Half Empty by David RakoffHalf Empty by David Rakoff

Half Empty

byDavid Rakoff

Paperback | September 6, 2011

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about

The inimitably witty David Rakoff, This American Life stalwart and bestselling author, looks at the modern world and his own life in defense of the commonsensical notion that you should always assume the worst.

In this deeply funny memoir, David Rakoff examines his own life and the realities of our sunny, gosh-everyone-can-be-a-star contemporary culture. He finds that, pretty much as a universal rule, the best is not yet to come, adversity will triumph, justice will not be served, and your dreams won't come true. Although David has a long-nurtured abhorrence of "inspirational" memoirs, much of the book recounts his own personal experiences: the moment when being a tiny child no longer meant adults found him charming but instead meant other children found him a fun target; the late evening in Manhattan when he was young and the city seemed to brim with such possibility that the street shimmered in the moonlight — as he drew closer he realized the streets actually shimmered with rats in a feeding frenzy. He also weaves in his brand of acute and Oscar Wilde-worthy cultural criticism (the sad state of the outdated "House of Tomorrow" at Disneyland, for one). It all adds up to proof of the proposition: Always be a pessimist, and you'll never be disappointed.


From the Hardcover edition.
DAVID RAKOFF is the author of the New York Times bestselling Don't Get Too Comfortable and Fraud. He is a writer-at-large for GQ magazine, and a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine and Public Radio International's This American Life. He has also written for Outside, Vogue, The New York Observer and Salon.From the Hardcov...
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Title:Half EmptyFormat:PaperbackDimensions:240 pages, 7.99 × 5.17 × 0.72 inPublished:September 6, 2011Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:038567032X

ISBN - 13:9780385670326

Reviews

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent collection David Rakoff is a brilliant writer. He's tremendously funny, and his ability to find just the right word is delightful. This collection has some of his best work. In particular, the essay A Capacity For Wonder is one of the best pieces of nonfiction I've read in years.
Date published: 2014-10-31

