Writer and humorist David Rakoff, who died Thursday at the age of 47, wrote with a perfect balance of wit and gravity about the cancer that would ultimately take his life.
Rakoff developed a devoted following as a regular contributor to the public radio program This American Life. His books of essays include Fraud and Don't Get Too Comfortable. Rakoff's most recent book, Half Empty, won the Thurber Prize for American Humor in 2011.
When Rakoff recently met up with Fresh Air's Terry Gross at a coffee shop in New York, he told her that he did not have much time left.
"I can't presume to know what he was experiencing," Gross says, "but from the things that he told me, and from the clarity in his eyes, he seemed sad but accepting of finality. If you don't already know his work, I think you'll be grateful you heard him today."
Rakoff appeared on Fresh Air in 2001 and 2010. We'll remember him with excerpts from those two interviews.
On being a kid
"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've essentially made a career on not being good at no-holds-barred fun. But, you know, I [was] just never sort of like, hey, yes, let's go play. 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. ... 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."
On why he thought his perfect age would be 47-53
"One no longer has to worry about certain things [at that age]. ... You can be sort of comfortable in your skin, even as your skin is rattled and ravaged and sun-damaged, and you no 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."
On therapy and losing his therapist
"I had gone into therapy after my first bout with cancer. ... I was just barely functional, and he really helped me through that. ... 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 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 death of a man ... 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 wanted to be very judicious and clear what I was being sad about."
On cancer treatments that led to him losing the use of one of his arms
"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 ... 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 ... it's the lack of the shoulder that I was fixated on and remain a tiny bit fixated on."
" ... 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. I'm very fortunate in that that's kind of established, so even if I do lose my arm ... I have managed to establish an identity that is based on my internal self, and for that I feel tremendously lucky."
On asking 'why me?'
"Writer Melissa Bank said it best: 'The only proper answer to 'Why me?' is 'Why not you?' The universe is anarchic and doesn't care about us, and unfortunately, there's no greater rhyme or reason as to why it would be me. And since there is no 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 general unpleasantness of the cancer, is great. And it's great because I'm privileged to have great health. 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.
"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. So truthfully, again, do I wish it weren't me? Absolutely. I still can't make that logistic jump to thinking there's a reason why it shouldn't be me."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today started with really bad news. David Rakoff died last night from cancer, the cancer that so many of his fans knew about because he wrote about it with a perfect balance of wit and gravity.
Rakoff was a wonderful writer who developed a devoted following as a regular contributor to THIS AMERICAN LIFE. Last year, he won the Thurber Prize for American Humor for his book "Half Empty." We're going to listen back to a couple of interviews with him. I loved interviewing David Rakoff and was lucky enough to have spent a little time with him off-air.
Last year, he introduced me at an awards ceremony. The award came with a special gift: getting to sit next to David at dinner. He had such a sharp wit and could be so cynical and cutting, but at the same time he just seemed so warm and likeable and big-hearted.
We met at a New York coffee shop in June, and he told me the news was bad and that he didn't have long to live, but I thought it was longer than just a few weeks. I can't presume to know what he was experiencing, but from the things he told me that day and from the clarity in his eyes that day in June, he seemed sad but accepting of finality.
If you don't already know his work, I think you'll be grateful you heard him today. Before we hear the interview I recorded with him in 2010, in which we talked about his cancer, let's go back to 2001, after the publication of his collection of his essays, "Fraud." Here's a short reading from the first essay in the book.
DAVID RAKOFF: I do not go outdoors, not more than I have to. As far as I'm concerned, the whole point of living in New York City is indoors. You want greenery? Order the spinach. Paradoxically, I'm about to climb a mountain on Christmas Day with a man named Larry Davis. Larry has climbed Mount Monadnock in southwestern New Hampshire every day for the last five-plus years. I will join him on ascent number 2,065.
