Essays: “Don’t Get Too Comfortable” by David Rakoff

don't get too comfortableI’ve previously reviewed David Rakoff’s first collection of essays, Fraud. I’ve read Don’t Get Too Comfortable before as well, prior to the inception of That’s What She Read. I can’t remember what prompted me to pick this collection off of my bookshelf (mainly because I read this book back in August and I’m really ashamed, y’all, but then I remember that I don’t have deadlines for this because it’s my own thing, available on the interwebs for free, so suck it, Shame), but I’m happy my impulse paid off.

Like FraudDon’t Get Too Comfortable is a collection of humorous essays that have been published previously elsewhere, namely GQ and Harper’s Bazaar. The subtitle gives the reader a hint of the subject matter: “The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems.” I was wondering if this book was the origin of the phrase “first world problems,” but according to Wikipedia, it’s … not. So. Oh well.

The topics of Mr. Rakoff’s essays range from the day he took his citizenship test – Mr. Rakoff was a Canadian who earned dual citizenship after 9/11 – to his love of crafting, and a treatise on Log Cabin Republicans, a class of politico that I think may have become extinct? Do we even have those anymore?

He’s not lying when he subtitled his book to refer to First World Problems. Everything in this book is a First World Problem. As poignant as he is about gaining his dual residency, Mr. Rakoff came to New York on a work visa and lived as such for twenty-two years. He was of Canadian origin. There was no “extreme vetting” for his class, because he was white.

His job writing essays for highbrow magazines sent him on numerous … adventures, I guess, is the word? He wrote a piece as an observer on a Latin America Playboy television program. He wrote an essay about his experience on one of the last flights of the Concorde, and the class of people who were able to ride on the Concorde. There’s an excursion he goes on with a Wildman of Central Park, who teaches his students how to scavenge the foliage for edible plant life. These are not exposés on the horrors imposed on humanity by other humans.

(This all sounds very cynical. I think the tone I’m using to review this book is much different from the tone I would have used in August, right after I finished reading it. Back in August, I probably would have said that his saga on becoming an American citizen was quaint and inspired – now, all I can see is that he was the “right” kind of immigrant, and even though he outright admits that his story is not one of struggle, it feels disingenuous to me to even talk about a white Canadian’s immigration experience, however humorously the subject is presented.)

(I had just written this long parenthetical about how, for my birthday, I would like a time machine to go back four months so I can fucking fix something, but then I remembered that time machines only move an individual back in time, not the entire world, and I can’t exactly bring the entire population of the United States back with me so they can tell their friends about ~the future~ to help ensure a different outcome, plus what happens when we run into our past selves? Anyway, my brain hurt from the paradox so I’m going to shut up now.)

One of the essays I’d like to mention is his take on the quest for perfection in everything, entitled “What Is The Sound Of One Hand Shopping?”

[[IF Y’ALL DIDN’T IMMEDIATELY START DOING THIS —

one hand clapping

— EVEN THOUGH THE TITLE SAYS “SHOPPING” AND NOT “CLAPPING”, GET THE HELL OUT OF MY LIBRARY]]

(Oh god, I have two digressions now. Okay. #1: “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, first aired twenty years ago on March 10. Fuck offffff. That’s — I am not that old. [[if you’re curious as to how that tidbit came out of apparently nowhere, I must remind you that in “The Dark Age,” Willow gets mad at Xander and Cordelia for fighting and she has this great rant that ends with “if you two aren’t with me a hundred and ten percent, then get the hell out of my library!” So — good quote.]]

Secondly: the “one hand clapping” .gif up there is one of my favorite visual jokes of all time, and that led my brain to want to mention my first favorite hand-related joke, which is, of course, this old chestnut from The Great Muppet Caper:

Kermit: Now, if we want to get Miss Piggy out of jail, we’re going to have to catch those thieves red-handed. Yes, Beauregard?
Beauregard: What color are their hands now?

