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Writer David Rakoff

Writer David Rakoff is a regular contributor to Outside, the New York Times Magazine, and public radios This American Life. One of his peers, writer Paul Rudnick says of him, –Rakoff is a comic saint... an ideal mix of the crabby and the debonair.— Rakoff has a new collection of essays, Fraud. He's also appearing in Amy & David Sedaris new off-broadway show.

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Other segments from the episode on May 14, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 14, 2001: Interview with David Rakoff; Review of two music albums “Eden’s Crush” and “God Bless the Go-Gos.”

Transcript

DATE May 14, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: David Rakoff discusses his career as both an actor and
a writer
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

You may recognize David Rakoff as a regular contributor to the public radio
program "This American Life." He's the guy who spent one Christmas as the
anti-Santa, posing as Sigmund Freud in the window of the department store
Barneys. Rakoff also writes for Outside and The New York Times Magazine and
has written for Salon and Harper's Bazaar. Now Rakoff has a new collection of
very funny essays called "Fraud." He's also co-starring off-Broadway in Amy
and David Sedaris' latest play, "The Book of Liz." David Sedaris says about
Rakoff's new book, `With "Fraud," David Rakoff manages to successfully pass
himself off as the wittiest and most perceptive man in the world.'

Let's start with a reading from the first essay in the book.

Mr. DAVID RAKOFF (Author, "Fraud"): (From "Fraud") `I do not go outdoors, not
more than I have to. As far as I'm concerned, the whole point of living in
New York City is indoors. You want greenery, order the spinach.
Paradoxically, I'm about to climb a mountain on Christmas Day with a man named
Larry Davis. Larry has climbed Mt. Monadnock in southwestern New Hampshire
every day for the last five-plus years. I will join him on ascent number
2,065.

The trip up to New Hampshire will involve a tiny plane from Boston. I tear my
medicine cabinet apart like Billie Holiday and still only uncover one Xanax.
The hiking boots, the Outdoor Adventure magazine sent me to buy, large
ungainly potatolike things that I have been trying to break in for the past
four days, cut into my feet and draw blood as if they were lined with cheese
graters. I have come to hate these Timberlands with a fervor I usually
reserve for people. Just think, the shoes I wouldn't be caught dead in might
actually turn out to be the shoes I'm caught dead in.'

GROSS: That's David Rakoff reading the first piece in his new collection,
"Fraud." What were you doing climbing this mountain?

Mr. RAKOFF: Well, I was--there is this fellow in southwestern New Hampshire
who was climbing Mt. Monadnock every day. And he had done so for five years.
And the folks at Outside magazine thought they would send someone on the day
that seemed most unlikely to climb a mountain, Christmas Day, you know, other
than one's birthday or Mother's Day or your anniversary. And they thought
`Well, who can we send on Christmas Day?' And, you know, certainly, I
identify as Jewish and I don't celebrate Christmas, and, you know, I was free.
And they also thought that it would be kind of funny, since they knew that I
don't really--I'm not much of a mountain climber; you know, I'm not much of an
outdoorsman at all. They like that disconnect as well. So they--they sent me
off for a Christmas climb. And there was an ice storm in the middle of it.

GROSS: How'd you do in the ice storm?

Mr. RAKOFF: I did all right in the ice storm, although there was a little
bit of a testosterone contest, which is once you get above the tree line,
things--you know, above the tree line means there are no trees, so all there
is is bare rock. And when ice is falling on bare rock, it tends to sort of
glaze it in a somewhat dangerous, perilous fashion. And I had been outfitted
by the fellow I was climbing with and his two friends with all this apparatus.
Among the things that were in my backpack were a pair of crampons, which are
those, you know, clawed little things that you put on your shoes. And--and I
was climbing. I ended up not wearing those Timberlands. I wore my own pair
of shoes which were from the Payless Shoe Source and they're made out of
plastic. So they're not the greatest things you would climb a mountain in,
but they suited me fine until we got to this glazed rock. And I thought
`Well, terrific. Thank goodness for those crampons. Let's all put them on,
shall we?' And they wouldn't. And there was this little bit of a--Am I
allowed to say `pissing contest' on the radio?

GROSS: Go ahead.

Mr. RAKOFF: Oh, there was a little bit of a pissing contest that I didn't
participate in. I never--you know, obviously, didn't say, `May we put on our
crampons?' Because I was also there as--ostensibly as a journalist. I was--it
really wasn't about me. But we didn't put on the crampons and it got rather
tough going right near the summit. Our progress was somewhat slowed down
because it's hard to find perches on icy rock.

GROSS: So is the piece that you just read from the piece you wrote for
Outside magazine, or is this behind--the piece behind the piece that you wrote
for Outside magazine?

