New Read: Half Empty

What can I say about Half Empty by David Rakoff? The book took me by surprise, to say the very least. I picked it up out of a friend’s giveaway box; unread, possibly even unopened it was so new. She wasn’t there to ask why she hadn’t read it, so I can only assume she simply didn’t get to it yet, and now, having to move, she had to cull many of her books.

half empty book cover
Yeah.. winter showers bring spring weeds, and lots of them.
But I’ll be getting free exercise and sunlight cleaning up the yard!

I saw a post on Instagram that said a TBR shelf is like a wine cellar. You don’t buy them to read in order. You collect and store them for a future date, to someday pair with a particular mood or circumstance. Sometimes that day never comes, and you’re compelled to pass them on to someone else, possibly wondering what you were thinking when you bought it in the first place. I’ve been there.

I’m lucky I found it, and happy that I chose it this week, mostly at random.

What prompted me to pick it up in the first place? The cartoon cover was funny, and the words that contrast the joyous artwork. “Warning: No inspirational life lessons will be found in these pages.” That was enough to put it into my “book cellar,” for sure. You’re not the boss of me. I’ll be the judge of what is and is not inspirational!

So why did I choose to read it now? What situation or mood prompted this pairing? Hmm… I’m not all that sure. I have two full TBR shelves and lately I’ve been reading a lot of fiction, so I thought it was time to pick a non-fiction read. I wasn’t in the mood for anything too heavy, like The God Delusion or a biography of Aldous Huxley. Even though Insatiable Wives seemed like an interesting read, I wasn’t sure I was willing to share my thoughts on what I was reading right now. So, I chose the lightest non-fiction book I could find, and the one with a manically smiling cartoon rabbit and squirrel was what I went with.

I’m so glad I did. Within its pages I found a soulmate, or at least a fellow grump, that I didn’t know existed. Within the first few pages, I wondered what David Rakoff was up to these days. Did he have a blog or a podcast I could follow? A quick search of the interwebs led to the sad discovery that he had died of cancer in 2012, at the age of…47. Oh, how sad for the world to lose such negative wit so soon.

Why do I love it so? Because the world isn’t all happy joy 24/7. In fact, it’s quite shit fairly often. I have found it to be much more relaxing to accept that things don’t always work out, some people do crappy things, and bad things do happen to good people, for no reason. Knowing that going in, like Rakoff, I’m thrilled when things turn out well, and not crushed when they don’t. Balance.

Well, at least we have the words he left behind! They made me laugh and cry, and feel seen, and I’m thankful for that. He has a wonderfully funny way of pointing out what he didn’t like about things, things I don’t like either, like the touted Broadway show RENT! There’s a whole essay on that dumb show, hilariously highlighting the same issues I had with the plot and characters.

He also had an amazing way of leading you along into a story, chuckling away, and then dropping a bomb and making you cry. So deliciously painful.

I shared a few of my favorite quotes on Instagram, as usual, but I’ll share a few more here as well.

"Her research dealt with a specific kind of anxiety-management technique known as "defensive pessimism.""
Half Empty by David Rakoff
Ahh, yes! “Defensive Pessimism!”
Where has this word been all my life?!

He visited Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah, something I had heard about in the past but forgotten all about. I’m adding it to my list of things to go see, something I need to actually make a physical entity, maybe a small book to keep around and flip through when thinking up a travel plan.

“As for the jetty’s shape – a snapshot in stone of an unfurling galaxy – it spoke to his interest in notions of entropy. ‘I am for an art that takes into account the direct effect of the elements as they exist from day to day,’ he wrote. ‘Parks are idealizations of nature, but nature in fact is not a condition of the ideal… Nature is never finished.’”

I’ve had the same thought watching park rangers and volunteers work so hard to repair rain run-off damage, re-planting and shoring up an area so it looks just like it did before the storm. What are we doing here? Creating a nature museum to show us what the area looks like at this point in time, the same forever like a photograph? Or are we setting aside a piece of nature before civilization changes it, so we can see what nature does?

Entropy. A word I have become enamored with. “Entropy is the general trend of the universe toward death and disorder.” —James R. Newman. Everything changes. The sooner we see it and accept it, the sooner we appreciate and love the moment we are in, never looking back with regret, never fearing what comes next.

This one is also painful and sweet…

“With luck, the canker of the most terrible secret eventually stops throbbing, although there’s really no predicting how someone will weather having spilled their beans, just that they will spill them. That is inevitable. We are disclosing animals, wired for unburdening. It’s what we do as a species. When I am being told, I listen, mindful of the honor, remembering all the while that the shore would be mistaken to believe that the waves lap up against him because he is so beautiful.”

Humans. We’re so strange. Why do even have secrets? Why do we do things that we believe we must keep secret? Probably because ultimately, we do what we want, regardless of whether society thinkgs it’s right. Why is it that we must tell our secrets? I think it’s because all we want in this world, really, is connection, to know we’re not alone, that someone out there sees us for who we really are. It’s why I write this blog.

And then this, he was speaking about the most unhelpful and even painful things people say in times of stress…

“But here’s the point I want to make about the stuff people say. Unless someone looks at you in the eye and hisses, ‘You fucking asshole, I can’t wait until you die of this,’ people are really trying their best. Just like being happy and sad, you will find yourself on both sides of the equation many times over your lifetime, either saying or hearing the wrong thing. Let’s all give each other a pass, shall we?”

You’ll be happy AND sad, rich AND poor, on the right AND the wrong side, the guy making the bad lane change mistake that almost gets us killed AND the guy wondering what in the F is wrong with people. We are all doing the best we can at the moment.

I could go on and on about Half Empty, but I’ll leave you with this; it’s not a book for everyone. It’s a book for people like me, ones that tend to look at things with a little distrust and disgust first, pointing out the holes and problems, and then deciding that, well… it’s not ALL bad, and loving it anyway. Like David Rakoff, I don’t hate everything, I fear and distrust much, but I do see the magic if I’m allowed some time to express my first feelings a bit.

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