Read from the Book

The Bleak Shall Inherit  We were so happy. It was miserable. Although it was briefly marvelous and strange to see a car parked outside an office, the wide hallway used like a street, many stories above the city. The millennium had turned. The planes had not fallen from the sky, the trains had not careened off the tracks. Neither had the heart monitors, prenatal incubators, nor the iron lungs reset themselves to some suicidal zero hour to self-destruct in a lethal kablooey of Y2K shrapnel, as feared. And most important, the ATMs continued to dispense money, and what money it was. I was off to see some of it. Like Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age Buccaneers, when titled but cash-poor Europeans joined in wedlock with wealthy American girls in the market for pedigree, there were mutually abusive marriages popping up all over the city between un-moneyed creatives with ethereal Web-based schemes and the financiers who, desperate to get in on the action, bankrolled them. The Internet at that point was still newish and completely uncharted territory, to me, at least. I had walked away from a job at what would undoubtedly have been the wildly lucrative ground floor (1986, Tokyo) because it had seemed so boring, given my aggressive lack of interest in technology or machines, unless they make food. Almost fifteen years later, I was no more curious nor convinced, but now found myself at numerous parties for start-ups, my comprehension of which extended no further than the free snacks and drinks, and the perfume of money-scented elation in the air. The workings of “new media” remained entirely murky, and I a baffled hypocrite, scarfing down another beggar’s purse with crème fraîche (flecked with just enough beads of caviar to get credit), pausing in my chewing only long enough to mutter “It’ll never last.” It was becoming increasingly difficult to fancy myself the guilelessly astute child at the procession who points out the emperor’s nakedness as acquaintances were suddenly becoming millionaires on paper and legions of twenty-one-year-olds were securing lucrative and rewarding positions as “content providers” instead of answering phones for a living, as I had at that age. Brilliant success was all around. So, so happy.  The surly Russian janitor (seemingly the only other New Yorker in a bad mood) rode me up in his dusty elevator in the vast deco building in the West Twenties, which was now home to cyber and design concerns that gravitated to its raw spaces and industrial cachet. The kind of place where the freight car and the corridors are both wide enough that you’d never have to get out of your Lexus until you’d parked it on the fourteenth floor. Book publishing is always portrayed as teddibly genteel and literary: hunter-green walls, morocco-bound volumes, and some old codger in a waistcoat going on about dear Max Perkins. Worlds away from the reality of dropped-ceiling offices with seas of cubicles and mail-cart-scarred walls. But the Internet companies were coevolving with the fictionalized idealization of themselves. The way they looked in the movies was also how they looked in real life, much like real-life mobsters who now behave like the characters in the Godfather films. The large industrial casement windows were masculine with grime, looking out over the rail yards on the open sky of West Side Manhattan. The content providers sat side by side at long metal trestle tables—the kind they use in morgues—providing content, the transparent turquoise bubbles of their iMacs shining like insect eyes. It was a painfully hip dystopia, some Orwellian Ministry of Malign Intent whose sheer stylishness made it a pleasure to be a chic and soulless drone; one’s personal freedoms happily abrogated for a Hugo Boss jumpsuit. I was there to interview the founders of a site that was to be the one stop where members of the media might log on to ead about themselves and the latest magazine-world gossip, schadenfreude-laden items about hefty book advances and who was seen lunching at Michael’s, etc. I will stipulate to a certain degree of prejudicial thinking before I even walked in. I expected a bunch of aphoristic, McLuhan-lite bushwa, something to justify the house-of-cards business model. But as a reporter, I was their target audience as well as a colleague. I was unprepared to be spoken to like an investor, as if I, too, were some venture capitalist who goes goggled-eyed and compliant at the mere mention of anything nonnumerical. I was being lubed up with snake oil, listening to a bunch of pronouncements that sounded definitive and guru-like on the surface but which upon examination seemed just plain old wrong. “What makes a story really good and Webby,” said one, “is, say, we post an item on David Geffen on a Monday, and then one of Geffen’s people calls us to correct it, we can have a whole new version up by Tuesday.” This was typical Dawn of the New Millennium denigration of print, which always seemed to lead to the faulty logic that it was not just the delivery system that was outmoded but such underlying practices as authoritative voice and credibility, fact-checking, editing, and impartiality that needed throwing out, too. It was a stance they both seemed a little old for, frankly, like watching a couple of forty-five-year-olds in backward baseball caps on skateboards. In the future, it seems, we would all take our editorial marching orders from the powerful subjects of our stories and it would be good (Right you are, Mr. Geffen! ). It was a challenge to sit there and be told that caring about such things as journalistic independence or the desire to keep money’s influence at even a show of remove meant one was clinging to old beliefs, a fossil in the making. Now that everything and everyone was palliated by the never-ending flow of revenue, there was no need to get exercised about such things, or about anything, really. “We basically take John Seabrook’s view that what you have is more important than what you believe. Whether you drive a Cadillac says more about you than if you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” said one, invoking a (print) journalist from The New Yorker. Added the other: “That you watched The Sopranos last night is more