Mr. RAKOFF: This is the--this is behind the piece. This is, you know,
the--the highs and the lows behind the piece. This is more of an examination
of being sent as an outdoor journalist when, in fact, I had no business doing
so.

GROSS: What made you decide to write that?

Mr. RAKOFF: It was an outcropping--the natural outcropping of the fact that
when I take notes, when I'm doing a story--and I do so voraciously--I can't
stop the wisecracks. And it was also so much at the forefront of my mind. I
really--I was far more--sad and somewhat arrogant to admit it--I was far more
interested in what I was feeling at that time, it being my first piece, than
in the actual mechanics of the reporting. It was so much on my mind that this
was an experience that I had not had theretofore and that I should really try
and document it. And I also thought that the jokes I was coming up with were
pretty good and it sort of seemed like natural material.

GROSS: Now in--in the piece, when you're talking about, you know, how
ridiculous you feel as a journalist covering this mountain climber, you say
that you feel like a fraud. And you write, `The central drama of my life is
actually about being lonely and staying thin. But fraudulence gets a fair
amount of play.'

Mr. RAKOFF: Yes.

GROSS: Now there are so many people, interesting people, in your
acknowledgements that it's hard to imagine you as really being that lonely.
Are you also a fraud at being lonely or is that really a part of your life?

Mr. RAKOFF: Well, you know, loneliness, I think, is an interesting thing, but
it is not entirely a bad thing, first of all, being lonely. Moreover, I don't
think it's the kind of thing that's entirely corrected by the company of other
people. You know, one feels--and I certainly also haven't cornered the market
on loneliness, but I think that you can feel untethered and adrift in the
middle of a crowded room full of one's dear wonderful friends. And, as you
pointed out, I have--you know, I have been the recipient of extraordinary
friendship over my life. And certainly in that sense, I'm well cared for.
But that doesn't really go the full distance in counteracting loneliness. But
I don't know that that loneliness is eradicable in a way. I think it's
something that will always be with one, like double-jointedness or good
turnout.

GROSS: My guest is David Rakoff. And he has a new collection of his essays
called "Fraud." And he writes for many places and also as a contributor to
"This American Life." Now, David, in addition to writing, you act. And
you've been, among other things, in several pieces written by David and Amy
Sedaris.

Mr. RAKOFF: Yes.

GROSS: And you've also had some small parts in films and TV shows, though I
think some of these parts were probably left on the cutting room floor.

Mr. RAKOFF: Oh, most invariably, yes. I've been cut out of some very august
projects. So...

GROSS: One of your pieces in your new collection, "Fraud," is about a small
part you had in a daytime soap. And you say in the piece you know that soap
fans would have killed to be on the set with you. But you don't watch these
programs. You had no idea who the actors were. And so you--like, being in
their presence didn't mean a thing to you. Isn't it strange to be with people
who you know are really famous in some circles and you have no idea who they
are?

Mr. RAKOFF: It's very strange, and they were extremely conscious of the fact
that soap opera fame is fame of a very specific sort. It's actually not
unlike public radio fame, you know? It's--there's a very strict subculture to
these things. So these people were, to a man and woman, gorgeous New York
acting folk. I mean, they were beautiful. They had attenuated limbs and
perfect skin, and, you know, when we were in rehearsal room in the morning,
all their signifiers were incredibly stylish and urban. There was one woman
in a pair of black cigarette pants and a black beret. I mean, she looked like
Faye Dunaway in "Bonnie and Clyde." And she was just fantastic looking. But
there was this vague sense of apology for the fact that they seemed to
understand that the nature of their fame was exurban, out there, you know,
among a very specific group and, you know, multitudes, but a very specific
group of daytime television watchers. And they didn't seem to comport
themselves with the kind of, `Well, I'm just terribly famous and you should
have heard who I am,' you know? They immediately saw me for what I was, which
is--I mean, at that point, I guess I came in as an actor in New York City. It
never would have occurred to them that I would have watched the soap opera.

GROSS: What was your part on the soap?

Mr. RAKOFF: I played a modeling agent from the big city. I think I played a
modeling agent from New York City, in fact, or Chicago. I can't--I think it
was New York, and I was passing through the town, the fictional town that this
soap opera took place in. And, apparently, although I'd never been on the
soap opera before, I passed through that town a lot, you know, because I'm
always checking out what's happening there fashion-wise. It seems to be a
hotbed of fashion, apparently. And there was a fashion show, and I was at the
country club, which is the main set, you know, the place where they all
congregate to act out the little dramas. And there is a fashion show there,
and I was just checking things out, and I see one of the town lovelies, you
know, I can't remember her name. I think I gave her a pseudonym, obviously,
in the book. I didn't want to incriminate anyone. And I see her and I am
deeply interested in her in both a professional and, I thought, you know, it
helped my character, a possibly, sort of predatory vulpine kind of way. And I
try--I'm insinuatingly unctuous and I try and get her to, you know, leave this
Podunk two-horse town and follow me to New York City or Chicago, I can't
remember, and participate in this small, but terribly important fashion trip
that I'm organizing. And she--she rejects my advances, but I'm, you know,
slitheringly immune to, you know, the cold-shoulder actress. I then leave.
I--I never appeared again, sadly.

