David Rakoff's Half Empty


Essayist David Rakoff passed away Thursday at 47 years of age. Rakoff, who was born in Montreal, was diagnosed with cancer a second time two years ago. He was one of North America's most prominent humorists, contributing to several publications and penning three books -- Fraud, Don't Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty -- and was a regular contributor to This American Life, the award-winning American radio program that also airs on CBC. Fraud and Don't Get Too Comfortable each won a Lambda Literary award and in 2011, Half-Empty won the James Thurber Prize for American Humor.

Rakoff stopped by Q in September 2010 to discuss Half-Empty and his unique brand of humour with Jian Ghomeshi. CBC Books originally ran this post on September 20, 2010.

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First aired on Q (09/17/10)

Are you the kind of person who plans for the worst-case scenario? Is always prepared? Is convinced that everything that can go wrong will go wrong? You're not alone. Humorist David Rakoff is a glass half-empty kind of guy, too. And, if you believe the premise in his latest collection, Half Empty, being an Eeyore isn't such a bad thing.

In 2001, Julie Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, wrote a book about pessimistic people. In The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, Norem argued that a certain type of negative thinking, which she called "defensive pessimism" can encourage positive habits and mental preparedness and manage people's expectations. Those who engage in "defensive pessimism" don't wallow in their belief that the sky is falling -- they do what they can to prepare for the eventuality by assessing the possible outcomes and ensuring they are prepared for them. As a result, outcomes may be more positive. (Norem makes a distinction between defensive pessimism and depression, defining the latter as an illness, not a mindset.

According to Norem, this kind of negative thinking is practical and productive, and instead of arguing that people should engage in positive thinking, we should allow people to be who they are and think how they want because they are wired that way.

Norem also argues that the concept of positive thinking blames the victim. The implication is that those who have difficult experiences didn't think hard enough or trust enough. In reality, there's a myriad of factors involved that cannot be traced back to any particular thought or lack of it. Positive and negative thoughts are simply that: thoughts, and being a positive or a negative thinker is as innate as having brown hair or blue eyes.

Humorist David Rakoff was assigned to cover Norem and her breakthrough book for the New York Times and the concept of defensive pessimism resonated with him. So much so that this concept informed his latest collection of essays, Half Empty. In this collection, Rakoff explores his own pessimistic ways and reflects on everything from being in New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic to his Toronto-based childhood experiences of being precocious and picked on, and from his battle with Hodgkin's disease at 22 to his hatred for the musical Rent.

Through it all, Rakoff assure us that if you are a positive person and want to sing along with the Rent soundtrack or wear Jimmy Choos to chemo, go for it. It just doesn't work for him.

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Visit Julie Norem's The Positive Power of Negative Thinking website.