AND THEN I remembered that, two Trivia Nights ago, Friend Brad was telling me a story about a shoplifter or … y’know, I can’t honestly remember what the premise was, but anyway, he said something about “catching them red-handed.” And like Pavlov’s Dog, I proudly and immediately shouted, “WHAT COLOR WERE THEIR HANDS THEN?!” I mean, I have never been lucky enough to use this punchline in everyday conversation, so the entire experience was awesome.

But Friend Brad either decided to ignore my outburst — which, in his defense, would be a valid defense strategy; I am a pretty weird person, and ignoring my weird outbursts is probably a good mechanism to have — or, he didn’t think the joke was funny enough to warrant a response, which would be wrong. This is a great joke.

And then I started to wonder if he’d ever even seen The Great Muppet Caper, and I’m sorry, if he’s going to razz me about fucking Shawshank every time he sees me but hasn’t seen The Great Muppet Caper? Fuck offffff.)

Where was I? Oh right – “What’s The Sound Of One Hand Shopping?”

As I said, this essay is about the cult of seeking perfection. Y’know, the people who spend ungodly amounts of money on items that are supposed to be pure, or authentic, or … or whatever. I don’t know. I don’t understand that concept. I am widely known as The Oldest Millennial Alive, because I have a Samsung Galaxy 4 (it still works! I am not the President of the United States, so I don’t require more security!) and a 4th generation iPod Nano, purchased in 2009, which still works, and why would I replace something that isn’t broken? So the idea of spending more in order to demonstrate greatness is just lost on me.

Surely when we’ve reached the point where we’re fetishizing sodium chloride and water, and subjecting both to the kind of scrutiny we used to reserve for selecting an oncologist, it’s time to admit that the relentless questing for that next undetectable gradation of perfection has stopped being about the thing itself and crossed over into a realm of narcissism so overwhelming as to make the act of masturbation look selfless. [p. 24]

One essay that spoke to me was “Martha, My Dear,” wherein Mr. Rakoff discusses his deep love for crafting, amidst the tale of his visit to the craft supply closet at Martha Stewart Living. I also enjoy crafting: from crocheting scarves and stuffed animals (and lately, a whole mess of baby blankets and other stuff for expecting friends and acquaintances), to cross-stitching profanity-laden quotes from Deadwood and then turning those quotes into a pillow —

Cocksucker pillow

— and now my latest project: making maternity shirts for a friend of mine because, dear everyone: GEEKS GET PREGNANT TOO, and geeks who enjoy wearing geeky t-shirts want to continue to wear geeky t-shirts while pregnant, but does every goddamned shirt have to point out that the wearer is pregnant?!

Here’s a smattering. I am so incensed on her behalf, I’m actually considering teaching myself to use a sewing machine and not just adjusting previously-made geek shirts. (Another thing I should do: figure out how long and involved the process is to register a trade name before someone else steals my/our idea…)

I make stuff because I can’t not make stuff. [p. 120]

IT’S ME

The last essay I want to mention, I’m going to get to in a kind of roundabout way. I was first introduced to Mr. Rakoff with his appearance on The Daily Show back in … holy shit, 2006. Oh my god. Jon Stewart interviewed him at the release of Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and after watching it, I knew I had to read this book as soon as possible.

(I encourage everyone to take six minutes out of their day to watch the video at the above link, if only to see how young Jon Stewart was back then. Oh, Jon. My Forever-Pretend-Boyfriend. Have I told you lately how much I miss you, Jon? Please come back I miss you.)

Anyways. I bought the book, read it, devoured it, and loved it. And then — okay, I can’t remember if I was lending it to Uncle Jean (who I used to work with), or if I had just — no, I couldn’t have been leaving it in Brad’s mailbox, because this was while Brad was still manager, so I would have just left it on his desk … I must have lent the book to someone else prior to then lending it and Fraud to Brad, but the point of this part of the story is, I distinctly remember talking to Uncle Jean about the book, and about this one essay, entitled “Beat Me, Daddy”, which is the essay Mr. Rakoff refers to in his interview with Jon Stewart.