GROSS: Did you have any great lines in the part that stick out in your mind?

Mr. RAKOFF: I'm trying to remember my lines. It was something like, `I feel
like I'm discovering a new talent. I mean, the way you wear a dress, your
look,' just things like that, just fantastically good, slimy--yeah, he was a
slimeball. And I was wearing my own clothes, of course, because they give you
10 extra dollars if you bring your own costume.

GROSS: Oh, you're kidding.

Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah, so I was acting with my house keys on my person, which
was...

GROSS: Huh. Now did you look different from the rest of the cast because
they're all these afternoon soap stars and you're not.

Mr. RAKOFF: I looked so very different from the rest of the cast. It was
really--you know, they're gorgeous. They're not just pretty. They're
heart-stoppingly beautiful people. Their faces are mathematically precise,
you know, cross-culturally beautiful. And I am, in a word, not. So it--you
know, I--I also have a certain kind of ethnic look. I have a certain
care-worn Jewish quality to my face. So, yeah, I did--I did sort of stand out
in that way. Happily, there were a lot of extras at this particular episode,
because they were playing the other people in the audience at the fashion
show. And they all tended to be senior citizens, because there's this vast
network of lonely seniors in New York whose kick is to go be extras at soap
operas. They all knew one another. And they had all clearly worked on all
the other soaps that filmed in New York. So they all knew one another. And
then there was me and then there was this esthetic super race.

GROSS: My guest is writer David Rakoff. His new collection of essays is
called "Fraud." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is David Rakoff is the author of a new collection of funny essays
called "Fraud." One of his pieces is about his adventures acting in a daytime
soap.

You write in your piece that the typical parts you get are either `Jewy
McHebrew' or `Fudgy Packer.' Would you describe each?

Mr. RAKOFF: `Fudgy McPacker,' yeah.

GROSS: `Fudgy McPacker,' yeah. Would you describe...

Mr. RAKOFF: They're Scots. They're two Scottish clans. Well, the McHebrews
are your prototypical Jewish clan, so I was sent for one of two parts. I no
longer really act with any frequency except for the Sedaris. Otherwise, you
know, I don't get sent on auditions. But Jewy McHebrew is generally a kind of
a care-worn--I already said--oh, care-worn twice in the same interview. I'm
so sorry. But he's kind of an inquiring, furrowed-browed, bookish-type who
can either be the kind of guy who an--he speaks rather quickly with the kind
of inquiring people-of-the-word, people-of-the-book. And he says things like,
with dentated final consonants, so he says, `Papa, I can't believe it. You
sold the store?' Or he plays the kind of humanist rabbi-type who says, you
know, `And so we eat the bitter herbs. Why? Because is it to remember the
bitterness of our days in Egypt.' You know, that's the Jewy McHebrew type,
generally. Or he's a psychiatrist and like, `How do you understand that?'

Whereas Fudgy McPacker is, you know, the gay character, and he can take a
various variety of forms. There's, you know, supercilious Fudgy McPacker, and
he's generally a hotel concierge or a makeup clerk or waiter and he drolls.
He's more like, `No, we're not carrying that this season. Next,' you know?
And he's just like too bored, too cool for school. But there's the other
Fudgy McPacker-type who is gaining great currency right now culturally, and he
is the lovable queen who everybody loves. He gets the best lines. He's
replaced, for want of a better term, the fat girl within the dramatic
pantheon, you know? Fudgy McPacker, the funny one, now gets the best lines
like, `Did somebody say swim team?' And, you know, that becomes his catch
phrase, and they put that on T-shirts and then he's--you know, 10 years hence,
he's opening malls and he's a bitter, bitter, bitter sociopath as a result.

GROSS: A bitter McPacker.

Mr. RAKOFF: It's a bitter McPacker. Fudgy McBitter. And--or the other one
is he's dispensing clear-eyed, you know, romantic advice, not being privy to
romance himself because, of course, you know, he has no actual sexuality, and
he says things like, `Can't you see he's in love with you? Just tell him.'
You know, and then they kiss and then it's cut to Fudgy McPacker and he sort
of cocks his head--oh, I'm sorry, it's not cut to Fudgy McPacker; it's cut to
the dog. And the dog cocks his head goes, `Er?' And cue the dog or cue Fudgy
McPacker. Either way, terrific, terrific parts to get and be sent on, which
is, essentially, why I stopped being an actor.

