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David Rakoff's 'Half Empty' Lessons In Misanthropy

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David Rakoff's 'Half Empty' Lessons In Misanthropy

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David Rakoff's 'Half Empty' Lessons In Misanthropy

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Years ago on a moonlight stroll in Manhattan, David Rakoff saw a massive cathedral, a gorgeous purple sky, and a heap of garbage bags covered with rats. Rakoff is a writer who delights in darkness.

DAVID RAKOFF: I am essentially a happy person...


RAKOFF: ...and a killjoy, and I'm a pill, and I can suck the fun right out of a room. But I'm happy.

WERTHEIMER: David Rakoff is the author of the book "Don't Get Too Comfortable." His latest book, a collection of essays, is called "Half Empty." Like an artist, he sees life's negative spaces.

RAKOFF: I do. I take pleasure in the realism of it, and that makes me feel effective, and sort of like I'm not lying to myself. And I also take pleasure in being able to render it with some kind of accuracy or vividness. But I don't think that there's a great cultural value placed on seeing things as being somewhat more realistic or less pleasant than they actually are.

WERTHEIMER: I'd like to just ask you to concentrate on one essay in the book.


WERTHEIMER: "Shrimp." You say that you were cursed with a very happy childhood.

RAKOFF: I would clarify. I was cursed with a very lovely childhood.


RAKOFF: Indulged, privileged, exposed. Beautiful art and Marimekko bedspreads - everything was there for me, absolutely.

The happy part, however, you know, if you're into that kind of thing, but you know, I kind of wasn't.


RAKOFF: I wasn't...

WERTHEIMER: Well, let's - could you just read in the middle of Page 30?

RAKOFF: I loathed being a child. Plainly stated, being a child was not, as used to be said around the time that I was a child, my bag. Everyone has an internal age, a time in life when one is, if not one's best, then at very least one's most authentic self. I always felt that my internal clock was calibrated somewhere between 47 and 53 years old. I don't want to make it seem like I was so smart or mature or advanced. I did alright for myself, but I was off the charts in only one respect, remarkably so. I was tiny.

I come from a short family, but I was worryingly diminutive, freakishly small. I knew some others who were below average in size, but they usually made up for if by being athletic or straight. I was not one of the shouting, jostling hockey-loving boys, and I also wasn't a girl. I was what used to be called a big fag.

In E.B. White's 1945 classic, "Stuart Little," the protagonist is the second son of Mrs. Frederick C. Little of New York City, a child who was, quote, "not much bigger than a mouse and who also looked very much like a mouse in every way." Stuart Little was articulate beyond his years. Stuart Little had a flare for costume, dressing up in full regalia of vaguely pornographic sailor whites just to visit the boat pond in Central Park.

WERTHEIMER: Yes, yes, yes - this confluence of traits, the unquestioned membership in a family despite one glaring material difference from them all, the tininess only seeming to accentuate the courtly manners and dandy tendencies, this was me. I was Stuart Little, or so I fervently wished.

Stuart Little was only afraid of dogs, whereas I was polymorphously phobic, scared of everything.

WERTHEIMER: So why did being tiny, why was that so important, do you think?

RAKOFF: You mean how does it shape one?


RAKOFF: Well, because your physical train hasn't yet come into the station. And for me, at least, a certain kind of verbal acuity happened long before my body could catch up. So there was this jarring disconnect when people saw me. Because I was really very, very tiny and I had eyes as big as goose eggs. And, you know, I looked very juvenile, but I had this mildly advanced verbal capacity.

So there was this disconnect where body and voice seemed that much farther apart. And that can be tremendously influential on the way you socially interact with people. I spent all those years vamping, you know, on the piano before my body showed up.

WERTHEIMER: You have a warning on the cover of your book that says: No inspirational life lessons will be found in these pages.

RAKOFF: That's right.

WERTHEIMER: And the book, of course, is not exactly light. It includes 9/11, AIDS, cancer. What are you aiming for here? Not inspiration, but what?

RAKOFF: Well, I think by saying that there was to no inspiration, I also didn't want it to seem like it was a polemic, or like I was prescribing the way people should feel or the way they should think. I can only say what is true for me. And what is true for me is that a certain kind of clear-eyed examination of the world as it is really is not just healthy but there's a great beauty in it.

WERTHEIMER: You talk about a very difficult and personal subject which is that you have had cancer. You went through the treatment, you got to the end of it and then it came back. You say you're living with baseline uncertainty.

RAKOFF: Yes indeed. It's - yes, I live with it every day. And while I have moments of great emotional lability, with a greater ease than I've had in years, I can channel my 12-year-old teen-girl self, where I would stand in front of the mirror and cry and cry to certain songs, Rickie Lee Jones being, you know, top of the list. Of course we all that, that emotional state. And certainly I have a few more of those days lately than I used to.

I am generally doing pretty well. Even though, you know, I'm speaking to right now, I'm currently undergoing chemotherapy. You know, and that's fine. And so, yes, that baseline uncertainty. Would I rather have the kind of certainty that I had in my life three years ago? Undoubtedly. Yes, absolutely. But can one survive and thrive and have a perfectly full life and think about other stuff in the midst of something that seems rather large? Absolutely. Absolutely.

I'm present in my life in a way that was very - is very comforting to me.

WERTHEIMER: David Rakoff is the author of a new book of essays. It's called "Half Empty."

David Rakoff, thank you.

RAKOFF: You know, the pleasure - and it was actual pleasure - was mine. Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: You can read an essay from David Rakoff's "Half Empty" at

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