“Beat Me, Daddy”, for those who have elected to not watch the video, is an essay about the Log Cabin Republicans of yore – gay Republicans who just wanted lower taxes, but the Grand Ol’ Party wasn’t really welcoming or accepting back then? Wow, those were the days!

Mr. Rakoff speaks with Patrick Guerriero, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, who tells Mr. Rakoff,

“I have a lot of strikes against me […] I’m a Catholic from the archdiocese of Boston, from a Democratic family, and I’m a Red Sox fan. I’ve chosen to stay in institutions I care about.” [p. 157-158]

But as Mr. Rakoff points out,

It’s all well and good to stay in the institutions you care about, but wouldn’t it be nice to feel that the institution, in turn, cared about you, or at least wasn’t hell-bent on your eradication or, failing that, the legislating away of your rights? [p. 158]

OH GOD IT’S TOO REAL RIGHT NOW THIS WAS SUCH A CHARMING SENTENCE BACK IN AUGUST

Now, here’s the selling point on this essay: this is the part of the story Mr. Rakoff spoke of during his Daily Show interview, and it’s also the section I distinctly remember reading aloud, in its entirety (which I will quote below) to Uncle Jean, in Footwear backstock, within hearing distance of customers.

Man, that was a different time. Now you can’t even talk to your fellow sales reps on the sales floor.

ANYWAY. Mr. Rakoff also spoke with Robert Knight, “director of the conservative advocacy group the Culture and Family Institute” [p. 162]. Mr. Knight is firmly against the Log Cabin Republicans:

“The Log Cabin agenda to promote homosexuality is utterly at odds with the GOP’s self-styled image as a pro-family, pro-marriage party.” [p. 163]

Now, it is not my job to disagree with the GOP’s self-styled image as a pro-family, pro-marriage, homophobic, Puritan party that disapproves of sexual misconduct and poor technological security, while also promoting itself as a protector of children and the innocent, and above all, highlights honesty and respect for women as two of the most important poles within its “big tent.” Additionally, I am well aware that Democrats have proven themselves to be dangerous hypocrites along some of these same lines.

[[Excuse me while I go take the longest, cleansing-est shower of my life. Yick.]]

It is my job, however, to recount exactly what Mr. Knight said about anal sex, AIDS, and vaginas. Please remember: I read the following paragraphs ALOUD within hearing distance of ACTUAL CUSTOMERS at a very large retail store, and I was NOT FIRED.  \o/

“Sodomy is their rallying cry,” [Knight] says.

Well, it sure is someone’s rallying cry. A lot of our hour-long conversation is taken up with talking about anal sex. I have never spoken so much about anal sex in my life.

[…] But if Knight displays an obsession with the mechanics of sodomy — simultaneously mesmerized and sickened by the tumescent, pistoning images of it that must loop through his head on a near-constant basis — he is notably impervious to an image he conjures when I submit as how HIV is transmissible through normative, upstanding, God-sanctioned heterosexual congress as well.

“Not as easily,” he says. “The vagina is designed to accommodate a penis. It can take a lot of punishment.” [p. 164]

An old white dude explained that straight dudes don’t get AIDS because the vagina can take a lot of punishment. That happened. IN PRINT.

To Mr. Knight, I say:

anigif_enhanced-buzz-1796-1378873954-4_preview

ALAINA OUT.

colbert mic drop

But seriously, read the book if you get a chance – it’s a great collection of essays.

Grade for Don’t Get Too Comfortable: 5 stars

Essays: “Fraud” by David Rakoff

Written September 5, 2012

Oh my god, this is the most frustrating thing ever. Well, okay; one of the most frustrating things. This is easily in the top ten, though.

