David Rakoff's 'Half Empty' Full Of Humor, Guilt Writer David Rakoff's received the 2011 Thurber Prize for American Humor for his essay collection Half Empty. In the book, Rakoff explains the powers of pessimistic thought as he analyzes topics such as a pornography trade fair, his neurotic childhood and his recent cancer diagnosis.
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David Rakoff's 'Half Empty' Full Of Humor, Guilt

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David Rakoff's 'Half Empty' Full Of Humor, Guilt

David Rakoff's 'Half Empty' Full Of Humor, Guilt

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DAVID BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross. On today's show, the winner of the 2011 Thurber Prize for American humor writer David Rakoff. He won that award for his latest book, "Half Empty," which is now out in paperback. The title "Half Empty" gives you some sense of Rakoff's approach to life, prepare for the worst, which is a philosophy he brought to his previous books "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 New Tenants," which won an Oscar last year for Best Live-Action Short.

Rakoff's book "Half Empty" starts with an essay about negative thinking called "The Bleak Shall Inherit the Earth." It's 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 that film.

The book ends with a more sobering chapter about the recurrence of cancer, which is currently being treated with long-term chemotherapy. Rakoff had his first bout with cancer was when he was 22. He's now in his mid-40s. Terry Gross spoke to him last year.

TERRY GROSS, host: David Rakoff, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

DAVID RAKOFF: 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.


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 I've 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.

RAKOFF: It was caused by the radiation I received for the previous cancer.

GROSS: That kills me.

RAKOFF: It's pretty rare.

GROSS: I have to say, that kills me.

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.

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


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


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?

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?


(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.

(Reading) 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.

(Reading) 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.

(Reading) 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.

(Reading) 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.

(Reading) 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.

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

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.


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

RAKOFF: From a script, from a short script.

GROSS: That somebody else had written?

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.

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...


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.




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.

(As Frank) 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.

(As Frank) Say a bomb goes off in a marketplace, you know, detonated by some suicidal zealot who hates I don't 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.

(As Frank) 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.

(As Frank) 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.

(As Frank) 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.

(As Frank) 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?


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.


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?

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.

BIANCULLI: Our guest is author David Rakoff. He's best known for his humorous essays and his stories on This American Life, and he's the winner of the 2011 Thurber Prize for American Fiction for his book "Half Empty." The book has just come out in paperback. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with David Rakoff, recorded last year when his latest book "Half Empty" was published. It's now out in paperback.

GROSS: 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.


GROSS: Just like...

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

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 don't see therapists and those who administer therapy as being quite as invincible, perhaps.

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 don't 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.

It's 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 didn't 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 wasn't 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.

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, 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 didn't know the man very well. I didn't have the details of his life.

It's 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 wasn't 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 didn't want it to be sort of like, oh no, that's a great archive of David Rakoffiana(ph).

GROSS: Yeah.

RAKOFF: You know what I mean?

GROSS: Yeah, I do.

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 you're going to stop seeing him. And I'd like you to read that for us.

RAKOFF: Yes. This is when 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, we've got to talk about you terminating. This is a big thing.

(Reading) Turning things around, I asked him what his feelings were about our ending things. I'm 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.

(Rading) 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 you'd hoped might be immune to your ever-creakier, puddle-shallow, sideshow-barker variation on adorable, even though you'd 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 don't have a copy of your book in front of them, that most of that reading was one sentence.


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?

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.


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?

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

GROSS: That's fine.

RAKOFF: So let me just say...

GROSS: Okay.

RAKOFF: Yes, I do.


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

RAKOFF: Yes. I guess so.

BIANCULLI: Author David Rakoff speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. His new collection of essays, "Half Empty," is now out in paperback. We'll hear more of their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2010 conversation with author David Rakoff. He's best known for his humorous magazine essays and his stories on "This American Life." his new collection of essays, now out in paperback, is called "Half Empty." The book, which recently won the 2011 Thurber Prize for American Humor, begins with an essay on the power of negative thinking. It ends with a story of his recurrence of cancer for which he's currently being treated with long-term chemotherapy.

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



GROSS: You know, you had a very happy childhood, even though you'd never ever want to go back to being a child. Why wouldn't you want to go back to that era, even though you had a happy childhood?

RAKOFF: I had - well, I had what, I had a beautiful childhood and a lovely childhood. I just didn't like being a child. I didn't like the rank injustice of not being listened to. I didn't like the lack of autonomy. I didn't like my chubby little hands that couldn't 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 wasn't - 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.


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. 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 didn't 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...

RAKOFF: Or something like 47 to 53 or something like that.

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

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


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

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


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 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.

RAKOFF: The physical attributes of the home?


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?


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.


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.

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


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: So, you say that when you have to get an MRI that...


GROSS: ...claustrophobia as the MRI.

RAKOFF: Oy. Where is Mary?

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


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

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

GROSS: Yeah. I was hoping.

RAKOFF: Okay. Let me thinking (unintelligible) order.

GROSS: N.Y. being New York.

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...

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

GROSS: That's a great poem. I really like the way you read it.

RAKOFF: Isn't it lovely?

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

RAKOFF: I don't know either. I think it is New York.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

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.


RAKOFF: You know, so it helps a little bit.

GROSS: 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.

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

BIANCULLI: Author David Rakoff, speaking to Terry Gross last year. His latest collection of essays "Half Empty" is now out in paperback just won the 2011 Thurber Prize for American Humor. and You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, we remember law professor and civil rights advocate Derrick Bell, who died this week. This is FRESH AIR.

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