important than who you voted for.” They weren’t saying anything terribly incendiary. It’s not like they were proposing tattooing people who have HIV the way odious William F. Buckley did (I’m sorry, I mean brilliant and courtly, such manners, and what a vocabulary! Nazi . . .). But we had just been through an electoral experience that had been bruising, to say the least. Who one voted for had almost never seemed more important, and they were saying it all so blithely. I felt like a wife who has caught her tobacco-and-gin-scented husband smeared in lipstick, a pair of silk panties sticking out of his jacket pocket, home after an unexplained three-day absence, listening to his giggling, sloppily improbable, and casually delivered alibi and being expected to swallow it while chuckling along. We were silent for a moment, the only sound the keyboard tappings of the hipster minions. I finally managed to say, “I’ve just experienced the death of hope.” We all three laughed: me, in despair; them, all the way to the bank. Said one of them, “No, David. We are the very opposite. This is the birth of hope!” Down in the rattling freight elevator. I couldn’t face going home just then, where I would have to immediately relive this conversation by transcribing my tape. I turned right out of the building, crossed Eleventh Avenue, and sat on a concrete barrier facing the river. The cynicism of the interview, the lack of belief coupled with the enthusiastic tone in which the bullshit was being slung, the raiding-the-granaries greed dressed up in the cheap drag of some hollow dream of a Bright New Day of it all. The Hudson bleared and wobbled before my eyes, which were swimming with furious tears. I wasn’t angry to the point of almost crying because they were wrong but because they were right.  It might seem a bit much to pin the woes of the age on the fairly modest landgrab of the two men I had just interviewed, but they were symptomatic of something. In blithe defiance of some very real evidence out there that we still had reason for some very real concern, rampant optimism, fueled by money and a maddening fingers-in-the-ears-can’ t-hear-you-lalala denial, was now carrying the day. There seemed no longer to be any room in the discourse for anything but the sunniest outlook. Contrarianism needed restoring to its rightful stature as loyal opposition and so I found myself, some four months later, on my way to Wellesley College to interview a psychologist named Julie Norem. Norem’s book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, was about to come out and the same magazine, for whom I had shed my Hudson River tears, was now sending me to document this emotional market correction. It was one I welcomed, and judging from the title, one my editors were hoping—as editors must—would present as a forceful linchpin theory, a reductive cudgel of a book that would advocate wholesale crankiness, a call to arms that we all rain on each other’s parades, piss in one another’s cereal, kick puppies, and smack babies. As the schoolgirl said to the vicar, it was a lot less meaty up close. The book was terrifically smart and well-wrought, but Norem had emphatically not written a book against happiness. Her research dealt with a specific kind of anxiety-management technique known as “defensive pessimism.” Defensive pessimism is related to dispositional pessimism—that clinical, Eeyore-like negativity—but it is, at most, a first cousin. One who is kickier and more fun to be around; played by the same actress but with her glasses off, a different hairstyle, and a “visiting for the summer from swinging London” accent. Both dispositional and defensive pessimists face life with that same negative prediction: “This [insert impending experience, encounter, endeavor here] will be a disaster.” But where the dispositional pessimist sees that gloomy picture as a verdict and pretext to return to or simply remain in bed, the defensive pessimist uses it as the first of a three-part process: 1) the a priori lowered expectations (the previously mentioned presentiment of disaster) are followed by 2) a detailed breakdown of the situation (the “this will suck because . . .” stage), wherein one envisions the specific ways in which the calamity will take shape. A worst-case scenario painted in as much detail as possible. The process culminates in 3) coming up with the various responses and remedies to each possible misstep along the way (“I will arrive early and make sure the microphone cord is taped down,” “I’ll have my bear spray in my hand before I leave the cabin,” “I’ll put the Xanax under my tongue forty minutes before the party and pretend not to remember his name when I see him,” etc.). A sea of troubles, opposed and ended, one nigglesome wave at a time. Defensive pessimism is about sweating the small stuff, being prepared for contingencies like some neurotic Jewish Boy Scout, and in so doing, not letting oneself be crippled by fear. Where a strategic optimist might approach a gathering rainstorm with a smile as his umbrella, the defensive pessimist, all too acquainted with this world of pitfall and precipitation, is far more likely to use, well, an umbrella. This mental preparation is just an alternate means of coping with a world where—in the pessimist’s view of reality—there is often little difference between “worst possible outcome” and “outcome.” A world seen as worse than it actually is. Through such eyes, the optimist looks hopelessly naïve. As Prohibition-era newspaperman Don Marquis put it in 1927, another age when unwarranted exuberance and eye-off-the-ball hubris led to its own inevitable disaster, “an optimist is a guy that has never had much experience.” But Norem explains that optimists, too, have their own mental strategies of navigating a world that seems far better than it is in reality. They need to sustain a cognitive conundrum known as “ironic processing,” a willful “whatever you do, don’t think about it” ignorance, blind to even the possibility of negative outcome. In a study where subjects were made to play darts, defensive pessimists who were robbed of their time for mental rehearsal and instead made to relax, free of thought, were thrown off their game. Conversely, optimists also found their anxieties