The Sound of Young America: David Rakoff, Essayist and Author of Half Empty

Episode 3

10th January 2011

David Rakoff is an essayist, journalist, and a regular contributor to This American Life. His latest book is a collection of essays called Half Empty, on taking down optimism and championing pessimism.

Episode notes

David Rakoff is a very funny essayist, journalist, and regular contributor to This American Life. We spoke to him last on The Sound in 2005. His latest collection of essays is Half Empty, in which he champions pessimism.

JESSE THORN: Welcome to The Sound of Young America, I’m your host Jesse Thorn. Our show so often focuses on how and why creative people are creative; how they get to where they need to go to make something. That’s what this episode of The Sound is all about.

My guest is the writer David Rakoff. His third book Half Empty is a collection of essays that are meditations on the darker side of the human psyche. It comes with the warning, “No inspirational life lessons will be found in these pages.” But frankly it sort of betrays that. There are none of the traditional inspirational life lessons, but it is in part at least an argument that one can be inspired and draw life lessons from a little bit of pessimism and melancholy. David Rakoff, welcome back to The Sound of Young America.

DAVID RAKOFF: Thanks for having me.

Click Here for a Full Transcript.

JESSE THORN: I want to talk about the story that opens this book. It’s the story of you trying to write this magazine article in 2001, just about ten years ago. Tell me about what the subject of that article was.

DAVID RAKOFF: It’s funny; the first chapter was an absolute bear of a piece. It took me essentially nine years to write, on and off. The subject of the article which was assigned by the New York Times magazine was a psychologist named Julie Norem and she’s at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She wrote a book called The Positive Power of Negative Thinking – – it’s a beautiful book, really a great bit of science writing, and she’s so smart and erudite and the book just rollicks along. It’s a really terrific book.

It’s about a very specific kind of anxiety management technique called defensive pessimism. Most people are born with it to some degree; there are very few full on unnuanced strategic optimists in the world. But defensive pessimists are cousins to dispositional pessimists. They see the world as being a little more negative than it actually is like most pessimists, but what defensive pessimists do is they then take that presentiment of disaster, like “this is going to suck” kind of premonition, and they take arms against it, and they envision their worst case scenario coming true. This is going to suck because of A B C and D, and they go through each aspect of suckhood and they come up with a contingency plan as to what they are going to do to combat that. It’s a means of claiming agency and getting over your anxiety about the world. It’s a means of not staying in bed all day. It’s kind of an interesting thing, it certainly explained me to myself and it explains most people that I know in my circle to themselves.

We all do it to some extent, and certainly it can be argued that I live in New York City which is a self selecting group of people that all do that. It’s a darkish melancholic place, or it can be between the Jamba Juices and Nordstrom Rack stores. It’s that kind of thing. It was also at a time in my life where I was unable to tease apart the threads of anxiety and sadness. And while when you’re testing for sadness you’re testing for anxiety, they’re emphatically two different things. You can be anxious and happy, I didn’t understand how and I couldn’t tease apart the fragments, the strands of science, and so I couldn’t write this piece. So I didn’t, and I avoided it and avoided it. I kept on making busy work for myself by interviewing psychologists. One psychologist after another every day, I would get on the phone, interview for two hours and then spend the rest of the day transcribing the notes. Because I’m a lousy typist, there would be my day. It felt like a job, it felt like work. I was amassing thousands of words of notes, but I wasn’t writing the piece.

Finally nine days before the piece was due I woke up at 5:30 in the morning to keep transcribing, and then at about 8:45 I was going to call Martin Seligman, who is the father of positive psychology and the positive psychology movement, and I was going to interview him, and I really did need to interview him because I was reading a lot about positive psychology and it was the flip side to all this advocating negative thinking. At 8:45 I was going to pick up the phone and call him and the phone was out and I thought, “Dammit.” I marched out to the phone booth on the corner and there, in progress already, was the worst case scenario that no defensive pessimist could ever have envisioned. It was that the first tower of the World Trade Center was on fire, it had been hit.

So I never wrote the piece. But it seemed to me that the seeds had been planted, that there had to be room at the table for something more than just unbridled optimism. Because remember, before September 11th, it was the midst of the internet boom here. Which was this kind of cloud cuckoo land of unbridled cargo cultlike optimism, and it was a sort of ecosystem. A back and forth rain cycle of crap, you know what I mean? The finance people were financing these pseudo creatives to come up with business models that did nothing and didn’t hold water, and they were getting money but the money was all on paper and it didn’t exist; nothing existed. There was this optimism fueled climate of rah-rah boosterism that didn’t seem based in anything tangible to my mind. So I really did think that it was worth continuing to inquire about.

Certainly after September 11th when we then waged a war predicated on misinformation and lies, but also optimism. Optimism that we could do such a thing financially; that we could do it with one sector of our population shouldering the burden. All matter of rosy scenarios that were not in point of fact true or real or moral. It seemed that – – exploring the darker side seemed that much more important to me, so I never lost the need to write the piece, but it was hard for me to do so.

