I just learned that David Rakoff died yesterday at the age of 47. Why do the good die young? Rakoff was a contributor to NPR’s This American Life and was also a fine writer of humorous essays with bite. In his last collection, Half Empty, he took the position that you should always assume the worst so you’ll never be disappointed. He wrote about being gay. He wrote about being Jewish. He wrote about being neurotic. He also wrote about American culture with perception, wit and an unflinching realism that many would interpret as pessimistic. Yet he could also at times view the world with childlike wonder.
I had the privilege of meeting Rakoff several years ago when he was in Tulsa for the Celebration of Books. My husband and I were hosting Pat Conroy and his wife Cassandra King and when we arrived at the hotel to pick them up we met David, who seemed to be stranded. We gladly offered him a ride to the OSU Tulsa campus and found him to be sweet and a little shy.
It was September and he went to the Tulsa State Fair alone. He wanted to experience the Heartland firsthand. I remember tensing a bit, as I feared a New Yorker might find the fair crowd unsophisticated and fair game for his sharp, sarcastic observations. Imagine my surprise when his report was instead full of wide-eyed delight.
The last essay in Half Empty broke my heart. He described his battle with cancer as a young man and acknowledged that the disease had returned. I cried as he talked about how he tried to practice how he might live with his arm removed at the shoulder. Rakoff had to cancel a later visit to Tulsa because of his illness. I regret that I didn’t get to see him again and revel in his ability to capture ordinary life in such an extraordinary way.
If you’re not familiar with Rakoff’s work, please read his essays. At least we’ll always have those.