increase and their performances suffer by being made to contemplate strategy and contingency before taking aim. It might seem that the twain shall never meet and at best one might achieve some grudging mutual understanding, but cognition and its styles exist on a continuum. Pessimists are born, true, but they also can be made. Two social psychologists out of Cornell named Justin Kruger and David Dunning bore this out to a degree in a study where they asked subjects to assess their skill levels in a number of areas, on which they would be tested. What they found was that those who scored lowest had rated themselves highest. The same held true in reverse: high-scoring subjects had underestimated their skills and how well they compared with others. When the over-raters received instruction, namely, when they became intrinsically more skilled than before, their sense of their own competence diminished. Experience had shown them how much more there was to learn, how far they still had to go, and their self-assessments reflected this. Given all of this—that one need but point out the ways in which we were royally screwed to have the scales fall from people’s eyes—how was it possible for Norem’s book not to be the antidote to all the unchecked and unearned exuberance of the age? This volume would finally wake folks up, I thought. The bleak would inherit the earth! (I had chosen that moment, it seems, to forget yet again my unique incapacity for identifying trends. If I think something is going to happen, it invariably results in the very opposite nonevent. Conversely, if I smell doom, there will be nothing but brilliant success. My finger is securely off the pulse. Walking away from the Internet in 1986 is just one instance in an illustrious résumé of bad calls. In 1982, as a freshman in college, during a brief and ultimately fruitless attempt at inhabiting my own skin, I went one evening to Danceteria, a club in downtown Manhattan. I didn’t drink at the time, so there was nothing to buffer the noise, the dark, the crowded stairwells, the too-long wait for both the coat check and the urinals, and especially that evening’s entertainment: a whiny, nasal girl in torn lace and rubber-gasket bracelets who bopped around to an over-synthesized and generic backbeat. “Well, she’s lousy,” I thought to myself, happily envisioning my departure from this throbbing club, my subway ride uptown to my dorm room and bed, and this girl’s return to the obscurity whence she sprung. The world, however, had different plans for Madonna. “Hey David, have you seen that fellow in the marketplace inveighing against the Pharisees and the money-changers? You know, the one who calls himself the Son of God?” “That idiot? He’ll burn off like so much morning fog, mark my words . . .” Bet against me, and I will make you rich. I am the un-canary in the mine shaft. (Gas? I don’t smell no gas! ) Norem herself was less absolute about the book’s chances at effecting any wholesale paradigm shift in the public psyche. She was advocating negative thinking only to the extent that if that was the way your mind already worked, then you ought not to be seen as counterproductive or in need of an immediate attitude adjustment. She was not calling for a glorious new epoch of sad-sack sobriety. All Norem was saying was that there should be room enough at the table for a greater spectrum of feeling. That one’s cognitive style was ultimately as value neutral as the color of one’s hair, even though pessimism might very well feel less pleasurable than optimism (although try telling that to the adolescent girl voluptuously bathing in that exquisite sea of heartbreak as she is locked in her bedroom listening to music and sketching portraits of limpid-eyed, tear-shedding soulful girls with lank hair and guitars, all while hating her parents). Pointing out that negative emotions are in no way lesser than their citrus-colored counterparts, just different, might seem incredibly basic, but it was an absolutely revolutionary statement. That said, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking had a very narrow focus, one almost completely free of bombast or polemic. What it most definitely was not, for example, was a takedown of the reigning school of the prevailing culture, the positive psychology movement. This deeply funded but loosely organized group of clinicians and researchers was dedicated to returning the field of psychology to its original three missions of curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more fulfilling, and fostering human talent. According to the group’s founder, Dr. Martin Seligman, the author of such books as Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child, we had lost sight of all but the first objective since World War II, concentrating too much on the sick and unhappy and leaving the relatively well and potentially excellent among us to fend for themselves. “We became a victimology . . . Psychology is not just the study of weakness and damage, it is also the study of strength and virtue,” Seligman wrote in his monthly column for the APA Monitor in 1989, the year he served as president of the American Psychological Association. We have managed to help people go from negative five to zero, he says, but if you’re looking to get up into the positive integers, mental health–wise, you’re on your own. The happy and gifted among us were essentially taking their marching orders from the vast, gray masses of the unhappy bottom and middle. The movement was an attempt to address this imbalance. Seligman refers to that which is solely concerned with disease and disorder as “remedial psychology.” “How has it happened that the social sciences view the human strengths and virtues—altruism, courage, honesty, duty, joy, health, responsibility, and good cheer—as derivative, defensive, or downright illusions, while weakness and negative motivations—anxiety, lust, selfishness, paranoia, anger, disorder, and sadness—are viewed as authentic?” he asks. While Norem had no quarrel with the movement’s desire to study all human emotion and not just the troubled end of the spectrum, she did have issues with its premise. “Any movement should only have the status of a scientific movement if the outcomes of research, what is going to be proclaimed to be adaptive or healthy, are not preordained.” It’s far easier to swallow a mouthful of honey than one of curry powder, but one doesn’t then judge the former an elixir and the latter poison.  