at Kepler's in Menlo Park, CA
When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to do on Sunday mornings, after reading the color comic strips and before being trundled off to church, was to read the Dave Barry column. Most articles in the newspaper were mind-numbingly dull, but every week good ol' Uncle Dave could be relied on to bring up kid-friendly topics like fart jokes, flaming toilets, and dumb animals. My parents – mostly my father, because my mother had a strong suspicion that Barry's “boy jokes” weren't proper material to feed nubile young minds - would occasionally buy his books, and my brother and I would eagerly devour them. My knowledge of southern Florida was entirely based on his words, and he was second only to Garrison Keillor in introducing the queer customs of that mysterious land known as the Midwest.
So when I heard that he was coming to Kepler's on book tour, I knew that I had to go, and I had to bring my father. After all, he'd laughed just as heartily as we kids did whenever we heard Dave Barry on the radio. I extended a token invitation to my mother, but she declined. Her children may now be adults but she still isn't convinced that Barry's columns didn't have a negative effect on our senses of humor. The event sold out, and when we arrived at the bookstore most of the seats were already taken. It was impressive. I couldn't help but notice as I glanced around the room that there were very few people under forty present.
Barry is on tour because he just released a book, Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer is Much Faster). It's a collection of essays dealing with modern life as Barry's teenage daughter starts driving for the first time and his son has his first child. He reflects on parenting, wondering how his “uptight” 1950s parents managed to drink and party and have fun while his Baby Boomer generation, the wild and carefree youth of the 1960s, turned into fretful helicopter parents. He shares his experience traveling and impressions of Brazil and Russia.
Much of his talk was just expanding on the topics in the book, introducing just enough of each essay so that the audience would want to crack open the book the moment they got home. It worked. I especially enjoyed his description of his Mad Men era parents, who would host cocktail parties after sending him and his brother to bed. One morning the two boys came downstairs to find a giant letter “B” in the living room; turns out there'd been a scavenger hunt the night before and some party guest had stolen the lettering off a nearby IBM building. All this fun and wackiness from a Presbyterian minister! When Barry's generation had kids, however, the partying stopped as they morphed into neurotic, obsessed parents trying to manage every aspect of their kids' lives. His parents would tell him to go outside and play; he schedules activities for his children and constantly fretted that they weren't achieving enough. It was all very funny – the mostly Boomer-era audience was in stitches – but there was also a thread of truth that made me think about what sort of parent I would want to be.
That's what I like about Barry's writing: for all of his silliness and jokes, there's usually a small, thought-provoking point somewhere in the article that lingers afterward.
After the prepared talk Barry answered questions from the audience. One person was a humor columnist for a local paper (can't remember his name or the paper, sorry) who bemoaned the fact that the newspaper humor column is rapidly going extinct and wanted to know how Barry coped with this fact. Barry – who, by the way, hasn't written a weekly column in ten years – said that good humor writing is still happening, even if the format is changed, so there's really nothing to mourn. Good answer. Even as the question was being asked, I'd immediately thought that humor writing has shifted to blogs and podcasts rather than newspaper columns, not disappeared.
Another person asked if Mr. Language Person, a character Barry created in his column that answered grammar questions while making egregious grammar errors, was likely to make a comeback. Barry said he enjoyed writing those columns but didn't indicate any intention to pick it up again.
Surprisingly, no one had any questions regarding Barry's novels for adults or his Peter and the Starcatchers series. I thought someone would bring up those stories, since the first book was recently adapted into a Broadway production, but not a single mention was made.
After Q&A, Barry signed books. I had forgotten to bring a camera, and all the phone pictures I tried to take during the talk ended up blurry, so all I got was a quick shot of him signing my dad's book: