John Eby: Many more life experiences needed to write a book

Published 4:17 pm Sunday, January 2, 2011

“When You Are Engulfed in Flames” by droll humorist David Sedaris provides a potent reminder about my dream delayed to someday write a book and join a pantheon of authors that includes Michael Collins, Tommy James, Sarah Palin, Cardinal Charlie Gill and Kenny Stroup.

Of course, Mrs. Palin is recuperating from her second foray into publishing by revolutionizing the home DVD market with her Alaskan reality series.

No extras, no bloopers or outtakes. Take it or leave it.

In this 323-page volume of essays, which I received as a Christmas present and finished New Year’s Eve — the 32nd book read in 2010 — everything after page 240 is about cigarettes in “The Smoking Section.”

As someone who never started smoking, I lack the authoritative anecdote of being from Raleigh, N.C., tobacco country and arrested for throwing down a butt in Thailand.

Not only can I not wax whimsical about that, but I am deprived of other humorous spin-off columns, like moving to Tokyo to quit smoking at a cost of $20,000, when his puffing on cancer sticks only cost $1,200 a year.

By not living in Japan, let alone Normandy, where I could become hooked on catching flies for my pet spider, I am denied the colorful commentary that comes with eating raw horsemeat.

I realize with a sinking feeling that I haven’t exactly accumulated side-splitting life experiences since early on in high school, when I toured Europe with a Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp band or college barpretending capers with the Park Avenue Kids on Mackinac Island.

Those days teemed with potentially humorous essays, like the silence of that gymnasium in Ahrensburg, Germany, when thanks to some advance work snafu, we missed our obligatory standing ovation by introducing one of Hitler’s marching songs as their national anthem.

We got lost in Amsterdam’s red-light district looking for a cathedral.

Our bus stopped for a picnic along the North Sea — at a topless beach, which became apparent to our counselors when no one returned from lunch.

Or the show we played in a dive, oblivious to the purpose of the chicken wire draped across the stage.

Learning to drink beer at 15 in Belgium, our Dutch host who lived next to a rock festival and resembled Howard Cosell, threading a bike through trucks whizzing around a traffic circle and eating eel, chicken soup with noodles made from pancake strips and glistening head cheese.

All that comic gold ebbed away by time, although, like Sedaris, who doesn’t drive, I kept a journal. Perhaps they could be resurrected for the 40th anniversary next year.

Sedaris writes about drugs and drink about as often as Dr. Hunter S. Thompson: “What began at age 22 as one beer per night eventually became five, followed by two tall Scotches, all on empty stomach and within a period of 90 minutes. Dinner would sober me up a little and, after eating, I’d start smoking pot.”

Guess we’ll never know how funny I could be with that kind of training regimen and life experiences to match David’s, such as Christmas work as an elf, a job in a medical examiner’s morgue and several sisters, including Amy.

Sedaris calculates that to “realize any savings” from quitting smoking, “I’d have to live for another 17 years, by which time I’d be 68 and clinging to life by a thread. It’s safe to assume that by 2025, guns will be sold in vending machines, but you won’t be able to smoke anywhere in America. During the months I’d been gone, France had outlawed smoking in public buildings. In a year’s time it would be forbidden in all bars and restaurants, just as it was in Ireland, Italy, Spain, Norway.”

It gives me something to think about as I embark on 2011 with the “Life” of Keith Richards, reminded of the old adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; and those who can’t teach, write about it.”

John Eby is Daily News managing editor. E-mail him at