Positive feelings may redound to positive outcomes, but it isn’t a given, despite what we are told, and we are told, all the time and in countless ways. “The consequences are not inherent in the emotion itself. It is a sloppy assumption that hedonically positive emotion is related to positive outcomes. Positive emotions may, of course, relate to good things, but there is no necessary relationship. Pride, for example, is positive in that it feels good. It may lead people to work hard or behave well, but it may also lead them to treat others shabbily. Embarrassment is negative because nobody likes how it feels, and it can have negative consequences, but it can also be a powerfully pro-social emotion [hello, Canada!]. The consequences are not inherent in the emotion itself.” Norem is absolutely right. It is the false equation of what feels good with what is good that rankles. Self-esteem might seem an unimpeachably positive state, but you don’t have to sit through an endless children’s talent show (is there any other kind?) to know that it has reached unhealthy and epidemic proportions in this country. More than the shaky corollaries, though, it was the prickling, Ayn Rand– ish sensation that troubled me. Seligman wrote of a Manhattan Project of sorts being set up to explore how to foster personal strength and civic virtue, returning our society to the greatness of ages past: the democracy of Athens; the honor, discipline, and duty of Victorian England; the pursuit of beauty that was classical Florence. “My vision,” he writes, “is that social science will finally see beyond the remedial and escape from the muckraking that has claimed it, that social science will become a positive force for understanding and promoting the highest qualities of civic and personal life.” I’ll leave the glories of ancient Athens’s slave class, Victorian England’s debtors’ prisons (and the rampant syphilis among the child prostitutes resulting from just such parental incarcerations), and the grinding poverty of those Florentines not fortunate enough to be Medicis up to the historians. A return to notions of discipline and civic virtue would be welcome, God knows, but I’m not convinced that social scientists are muckrakers conducting more studies about widespread income disparity, infant mortality, or suicide rates than they are about more positive human endeavors (if, in fact, they are) simply because they find them more “authentic,” or because of some kind of if-it-bleeds-it-leads sensationalism, or worse yet—in classic blaming the thermometer for the temperature—that scrutinizing such problems somehow exacerbates their power and unpleasant effect on the rest of us. It must be a vestigial race memory of the maple-scented egalitarianism of my Canadian upbringing that makes me find it unattractively greedy for the essentially satisfied to demand still greater satisfaction. But more than any abstemious impulse to ration out help to those who barely need it, it’s the false division that so repels me. The vision of these warring constituencies—the gloomy hordes, sucking up all available time and resources from the shiny, happy, excellent few. I keep flashing back to what it says in the Inferno: “There is no greater pain than to remember happiness in the midst of one’s misery.” There will be peaks of great joy from which to crow and vales of tears out of which to climb. When and why they will happen, no one can say, but they will happen. To all of us. We will all go back and forth from one to the other countless times during a lifetime. This is not some call to bipartisanship between inimical sides. The Happy and the Sad are the same population.  There is a question that frequently runs through the reporter’s mind when he is sent on assignment and the story as initially envisioned is failing to bear fruit, and that question is this: “Am I fucked?” It was ricocheting through my brain as I, tape recorder in hand, walked the leafy quads of Wellesley with Julie Norem, and the answer that was pinging back was a qualified yes. Norem’s conclusions were too measured, her argument too subtle for an easily digestible and zeitgeisty magazine piece. But it was not the subtlety of Norem’s argument that was in the way as much as I myself. A therapy junkie I know is fond of parroting the adage: “All research is Me-search.” Even though I had read The Positive Power of Negative Thinking very carefully before arriving, I had come up to Massachusetts thinking, hoping, that Norem had actually written a book not about anxiety but about sadness. Specifically, my sadness—highly unlikely as we had only just met that very day. Anxiety and sadness often occur at the same time. Psychological assessments for sadness often look for an anxiety component, but they are absolutely separate. One can be anxious and happy, for example (an incomprehensible combination to my mind, like Jewish Republicans). I couldn’t for the life of me tease the anxious and sad strands apart, so I spent a good portion of the day asking poor Julie Norem to once more explain the difference to me. She was doubtless very glad to drop me off at the Amtrak station six hours later. My confusion was making me stupid in other ways, too. On the train back, I realized that I had allowed the cassette to auto-reverse on itself over and over, all day long, like a weaver’s shuttle. I had lost many of the hours and hours of questions and answers in a magnetic pentimento. Even as I sat there in the Quiet Car, my hand covering my mouth in wonder at my “yes I am indeed fucked . . . so very, very fucked” stupidity, I was not hugely surprised at this small act of self-sabotage: I didn’t want to write this piece. So I didn’t. In the three weeks leading up to the due date, I did no writing at all, aside from my self-pitying, stultifying diary, whose entries all began “T minus X days,” referring to the twentieth, when I would have to call my editor and tell her that I had failed, without even the necessary pages of twaddle I’d need to qualify for a kill fee. I was Penelope at her loom, filling my time with busywork. I woke each day at the crack and, when it seemed appropriate, I would pick up the phone and begin that day’s interviews with other psychologists, all purportedly in the name of re(me)search. I spoke to James Pennebaker, the chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, who worked with survivors of traumatic experiences. He found that if patients wrote, talked about, or articulately confronted what they had gone through, as opposed to suppressing the feelings, they showed marked improvements in physical health, immune function, and other markers. In another study he conducted in 1989 with David Watson, they found that even the kvetchiest patients, those with the least-positive attitudes, who complained most about their symptoms, turned out to be no objectively sicker than those with low negative affect. It was nice to find out, then, that if one is characterologically incapable of not being a total fuckface, science has not shown you will die any sooner. People might just be gladder when you eventually do. David Lykken conducted the Minnesota Study of Twins (not the baseball team; think Doublemint, or Romulus and Remus), collecting data from hundreds of pairs of identical and fraternal twins for years, measuring their subjective well-being (SWB)—their self-reported happiness—and found that “the effects on current SWB of both positive and negative life events are largely gone after just three months and undetectable after six . . . Most people will have adapted back to their genetically determined set-point.” Lykken found this to be the case across the board among his subjects, regardless of economic, racial, ethnic, gender, or other circumstantial factors. So if you win the lottery or have your limbs lopped off by an oncoming train, within 180 days, you’ll be back to your old self, which is very good—or bad—to know. Many scientists have challenged Lykken’s results, and the media has misinterpreted his findings, often conflating the malleable and potential notion of heritability with the genetic verdict of heredity. Even Lykken himself contends that one mustn’t use one’s set-point as a pretext for resigning oneself to one’s DNA. “After we published that study, I said something like ‘trying to be happier is like trying to be taller,’ and I regretted that as soon as I saw it in print,” said Lykken on the phone. “It was a smart-aleck comment and in fact I wrote a book to contradict it . . . one can manage to bounce along above one’s set-point, if you play your cards right and if you realize that the striving for winning the lottery or the big goals is not the solution unless working to get there is in itself gratifying . . . the important thing is that nature has equipped us, has arranged for us to do her bidding by marshaling us with pain and pleasure. It’s extremely important that we not feel so happy all the time that we don’t get the work done or feel so sad all the time that we don’t get the work done.” (The following is off point but amusing, and so I include it: reading further in Lykken’s article “The Heritability of Happiness” in the Harvard Mental Health Letter, I was diverted by—and have no memory as to the pertinence of—an absolutely charming and unintentionally hilarious paragraph about homosexuals, starting with a mention of his wife’s cousin, a man who “brought joy and new life into any room he entered. He was funny . . . a delightful and imaginative host, an ideal guest . . .” He goes on to mention that these qualities were wonderfully embodied by William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman as well as Harvey Fierstein. “Only the intractably homophobic would fail to get a lift when he enters the room. What I am suggesting is that gay men, at least those with more feminine natures, seem to make an art of daily living, they enliven the tedious, decorate the drab, make the mundane more amusing . . . Perhaps the euphemism ‘gay’ is more apt than I had previously thought.” Clearly Dr. Lykken has neither had his path blocked by twenty feet of retractable dog leash unreeled across the sidewalk, just so that some narcissistic, over-muscled invert’s pug—imaginatively named Will or Grace or Liza—might walk unimpeded by tax-paying humans, nor, I’m guessing, has Dr. Lykken been the opposite of helped by one of the evil queens on staff at Barneys, but on behalf of my fellow deviants, I would like to say—as I sit here in my own sodomitically bedizened surroundings [the silks, the brocades, the stuffed cockatoo in the golden cage! ]—thank you, sir.) ——— I wasn’t getting any work done. At T minus nine days, I startled out of sleep an hour before the alarm, at 5:00 am, hissing, “Who the hell do you think you are?”—the words out of my mouth before I was fully conscious. I often resort to precisely this little pep talk to myself to get it together and stop fucking around—a cautionary admonition against sloth, usually uttered when I feel I’ve either eaten too much or am lying in bed too long. I sat down and began transcribing my notes. Some time before 9:00, I picked up the phone to call Martin Seligman himself. He had been very nice when setting up the interview, which made me feel like a shitheel. I tried to clear my mind of prejudicial thoughts, reminding myself who was the learned professional with numerous advanced degrees and who was the smart-ass faux journalist. The phone was out. Motherfucker. I put on my sneakers and walked out to the corner to the pay phone to call repair. It was street-wide as there were already three people waiting on line. My mood briefly brightened to see that one of them was my next-door neighbor, a handsome Frenchman with a comically perfect V-shaped torso. As I crossed the street, one of the women pointed downtown and there, already in progress at the top of the horizon, a worst-case scenario even the most detail-obsessed defensive pessimist could not have foreseen. The first tower was on fire.  I never wrote the piece.  