The trip up to New Hampshire will involve a tiny plane from Boston. I tear my medicine cabinet apart like Billie Holiday and still only uncover one Xanax. The hiking boots the outdoor adventure magazine sent me to buy, large, ungainly potato-like things that I have trying to break in for the past four days, cut into my feet and draw blood as if they were lined with cheese graters. I have come to hate these Timberlands with a fervor I usually reserve for people.
Just think, the shoes I wouldn't be caught dead in might actually turn out to be the shoes I am caught dead in.
GROSS: That's David Rakoff reading the first piece in his new collection, "Fraud." So is the piece that you just read from the piece you wrote for Outside magazine, or is this behind - the piece behind the piece that you wrote for Outside magazine?
RAKOFF: This is behind the piece. This is, you know, the highs and the lows behind the piece. This is more of an examination of being sent as an outdoor journalist when in fact I had no business doing so.
GROSS: What made you decide to write that?
RAKOFF: It was an outcropping, the natural outcropping of the fact that when I take notes, when I'm doing a story, and I do so voraciously, I can't stop the wisecracks. And it was also so much at the forefront of my mind. I really - I was far more sad, and somewhat arrogant to admit it, I was far more interested in what I was feeling at that time, it being my first piece, than in the actual mechanics of the reporting. It was so much on my mind that this was an experience that I had not had theretofore and that I should really try and document it.
And I also thought that the jokes I was coming up were pretty good, and it sort of seemed like natural material.
GROSS: Now, David, in addition to writing, you act, and you've been, among other things, in several pieces written by David and Amy Sedaris.
GROSS: And you've also had some small parts in films and TV shows, though I think some of these parts were probably left on the cutting room floor.
RAKOFF: Almost invariably.
RAKOFF: I've been cut out of some very august projects, so...
GROSS: One of your pieces in your new collection, "Fraud," is about a small part you had in a daytime soap. And you say in the piece you know that soap fans would have killed to be on the set with you, but you don't watch these programs. You had no idea who the actors were. And so, like, being in their presence didn't mean a thing to you.
Isn't it strange to be with people who you know are really famous in some circles, and you have no idea who they are?
RAKOFF: It's very strange, and they were extremely conscious of the fact that soap opera fame is fame of a very specific sort. It's actually not unlike public radio fame.
RAKOFF: You know, it's - there's a very strict subculture to these things. So these people were, to a man and woman, gorgeous New York acting folk. I mean, they were beautiful. They had attenuated limbs and perfect skin. And, you know, when we were in the rehearsal room in the morning, all their signifiers were incredibly stylish and urban.
There was one woman in a pair of black cigarette pants and a black beret. I mean she looked like Faye Dunaway in "Bonnie and Clyde." And she was just fantastic looking. But there was this vague sense of apology for the fact that they seemed to understand that the nature of their fame was exurban, out there, you know, among a very specific group, and you know, multitudes, but a very specific group of daytime television watchers.
And they didn't seem to comport themselves with the kind of, well, I'm just terribly famous and you should have heard who I am. You know, they immediately saw me for what I was, which is, I mean at that point, I guess I came in as an actor in New York City. It never would have occurred to them that I would have watched the soap opera.
GROSS: Now, did you look different from the rest of the cast, because they're all these afternoon soap stars and you're not?
RAKOFF: I looked so very different from the rest of the cast, it was really - you know, they're gorgeous. They're not just pretty. They're heartstoppingly beautiful people. Their faces are mathematically precise, you know, cross-culturally beautiful. And I am, in a word, not.
So it - you know, I also have a certain kind of ethnic look. I have a certain careworn Jewish quality to my face.
RAKOFF: So yeah, I did sort of stand out in that way. Happily, there were a lot of extras at this particular episode because they were playing the other people in the audience at the fashion show, and they all tended to be senior citizens because there's this vast network of lonely seniors in New York whose kick is to go be extras at soap operas.
