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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The title of David Rakoff's new book, "Half Empty," gives you some sense of his predisposition towards life: Prepare for the worst. "Half Empty" seems like a good follow-up to his other book titles: "Don't Get Too Comfortable" and "Fraud."

Rakoff is best known for his humorous magazine essays and his stories on This American Life. He's had several small acting roles and wrote and starred in the film that won an Oscar this year for Best Dramatic Short.

His new book starts with an essay about negative thinking called "The Bleak Shall Inherit the Earth" and moves on to tell the story of the small role he got in a movie with Bette Midler and Diane Keaton and why he didn't make it to the end of the film.

Another chapter describes reporting on New York City's first exotic-erotic ball and expo. But the last chapter is about his recurrence of cancer, which is currently being treated. He was told at one point that he'd have to have his arm and shoulder amputated. His first bout with cancer was when he was 22. He's in his mid-40s now.

David Rakoff, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. DAVID RAKOFF (Author, "Half Empty"): Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: I really enjoy your writing. And when I got to the last chapter of your book, I just let out this real oh-no kind of gasp because it talks about a recurrence of your cancer, and wasn't happy to read about that. But it's an awfully well-written chapter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAKOFF: Well, thank you hugely because that's the big - that was the big problem for me in terms of this book, which is somewhat more personal than the previous books. You know, I've always bridled at the term memoirist because Ive wanted to be known for the quality of my writing as opposed to the particulars of my biography. So that's a huge worry for me. So thank you very much for that.

GROSS: So in this chapter, you describe a recurrence of cancer. You'd had lymphoma in your 20s. And this time it was in, like, your collarbone, near your neck.

Mr. RAKOFF: It's in the soft tissue. It's a sarcoma. And it was caused by the radiation I received for the previous cancer.

GROSS: That kills me.

Mr. RAKOFF: It's pretty rare.

GROSS: I have to say, that kills me.

Mr. RAKOFF: Oh, I know. I know, but you know, it's living near a bad industrial site or something. And the science has advanced so much, and yeah, it's rare but becoming less rare as a population who got radiation ages, you know.

So it's a few things to be thankful for. I mean, it's you know, I sound like a Pollyanna, like that girl from "Bleak House" that I even describe, in Dickens, where she gets smallpox and virtually dances across the room because of how much less vain she'll become or something, and you just want to punch her in the face.

But a few good things. One is that as much time elapsed as it did, which made me a candidate for more treatment. You know, I could withstand more treatment because enough decades had passed. And also, if I had gotten my radiation two years earlier, I would also have to be worried about heart disease because they changed the protocol in '87. So there are reasons within that crappy news to be thankful.

GROSS: So because of the location of the tumor, you were at risk of having your arm cut off, actually more than your arm.

Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah, the shoulder from neck to armpit because everything's so crowded there with, like, arteries and stuff. It was certainly a danger.

GROSS: Yeah, and are you still in danger?

Mr. RAKOFF: I'm in a little bit of danger because the tumor has been very tenacious. And right now, there's another recurrence. But I'm currently in chemo for that, and the hope is that the chemo will shrink it the necessary few millimeters that it's no longer touching quite so many vital cables that go down your arm and that my wonderful surgeon might be able to go in and get the tumor without taking the arm.

But, again, as they keep on telling me, no one dies from the arm. You know, so there's a lot of stuff you can do with one arm, you know, like continue living.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAKOFF: So - you know what I mean. So my arm is in danger, but for now, knock on the wood trim on my nice desk, I'm not in danger, which is a distinction worth making.

GROSS: Absolutely, and that's great news. So now you need to do a reading from the book.

Mr. RAKOFF: Okay.

GROSS: And I want you to read from Page 212, and this is after you you've gotten, you know, mixed diagnoses in a period of time since the tumor was diagnosed. So first you were told that they had to take the arm, and then you were told that they didn't. So where does this reading come in? What were you told?