On the day I spent with Norem, both of us having no idea what would be transpiring mere weeks later, I had asked her if she thought it was all going to change, citing the Kruger and Dunning study where optimists got a ticket back to earth when faced with the truth. Would the culture finally come up against reality and temper folks’ rampant enthusiasm in the absence of facts, I wondered? “It had better change,” she answered. “What’s been celebrated in the media for the last ten years were all these twenty-two-year-old dot-com zillionaires, and they were all really optimistic and a lot of people were really optimistic about them in a pretty unnuanced and stupid way. And things have gone well for them, and they made money during the boom years and are perfectly willing to take credit for all their financial astuteness, even though you had to be an idiot if you didn’t make money during those years, apparently. I didn’t,” she added. Julie Norem is my kind of girl, I thought at that moment, not knowing that by “my kind of girl” I meant oblivious to the point of consigning Madonna to the dustbin of history. We were both so very wrong. Not wrong in the way everyone not privy to a daily intelligence briefing about bin Laden being determined to strike in the United States was wrong, but because we both grievously misread the tenacity of American glee and its extreme resistance to sharing the emotional spotlight with doubt. Rather than blasting open the doors to allow negative thinking into the public consciousness, the September 11 attacks only seemed to galvanize the optimists to new, adamantine heights of impenetrable positivity. Optimism didn’t just not go away; it became belligerent, aggressive. There was now officially no room for valenced emotions. As Norem pointed out, “arguing for negative thinking, under certain circumstances, is very different from arguing against positive thinking.” But the line had been drawn. One could no longer point out that doubts, when voiced, can give dimension to reasoning, improve performance, or stave off disaster. Just like the fallacious separation of the Happy from the Sad, it was both a false division and an intrinsic judgment. Contingency thinking, and contingency thinkers, became saddled with such ancillary traits as being counterproductive, not team players, killjoys, Cassandras, or worse: people whose allegiances were seriously in question, appeasers. In reality, it was no more traitorous than a parent looking out for the best interests of his child. Say you came to me, for example, contemplating a preemptive invasion of a sovereign nation (an incursion predicated on cooked intelligence, misinformation, and outright lies, but never mind), and you tried to convince me that said incursion would spread the honeyed sunshine of democracy and freedom upon a formerly dark corner of the world and occasion from the inhabitants of that sovereign nation nothing but full-throated greetings to you and your troops as liberators and the heaping upon you of grateful garlands. I might say, “Well, that’s terrific, and best of luck on your dubiously noble and messianic project.” But if I in turn add, “Before you go, have you checked that you have enough soldiers, adequately outfitted with sufficient gear? We don’t want them scavenging the Baghdad rubbish heaps for scrap metal to fashion hillbilly armor, now, do we?” If that’s all I said, just that little bit of small-voiced advocacy for some contingency planning. If I never once asked after the authenticity of those aerial photographs presented to the U.N. by Colin Powell (merely acting according to the tenets of the loyal soldier he was. Truly, if he’s so bound by the ancient codes of honor, so haunted by the ghosts of the thousands of lives he is partially responsible for snuffing out, then let’s go all ancient Sparta on his loyal soldier ass. Let him fall upon his sword or offer up his tender throat to the blade. Isn’t that what they did back then? All that wrestling with himself on the Sunday morning news shows, the repellent too-little-too-late ex post facto tortured regret, his conscience-ridden resignation . . . well, all I can say is Yiddishists everywhere should bow down before this apotheosis of chutzpah. But let me be clear about this: Bush and Co. didn’t lie because they are optimists. They lied because they are liars. Okay, back to the matter at hand . . .), supposing I didn’t mention any of that, nor even the complicit looking the other way as soldiers were sold shitty, inadequate, extortionate insurance policies. If all I said was, “Hey buddy, looks like you’ll need more soldiers, if only to protect all those vases,” it does not necessarily follow that my contingency thinking nullifies your positive agenda, or that my advancing some more detailed cognition means that I lack patriotism. See how that works? Except that it almost never works. It is an almost unwinnable battle. American self-assurance and individuality lionize the can-do positivity of the optimist. It’s what settled the prairies and built the railroads, I suppose, although I like to think it was the pessimists who had the anxious foresight to circle the wagons. Given the greater comforts of our lives off the frontier today, optimism seems even more like the natural choice. (It’s presumptuous of me to assess your level of luxury, I know, but if you’re reading this, chances are you’re bobbing along in the same lavishly appointed boat as I am: an inhabitant of the developed world, at least, which in and of itself makes us very lucky indeed, and which makes those among us who still report feelings of dissatisfaction and anxiety seem very ungrateful.) That very privilege imbues all of us with a sense of power over cause and effect, a feeling that our actions can and do affect outcomes—which they sometimes do—but it remains among the prettiest of delusions, one that is ground down and out of most people elsewhere on this earth. A 1999 article from The New York Times told the story of the villagers of the Cambodian hamlet of Bet Trang. Coming upon three thousand tons of cement-like material in a nearby field, they could not believe their good fortune. The white plastic of the sacks proved to have manifold uses, as ground sheets, tents, waterproofing, emptied out for grain storage, you name it. What a boon, until, of course the villagers developed headaches, diarrhea, and weight loss. Eventually it was found that the powder, compressed ash from an industrial incinerator, contained insane amounts of mercury and other