Friday, February 28, 2014

I Was Inspired By....

I will regularly run once a month An Inspirational Person entry. This person is not someone I know personally but instead someone living or dead whose life is one I wouldn't mind finishing out mine like. I think we are so beset from every side by the scoundrels hawked by the media that there is no time spent on the worthwhile people out there. If you have anyone to suggest for this monthly feature, please leave a comment here to that effect.

Our first person is the late David Rakoff (1964-2012). He was a true Renaissance Man. He was Canadian, one of several children born of two psychiatrists in a very close knit family. He went to college at Columbia in New York and stayed there afterwards. He got cancer early in life, at age 22. Through radiation and chemo he beat it back until it reappeared in his mid 40s in even more virulent form. One could lament his early death at 47 but, looked at from a different perspective, he got an extra 25 years due to modern medicine. In any earlier times he would have simply died at 22. I think the reprieve from cancer shaped those years too so that he crammed as much quality activity into them which a person could.

Rakoff was first employed in the book publishing industry where he was considered an excellent editor. He also authored his own books and then the audios of those books.  Plus he did the audio versions of other books and many shorter audio works on NPR.  His voice was beautiful. You can still find him reading on many podcasts and You Tube programs. Most of his work was essays and they were witty beyond compare. One of my favorites is when he took a course in Buddhism taught by Steven Seagal, the movie star of marital arts fame. He was hired by a magazine to do so. This was an absolutely hilarious course (unintentionally so) given at a New Age center in upstate New York. His last book was a novel in verse form. He also frequently appeared on NPR's This American Life and even guest hosted it at times. All of his work with that show is still available in its archives. In the picture above, the title The New Tenants appears on one picture. This was the short, wonderful film for which Rakoff wrote the screenplay and acted the lead. It won the Oscar for best short film. He also acted in Off Broadway plays, notably with Amy Sedaris as written by David and Amy Sedaris. But acting was a sideline for him. He considered his true working talent was in books and other writings.

Rakoff also had many friends and regularly cooked for them and they returned the favor. He had another domestic side too in that he loved making baskets at an art colony, shown left. Only the picture in his red kitchen shows him in the final stage of his returned cancer. He kept up all of his activities during this final illness.

Rakoff constantly made his own homemade art for his friends and friends' children.  He didn't consider this work. He said it was what made him happy. He was one of the few people who leapt to Martha Stewart's defense in print, saying that she made many Americans realize they didn't need to buy everything, that they could make things instead. He had also volunteered his tutoring skills with small children in the classrooms around the city when needed. On the upper left of the above picture is shown a triptych of a wedding invitation he made for his friends. He hand lettered and hand printed every single invitation.

Despite all of these accomplishments, like many aliens holding Green Cards during the Bush administration, he became worried about being deported back to Canada. This was especially so since he was gay and in the arts as that administration was hostile to both groups. Further, he had written articles critical of it. In particular, he had written one article which contained his in depth interview of the gay leader of the gay bloc within the GOP. He painted an absolutely devastating portrait of how this man was being used, abased and humiliated by the party. Among his many publishers were The New York Times and The New Yorker. He thus became an American naturalized citizen as he thought of himself as a New Yorker through and through and meant to finish out there. I admired his absolute fearlessness in writing about gay and human rights at a time those rights were under severe attack.

When all of his friends and family turned up for his funeral, none of them had realized how many people he had befriended or touched over the years.  It was absolutely jam packed. That was when they all discovered the true extent of all the things he had made for all of them when he wasn't working. He also made many painted denim jackets for his friends' small children.

Rakoff had only one sad part to his life and he said this publicly on NPR's This American Life towards the end of his life.  He said although he was beloved by everyone, he was loved by no one.  He tried ending up with a life partner like his friend David Sedaris did.  However, it never worked out for him. He wasn't feeling sorry for himself.  He was merely stating the one thing he hadn't been lucky enough to get in his life.

I find the way he lived his life despite very bad breaks with cancer to be very inspirational in leading my own life. Whenever I get yet another medical condition and am tempted to feel sorry for myself, I think of him and it helps. Listening to Rakoff read is also incredibly soothing when I am feeling unwell.

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