As y’all know by now, I’ve been having issues getting internet. So here I am on my day off this week, doing laundry at the semi-local Laundromat. (There’s a localer one in Freeport, but I didn’t even go inside. It didn’t look clean, and there were no tables or chairs. In fact, for lack of a better term, the whole place looked pretty … rapey, and I don’t like throwing around that word. [IT IS SO A WORD, SHUT UP BRAD, who doesn’t even read this]) So I drove down to Portland and went to my old Laundromat, because yeah, it’s a bit out of my way, but I know I’ll have a table and a chair on which to write while my laundry spins. And all the light bulbs work.

(Except that, when I get here, there are no chairs. The chairs by the tables have disappeared. And so, I’m sitting on a table cross-legged, with my netbook in my lap. And my iPod’s battery is in the red, so I’m playing Chicken with Barney the iPod to see who cracks first. All I need is a pair of Old Navy flip-flops and my ratty FPC sweatshirt and it’d be just like college up in here.)

(FPC = Franklin Pierce College. Fuck you, Franklin Pierce University. I mean, what the shit is that?)

So anyway. I’m perched, and I happen to see that there are internet connections available. And I’ve almost never been able to connect to WiFi here, but I’m desperate, so I give it a shot. And holy shit — the Yahoo! page comes up! And I can open another tab and then Google comes up! And I can vote for the Tubeys on Television Without Pity! And then —

AND THEN THE ROUTER CONKS OUT AND I’M INTERNET-LESS AGAIN.

Dear Internets: why do you hate me? All I want to do is love you, and learn with you, and watch TV on you, and interact with you. You’ve been a true companion over the past decade; why are you turning on me? ALL I WANT TO DO IS CONNECT WITH YOU AND YOU WON’T LET ME.

*sigh* And so, after half an hour (or one wash cycle) of frigging with the internet that doesn’t belong to me, it turns out it’s the router which isn’t mine so I can’t fix it, and that’s why I’m writing this, my last backlog blog, in a Word document. Because the Internet hates me. And Wednesday hates me. And my days off hate me. Basically, all of the hatred in the world somehow got together today and decided, “Hey, it’s Alaina’s ONE DAY OFF this week! Let’s see what we can do to completely fuck it up.”

Therefore, I think it’s fitting that today’s book review is of Fraud, a collection of essays by the (sadly) late David Rakoff.

I picked up Mr. Rakoff’s second collection, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, after seeing him on The Daily Show. I thought he was hysterically funny, and to be honest, there have been a couple of books I’ve picked up because Jon Stewart clearly had chosen to read the book, not just the back cover (you watch enough Daily Show, you learn to tell the difference between when Jon reads the book and when he doesn’t). And then, because this is how I operate, I went out and bought the first book — Fraud — and then promptly … didn’t read it.

In fact, I leant both books to Brad a few years ago — right after I bought both of them. He’s a Sedaris fan, and … he may have seen me reading Comfortable in the break room, or maybe I was reading my favorite parts out loud because I loved it so much, anyway, he asked to borrow them; I said ‘sure.’ Two years later I get the first one back; I don’t get Fraud back until last summer. In fact — and I told him this when I got them back — I had forgotten I had leant them to him. I wasn’t even pissed about the length of time it took to give them back, because I had his copy of Million Dollar Baby for at least two years, and for most of it, it was holding up Jeremy the Tivo at the old apartment. (He may have gotten the case back with a TiVo-sized dent in the top. He was a sport and still leant me stuff after that. This is why we are friends.)

(I also think it’s hilarious that, in the process of moving, I offered Brad first dibs on any of my books and/or DVDs I was going to get rid of. He said that he was ‘all about Blu-Ray,’ and passed on the DVDs, but did say, “I’ll take your David Rakoff books.” But I want those, Brad! You are limited to the books in the box marked “TO GET RID OF.”)

Then, a month ago, I learn that Mr. Rakoff passed away. I was really sad when I heard that, because I loved Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and was hoping he’d be around for a very long time. Put succinctly: Fuck cancer, man.