GROSS: Well, what would you do when you were cast in a part if it was
obviously a stereotype? You knew the voice of the stereotype, you could do
the stereotype perfectly.

Mr. RAKOFF: And I wouldn't do it. And--and, resultantly, I didn't get many
parts. And I also, you know, wasn't--I--I--I didn't--frequently when I would
be asked to audition for things, I would decline to even go into the audition.
And, you know, if you do that enough times, then you stop being asked, which
is precisely what happened for me, which was OK. I mean, it was--it was
essentially a conscious choice on my part, you know, not--not to do that.

GROSS: So what's the problem?--that when casting directors see you, all they
can think about it Jewy McHebrew or Fudgy McPacker?

Mr. RAKOFF: Essentially, yeah. Essentially, I think--I think that it's
their--and this is not to say anything against casting directors--I think
there's kind of--generally a kind of risk aversion, less so on stage. You
know, on stage, you can be a number of things. Currently, I'm in this play by
Amy and David Sedaris that's running till June 1st in New York, and I get to
play four different characters, and only one of them is, in fact, Fudgy
McPacker. But because it's written by David, it's a joy to play. You know,
it's a comment on that entire genre. But the other people that I play are,
you know, a very stern kind of deacon in a quasi-Amish order. And the other
one is a cockney football hooligan with a heart of a gold, and the other one
is the, you know, coverall-wearing Lenny from "Of Mice of Men," soul of the
working class, you know, sweetheart dufus. You know, so on stage there's a
great deal more latitude.

But in television and movies, let's face it, there's an enormous amount of
money riding on these things and so a certain risk aversion is only expected.
You know, I--I don't blame them, but there's not, as a result, a terrible
abundance of imagination in terms of casting.

GROSS: David Sedaris has a quote on the jacket of your book, recommending the
book, you know, a blurb. And Sedaris writes, `On first meeting him, I was
struck by his ability'--he's talking about you--`On first meeting him, I was
struck by his ability to impersonate any living creature and retain long
stretches of movie dialogue. He's a human tape recorder.' Do you think of
yourself that way?

Mr. RAKOFF: It's certainly always been something I could do from childhood.
You know, and there--I think it's just one of those, like, double-jointed
things. Yeah, I always managed to get dialogue for some reason. It...

GROSS: Wh--where's--are there certain movie scenes that were really
significant to you when you were young that you memorized and that just are a
kind of permanent part of your memory now?

Mr. RAKOFF: Oh, sure. I mean, there's that scene where--I mean, and now, of
course, I'm going to have to paraphrase and various "Double Indemnity" fans
all over are going to be writing WHYY, `He got that wrong.' But it's when
Fred MacMurray, as Walter Nett, comes to meet Phyllis Dietrichson, played by
Barbara Stanwyck, and her wheels are turning and she's understanding, finally,
that she has an out from this loveless marriage. She can make a lot of money.
And he's, in turn, interested in her, because she's this sultry, blond, pistol
of a thing, you know, who's come in barely dressed by the standards of that
time. And he's making a pass at her, and she finally tells him that, you
know, her husband is going to be there tomorrow night when he can come back
and see him.

And he says, `Your husband?'

She says, `You're interested in seeing him, weren't you?'

And he says, `Well, I was, but it's kind of wearing off, if you know what I
mean.'

She says, `There's a speed limit in this state Mr. Nett.'

`Oh, really, officer? How fast was I going?'

`I'd say about 90.'

`Suppose you get off your bike and give me a ticket.'

`Suppose I let you off with a warning.'

`Suppose you wrap me across the knuckles.'

Oh, damn, I got it all wrong, Terry. Oh, God. It's in my wallet, but I'm not
carrying my wallet today because it's so hot, so I'm only carrying money and
ID.

GROSS: It's in your wallet?

Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah.

GROSS: Why is it in your wallet?

Mr. RAKOFF: I keep--oh, you know, should I meet my maker in front of a bus
and people can rifle through my wallet and see that I was the kind of terribly
interesting person who kept a page of "Double Indemnity" dialogue in my
wallet, and then they could say, `What a waste.' I have no idea, actually, why
it's in my wallet, but it is actually in my wallet, and I will occasionally
take it out and, you know, read it like a little mantra. Oh.