They all knew one another, and they had all clearly worked on all the other soaps that played in New York, that filmed in New York. So they all knew one another, and then there was me, and then there was this aesthetic super-race.
GROSS: You write in your piece that the typical parts you get are either Jewie MacHebrew or Fudgie Packer. Would you describe...
RAKOFF: Fudgie MacPacker, yes.
GROSS: Fudgie MacPacker, yeah. Would you describe...
RAKOFF: They're Scots.
RAKOFF: They are two Scottish clans. Well, the MacHebrews are your prototypical Jewish clan. So that's - I was sent for one of two parts. I no longer really act with any frequency except for the Sedari. Otherwise, you know, I don't get sent on audition, but - auditions - but I - Jewie MacHebrew is generally a kind of a careworn - I already said careworn twice in the same interview. I'm so sorry.
But he's kind of an inquiring, furrow-browed, bookish type who can either be the kind of guy who - he speaks rather quickly, with a kind of inquiring, people of the word, people of the book, and he says things like - with dentated final consonants - so he says: Papa, I can't believe it. You sold the store?
Or he plays the kind of humanist rabbi type who says, you know: And so we eat the bitter herbs - why? Because it is to remember the bitterness in Egypt. You know, that's the Jewie MacHebrew type, generally.
Or he's a psychiatrist, so like: Huh, how do you understand that? Whereas Fudgie MacPacker is, you know, the gay character. And he can take a various - variety of forms. There's, you know, supercilious Fudgie MacPacker, and he's generally a hotel concierge or a makeup clerk or a waiter.
And he drolls, and he's more like: No, we're not carrying that this season. Next?
RAKOFF: You know, and he's just too bored, too cool for school. But there's the other Fudgie MacPacker type who is gaining great currency right now, culturally, and he is the loveable queen who everybody loves. He gets the best lines. He's replaced, for want of a better term, the fat girl within the dramatic pantheon. You know, Fudgie MacPacker, the funny one, now gets the best lines, like: Did somebody say swim team?
RAKOFF: And, you know, that becomes his catchphrase, and they put that on T-shirts, and then he's - you know, 10 years hence, he's opening malls, and he's a bitter, bitter, bitter sociopath as a result.
GROSS: A Bitter MacPacker.
RAKOFF: Bitter MacPacker, Fudgie MacBitter. And - or the other one is he's dispensing clear-eyed, you know, romantic advice, not being privy to romance himself because, of course, you know, he has no actual sexuality. And he says things like: Can't you see he's in love with you? Just tell him. You know, and then they kiss, and then it's cut to Fudgie MacPacker, and he sort of cocks his head.
Oh, I'm sorry, no it's not cut to Fudgie MacPacker, it's cut to the dog, and the dog cocks his head and goes - ewwhhh. And cue the dog, or cue Fudgie MacPacker. Either way, terrific, terrific parts to get and be sent on, which is essentially why I stopped being an actor.
GROSS: So what's the problem, that when casting directors see you, all they can think of is Jewie MacHebrew or Fudgie MacPacker?
RAKOFF: Essentially, yeah. I think that it's their - and this is not to say anything against casting directors. I think there's kind of - generally a kind of a risk aversion, less so on stage. You know, on stage you can be a number of things. Currently I'm in this play by Amy and David Sedaris in New York, and I get to play four different characters.
And only one of them is, in fact, Fudgie MacPacker, but because it's written by David, it's a joy to play. You know, it's a comment on that entire genre. You know, so on stage there's a great deal more latitude. But in television and movies, let's face it, there's an enormous amount of money riding on these things, and so a certain risk aversion is only expected.
You know, I don't blame them, but there's not, as a result, a terrible abundance of imagination in terms of casting.
GROSS: David Sedaris has a quote on the jacket of your book, recommending the book, you know, a blurb. And Sedaris writes: On first meeting him, I was struck by his ability - he's talking about you. On first meeting him, I was struck by his ability to impersonate any living creature and retain long stretches of movie dialogue. He's a human tape-recorder. Do you think of yourself that way?