JESSE THORN: You describe this defensive pessimism mindset, and when you described it in the book – – as you said, a lot of folks identify with it. I identified with it incredibly strongly.

DAVID RAKOFF: Oh, of course.

JESSE THORN: So any conversations with, say, my more optimistic mom, who’s a great lady, she gets upset because anytime she brings up a possibility I think of everything that’s wrong with it. And I’m thinking of everything that’s wrong with it in the hopes that I can deal with it. But that can also be paralyzing.

DAVID RAKOFF: What paralyzes you? The panoply of things that can go wrong?

JESSE THORN: You described it, I think quite reasonably, as a way of achieving – – of getting to a point where you feel some agency over a problem.


JESSE THORN: But sometimes if you don’t have an answer to every question you aren’t gaining agency.

DAVID RAKOFF: Absolutely true. If you’re already worried about L M N O P, and there’s no way you can have an answer to those steps when you’re still at A, I completely understand feeling that one will drown with the possibilities of things that can go wrong.

JESSE THORN: I get the impression from reading the book that this was something that you struggled with, especially as a young adult, trying to get to the point where you could do the creative work that you wanted to do.

DAVID RAKOFF: Yeah. I’m not as crippled by anxiety lately. I’m now 46, I’m a grownup. I’m not as crippled with anxiety as I was in my 20s and certainly not as much as I was in my childhood. But it kept me from doing anything for years and years.

JESSE THORN: What do you see as being the difference between someone whose negative thinking gives them agency, and someone whose negative thinking paralyzes them in some way?

DAVID RAKOFF: I really think that it’s a matter of trying – – of really counting to ten. That’s as best as I can put it. It’s just sort of trying to regulate one’s breathing. It’s very easy to spin out of control and be the person on the subway who soils themselves, screams, “We’re all gonna die, we’re all gonna die” and then passes out. And then you wake up ten minutes later on the floor of the subway with soiled trousers and the subway is, of course, moving. It wasn’t going to burst into flames when it stopped in the tunnel the way you thought it was. But you never want to be that guy, and the way not to be that guy is at best – – at its most basic level – – it’s about regulating your breathing.

Try to breathe in on a count of three and not on a count of .003 which will just make you hyperventilate and pass out. There’s some comfort to be taken from this, or perhaps not. The person who drowns from anxiety and the person who claims agency from their anxiety and the person who feels no anxiety at all; they’re the same person. We’re not these warring constituencies of people who have no problems and people who are simply awash in problems; that’s just life. Life is this incredibly rich and dense and completely mutating perpetually moving mixture of things. I guess that’s sort of comforting to know. No?

JESSE THORN: It is. It’s sort of comforting.

DAVID RAKOFF: Yeah, it’s only sort of comforting.

JESSE THORN: I find myself having, frankly, to back myself up against a wall, whenever I can.

DAVID RAKOFF: You mean in order to just get moving?


DAVID RAKOFF: Oh, me too. Me too. Absolutely. Especially with getting to work. It takes a kind of a panicked, a deeply panicked fear that, that’s it. That’s it. You will never accomplish anything again. That’s it. You’ll never do it again, you won’t be able to make a living, you will be the guy that people see on the street that they used to know and you’ve got all your belongings in a pharmacy bag and you never fulfilled your early promise; and guess what, your early promise wasn’t that promising anyway. That was a delusion. You’ll never do it again. That goes through my mind hourly. Hourly. And it fails to get me in gear 80% of the time. But the panic has to clearly reach a head of steam for me to actually get into gear. But I, for one, haven’t done any proper work for weeks and weeks. And it’s terrifying to me.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest is the writer David Rakoff. His most recent book about pessimism is called Half Empty.

One of the things that you write really evocatively about is your young adulthood in New York City. Particularly it coming in the context of this time that I remember very well growing up in San Francisco; and I’m a few years younger than you, but I remember very vividly the way that AIDS shaped life.


JESSE THORN: And I wonder how you think that dealing with that environment and also dealing with your own cancer, which first emerged when you were in your 20s, affected your approach to life and doing work when you were young; specifically at that point in your life.

DAVID RAKOFF: Well, it’s interesting. I went to college in New York City, and I arrived here in 1982. Already we knew that there was something going on. When I was in high school in the late 70s, early 80s, we were hearing news reports. In fact I remember very specifically one of my best friends, who was weird. We were very, very close, but she often said outlandish stupid things, and she said to me in 1980, “Have you heard about the gay cancer?” And I said don’t be ridiculous. She said, no, it’s true, they have a spokesperson, her name’s Brandy Alexander, and I just walked away. I said you’re insane and ridiculous.