Mr. RAKOFF: This reading comes in right when, you know, the first person who told me he was going to take the arm, I sort of checked up on him, and it turned out that he was - I don't want to say dangerous quack - but I did manage within the course of, say, 90 minutes to find three oncologists who knew exactly who he was, one of whom said he gets great results that can't be replicated, which is essentially calling someone a fraud, and another fellow who simply screamed no - upon hearing mention of his name.

So I wrote him off, you know, and went to see another doctor, who was not a dangerous quack. But the non-dangerous quack said, well, we've got to take the arm. So it seemed when someone with credibility tells you, you know, it was more of a fait accompli, and it was a lot less rosy a scenario, and I couldn't quite write him off. And this is from that moment, I guess.

GROSS: Would you read it?

Mr. RAKOFF: Sure.

(Reading) And down the rough hill we slid. I am back trying to be unsentimental about a non-dominant limb, doing the tradeoff in my mind: An arm for continued existence.

It's an exchange I can live with, although I am fixated on how radical the cut, from neck to armpit, leaving me without even a shoulder to balance things out.

I imagine that the rest of my life, I will see the tiniest, involuntarily flinch on the faces of people as they react with an immediate and pre-conscious disgust at the asymmetry of my silhouette.

Nevertheless, I become defensive pessimism in action, puncturing my fear by learning to go without something before it's officially discontinued, weaning myself off of saffron or Iranian caviar before it becomes no longer available and trying to ascribe a similar luxurious dispensability to my left arm.

I begin to type with one hand - one finger is more like it. Considering what I do for a living, it's appalling that I'm still hunt-and-peck. I accomplish a host of tasks: putting on my shoes, new slip-ons purchased without even looking at the price tag. I remember this kind of heedless spending in the face of illness; buttoning my fly; showering; dressing; shaving.

I manage to cut an avocado in half by wedging the leathery black pear against the counter with my stomach and, thus steadied, go at it with a knife. In the evenings, with my bloodstream a sticky river of Ativan, wine and codeine, it all feels eminently doable.

In the cold light of day, however, unable to carry a chair to move it into a corner, for example, what I'm about to embark on feels a little bigger and harder.

GROSS: That's David Rakoff, reading from his new book, "Half Empty."

You know, part of your book, "Half Empty," is about the power of negative thinking. Like, when you're sick, people tell you, like, doctors tell you and also people into integrative medicine tell you: Try to think positively.

But that's hard for many of us to do. And you write a lot in the book about the power of negative thinking. You even interview somebody who wrote a book by that title. And you refer to negative thinking in that passage that you just read. What is the power of negative thinking in your mind?

Mr. RAKOFF: Well, the power of negative thinking, it's a very specific kind of negative thinking. And it's a kind of negative thinking called defensive pessimism, which I think was a term coined by, or if not coined by, certainly adopted by, a psychologist called, named Julie Norem.

And Julie Norem wrote a book called "The Positive Power of Negative Thinking," which was about defensive pessimism. What defensive pessimism is is a kind of anxiety management technique.

The defensive pessimist sort of looks at something and says this is going to be a disaster. And because of that, they lower their expectations, and they think this is going to be a disaster because of such and such.

And they go through all of the negative capacities, the negative capabilities of a given event. You know, you imagine the worst-case scenario you can, and you go through it step by step, and you dismantle those things, and you manage your anxiety about it.

So you think, oh, God, I can't believe that I'm going to have to give a speech. I always trip on the microphone cord. So I'm going to make sure to look and see where the cord is. Or my fly is always undone, so I'm going to make sure about my fly, or I'm going to have my notes ready, or I'm going to rehearse an extra time. And in so doing, you do manage to conquer your fear of something.

GROSS: You were diagnosed with cancer in your 20s. Now you're in your 40s and have a cancer diagnosis again. Are you dealing with it emotionally differently now in your 40s than you did in your 20s?

