Friday, August 10, 2012

Farewell, David Rakoff

David Rakoff has died. He was 47. He had cancer.

This story, "What You Lookin' At?" (Act 3), was my introduction to David Rakoff. In it, David talks about a trip he takes to go climb a mountain. It's not really the content of the story, but the way he tells it so timidly, with such vulnerability, that instantly drew me into this man. Because most of the monologue is spent describing events other than those involving the actual mountain, this story is a self-exploration that anyone who's ever felt inadequate can identify with. It's beautifully written, and told quietly and intimately, as if he and the listener are the only two in the room. Eventually, he talks about being on the summit, having made it in spite of his own self image. He says, "the only one casting strange glances of disapproval my way is me," and marvels at the thought of himself as a man who climbs mountains. I identified with these sentiments so heartily I almost had to stop the car the first time I heard it, and still need a bit of privacy whenever I listen now.

When This American Life (TAL) put on a stage show ("What I Learned From Television") in Chicago in 2007, I happened to be in town. I saw David Sedaris and became enamored with Dan Savage. I admit this is when I truly fell for Sarah Vowell, despite my pre-existing fandom and all her stories I'd heard before. David Rakoff was in the lineup and had performed at other shows on the tour, but wasn't there that night, which was disappointing.

When TAL did their first broadcast event in 2009, "Return to the Scene of the Crime", my wife and I were there. For TAL's second and more recent broadcast event, just a couple months ago, I procrastinated and missed it, and not having kept up with David Rakoff, didn't know he was sick, and didn't realize this might be my last chance to see him perform. When I listened to the radio version, "Invisible Made Visible", David tells a story about losing the use of an arm due to his cancer treatment, and once again brought tears to my eyes with his expression of self-doubt, being threatened by self-defeat, and then ultimately standing to dance on the stage despite his dangling limb. The part of me that identified with David most, that embarrassed child afraid to show himself to the world, was glad to have been at home the night of the show, sure that I'd have burst into a moment of inconsolability while sitting in a theater full of people.

Years ago, I took a chance and emailed David to express my thanks for...well, everything of his I'd ever been exposed to. Although he'd never been portrayed in any capacity as anything but a quiet, humble man, I never expected a response. I'm not one for fan letters, and I'm always sure anything I ever have to say to anyone I admire will be taken with a grain of salt and responded to with a polite but impatient smile. David not only replied, but expressed great surprise and appreciation that I'd written him. For the life of me, I cannot find the email (God knows I didn't delete it), and this upsets me greatly, but it makes me infinitely happy that I could fill at least one small moment of this man's life, which he shared with me so readily and selflessly, with happiness.

Thank you so, so much, David Rakoff. Rest in peace, you will be greatly missed.

Update: Here is Ira Glass's tweet/TAL blog post on David's passing:

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