When I got to New York I sort of knew about it; it was certainly there and it was thrumming a bass note. And I certainly had reasons that I won’t talk about in public context, but I had reasons of my own to develop a very healthy erotiphobia, and it was only enhanced by the fact that there was this thing that was targeting my ostensible, hoped-for, aspired-to community; which is that of a gay guy. I wanted to be a full fledged gay guy in New York. I never became the gay guy that I thought I’d become in certain aspects. I mean in terms of grooming and wardrobe. In other aspects I won’t lie, all my dreams came true, but in certain aspects it didn’t. So it was definitely part of that thing. It was definitely a thrumming bass note; kind of a terrifying light motif.

That is not to say that I didn’t sail through college and have a world view wherein – – I don’t know, chalk it up to a certain kind of arrogance, I really thought things might work out for me. I graduated college and had my first bout of cancer, and that really changed the equation for me. It changed what I felt entitled to expect from life and what I felt entitled to expect from life, having been laid low by my first bout of illness, was not much. That existed as my worldview for a long, long time. And for a long time I felt chastened and reprimanded by cosmic events, and it took many years for me to get over that. There’s still very much an aspect of that to the way I live my life. There’s a certain kind of sheepish fear that if I get too big for my britches I will be, deservedly so, laid low by circumstance.

JESSE THORN: We’re so used to hearing stories of people who face life threatening illness and come out of that illness with some sort of renewed sense of purpose and the idea that they should seize every day as it comes, rather than feeling like it was the universe telling them that they had gotten too big for their britches.

DAVID RAKOFF: I know, it’s not a very healthy takeaway. And I don’t mean to say that it is, and I recognize that it’s not. I suppose that part of a creative life is giving oneself permission to be too big for one’s britches; to swing for those fences and to think that what one has to say is worth listening to. Which is a very arrogant thing to do if you think about it.

JESSE THORN: That certainly strikes me as a kind of essential part of being able to make things or do things when one is a defensive pessimist.

DAVID RAKOFF: Oh entirely. Entirely. And I will even on those occasions when I read the stuff that I’ve written, and they aren’t many. I don’t really look back a lot because it’s a little embarrassing, and there’s some stuff – – there was a period that I couldn’t read my stuff for years and years, I couldn’t read it without cringing. But I do recognize, even in the visual things I make, the little crafty projects, I sometimes see the constricted fear in the writing, or in the care or meticulousness of which certain things have been made, and it nauseates me. It makes me angry with myself, and sick of myself.

JESSE THORN: Your cancer recurred a couple of years ago.


JESSE THORN: It seems like you have engaged your illness very differently now 15 years or so after your first bout of cancer when you – –

DAVID RAKOFF: Twenty plus years between the bouts, yeah.

JESSE THORN: When you wrote that you initially – – the first time around you essentially said to the doctors, “do what you need to do.”

DAVID RAKOFF: Yeah. Which was dumb since it was the treatment that gave me this second bout.

JESSE THORN: Do you think there’s any relationship between your ability as an adult to engage so fruitfully with your work and the fact that you’ve been more able to engage your treatment with this second round of cancer?

DAVID RAKOFF: That’s interesting. Part of it is there’s no one taking care of me; I have to take care of myself. I have a family, obviously, and they’re involved to a certain degree; although I’m being treated down in New York and they’re all in Canada. So there’s just certain day to day realities where I’m the one who has to make the decisions, and as such I have to be engaged in a way that – – I don’t have the option of ignoring it in that way.

But part of it is as you say, something that I’ve learned just by living my life and getting older — if you’re going to write a book, period, you’ve got to be kind of open to the world of sensory stimuli, if you’re going to be remotely descriptive about the world in which we live. You can’t really be asleep at the wheel unless you’re going to write something so spare and so masculine that only 19 year old boys are going to read it and then they’re going to steal it from the bookstores and you’re going to have to ask behind the counter to get a copy. That’s not the way that I speak, it’s not the way that I write, that’s not the way that I move about the world.

If you’re going to write a book about how it really behooves you as a human being, as a moral creature, to engage with the world and all its darkness, then I suppose it does sort of prepare you in a way. But that’s it. I didn’t really want to know about it either. It’s hard to know about, it’s hard to look at it plainfacedly. In the last week alone I’ve heard of people with problems so much worse than mine right now, which is just part of being alive. I’d rather not be going through this, I’m not an idiot. I’ll do a lot for a good chapter, but I’d rather not have done this obviously. Truthfully I would have wanted greater book sales, considering. That said, there’s no profit in refusing to look at something. It’s not going to help.

JESSE THORN: Well David, I certainly appreciate you taking the time to come be on The Sound of Young America. It was a joy, as always.

DAVID RAKOFF: Thank you, sir. It was lovely to be here again.

JESSE THORN: David Rakoff’s new book is Half Empty, and despite its warning that no inspirational life lessons are to be found in its pages, I found it quite inspirational.

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Bullseye is a celebration of the best of arts and culture in public radio form. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring you in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.

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