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Barbara Rakoff Essays

“For most of my life, I would have automatically said that I would opt for conscientious objector status, and in general, I still would. But the spirit of the question is would I ever, and there are instances where I might. If immediate intervention would have circumvented the genocide in Rwanda or stopped the Janjaweed in Darfur, would I choose pacifism? Of course not. Scott Simon, the reporter for National Public Radio and a committed lifelong Quaker, has written that it took looking into mass graves in former Yugoslavia to convince him that force is sometimes the only option to deter our species' murderous impulses.

While we're on the subject of the horrors of war, and humanity's most poisonous and least charitable attributes, let me not forget to mention Barbara Bush (that would be former First Lady and presidential mother as opposed to W's liquor-swilling, Girl Gone Wild, human ashtray of a daughter. I'm sorry, that's not fair. I've no idea if she smokes.) When the administration censored images of the flag-draped coffins of the young men and women being killed in Iraq - purportedly to respect "the privacy of the families" and not to minimize and cover up the true nature and consequences of the war - the family matriarch expressed her support for what was ultimately her son's decision by saying on Good Morning America on March 18, 2003, "Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? I mean it's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?"

Mrs. Bush is not getting any younger. When she eventually ceases to walk among us we will undoubtedly see photographs of her flag-draped coffin. Whatever obituaries that run will admiringly mention those wizened, dynastic loins of hers and praise her staunch refusal to color her hair or glamorize her image. But will they remember this particular statement of hers, this "Let them eat cake" for the twenty-first century? Unlikely, since it received far too little play and definitely insufficient outrage when she said it. So let us promise herewith to never forget her callous disregard for other parents' children while her own son was sending them to make the ultimate sacrifice, while asking of the rest of us little more than to promise to go shopping. Commit the quote to memory and say it whenever her name comes up. Remind others how she lacked even the bare minimum of human integrity, the most basic requirement of decency that says if you support a war, you should be willing, if not to join those nineteen-year-olds yourself, then at least, at the very least, to acknowledge that said war was actually going on. Stupid fucking cow.”
― David Rakoff, Don't Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems

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This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Threat Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artinisanal Olive Oil and Other First World Problems

Author: David Rakoff

Type of Work:
Non-fiction, essays

Why Did I Read This Book: Let me be honest. Though they are such completely different people that it is shameful to admit this, I sometimes confuse David Rakoff with John Hodgman. So when I bought this book, I thought I was buying another book written by the PC Guy. It wasn’t until I was into the first essay that I realized, “Hey. This is that guy from PRI! I’ve heard this before. On “This American Life”, I think.” And I was right. So it was mistaken literary identity that led me to this book but then I realized I did know the author and had some small amount of affection for him so I kept reading it.

Availability: Published in Doubleday in 2005, you can find a copy here:

Comments: It feels weird not liking this book as much as I wanted to like it. My vague sense of unease does not come from realizing this book is not the work of John Hodgman. I’ve always found David Rakoff amusing. His calm voice is an aural pleasure, as well as his not quite Canadian but I’m unsure what else it could be accent. I think part of the problem with the book is that I wanted to hear him speak these essays consisting of looks into his life or his mundane but witty observations, though that certainly is not the whole of it. Rakoff’s extremely dry wit comes across better vocally than on the printed page. I think he is the inverse of me – Rakoff likely comes off much better in person. He certainly comes across much better to the ear.

Some of the essays fall flat. There is no way around it. This is certainly a “your mileage may vary” statement, but take, for example, his essay “J.D.V., M.I.A.” wherein he discusses participating in a night-time scavenger hunt in Manhattan. While I appreciate his self-deprecating humor, it is hard for me to tell if the lunacy of the evening did not come across well on the printed page, or if Rakoff was really that filled with ennui and impatience for the whole thing. Regardless, the essay was… not as interesting as I would have liked.

Other essays suffer similar issues. “Whatsizface,” Rakoff’s tale of meeting with plastic surgeons in order for them to tell him what they would do to improve his appearance has all the earmarks of a wonderful over-dinner conversation. As an essay it leaves the reader with a “well, what was the point of that” sensation. One does not know Rakoff well enough, nor is his humor blunt force enough, to make this essay work. “Martha, My Dear,” wherein Rakoff tells of his own craftiness, has the same problems.

A couple of the essays suffer from a je nais se quoi of ambivalence. I have no idea why they didn’t work aside from the fact that they didn’t work. “I Can’t Get That for You Wholesale” is a big ol’ who cares of an article about his experiences in the fashion industry (Lagerfeld’s response to Rakoff – “What can you write that hasn’t been written already?” – while rude had me nodding). “Morning in America” which discusses the television show Good Morning America and the folks who flock to the windows to wave when the cameras pan their way seemed sort of… god help me, pointless. It was meant to be a post-9/11 observational piece but it just doesn’t work. In the hands of a more aggressive humorist, such obvious comedic fodder would have hit the ground running but Rakoff is too dry and too restrained to be able to convey the horror that is Al Roker. And “Beach Bummer” was, forgive me for saying it, a bummer. Sort of boring at that. If it was intended to be a sort of Barbara Ehrenreich piece, it didn’t really hit its stride and if it wasn’t supposed to be a sort of Barbara Ehrenreich piece, I have no idea what it was meant to be because it was not that humorous and the observations were not that interesting.