GROSS: David Rakoff's new collection of funny essays is called "Fraud."
He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Mr. RAKOFF: `If psychoanalysis was late 19th century secular Judaism's way
of constructing spiritual meaning in a post-religious world, and retail is the
late 20th century's way of constructing meaning in a post-religious world,
what does it mean that I'm impersonating the father of psychoanalysis in a
store window to commemorate a religious holiday?'

GROSS: That's David Rakoff reading from "Christmas Freud," about the
Christmas that he impersonated Sigmund Freud in the window of a Manhattan
department store. It's one of the essays included in his new book, "Fraud."
You may have heard it on the public radio program "This American Life."
Rakoff is currently co-starring off Broadway in Amy and David Sedaris' latest
play, "The Book of Liz." I asked him to explain his brief job impersonating
Freud.

Mr. RAKOFF: Well, there is a department store in New York called Barneys,
which is a very fancy, trendy department store, and their windows are
always--they're closer to artistic installations. And it was under the
stewardship of this really brilliant art director named Simon Doonan, who
turned out to be--who turns out to be an acquaintance of mine, a friend of
mine. And I asked him one October what the windows were going to be, and he
said, well, they were devoted to various things--blonds of the 20th century,
Frank Sinatra, the beat poets, Martin Luther King and Sigmund Freud. And he
said, `And we wanted to put in a live Sigmund Freud into the window, but we
can't seem to find anyone.' And, of course, my mind immediately--I all but
pounced across the dinner table, you know, to volunteer for the job because it
just seemed like such ideal material and such a strange experience and just
kind of a lark. And I volunteered. They didn't have any other volunteers,
actually.

And, you know, as I described myself earlier, facially, I'm not unlike Freud,
you know. And I grew my little winter goatee, and I sort of looked like a
young Freud. And I sat for four weekends before Christmas each day for about
four or five hours, sitting in the window of Barneys' department store in a
kind of a mockup of Freud's study that was also, you know, artistically
reified. There were video monitors, there was a baby carriage that had a
video camera on it going back and forth on a mechanized track that was a large
black and white spiral, like the old sort of alienist hypnosis things. I
mean, there was just marvelous activity in this window, and then there was me
in a chair. And I started doing it. It was fascinating, but terrifying
because you're so exposed in this window, and I had nothing to do beyond read
the paper and take notes of my experience and read from "The Interpretation of
Dreams."

And I realized I couldn't do that for five hours a day for four weekends
from--you know, I just couldn't do it, and so I decided to start seeing
patients. And all my friends signed up, and we took it fairly seriously.
They were scheduled for 45-minute sessions. And because the couch faced away
from me, in true psychoanalytic fashion, and because also it sort of was
angled somewhat away from the window and because there was sound insulation,
we couldn't really hear the street. There was something very close and
cozy--not B&B cozy, urban department store window cozy. And it was something
very sequestered and cloistered about the window, and we had some actual
conversations. And, you know, uncharacteristically, these weren't
conversations where I was the focus. I really asked them about themselves.
And it was actually kind of a strange experience because it stopped being
entirely a joke.

GROSS: Now you're the son of a psychiatrist and your other parent you
describe as a doctor who also does psychotherapy. Were you brought up with
the lingo?

Mr. RAKOFF: I was certainly brought up with the lingo, but only--it's
comparable to children of plumbers being conversant with the components of a
toilet, but I don't know that they necessarily know more about toilets than
you or I. I was brought up with the lingo, but I don't know that it was
entirely part of the culture of my family. I don't come from an overly
introspective fa--it's not the sort of media representation of the psychiatric
family.

GROSS: Well, you write that you've been in therapy for many, many years. Did
you initiate it or did your parents?

Mr. RAKOFF: Oh, I did. I'll--you know, I don't--because I don't really
write about my family so much, I'm a tad uncomfortable talking about my
family, but I'll just say that it's not the kind of thing where, in my family,
it's not a foregone conclusion that one would go into therapy. It was
definitely my choice.

GROSS: What do you think has helped you more, talk or medicine?

Mr. RAKOFF: Oh, how fascinating. Do you mean psychically, emotionally?

GROSS: Psychologically, yeah.

Mr. RAKOFF: Talk or medicine? I think it's been a blissful combination of
the two, Terry.

GROSS: You know, there's a couple of mentions of Xanax in your new book...

Mr. RAKOFF: Yes.

GROSS: ...and this is a pill that you take for anxiety or for panic. And I
was thinking, you know, reading your book, you have such a good, really funny
grasp of every situation that you find yourself in, and you're able to really
put it in a perspective, in either, like, an absurd perspective or finally
maybe in a more moving, reflective perspective. And so one might think,
reading this, that you just have the measure of things in such an adequate way
that you wouldn't need something like Xanax.

