass the state bar exam after attending some fourth-rate state college. The man is a loser but calls himself a lawyer. Go figure. Her brother is a public defender, a man who chooses to spend his life representing thieves and rapists. Here's a guy who sits down and shares his sandwich with the scum of the earth. And he's advising this young woman on how to lead her life?

This young woman's brother has foolishly respected his client's desire to turn down all offers in regard to her story. Even worse, he's placed a restraining order against the very people who are helping to bring this story out from the shadows and into the light. I can understand turning away the book and motion picture people, but this is TV we're talking about.

The fact of the matter is, until this young woman agrees to sit down and reason with us, we have no story. Because without her cooperation, there's no way of knowing what really took place in that god-forsaken barn on the morning of Christmas one year ago today. And it's a tragedy that her son is no longer available to fill in those missing pieces. Here, this woman sacrificed one of her own kidneys in order to save the boy's life. And six days later, he was struck down by a remote-location TV news truck.

Unlike certain other people, I respected her grief and kept my distance for the better part of a week, allowing this woman, in her own private way, to come to terms with her terrible irony. Speaking through her brother, the young woman declined to initiate a lawsuit or even press charges. It's been rumored that she's motivated by her deeply-held religious beliefs. And that is why, on this Christmas morning, I'm turning to you, her fellow parishioners. Let me just lay my cards on the table and give it to you straight. You are poor people, but you don't deserve to be.

I've spent some time in this area and seen your pathetic, ramshackle houses resembling so many piles of firewood. These are places I wouldn't use to store a lawnmower, let alone raise a family. People in our inner-city ghettos are riding around in brand-new Jeeps, yet you walk to church every Sunday lucky just to have shoes on your feet. But it doesn't have to be that way. Here it is, Christmas Day. And your children probably woke up to a knee sock full of twice-chewed gum and a doll made out of used Band-Aids.

I'm not putting down handmade gifts. But don't they deserve something better than what you can currently afford to give them? Ladies and gentlemen, this is one year when Santa is definitely coming to town. The question is, do you welcome him with open arms or turn away, much like a certain young woman and her devious brother, to whom money means nothing?

You know, flying in early this morning, I thought I might offer each of you a brand new car and $1,000 in cash. Now though, looking out over your kind, sallow faces, I'm thinking of upping that to a brand-new car, factory-fresh side-by-side refrigerator and freezer, and $1,200 in cash. Sound good?

That's what I promise to give each and every one of you if you can convince this young woman to help me tell her story. Apparently the finer things in life mean nothing to her. So be it. But is it fair for her to force you, her friends and neighbors, to suffer the same lifestyle? By refusing to sign my contract and spend an afternoon recounting the facts to me and my top-notch writers, this young woman is ensuring that none of you will ever experience the pleasures that most people-- civilized people-- take for granted. She'll be saying, fine. Let their babies die of malnutrition and staph infection. She lost her son the hard way, and maybe in her mind, you should too. Is this the Christmas your holiday dreams come true, or is it the day you discover just how petty and spiteful one person can truly be?

If, like her, you're not interested in money, cars and appliances, you could convince her to sign the contract anyway, and then donate your rewards to charity. You'd have a pretty hard time finding people less fortunate than yourselves, but if that's your bag, I'd more than respect it.

Giving is what the holiday season is all about. I'm just wondering how easy will it be to sleep tonight with your threadbare blankets and Christian ethics, knowing that somewhere outside your plastic-paned window, an old, crippled woman is begging for coins in some glass-filled because you were too wrapped up in yourself to give her a side-by-side refrigerator freezer. Because let me tell you something, not giving is no different than taking.

I was going to leave you with that thought, but as long as I'm here, let me add a little something else. Even if you refuse to reason with this young woman, I will still produce my holiday special. This, though, will be my story, requiring the help of no one. it will be about a small group of so-called evangelical Christians so busy rolling on the floor and beating tambourines that they forgot what Christmas really stands for. It won't have an uplifting seasonal message and very well may send 20 million children off to bed thinking that perhaps this God person isn't everything he's cracked up to be, that maybe they're celebrating the birthday of a con artist no different than the stick figures worshipped by the Pygmies or the Muslims.

I'd prefer to do a more compelling story of your young friend, but that, ladies and gentlemen, is up to you. Do the catering trucks roll into town next week loaded down with cola and mouth-watering pasta salad, free of charge to any shabbily-dressed church member who wants to earn good money as an extra? Or do we film an uglier version of this story on some faraway sound stage. One year from today, will you be seated on a nice, new sofa, watching as this young woman's heart-wrenching miracle is brought to life on your wide-screen TV? Or will you be picking the thorns out from between your toes and wondering where you went wrong?

All I'm asking for is a few details. There are little things, details, but they can make all the difference in the world when it comes to fulfilling a dream. Maybe while you're thinking, you can entertain a few detailed dreams of your own. I want you to imagine yourself leaning back against the warm, fragrant upholstery of a brand-new automobile. Your healthy children are still fighting over who got to ride in the front seat, but you don't allow that to bother you. In time, they'll return their attention to the bounty of toys lying at their feet.

Back at the house, the ice cubes are eagerly awaiting the kiss of a finely aged bourbon. And there's still enough money in your wallet to make your neighbors jealous. It's Christmas Day, and all is right with the world.

Ira Glass

Matt Malloy.


Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Julie Snyder, Jennifer Ferro, and myself, with Nancy Updike and Alix Spiegel, senior editor Paul Tough, contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Rachel Howard and Alex Blumberg. Working sound and lights and stage here at the Wadsworth Theatre in Los Angeles, Bob Carlson running sound [? with Keith Endo, ?] [? Jessica Wodinksy, ?] [? Eileen Cooley, ?] David [? Muller, ?] [? Anail Duwan. ?]


If you would like to buy a cassette of this or any of our programs, call us at WBEZ in Chicago. Phone number there, 312-832-3380. Again, 312-832-3380. Our email address, [email protected]. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.


WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. I'm Ira Glass. Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.



PRI. Public Radio International.