Mr. RAKOFF: Yes, I think I am. I think - well, first of all, the cancer that I had in my 20s was, I even referred to it as the dilettante cancer. You know, it was Hodgkin's lymphoma, eminently curable and just a whole different ballgame from what I've got now.

And I was a little less interested in knowing about the cancer back then in my 20s. I was sort of like, well, do whatever you need to do. I'm just going to sit here and lie back and think of England.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAKOFF: And whatever you guys want to do to me, it's perfectly fine.

And this time, necessarily, I have to be more engaged. It's different because I am the only person running my life. I suppose that was true certainly in my 20s, but now I'm a good few decades into adult life.

GROSS: My guest is David Rakoff. He's best known for his humorous essays and his stories on This American Life. His new book is called "Half Empty." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is the writer David Rakoff. He's a contributor to This American Life. He has a new book, which is called "Half Empty."

You write: They say there are no atheists in foxholes. I am still not moved to either pray or ask why me. Why not?

Mr. RAKOFF: Because - writer Melissa Bank said it best: The only proper answer to why me is, well, why not you? You know, the universe is anarchic and doesn't care about us and unfortunately, it - there's no greater rhyme or reason as to why it would be me.

And since there is no actual answer as to why me, it's not a question I feel really entitled to ask. And in so many other ways, I'm so far ahead of the game.

I have access to great medical care. My general baseline health, aside from the late unpleasantness of the cancer, is great. And it's great because I'm privileged to have great health, you know, and I live in a country where I'm not making sneakers for a living, and I don't live near a toxic waste dump.

And, you know, so you can't win all the contests and then lose at one contest and say why am I not winning this contest as well. It's random, you know. So truthfully, again, do I wish it weren't me? Absolutely. But I still can't then make that logistical jump to thinking there's a reason why it shouldn't be me.

GROSS: Right after you were diagnosed with your recurrence of cancer, you performed in a short film that won an Oscar this year for Best Dramatic Short Film.

Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah.

GROSS: You wrote the adaptation. It was adapted from a story or a play?

Mr. RAKOFF: From a script, from a short script.

GROSS: That somebody else had written?

Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah, Anders Thomas Jensen, I think his name was, a Danish fellow. I never met him. He lives in Denmark. I think that's his name.

GROSS: Okay, so we're going to play a clip from the film, from the very beginning. So I want you to explain what the film is about.

Mr. RAKOFF: The film is essentially about the worst moving day ever. Two gentlemen are in their new apartment, and the history of the apartment that preceded them catches up with them in a series of absolutely grizzly and violent ways. Does that make...

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. RAKOFF: Oh, okay, cool.

GROSS: And the film is called "The New Tenants." So in this scene, you are sitting across the table in your new apartment with your boyfriend, who you have moved in with. And he's trying to eat dinner and is very annoyed by your cigarette smoke because you're just, like, chain-smoking and delivering this monologue as you smoke.

Mr. RAKOFF: Yes.

(Soundbite of film short, "The New Tenants")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RAKOFF: (As Frank) No one gets out alive. Everybody buys the farm at some point and usually in the most hideous, least-photogenic manner. I mean, every second, in every country, in every city, in every hospital, someone is just giving up the ghost in some vile (BEEP) farting, vomiting display, just every orifice discharging at the exact same moment.

Literally every second, someone is having their one final thought, which ought to be some sort of profound, oh, so that's what it's all about kind of revelation but is more often than not, I guarantee you, something like, no, I have so many regrets.

Say a bomb goes off in a marketplace, you know, detonated by some suicidal zealot who hates I dont know - you know, fruit or vegetables or local handicrafts - viscera and gobbets of flesh and wet hanks of hair and teeth and splinters of bone are just shooting through airborne sprays of blood like on those soft drink commercials where the lemon splices splash through the arc of soda in some slow-motion orgasm of what it means to be refreshing.