Mr. RAKOFF: Oh, it should be noted I don't actually take the Xanax. I
just--I keep it...

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. RAKOFF: ...totemically on my person, not unlike a page of dialogue from
"Double Indemnity." The Xanax is a prophylactic, should I lose my mind.
You know, if need be, if I really need to medicate, if I'm about to freak out,
I know it's there, wrapped in some tin foil in a little pillbox in my change
purse in my right front pocket. So it's always there. I rarely take the
Xanax. Frequently, I give the Xanax--I mean, I give it to people when they're
in times of trouble, but I've essentially had the same seven Xanax for a long,
long time. I rarely, rarely take it. But just the knowledge that it's there
is enough to stave off a full-blown anxiety attack. Also, I'm pretty good at,
you know, how to regulate my breathing, you know, when I'm freaking out. I
know how to do that. But I probably wouldn't know how to do that as well as I
do without the sort of--it's like those very allergic people who have those
pens full of, you know, adrenaline in their wallets--or not their wallets, in
their purses and stuff, you know, so they know that if they eat a peanut,
they'll be able to just stab themselves with it? I'm like that.

GROSS: So what's something where you actually needed a Xanax?

Mr. RAKOFF: Oh, it's so embarrassing to admit it. All right. I had to take
a Xanax--oh, my gosh. Here's where I had to take a Xanax. I was sent by
Harper's Bazaar to attend the couture shows in Paris, which were
extraordinary. It was like one long Pepe LePew cartoon. It was just so
French and so stylish and fantastic. But what they don't tell you about the
couture shows is they all start late, really late, they're all really crowded
and you are really a pawn to the designer's vision. So there was one designer
who decided that the Ecole des Beaux-Arts Paris, the Grand Hall, needed to
be red. It all had to be red, red, red, you know. So we're sitting there in
this incredibly crowded train station-sized room, wherein to get to your seat,
you had to go over the runway and up some bleachers--you know, you're trapped.
You're literally trapped in a room full of thousands of people. The
temperature is climbing steadily. There is no fire exit. It's all red, so
all the windows are closed, so you're essentially in an oven. You're a
rotisserie chicken.

The crowds keep on coming in. The thing is not beginning and, it should be
said, you're not allowed to go--even as a journalist, you're not allowed to go
to the couture shows dressed in normal clothing. You have to wear a suit in
July in Paris, in France, where air conditioning is not the kind of American
obsession, you know. So the heat is rapidly rising, and I think, `I am going
to lose my mind.' And so I actually took a Xanax before that show, because I
really needed one.

GROSS: But did the Xanax dim your powers of perception that you needed for
the piece?

Mr. RAKOFF: Not even. And, you know, I think that I actually had the Xanax
for so long that they didn't even work physiologically, but just the fact that
I had actually allowed a bit of chalky substance to dissolve under my
tongue--I mean, it could have been chalk for all I knew--helped me maintain
and it didn't affect, impede my note-taking capacities either. So, in fact, I
think that I'm traveling around with seven little pieces of
water-soluble--saliva-soluble gravel in my wallet.

GROSS: My guest is writer David Rakoff. His new collection of essays is
called "Fraud." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: David Rakoff is my guest, and he has a new collection of essays called
"Fraud," and you might recognize his voice from "This American Life," where
he's a regular contributor.

One of your pieces is about when you were in your 20s and you were diagnosed
with Hodgkin's disease, which is a form of lymph cancer and you required
chemotherapy and radiation. How are you at being sick and at dealing with
pain and weakness and fear?

Mr. RAKOFF: Well, I am--how am I now?

GROSS: No, how were you then?

Mr. RAKOFF: How was I then? Then I was--and I say this in not a remotely
complimentary way--I was adept at it. I was iron-fisted and funny and bright
and kind of adamantine in this impermeable way. So to the world at large, I
think I manifested as being eminently humorous and terrifically stoic.
Internally, I was similarly so. I was not--I was never bored with myself. I
mean, my mind was racing. I mean, that was really one of the astonishing
aspects of it. I simply had something to think about all the time. You know,
there was no staring off into space during that year and a half of my life.
But in terms of the larger questions of possible mortality or illness or
whatever, I really--they didn't come out. They didn't bubble to the surface.
My pond, such as it was, was iced over very efficiently.

And certainly, there was a--you know, the unfortunate dividend was that once
it was over, I experienced a bit of a collapse. You know, I guess it's much
like that old mythic story of the mothers who can lift cars off their babies.
You know, it must be hell on their rotator cuffs the next day. You know, it's
that kind of thing. It was--but I was very funny that year in the worst kind
of way.

GROSS: Did you see yourself as "Camile"(ph) a little?

Mr. RAKOFF: No, no. I'm not...

