Celebrating David Rakoff – Humorist, Writer, Dancer.

by: Julia Cheung

August 18, 2012

David Rakoff

Last Thursday, David Rakoff died of cancer. For the humorist, and self described “Canadian writer,” “mega Jewish writer,” “gay writer,” and an “East Asian studies major who has forgotten most of his Japanese writer,” cancer was the subject of many of his essays.

Twenty five years prior, Rakoff was first diagnosed with lymphoma (or “the dilettante cancer,” as he liked to refer to it). It was an experience he recounted in an essay in his 2001 book, Fraud, writing, “I cannot escape the feeling that I was, at best, a cancer tourist, that my survival means I dabbled.”

In 2010, while writing “Half Empty” — a book of defensive pessimism — Rakoff was diagnosed with cancer caused by his earlier radiation treatments. He lost the usage of his left arm, and in the recent This American Life cinematic broadcast, he detailed how he performs two-handed chores:  how he brushes his teeth, how he grates cheese. “Special kitchen note,” he then says, “Always, always, always have your bum hand safely out of the way, preferably in a sling since you now have a limb that you could literally — no joke — cook on the stove without even knowing it. Which makes me feel not like a freak, exactly, but well actually, like a freak.”

One of Rakoff’s talent as a writer was his ability to use humor, not only to deflect the actual gravity of his subject, but also to reflect it. Formerly a publisher, in 1992, Rakoff wrote to fellow writer David Sedaris upon hearing his Christmas Elf essay on the radio. He asked to publish it, though he had no actual intention to. The two became friends, and through Sedaris, Rakoff met Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, a radio program Rakoff helped to create and regularly contributed to over the years.

In the same cinematic This American Life event, Rakoff also recounts his past experience as a dancer. He describes dancing as having a transformational power of beauty, but how since losing the usage of his arm, he’s been too embarrassed to even dance alone in his apartment. He then turns to leave the stage, but music starts playing. He turns around, and then turns again. He then proceeds to gracefully dance across stage.

He concluded by saying, “Look, mine is not a unique situation. Everybody loses ability — everybody loses ability as they age. If you’re lucky, this happens over the course of a few decades. If you’re not — But the story is essentially the same. You go along the road as time and the elements lay waste to your luggage, scattering the contents into the bushes. Until there you are, standing with a battered and empty suitcase that frankly, no one wants to look at anymore. It’s just the way it is. But how lovely those moments were, gone now except occasionally in dreams, when one could still turn to someone and promise them something truly worth their while, just by saying ‘hey, watch this.’ “

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