And every time it happens, it gets less tragic, not more. They just push it further and further in the newspaper. Or say the reactor down the river a piece one day extrudes a plume of God knows what into the atmosphere. And, you know, it's eight seconds before anybody notices, but what do you know, the townspeople, they start to bleed from the eyes and their hair falls out, and the cancer wards just fill up. And nobody takes responsibility, nobody even apologizes.

And children are getting caught in factory machinery, and everybody's all like, no, not the children. The children are our future. The future of my next three-pack of undershirts, maybe.

China's burning enough coal to choke us all to death. Oh, and their food supply, which frankly now is our food supply, is just one toxic surprise after another. I mean, no one has a (BEEP) clue. I mean, the water supply is drying up. All of Africa has AIDS.

Privacy is gone. Europe is all hamburger-eating fatsos and loose nukes. I mean, we're just, we're just (BEEP) beyond all measure. And you tell me not to smoke while you're eating?

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Are you done?

Mr. RAKOFF: (As Frank) Yes.

GROSS: Okay, so that's David Rakoff in the short film "The New Tenants." That is, by the way, on the Internet, and on iTunes, if you want to see it.

So what a festival of negativity.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: All designed, I think, to justify that you're smoking while your boyfriend is eating, even though he, likes, hates cigarette smoke. But if the world is, like, so in such bad shape, then why shouldn't you smoke?

So how did it feel to do that monologue so soon after getting this, like, horrible diagnosis?

Mr. RAKOFF: No, this is the thing. My character wears a scarf in the film because my neck had been excavated a week before. I had not received my diagnosis. It was during the two weeks that I was waiting for my diagnosis that I delivered that monologue.

And even as I was delivering the monologue, which I have to say was both, as they used to say on the commercials, fun to make and fun to eat, easy to write and easy to deliver because it was so I can access that character quite easily.

But even as I was delivering it, I thought, you know something, this is going to bite you on the ass. You know, this kind of unearned, undergraduate darkness that you're spewing with such ease and such adolescent pride, just you wait, mister. You're going to get your little comeuppance.

And lo and behold, a week later, I did. I got my diagnosis. Yeah, it was a fascinating two weeks, I must say.

GROSS: You had a lot of friends in the early '90s who you lost to the AIDS epidemic.

Mr. RAKOFF: Yes.

GROSS: And I'm wondering if seeing so many friends die young affected at all how you dealt with a diagnosis that is not life-threatening, thank goodness, but is still, like, you know, a scary diagnosis?

Mr. RAKOFF: Oh, well, I mean, I should clarify. The diagnosis is life-threatening if it goes to my lungs in a certain way, you know. And, in fact, the surgery that I had around the time of the Oscars I think was to take out a little bit of spread in my lung. And luckily enough, it was localized and could be cut out, and I was out of the hospital within 24 hours.

But it is a life-threatening diagnosis if it goes to my lungs in a sort of a more Jackson Pollocky kind of way, God forbid. I hope it doesn't.

But yes, you're absolutely right. Seeing so many friends who were truly young and friends of friends, and you know, it was you know, I'm a gay guy, and living in New York City during the '80s and '90s, during the height of the pandemic, it was like living in wartime but a very specific kind of war, which was that it was a very limited sector of the population was engaged in it.

And there were other people beside you everywhere who simply weren't fighting it. You know, they weren't even conscious of it. And it was very strange to be - to feel so in the trenches and to be going from hospital to hospital, you know, more than one a day sometimes, visiting people who were dying, you know.

It did help me, or not help me, but it did cross my mind that my fervent will to live - and it is fervent, and it is still in operation, and is in fact the area of my life of which I'm most optimistic, and I think that people really do tend to be hugely optimistic about their own chances of survival just, you know, going from day to day.

But it did cross my mind, and it remains in my mind, that all of the people that I know who did die, they didn't die because they want to live less than I do. You know, they didn't die before some because their desire to continue existing was found wanting in ways that my own is somehow better. And that was and that is tremendously instructive to me.