The opening essay, “Love It or Leave It” is Rakoff’s remembrance of becoming an American. He decides in the days after 9/11 that he needs finally to make the conversion from Canuck to Yank, mainly in order to be able to vote against George W. Bush in the 2004 election, a sentiment this reviewer endorses heartily. Interestingly, this essay is both how I know of Rakoff, having heard a version on the radio at some point (and I cannot find a link, dammit, but if anyone reading this can find it, let me know), but is also the essay that made people dislike this book the most in other online reviews, creating a sense of attack against America where there was none (rather, just snarky commentary) and a jingoistic response that echoed the worst about America that Rakoff observed.

It is when he is being political when I loved this book the most. For example, Rakoff had to fill out a huge form in order to get the ball rolling on his naturalization process and one of the questions asked if he would ever bear arms on behalf of the American government. Ultimately, his answer depended on the word would, as there were instances wherein Rakoff could see bearing arms, like to stop genocide in Rwanda. But he also says:

… if there ever came a time when the government of my new homeland was actually calling up the forty-something asking and telling homosexuals with hypo-active thyroids to take up arms, something very calamitous indeed will have to have happened. The streets would likely be running with blood, and such moral gray areas as might have existed will seem either so beside the point that I will join the fight, or so terrifying and appallingly beyond the pale that I’d either already be dead or underground.

Interestingly, people bitched about Rakoff’s extensive vocabulary, mostly in this article because those who would complain about such things likely didn’t make it past this the first essay, but when I read people complain about Rakoff using big ol’ words, I could not help but think, “USA! USA! USA!” His sly observational humor was not reserved only for the Bush family, but also poking fun at himself for leaving out “under God” when he recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

His subtle voice is also better heard in “Wildman.” Rakoff takes a lecture tour in Brooklyn, hosted by Steve Brill, who is evidently a vegan expert on foraging for edible plants. Rakoff’s to the point end note explaining why it is that human beings stopped being gatherers as soon as they could kill animals and farm reminds me of why I think those who deliberately choose to eat weeds sort of get what they deserve, but it is again his sly humor that saves the piece:

…Brill has painted, photographed, or sculpted almost every wild mushroom there is. On his website there is a photo of him entitled “Wildman Devours Yellow Morel Sculpture.” The larger-than-life-sized replica of the torpedo-shaped fruiting body is poised at Brill’s happy, open mouth, his face a display of high exuberance. It is, as Freud might say, an interesting photo.

Admittedly, it is perhaps that I can sort of hear Rakoff saying the above that makes it so funny to me. His snark is palpable in his essay on traveling on Hooters’s airline. It thrills and appalls me to know such a thing exists, and his sarcastic yet sort of grudgingly open admission of a good time, was excellent to read.

The best essay in the book is undoubtedly “Beat Me, Daddy,” where the openly gay, quite liberal Rakoff speaks to and muses over the motivations of Log Cabin Republicans. As someone who gets way the hell lost in that sort of mixed allegiance, I have to say that not even Rakoff cleared this up for me but the article is both informative and funny.

What the Log Cabin Republicans really are, he informs me, is a band of political renegades, ten thousand strong. “We’re on the cutting edge of of the gay civil rights movement.”

I almost respond with a hearty, “And I am Marie of Romania!” until I see that he is not joking.

Barney Frank, as quoted in the article, clears up some of it when he declares flatly that those who help elect the administration who limits their own rights cannot really get credit for fighting for gay rights, that most Log Cabin Republicans choose their party affiliation based on economic reasons. Rakoff sums up the whole thing beautifully:

Such abject masochims may make for great Billie Holiday songs – it kind of ain’t nobody’s business if Lady Day is beat up by her papa: he isn’t hoping to pack the courts with anti-choice troglodytes or to defund social security – but the Log Cabin blues have ramifications beyond the merely personal. It might be a price they are willing to pay for the sweet lovin’ they feel they’re getting from the rest of the GOP package, but I didn’t sign on to get knocked around by someone else’s abusive boyfriend.

I think where this book broke down for me was that I could feel when Rakoff had a passion for what he was writing and when he was just observing with amusement. People observe with amusement all day long – the blogosphere is full of such pleasant inanities, however well-written many of them may be. Amusing observations need to be outright hilarious when sifted through a writer’s verbiage or they need to be left on Blogger. Rakoff is not an outright hilarious man. He is deeply witty, and clever as hell, and when those two elements combine with a passion for a topic, his writing is engrossing. Otherwise, it isn’t much to write home about unless one is listening to him speak it in that intoxicating, serene voice of his.