RAKOFF: It's certainly always been something I could do, from childhood. You know, and I think it's just one of those, like, double-jointed things. Yeah, I always managed to get dialogue for some reason. It...
GROSS: Are there certain movie scenes that were really significant to you when you were young that you memorized and that just are a kind of permanent part of your memory now?
RAKOFF: Oh, sure. I mean, there's that scene where - I mean, and now of course I'm going to have to paraphrase, and various "Double Indemnity" fans all over are going be writing WHYY: He got that wrong. But it's when Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff comes to meet Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck, and her wheels are turning, and she's understanding, finally, that she has an out from this loveless marriage. She could make a lot of money.
And he's in turn interested in her because she's this sultry blonde pistol of a thing, you know, who's come in barely dressed by the standards of that time. And he's making a pass at her, and she finally tells him that, you know, her husband is going to be there tomorrow night, when he can come back and see him.
And he says: Your husband? She said: You're interested in seeing him, aren't you? And he says: Well, I was, but it's kind of wearing off, if you know what I mean. She says: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Oh really, Officer, how fast was I going? I'd say about 90. Suppose you get off your bike and give me a ticket? Suppose I let you off with a warning? Suppose you rap me across the knuckles? Oh, damn, I got it all wrong, Terry. Oh, God.
It's my wallet, but I'm not carrying my wallet today because it's so hot. So I'm only carrying money and ID.
GROSS: It's in your wallet?
GROSS: Why is it in your wallet?
RAKOFF: Oh, you know, should I meet my maker in front of a bus, and people can rifle through my wallet and see that I was the kind of terribly interesting person who kept a page of "Double Indemnity" dialogue in my wallet. And then they could say: What a waste.
RAKOFF: I have no idea, actually, why it's in my wallet. But it is actually in my wallet. And I will occasionally take it out and, you know, read it like an old mantra.
GROSS: David Rakoff recorded in 2001. We'll continue our remembrance with an interview from 2010 after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: We're remembering the writer David Rakoff. He died last night at the age of 47, after his cancer took an aggressive turn. Rakoff was a regular contributor to "This American Life," and last year he won the Thurber Prize for American Humor for his book "Half Empty." The book ends with a chapter about his recurrence of cancer.
He was told at one point that a tumor might necessitate having his arm and shoulder amputated. He avoided amputation but suffered excruciating pain in his arm. Surgery severed the nerve and relieved much of the pain, but his arm lost all movement and feeling. Rakoff recently performed a beautiful monologue and dance piece about his arm on "This American Life"'s movie-cast.
Here's an excerpt of our 2010 interview, after the publication of "Half Empty." David Rakoff, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
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. And this time it was in, like, your collarbone, near your neck?
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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?
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: David Rakoff, reading from his book "Half Empty." He died last night at the age of 47. We'll continue our remembrance and hear more of our 2010 interview in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're remembering writer David Rakoff. He died last night at the age of 47, after his cancer took an aggressive turn. He developed a devoted following as a regular contributor on "This American Life." Last year he won the Thurber Prize for American Humor for his collection of essays "Half Empty." The final chapter is about his recurrence of cancer.
Let's get back to the interview I recorded with David Rakoff in 2010 after that book was published.
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?
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.
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: You write: They say there are no atheists in 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.
RAKOFF: Oh, okay, cool.
GROSS: And the film is called "The New Tenants."
GROSS: So in this scene, you are sitting across the table in your new apartment with your boyfriend, who you have moved in with.
GROSS: 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM SHORT, "THE NEW TENANTS")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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 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 slices 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?
ACTOR: (As character) Are you done?
RAKOFF: (As Frank) Yes.
GROSS: OK, 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...
GROSS: ...even though he, likes, hates cigarette smoke. But if the world is, like, so in such bad shape, then why shouldn't you smoke?
