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David Rakoff's 'Half Empty' Worldview Is Full Of Wit

Writer David Rakoff's glass is never half full. In Half Empty, his latest essay collection, 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.

43:58

Other segments from the episode on September 21, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 21, 2010: Interview with David Rakoff; Review of Rebecca Traister's book "Big Girls Don't Cry."

Transcript

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David Rakoff's 'Half Empty' Worldview Is Full Of Wit

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
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.

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 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.

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. I’m 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 don’t 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 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. 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.

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 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.

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 you’re
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, we’ve 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. 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.

(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 wouldn’t 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 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.

(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 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...

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 you’re 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 didn’t. For this particular book?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RAKOFF: I didn’t. I had a hand in flap copy and jacket copy in the past,
but no, I did not. I don’t 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 don’t 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 doesn’t 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 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 - the aesthetic that you have when it's about art, is
that aesthetic still appropriately applied when it’s 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, it’s 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 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 and I,
you know, and luckily enough I'm here in this particular position. Does that
make sense?

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. 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 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 you’ve 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 don’t
really know if that's New York, so.

Mr. RAKOFF: I don’t 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 you’ve 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 Don’t Cry: The
Election that Changed Everything for American Women."

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'Girls Don't Cry': Beware 'Campaigning While Female'

TERRY GROSS, host:

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon and covered the 2008 presidential campaign
for the magazine. She's just published her first book, which is an insider's
look into the gender issues that rocked that election. The book is called "Big
Girls Don’t Cry" and our critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: I thought I was awake and alert throughout the 2008
presidential election. I faithfully read two major American newspapers each
day. I was glued to news and talking-head analysis on TV and on the Internet,
and I live in Washington, D.C., after all, where politics is the hometown
industry.

But reading Rebecca Traister’s superb new book about the election called "Big
Girls Don’t Cry," made me feel retrospectively dopey, like the stupid sidekick
in detective fiction who dutifully takes in the details of a crime scene, but
always fails to see the big picture.

The problem with the 2008 presidential campaign was that there were so many
head-snapping moments to take in, so many firsts, that even Traister, who was
covering the campaign for Salon, admits to having felt dizzy and distracted.
One of my favorite of these say-what moments in the book is the morning when
Traister recalls being woken up by one of her colleagues with the news that
John McCain had picked Palin as his running mate. Traister, groggily coming to
consciousness, asked, Michael Palin?

But "Big Girls Don’t Cry" is much more than an assemblage of these type of
boys-on-the-bus campaign anecdotes. As anyone who’s followed Traister’s sharp
and lively essays in Salon knows, her particular beat is gender. What she does
here is to tease out the cultural narratives that came to wield so much power
during the campaign and, finally, in the voting booth: narratives about
femininity and the demands of wife and motherhood, as well as narratives about
how women should play nice and let the other historically-discriminated-against
guy go first through the door of the White House.

Traister surveys a changed political landscape in 2008 where women were key
players, not only as candidates but also as sometimes outspoken spouses of
candidates, as well as reporters and pundits. She brings a historically
informed perspective to her reading of the cultural curveball that was Sarah
Palin and her undoing - at least during the campaign - by the tag team of Tina
Fey and Katie Couric, in addition to the sexist criticism lobbed at her even by
her fellow conservatives.

But far and away the longest and most eye-opening part of Traister’s book is
devoted to Hillary Clinton and her gender misadventures in, as Traister wittily
calls it, campaigning-while-female. Traister excavates the Bill Clinton-era
back story to many feminists’ reluctance to support Hillary and chronicles the
misogynist responses to her campaign not only by the usual Neanderthal suspects
- the guys who took to wearing the Iron My Shirts and Stop Mad Cow T-shirts -
but also by liberal commentators like Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann and Frank
Rich. She was pilloried - right and left - for her voice, her laugh, her age,
her ankles and even a flash of her cleavage.

Traister charts the attitudinal shifts in the campaign: how Hillary, arguably
misguided by her campaign manager, Mark Penn, embraced a stiff-upper-lip,
gender-free strategy early in her campaign which ironically ceded the more
traditional womanly role of appealing to passions and ideals to Barack Obama,
particularly after he was endorsed by the nation’s emoter in chief, Oprah
Winfrey. Here’s a snippet of how Traister astutely analyzes the gender dynamics
at the pre-New Hampshire point in the Democratic primaries:

Where once Hillary’s competence had made her a prepared and inevitable
presidential standard, it was now the thing that made her a particular kind of
female archetype. Like "Harry Potter’s" Hermione Granger or Margaret from
"Dennis the Menace," Hillary was being portrayed as the hand-in-the-air, know-
it-all girl, grating and unpopular in her determination to prove herself. By
broadcasting their disdain for Clinton, pundits like Dana Milbank and Chris
Matthews and Roy Sekoff were affirming their own social worth: nobody asked
women like Hillary to the dance.

After that infamous moment in New Hampshire that Traister refers to as The
Night of the Imaginary Tears, hordes of formerly skeptical women flocked behind
Hillary, not, as Traister says, because she was a girl but because she was
being treated like one - jeered at by commentators for transforming from a so-
called tight-ass into a basket case.

There’s so much more to be learned and argued over in "Big Girls Don’t Cry,"
whose subtitle is: "The Election that Changed Everything for American Women."
Certainly one of the things that’s changed about presidential elections is the
very existence of books like this one. Girls, these days, can not only run for
president, they can also brilliantly analyze presidential campaigns, too.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Big Girls Don’t Cry" by Rebecca Traister. You can read an excerpt on
our website, fresh.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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