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David Rakoff: 'There Is No Answer As To Why Me'

Writer and humorist David Rakoff, who died Thursday at the age of 47, wrote with a perfect balance of wit and gravity about the cancer that would ultimately take his life.

Rakoff developed a devoted following as a regular contributor to the public radio program This American Life. His books of essays include Fraud and Don't Get Too Comfortable. Rakoff's most recent book, Half Empty,won the Thurber Prize for American Humor in 2011.

When Rakoff recently met up with Fresh Air's Terry Gross at a coffee shop in New York, he told her that he did not have much time left.

"I can't presume to know what he was experiencing," Gross says, "but from the things that he told me, and from the clarity in his eyes, he seemed sad but accepting of finality. If you don't already know his work, I think you'll be grateful you heard him today."

Rakoff appeared on Fresh Air in 2001 and 2010. We'll remember him with excerpts from those two interviews.

Interview Highlights

On being a kid

"I had a beautiful childhood and a lovely childhood. I just didn't like being a child. I didn't like the rank injustice of not being listened to. I didn't like the lack of autonomy. I didn't like my chubby little hands that couldn't manipulate the world of objects in the way that I wanted them to. Being a child, for me, was an exercise in impotent powerlessness.

"I just wasn't — and I was never terribly good at that kind of no-holds-barred fun. ... I've essentially made a career on not being good at no-holds-barred fun. But, you know, I [was] just never sort of like, hey, yes, let's go play. I was always more sort of like, does everybody know where the fire exit is? And let's make sure there's enough oxygen in this elevator. ... As a grownup it's much easier to work — to navigate the world with that, because then you can just go home to your own apartment."

On why he thought his perfect age would be 47-53

"One no longer has to worry about certain things [at that age]. ... You can be sort of comfortable in your skin, even as your skin is rattled and ravaged and sun-damaged, and you no longer have to sort of explain things about yourself, and you no longer have to make excuses for yourself. And I think a certain kind of wisdom has kicked in for everybody, and people, I think, are a lot more accepting of the world and their place in it."

On therapy and losing his therapist

"I had gone into therapy after my first bout with cancer. ... I was just barely functional, and he really helped me through that. ... The reason I managed to become a writer and leave my day job is almost entirely up to him. I really owed him everything. And so I felt incredibly grateful for that.

"But ... I didn't know the man very well. I didn't have the details of his life. It's a one-sided relationship. And so I had to make sure that what I was mourning or feeling bad about was the ... unjust death of a man ... and that I wasn't mourning the death of the reliquary of my best observations, my best bon mot of 10 years' duration. Do you know what I mean? ... I wanted to be very judicious and clear what I was being sad about."

On cancer treatments that led to him losing the use of one of his arms

"Well, here's the thing: I'm not beautiful. I mean, I'm a perfectly normal-looking Jewish guy. My face has never been my fortune, nor has my body ... physical beauty has never been part of my equation. It's just not on my shopping list. With the arm, I'm not talking about beauty so much as I'm actually talking about symmetry ... it's the lack of the shoulder that I was fixated on and remain a tiny bit fixated on."

" ... I'm fortunate in that I am 46 years old, and I do have a nifty little career so that the comma, noun after my name is David Rakoff comma writer. I'm very fortunate in that that's kind of established, so even if I do lose my arm ... I have managed to establish an identity that is based on my internal self, and for that I feel tremendously lucky."

On asking 'why me?'

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.

"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."

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