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David Rakoff, My Rather Unlikely Kindred Spirit
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David Rakoff, My Rather Unlikely Kindred Spirit

Aug 15 2013
Kindness, healing, and humor, all done in lyric.

If you've listened to the radio program This American Life even semi-regularly, chances are you've heard David Rakoff's stories once or twice. Not to be confused with fellow TAL regular David Sedaris (who, is, as Rakoff was, a gay humorist), Rakoff died almost exactly one year ago, at the age of 47, from a rare form of sarcoma caused by the radiation treatment he'd received for lymphoma when he was 22.

After working for years in the publishing industry, Rakoff published three books of humorous and poignant essays (Fraud, Don't Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty); his final work was released last month: a novel written in rhyming couplets called Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. He finished it just weeks before his death, and completed the recording of the audio version a mere 13 days before he died.

I identified with the late David Rakoff in a number of ways. Sure, I'm a straight, Christian woman; he was gay and (as far as I can tell) non-believing, but we share a Jewish heritage and what he once called the "Jewish worldview"—the idea that "all joy houses the Newtonian capacity for an equal and opposite sorrow"—and a propensity for both worrying and self-deprecation. We were both anxious, omniphobic children, precocious in speech, remarkably small for our age, and desperately eager to please.

In several essays, Rakoff mentioned baking cookies for the nursing staff that looked after him during his bouts of illness, and for the hospice workers that were caring for his dying friend. These revelations startled me with their similarity to my own inclinations; at age 17, I spent the day before a serious surgery on my spine baking cookies to leave at the nurses' station, eager, like Rakoff, both to bring a touch of kindness and goodness into a dreary situation, and—being honest here—to ingratiate myself just a little. (See above: desperately eager to please.)

So when I read Rakoff, I feel I'm encountering a kindred spirit. While he's often compared to David Sedaris, his writing is humorous without being silly; despite his confessions of wanting—as we all do—to be liked and to be affirmed, he does not celebrate the superficially absurd. Rakoff does not use his family as material for his jokes; if the joke's on anyone, it's usually on him—or on the absurdity of life itself, such as dying prematurely from a cancer caused by the cure for an earlier cancer; a cure that, not incidentally, didn't end up working anyway (a scenario that might've come straight from a contemporary version of Ecclesiastes).

Related Topics:Humor; Radio

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