GROSS: David Rakoff will be back in the second half of the show. His new collection of essays is called "Half Empty." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross back with David Rakoff. He's best known for his humorous magazine essays and his stories on THIS AMERICAN LIFE. His new collection of essays is called "Half Empty." The book starts with an essay on the power of negative thinking and ends with a story of his recurrence of cancer, for which he's currently being treated.

Another chapter I really liked in your book is about visiting your therapist when he's dying of colon cancer in a hospice. And I think when you have a therapist, you imagine how much easier they deal with anxiety and with the problems of life than you do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Just like...

Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah. Exactly.

GROSS: ...because they seem to know what they're doing and they're, you know, a good therapist is very good at guiding their patient.

Mr. RAKOFF: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So I guess I wonder what it was like to watch a very good therapist, your therapist, or your former therapist, handle death.

Mr. RAKOFF: Well, you know, I'm a child of therapists, so the bloom is off the rose for me. I mean I respect therapy a lot, but I'm - I perhaps dont see therapists and those who administer therapy as being quite as invincible, perhaps.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RAKOFF: Do you know what I mean?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. RAKOFF: So it's not like I dont - I'm pretty clear-eyed about what therapists can and cannot achieve on their own in their own lives. But watching him die - in the process of dying - was very sad. I mean he was young. I dont think he was even 55 years old. And it was - it was very strange, given how intimately I felt towards him, but at the same time knowing very little about him. Its a very one-sided relationship, you know, the therapist-patient relationship. You talk about yourself for, you know, in my case a decade with this man and I really didnt have the details of his life. So it was very sad, but I also had to really be very careful that what I was sad about wasnt simply the cancellation of "The David Show." You know what I mean?

GROSS: Yes. I love when you say that in the book but explain what you mean.

Mr. RAKOFF: Well, you know, I wanted to make sure that I was very sad about this fellow who I really - who really saved my life. You know, he really did save my life. I had gone into therapy after my first bout with cancer because I really hadn't dealt with it and I was, you know, classic post-traumatic stress. I was just barely functional, and he really helped me through that. And then he just - the reason I managed to become a writer and leave my day job is almost entirely up to him. I really owed him everything. And so I felt incredibly grateful for that. But I also, I didnt know the man very well. I didnt have the details of his life. Its a one-sided relationship. And so I had to make sure that what I was mourning or feeling bad about was the unjust - and I'll say it, unjust - a really good egg was dying before his time - the unjust death of a man who was - who seemed good and that I wasnt mourning the death of the reliquary of my best observations, my best bon mot of 10 years' duration. Do you know what I mean? I didnt want it to be sort of like, oh no, that's a great archive of David Rakoffiana(ph).

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. RAKOFF: You know what I mean?

GROSS: Yeah, I do.

Mr. RAKOFF: And so that's what I mean by the cancellation of "The David Show." I wanted to be very judicious and clear what I was being sad about.

GROSS: In your chapter about your therapist, you have great description of yourself when describing your thoughts after telling the therapist that youre going to stop seeing him. And I'd like you to read that for us.

Mr. RAKOFF: Yes. This is when he he - I'm not talking about terminating. I seem to be avoiding the topic, and finally he stops me one day. I'm ranting about, I think, human rights in China or something like that. And he finally says, you know, look, weve got to talk about you terminating. This is a big thing.

Turning things around, I asked him what his feelings were about our ending things. Im incredibly angry, he responded fondly. How dare you? You should at least have to come and have coffee with me once a week. I asked if he felt this way about most of his patients. Not really, he responded.

Sigh. Should you happen to be possessed of a certain verbal acuity coupled with a relentless, hair-trigger humor and surface cheer spackling over a chronic melancholia and loneliness - a grotesquely caricatured version of your deepest self, which you trot out at the slightest provocation to endearing and glib comic effect, thus rendering you the kind of fellow who is beloved by all yet loved by none, all of it to distract, however fleetingly, from the cold and dead-faced truth that with each passing year you face the unavoidable certainty of a solitary future in which you will perish one day while vainly attempting the Heimlich maneuver on yourself over the back of a kitchen chair - then this confirmation that you have triumphed again and managed to gull yet another mark, except this time it was the one person youd hoped might be immune to your ever-creakier, puddle-shallow, sideshow-barker variation on adorable, even though youd been launching this campaign weekly with a single-minded concentration from day one - well, it conjures up feelings that are best described as mixed, to say the least.