GROSS: Not that she was funny.

Mr. RAKOFF: No, you mean sort of languishing neurasthenically against
starched white sheets while the wind blows through the curtains?

GROSS: And just being remarkably, you know, just like beautiful and adored
and...

Mr. RAKOFF: The only "Camile"--I felt adored. Certainly, I was the subject
of great adoration, and that was, in part, due to the fact that it's
cosmetically far more attractive to be funny and stoic and brittley witty than
it is to be coughing and vomiting. You know, people enjoy being around
somebody who makes, you know, even Eve Arden-like jokes about their own
illness. In terms of beauty, it's interesting you say that.

There was a point at which I was extremely thin. I'm 5'10" and I was down to
about 115 pounds. And at that point, the illness was fairly prog...

GROSS: That's skeletal; that's not thin.

Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah, exactly. And we didn't really entirely understand how
progressed the illness was for various reasons. It's easy to sort of lose
sight of goals and stuff like that. But I was so thin and also my brain was
clearly, you know, decompensating in some certain way, but I felt so
attractive. It's a terrible thing to admit and it sends a terrible lesson to
our nation's young people, but I really did feel--at 5'10" and 115 pounds, I
thought I just looked fantastic. I couldn't stop looking at myself.

GROSS: That's kind of strange. Now 'cause it sounds like--I mean, because
you were beyond thin. I mean, looking back now...

Mr. RAKOFF: Mm-hmm. You mean when I see photographs of myself...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. RAKOFF: ...do I get scared?

GROSS: Well, do you think you still looked real good at 115?

Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah. Sadly, yeah.

GROSS: You do?

Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, you...

Mr. RAKOFF: I'm not proud to admit that.

GROSS: You write in your book one of the central dramas of your life is about
staying thin. I thought maybe that would have mattered to you less after
nearly wasting away.

Mr. RAKOFF: I would love to say that it mattered to me less, and it probably
does matter to me less. Certainly I'd rather go on living than waste away
and die, and to say otherwise would merely be glib reductionism. But what's
really rather interesting about experiences wherein one--I guess, whether you
like to admit it at the time or not, faces one's mortality--is that there is
an impermeable membrane. You know, you're either in the land of the sick or
you're in the land of the well. And for a good few months after I became
well, you know, after the final diagnostic measure and they cut me open and
took out a scarred, burnt-out lymph node that was, you know, like a used
flashbulb, you know, that the chemo had worked its magic on it and it was now
a vestigial whatever, no longer able to hurt me.

So I was deemed well. For a few months after that, or maybe a few years after
that, I was capable of still understanding the world of the ill. You know, I
could understand that. But even when you're in the world of the ill, it's not
a 24-7 kind of thing. You know, when I was first diagnosed, I thought,
`That's it. I'm not engaging in any more of that social crap. I am going to
call them as I see them,' you know, all that kind of stuff. And then, you
know...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. RAKOFF: ...a day later, I was, like, `Great dress.' You know, so you
can't not do that. You can't stop--it's too--I guess, the life force and all
the artifices associated with it, it's a very powerful structure. So, you
know, the impulse to be skinny, such as it is and for whatever bundled, you
know, impulses and sicknesses that speaks to, you know, it's not entirely
countered by the fact that I once was sick.

I also have a strange relationship to the nature of my illness.

GROSS: What do you mean?

Mr. RAKOFF: Well, it was, you know, I wasn't as sick as some people are or
can get. You know, I had a highly curable form of cancer. I mean...

GROSS: Well...

Mr. RAKOFF: ...even saying cancer, it sort of seems--I mean, it's in the book
and I'm not joking when I wrote it. Saying that word seems melodramatic in a
way.

GROSS: Well, you still were pretty darn sick and went through...

Mr. RAKOFF: Oh, sure. Yeah.

GROSS: ...chemo and radiation and so...

Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah.

GROSS: Yes. No point in making too light of that. I have one last question
for you. I think you're really funny. And I'm wondering if you can kind of
mentally keep yourself amused when you're kind of alone with time on your
hands.

Mr. RAKOFF: Oh, yeah, I'm terrific company for myself. I can just, you
know, sit there giggling all the live long day. No, it's--yeah, I do
think--generally, my twin impulses of the two default directories of my
emotional life are to either make jokes about something or to be sad about
something and sometimes simultaneously. Sad jokes.

GROSS: And does you therapist ever say, `This humor is a defense mechanism.
You must pierce through it and get to the emotion behind it'?

Mr. RAKOFF: Sure. Yes. Yes, definitely. And we--you know, but I will say
with no fear of contradiction, I was his funniest client. And I essentially
made him admit as much at one point. But, you know, that's only part of the
work, you know, but, yeah, certainly humor is a complete defense mechanism.

