Saturday, August 11, 2012

David Rakoff - There Is No Answer As To "Why Me"

David Rakoff, the Canadian-born, American writer and humorist died of cancer in Manhattan on August 9th at age 47. He was the author of three books of essays (Fraud, Don't Get Too Comfortable and Half Empty) and widely known for his contributions to the popular National Public Radio show "This Amercian Life".

On NPR on August 10th, Terry Gross's interview program Fresh Air played excerpts of two interviews that Terry did with David Rakoff in 2001 and 2010. These excerpts provide a glimpse of Rakoff's personality and wit but it is his equanimity in the face of death that reveals the quality of the man. When asked if he ever asks himself "Why Me" about getting cancer he responds:

"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."

In the interview with Terry Gross, David Rakoff beautifully reads Elizabeth Bishop's (1911 - 1979) poem "Letter to NY". After reciting the poem Rakoff wistfully says that "in my life I will never achieve anything this beautiful". (In the interview link above the recitation is from 37:40 - 38:53)

Letter to N.Y.

In your next letter I wish you'd say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays, and after the plays
what other pleasures you're pursuing:

taking cabs 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 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 most of the jokes you just can't catch,
like dirty words rubbed off a slate,
and the songs are loud but somehow dim
and it gets so terribly late,

and coming out of 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. I'm afraid
if it's wheat it's none of your sowing,
nevertheless I'd like to know
what you are doing and where you are going.

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