GROSS: I just want to point out, since our listeners dont have a copy of your book in front of them, that most of that reading was one sentence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That one very well-balanced juggling act there. So I just want to ask you, did you consciously intend to keep that one sentence?

Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah. Yeah. It felt - I like, well, I like a little ranty sandwich of a sentence or a lasagna of a sentence or, you know, or (unintelligible) of a sentence, to be perfectly homosexual about the metaphor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAKOFF: I like things that, you know, build in that way with semi-colons and em-dashes and things like that.

GROSS: Do you think of yourself as somebody who is the kind of fellow who is beloved by all, yet loved by none?

Mr. RAKOFF: We are verging into territory that's a little too personal.

GROSS: That's fine.

Mr. RAKOFF: So let me just say...

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. RAKOFF: ...yes, I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. We'll leave it there, I suppose.

Mr. RAKOFF: Yes. I guess so.

GROSS: So you have a very funny section in your book about, about your childhood. And...

Mr. RAKOFF: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And fun - I mean you say you had a very unhappy childhood. You know, you had a very happy childhood, even though you'd never ever want to go back to being a child. Why wouldnt you want to go back to that era, even though you had a happy childhood?

Mr. RAKOFF: I had - well, I had what, I had a beautiful childhood and a lovely childhood. I just didnt like being a child. I didnt like the rank injustice of not being listened to. I didnt like the lack of autonomy. I didnt like my chubby little hands that couldnt manipulate the world of objects in the way that I wanted them to. Being a child for me was an exercise in impotent powerlessness. I just wasnt - and I was never terribly good at that kind of no-holds-barred fun. I mean, you know, I've essentially made a career on not being good at no-holds-barred fun. But, you know, I just never sort of like, hey, yes, let's go play.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAKOFF: I was always more sort of like, does everybody know where the fire exit is and let's make sure there's enough oxygen in this elevator. You know, it's just - there was always, you know, and as a grownup it's much easier to work - to navigate the world with that, because then you can just go home to your own apartment. And so I just never really loved being a child, even though all of the attributes and perquisites were so in place. I had a gorgeous, gorgeous childhood, and yet I just didnt like being there. You know, just not for me.

GROSS: You write that you feel like you were mentally calibrated to be - what was the age? It 37 or 42 or...

Mr. RAKOFF: It was something like 47 to 53 or something like that.

GROSS: Forty-seven to 53. Yeah. So are you in that zone now?

Mr. RAKOFF: I'm about to. I'm essentially 46, so very soon I'll be my perfect age.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAKOFF: With a ruin of a body, but you know, a perfect age.

GROSS: Why is that a perfect age for you - you hope?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAKOFF: Yes. Exactly. Because certain things - one no longer has to worry about certain things. You know longer have to quite - you can be sort of comfortable in your skin even as your skin is rattled and ravaged and sun damaged and you know longer have to sort of explain things about yourself and you no longer have to make excuses for yourself. And I think a certain kind of wisdom has kicked in for everybody and people I think are a lot more accepting of the world and their place in it.

GROSS: So now I have to get you to read a passage about your home when you were growing up.

Mr. RAKOFF: The physical attributes of the home?