hazardous metals. It was dumped there by the Formosa Plastics Corporation of Taiwan. And why was the waste dumped in Cambodia and not the country formerly known as Formosa? Because the comparatively wealthy citizenry of Taiwan had a first-world sense of liberty and entitlement, and an opinion about the poisoning of their habitat, and they understandably protested. But the Cambodian villagers did not complain, even as they got sicker and sicker. This calamity seemed not materially different from everything else they had endured over centuries of colonization and fratricidal civil war. They had been taught to expect nothing from this life. Certainly nothing good. Buddhist detachment might have it all over Western notions of jealousy, guilt, covetousness, and general engagement in its deep understanding of the essentially amoral random anarchy of the universe. Asian cultures score more pessimistically on diagnostic measures, tending to value the self-effacing aspects of self-doubt. With less value placed upon positive emotion, there is less impetus for gratuitous optimism. But just like those anxious, sad-sack Westerners, there are, of course, exceptions everywhere. My friend Jim went to see Amma, the Indian mystic whose hugs, it is said, are a dose of extra-strength sympathy and benevolence (she dispenses these hugs to audiences around the world, including America, so her fans must be Western in some healthy percentage). Amma is said to be a conduit of all the love of the universe channeled through one pair of arms, a single warm body plugging into the great celestial wellspring of lovingkindness. Jim, a man of perhaps the sweetest disposition I have ever known and an avowed optimist—he wrote a beautiful chapbook of poems devoted to it—waited for something like four hours in Madison Square Garden and was incredibly glad he did. The best I can manage is a tepid, “If you say so.” I love a hug as much as the next guy, but I need a context of familiarity, some reason to believe that said hug is meant for me specifically. Being touched can be lovely, transcendent even, but a hug is almost deeper than eye contact, as meaningful as a kiss. A hug that one waits in line for from a woman who wouldn’t know me if I stood up in her soup would be like reading a piece of direct mail and being warmed by its repeated use of my name (“and if you act now, DAVID RAKOFF, we’ll also send you . . .”). I would feel duped and even lonelier than before, like stuffing the other side of the bed with clothes and making like it’s a boyfriend. The embrace of another clearly has some salubrious effect. Babies definitely need them, we all do. But a hug bestowed so freely to a stadium full of people, without prejudice or favor—while lovely and humbling in its benevolence—might also be seen by someone who cannot help but transfuse everything with his negativity as debauching the very nature of what it means to connect with another person, which requires hours and hours, not of waiting in line but of putting in the time getting to know someone. That harboring of initial illusions and hopes, the eventual downgrading of same, the word-filled, prone-to-recrimination-and-betrayal nuisance of it all, and the still continuing to rely upon, be relied upon in turn, be dismayed by, argue with, and withal love another human being. It’s the difference between sugar and complex carbohydrates. It might be more fun to eat in the short run, but it’s markedly less sustaining in the long. But to tap still more deeply into the churlish vein, it is the belief in the extra-soothing power of the universe that gets me since, as best as I can determine, the universe cares not one jot for you or me. It really doesn’t. As the writer Melissa Bank points out, the only proper response to a tearful “Why me?” is, sadly, “Why not you?” The sunniest, most positive child in Malaysia laboring in a fucking sneaker factory can visualize all the good fortune he wants, but without concrete changes in international models of global trade, finance, and educational opportunities along with some very temporal man-made policies, just for starters, guess where he’s going tomorrow morning? (A hint: it rhymes with schmucking sneaker factory.) That can be a cold and lonely reality with which to contend, and one to which every one of us, even the most vinegar-soaked pessimist, is naturally resistant. We all spend our lives rejecting this truth and, consciously or not, entreating the universe—with its vast stretches of deep space, dark matter, and uncharted, immeasurable distances—to somehow align itself in sheer admiration of our fervor and gumption, to rain down precisely that which it is we wish for. And the universe will say nothing. Even the most charmed life is a veritable travelogue of disappointment. There will always be an inevitable gulf between hope and reality. It is how we traverse these Deserts of Letdown that shows us what we are made of (perhaps almost as much as does choosing to characterize them as Deserts of Letdown). “Such sand this is!” some of us will moan, fretting our way along, grain by melancholy grain. (Is that a Yiddish inflection you hear? I leave you to draw your own conclusions.) “Sand?” others will answer, briefly bewildered and barreling across, unmindful of their burning feet. But look: There we all are (and in the following everyone seems to be in agreement); moving forward, like it or not.From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

The Bleak Shall Inherit
Shrimp
Isn’t It Romantic?
The Satisfying Crunch of Dreams Underfoot
Dark Meat
On Juicy
A Capacity for Wonder
I Feel Dirty
All the Time We Have
Another Shoe


From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

"Rakoff has a self-awareness that could be recreated only by a team of geneticists working in a lab. . . . File Rakoff under 'essayist, brilliant'." — The New York Times"[Rakoff] seems like the kind of person one would want to be seated next to at a dinner party--quick with repartee and a scathing put-down, but also capable of deep insight." — Winnipeg Free Press"[Rakoff] wields his talent for the sharpest, most adroit social and personal commentary like it's nothing, confirming that he can do the hard work of both fiction and journalism at once." — Eye Weekly