GROSS: But that's OK.

Mr. RAKOFF: Oh, yeah, I mean, what are you going to do without your defense
mechanisms? You know, that's what makes one human, I think.

GROSS: David Rakoff. His new collection of funny essays is called "Fraud."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Music from Don Byron's CD, "Bug Music." Coming up, Ken Tucker
reviews two new CDs by girl groups. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Positive review for the new band Eden's Crush; Go-Go's
out with a new CD with the same style of music as they did in the
'70s
TERRY GROSS, host:

Girl groups from The Supremes to Destiny's Child have always been a mainstay
of pop music. Rock critic Ken Tucker has been listening closely to two
examples of the genre, the new teen sensation Eden's Crush, whose debut single
went to number one, and the Go-Go's, the quintessential '70s LA girl group
which has just reunited for a comeback CD. Here's Ken's review.

(Soundbite of song)

EDEN'S CRUSH: Uh-huh. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Get over, get over. Yeah, I was
right there like a little wife. I was everything that you need, always in
line. I was living you, loving you, filling your desires. Now understand
this is me. Look me in the eye. Oh...

KEN TUCKER reporting:

In recent months, those seeking to swim in the chicken soup of the adolescent
soul knew that the place to plunge was the TV show "Popstars," where on
any given week, you could hear philosophical musings like, `As an individual,
I've grown inside learning to be on my own.' I ask you: Could Bob Dylan have
phrased this better? "Popstars" is so-called reality TV, about the making of
a female vocal group. If I didn't have an 11-year-old daughter, I might never
have known how you create a hit pop act these days. But thanks to watching
"Popstars," I now know. You just hold a series of auditions in major cities
and see what talent turns up. You cherry pick the ripest fruit and get them
to smear their signatures on a record contract. You hire a vocal coach, a
choreographer, a photographer and a video director and let them pummel your
band of strangers to each other into shape. Presto. Screaming fans, sold-out
arenas, a hit single and MTV's Carson Daly telling the world--well, the "Total
Request Live" world--that Eden's Crush are the coolest new items you must
consume immediately.

(Soundbite of song)

EDEN'S CRUSH: It's all right. I want to talk. We can do it just once but
for love. Like at times make up. Better yet, bet--better get on with
yourself. Stay in touch. When you learn a few things about love, tell me,
baby. Until then, wake up. Better yet, better go, better get on with
yourself.

TUCKER: Where Eden's Crush sings about self-empowerment while being molded
into a joyless machine, the Go-Go's sing about, well, what they always sang
about: heartache, revenge and living the good life in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of song)

GO-GO'S: Come on, everybody, do you want something real? I can't seem to get
ahead, but it's no big deal. Floating like a feather in the wide open space,
landing in a perfect happy place. Hey, now, world, we're here right now,
living life in la-la land. I hear...

TUCKER: When the group's new CD called "God Bless The Go-Go's" arrived in the
mail, I didn't even want to play it. I harbored such fond feelings toward the
group for the way they showed us the sunny side of punk rock in the '70s, but
I didn't want to be depressed by what I assumed would be a half-hearted or
cynical comeback attempt.

But then one night, David Letterman had the Go-Go's on, and lead singer
Belinda Carlisle came out swiveling her hips wearing a black cashmere sweater
with a small string of pearls and the rest of the group lashed into this song
and I was transported.

(Soundbite of song)

GO-GO'S: Always trying to clean up my catastrophe, taking full
responsibility. Living my life like every day is the last. Remodeling the
wreckage of my past. When it comes to you, you'll say I do, but I don't, no,
I don't. Well, I've forgiven so ...(unintelligible) living. Doing that, I've
done forgiven you.

TUCKER: Formed in 1978 in Hollywood, the Go-Go's were always first-rate plus.
Carlisle's ache of a voice was bolstered by the pounding drums of Gina Schock
and the lead guitar of Jane Wiedlin, who has also proven to be a talented
singer/songwriter herself.

Unlike Eden's Crush, they created themselves and they don't need no tunes
about self-empowerful, true Angelenos. They're still making good music about
things like being stuck in traffic. The album title is right: God bless the
Go-Go's.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song)

GO-GO'S: Somewhere the sun is shining, somewhere the moon is rising. I'll
say it again. Somewhere someone is laughing. Somewhere something is
happening. I'll die again. Let's go. Let's go. Just get in my car, when I
get to you, jump in my car, there's nothing I can do. Turn the radio up
(unintelligible). Jump in my car, step into my car. Jump in my car, step
into my car. Slow-motion, still disaster. I wish I could go faster. I...

(Credits)

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