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. RAKOFF: No, indeed. I freely admit to having had all the accoutrements that make for a lovely childhood, one replete with the perquisites of great creature comfort in a bustling and cultured metropolis, in a home decorated in typical late 20th century secular humanist Jewish psychiatrist. African masks, paintings both abstract and figurative, framed museum posters, Merrimac(ph) or bedspreads. And listen on the hi-fi - why, it's the Weavers at Carnegie Hall or "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," or is that Miriam Makeba clicking her way through a kosa lullaby? And on the bookshelf, among the art monographs, the Saul Bellow and Philip Roth novels, the Gunter Grass first editions, collected New Yorkers, Time-Life Great Books, National Geographics and Horizon magazines - there, tucked in behind the Encyclopedia Judaica, you might just find that old illustrated copy of "The Joy of Oral Sex," a gag gift never thrown out.

GROSS: Did you find that copy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAKOFF: Oh yes. I remember it - I remember when it was unwrapped at the birthday party. I remember who gave it, and you know, the disinhibited psychiatrist who gave it as the gift and the sheepish ooze and ahs and chuckles when it was unwrapped.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAKOFF: I remember it all.

GROSS: Okay. So with all that great stuff on the bookshelves and the Weavers on the turntable, it must've really helped you fall in love with books.

Mr. RAKOFF: It helped me fall in love with the whole world, except for sports...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAKOFF: But do you know what I mean? It's just - the world was all there. I loved books but I loved art, I loved - you know, and it was all there for the taking. And you know, children are sponges, and I was incredibly lucky to have such extraordinary stuff to soak up. Yeah, it really did.

GROSS: My guest is David Rakoff. He's best known for his humorous essays and his stories on THIS AMERICAN LIFE. His new book is called "Half Empty."

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is David Rakoff. He's a contributor to THIS AMERICAN LIFE. He has a new book, which is called "Half Empty."

Before you started writing books you were writing in the publishing industry as a publicist. You were writing press releases. You were writing speeches for a publisher who you worked with. And I was wondering if you wrote your own press release for your new book.

Mr. RAKOFF: No, I didnt. For this particular book?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RAKOFF: I didnt. I had a hand in flap copy and jacket copy in the past, but no, I did not. I dont know why. I think I might've tried my hand at it and it was a disaster and we, you know, the publisher and my editor was very sweet in even sort of listening to what I had to say. But I think they went back to the version that they had on hand. I think this book was a little closer to home than the other books, so I dont think that I was quite on my game. But I used to write - before my first book came out I wrote the negative review for it. Before I even wrote the book I wrote the mean review about myself. That helped.

GROSS: A mean review of yourself?

Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah, which was basically every essay by David Rakoff takes the same form, which is: I was stylishly dismissive of X until I did X and then I realized that people are decent and I feel lonely slash sad slash fat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAKOFF: You know, and I kept that. That's always a good watch word for, you know, a good sentence for me to stay hip to myself, I think.

GROSS: Was that also an example of negative thinking, that if you write the bad review...

Mr. RAKOFF: Precisely.

GROSS: ...then you won't be disappointed when somebody else writes it?

Mr. RAKOFF: Exactly.

GROSS: And you wrote a more perceptively negative review than anyone else can do, right?

Mr. RAKOFF: Exactly. You disarm your detractors and then you leave them without arrows. But of course even that doesnt work because people still have, oh, so many arrows that they can fling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You can't even think of all of them in advance.

Mr. RAKOFF: And now we have World Wide Web, where they can do so immediately and in hoards.

GROSS: You are obviously somebody who is very attuned to beauty in the world -beauty in literature, in music and art. So if, God forbid, you had to have the surgery where your arm was removed - and I know one of your fears is that you won't be beautiful - that your body will be disfigured.

Mr. RAKOFF: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I mean, for those of us who aren't beautiful to begin with, do you know what I mean, that its always a question of like, what does it mean for somebody to be beautiful? Is it different than like beautiful art? I mean youre born the way youre born. If you have a big nose, you have a big nose. So like that aesthetic - the aesthetic that you have when it's about art, is that aesthetic still appropriately applied when its about people and - do you know what I'm saying?