GROSS: 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.
GROSS: Oh. Oh.
RAKOFF: 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: We're listening back to the interview I recorded with David Rakoff in 2010, after the publication of his book "Half Empty." He died last night at the age of 47.
We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: We're remembering writer David Rakoff. He died last night at the age of 47 after his cancer took an aggressive turn. He was a regular contributor to "This American Life" and last year won the Thurber Prize for American Humor for his collection of essays "Half Empty."
Let's get back to the interview with him in 2010 after it was published.
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.
GROSS: 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.
RAKOFF: Do you know what I mean?
RAKOFF: So it's not like I don't - 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. 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 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, 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 didn't know the man very well. I didn't 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 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).
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 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.
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...
Yeah. Well, I like a little ranty sandwich of a sentence of or a lasagna of a sentence or, you know, or a neophyte 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: 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 - I know one of your fears is that you won't be beautiful - that your body will be disfigured.
GROSS: And I mean, for those of us who aren't beautiful to begin with, do you know what I mean? It's always a question of like, what does it mean for somebody to be beautiful? Is it different than like beautiful art? I mean you're born the way you're born. If you have a big nose, you have a big nose. So like that aesthetic that you have when it's about art, is that aesthetic still appropriately applied when its about people? Do you know what I'm saying?
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, it's the shoulder. Do you know what I mean?
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 micro gesture, but that would be a flinch of asymmetry. You can make up for it in many ways if you have a shoulder, but it's 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, you know, and luckily enough I'm here in this particular position. Does that make sense?
RAKOFF: I don't 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 you hate that...
GROSS: ...bit of claustrophobia at the MRI.
RAKOFF: Oy vey is me.
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: OK. Let me get some water.
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 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, too.
RAKOFF: Isn't it lovely?
GROSS: 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.
RAKOFF: But it's a lovely thing to recite. And it certainly beats oh, my God, get me out, get me out, you know.
RAKOFF: So it helps a little bit.
GROSS: Isn't that a great thing about memorizing poetry, though that like there is...
GROSS: If you recite it, it gets you into - it changes your thought pattern into...
GROSS: ...into the poem and into something, like, beautiful or funny or whatever poem you've chosen.
We're listening back to the interview I recorded with David Rakoff in 2010 after the publication of his book "Half Empty." He died last night at the age of 47. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: We're remembering writer David Rakoff. He died last night at the age of 47 after his cancer took an aggressive turn. He was a regular contributor to THIS AMERICAN LIFE and last year won the Thurber Prize for American Humor for his collection of essays "Half Empty." Let's get back to the interview I recorded with him in 2010 after that book was published.
So you have a very funny section in your book about your childhood.
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 wouldn't you want to go back to that era, even though you had a happy childhood?
RAKOFF: Well, 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. You know, there was always, you know, and as a grownup it's much easier 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 didn't like being there. You know, it's 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?
RAKOFF: Or was 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 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 no 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.
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, Marimekko 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 dis-inhibited psychiatrist who gave it as the gift and the sheepish oohs and ahs and chuckles when it was unwrapped.
RAKOFF: I remember it all.
GROSS: OK. 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? The world was all there. I loved books but I loved art, 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: 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.
GROSS: David Rakoff died last night after his cancer took an aggressive turn. Our interview was recorded in 2010 after the publication of his book "Half Empty." Remember earlier in the interview when he said he didn't like being a child and thought that he was mentally calibrated to be between the age of 47 and 53? He was 47 when he died.
If you want to hear more of David Rakoff, you should go the THIS AMERICAN LIFE website. He was a regular contributor, did a lot of great pieces for them, including previews of his book of couplets which will be posthumously published.
Rakoff also had a talent for creating handmade things. There's a Tumblr with photos of beautiful gifts he made for friends. You'll find a link to it, along with links to our interviews on our website freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.