Mr. RAKOFF: I do. Well, here's the thing, I'm not beautiful. I mean I'm a perfectly normal looking Jewish guy. My face has never been my fortune nor has my body. I mean truly, you know, which is why I developed conversation. So physical beauty has never been part of my equation. It's just not on my shopping list. With the arm, I'm not talking about beauty so much as I'm actually talking about symmetry. And it's not even the arm, its the shoulder. Do you know what I mean?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RAKOFF: What I'm talking about is literally a pre-conscious kind of primate's response to a lack of symmetry that would lead to that inevitable tiny microgesture, but that would be a flinch of asymmetry. You can make up for it in many ways if you have a shoulder, but its the lack of the shoulder that I was fixated on and remain a tiny bit fixated on.

But also, I'm fortunate in that I am 46 years old and I do have a nifty little career so that the comma, noun after my name is David Rakoff comma writer, that I'm very fortunate in that that's kind of established. So even if I do lose my arm, I mean it'll invariably come up, you know, for the rest of my life if it happens, but I have managed to establish an identity that is based on my internal self and for that I feel tremendously lucky. I'm not in my 20s and I, you know, and luckily enough I'm here in this particular position. Does that make sense?

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. RAKOFF: I dont think it'll define me as much as it might have 20 years ago.

GROSS: No. I think that makes perfect sense. So, you say that when you have to get an MRI that...

Mr. RAKOFF: Woo.

GROSS: ...claustrophobia as the MRI.

Mr. RAKOFF: Oy. (unintelligible) is Mary?

GROSS: ...requires a little anti-anxiety medication.

Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah.

GROSS: But you have an Elizabeth Bishop poem that youve memorized that you recite to yourself. What's the poem?

Mr. RAKOFF: It's "Letter to N.Y." Shall I try and see if I can do it?

GROSS: Yeah. I was hoping.

Mr. RAKOFF: Okay. Let me think (unintelligible) order.

GROSS: N.Y. being New York.

Mr. RAKOFF: I think so. I think so.

In your next letter I wish you would say where you were going and what you were doing. How are the plays and after the plays, what other pleasures you are pursuing: Taking taxis in the middle of the night, driving as if to save your soul, where the road goes round and round the park and the meter glares like a moral owl, and all of the trees look so queer and green standing alone in big black caves. And suddenly you're in a different place, where everything seems to happen in waves, and all of the jokes you just can't catch, like dirty words rubbed off a slate, and the music is loud but also dim and it gets so terribly late. And coming home to the brownstone house, to the gray sidewalk, the watered street, one side of the buildings rises with the sun, like a glistening field of wheat. Wheat, not oats, dear. And if it is wheat, I'm afraid it's none of your sowing, nevertheless, I would like to hear what you were doing and where you were going.

GROSS: Wow, that's a great...

Mr. RAKOFF: In my life I will never achieve anything that beautiful.

GROSS: That's a great poem. I really like the way you (unintelligible).

Mr. RAKOFF: Isn't it lovely?

GROSS: Sure. Yeah. And I'm not sure, I said N.Y. is New York. I mean I dont really know if that's New York, so.

Mr. RAKOFF: I dont know either. I think it is New York.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RAKOFF: But it's a lovely thing to recite. And it certainly beats oh, my God, I'm in a coffin. Get me out, get me out, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAKOFF: So it helps a little bit.

GROSS: Isn't that a great thing about memorizing poetry, though that like there is...

Mr. RAKOFF: Yes.

GROSS: It takes you - if you recite it, it gets you into - it changes your thought pattern into...

Mr. RAKOFF: Yes.

GROSS: ...into the poem and into something like beautiful or funny or whatever poem youve chosen.

Well, David Rakoff, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much and I wish you, you know, good health and all the best.

Mr. RAKOFF: It is just an honor and a pleasure, and thank you.

GROSS: David Rakoff is a contributor to This American Life. His new collection of essays is called "Half Empty." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and gender issues in American politics. Maureen Corrigan reviews Rebecca Traister's new book "Big Girls Dont Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women."

This is FRESH AIR.

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