So when I unpacked my books and found Fraud, I picked it up after Loyalty in Death. And when I saw this was the first quote (I’m not sure what the term is, but it’s the quote that authors put before they start their books, and it gives the book a sense of atmosphere and theme), my heart melted and I died a little:

2012-08-19 13.51.25

OH MY GOD. Oh, my GOD. You guys. That is I kid you not, one of my favorite quotes of all time. It’s from All About Eve, one of the best movies of all time. I love that movie so much, I’m not sure I’ll be able to talk coherently about it. My favorite character (after Margo Channing, of course, who is played by the fabulous Bette Davis) is Addison De Witt, the theatre critic, played by the wonderful George Sanders (the voice of Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book, for those who may have seen that movie and not All About Eve, which is okay — I liked The Jungle Book). The quote in question is directed towards the great Margo Channing, who is in the middle of the performance of her life: the bumpy night of the other famous quote from the movie. She is lashing out at everyone due to her own crumbling self-esteem, and Addison notices it, latches on to it, points it out, and turns it into a compliment. Because yes, she is being terribly maudlin (who plays Liebestraum over and over again at a party?) and full of self-pity (because she doesn’t believe Bill when he tells her he feels nothing for Eve, who is much younger than Margo), but you know what? She is magnificent in her downward spiral. She commands the room as she commands the stage, and all eyes are on her during these moments. She is magnificent.

While others have clung to Margo’s famous ‘Curtain’ speech, about women and their careers and what they give up for success and how love and family plays into their success, I have always raised the flag of Addison as my life-model. He is a success, he is a manipulating bastard, and he calls ’em like he sees ’em. And to everyone out there: you may be maudlin and full of self-pity, but by God, you are magnificent.

Holy crap; almost thirteen hundred words and almost none of them are about the book. So anyway, when I saw that quote I died a little and knew immediately that I would love the book.

As I think I said above (I’m not scrolling up to find out), Fraud is a collection of essays. Mr. Rakoff was a contributor to This American Life on NPR, and he’d written articles for GQ and New York Times Magazine. The premise of this collection is that Mr. Rakoff goes and does things that he doesn’t normally do (like, climb a mountain in New England, visit Tokyo, and attend a comedy festival) and try to assimilate into that particular segment of culture.

In the first essay, Mr. Rakoff climbs — I shit you not — Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. Why do I shit you not? Because Mount Monadnock is within sight of the aforementioned Franklin Pierce College that I attended! I have people who have actually climbed Mount Monadnock! (I have not, because I have always been very upfront about not being a hiker.) He meets up with this guy, Larry David, who has climbed the mountain every day. Rakoff, also not being a hiker, wears Payless hiking boots and gets winded easily. When they reach the summit, instead of feeling victorious and like he conquered something, Rakoff feels apathy: “this is it?” Sorry, David; if you had asked me first, I would have told you that Jaffrey, NH’s nothing to write home about. All it has is a Mr. Mike’s gas station.

He travels to Iceland to investigate the myth of the Hidden People. There’s this rock, see, and the city of Reykjavík wants to redo a road, and the rock will have to be moved. But local lore says that there’s a race of Hidden People (like elves) that inhabit the rock, and if the rock is moved or their home destroyed, terrible things will happen. Obviously, Rakoff finds no evidence about the Hidden People, but he does interview a woman who claims to have them living with her in her house:

“One sits there, two are walking over here, one sits there. When she plays music they come. It attracts them.”

I am suddenly overcome with a completely inappropriate urge: the barely suppressed impulse to slam my hand down on the coffee table really, really hard, right where she’s pointing. [88]

I felt that this collection was more cohesive than Don’t Get Too Comfortable — but please don’t quote me, as it’s been at least four years since I read that one. There were a couple of places that made me laugh out loud, but only because I’m a pop culture moron: he attends a cultish weekend, and is told that lunch will begin with a blast from a conch shell, and I immediately yelled out “NEWS TEAM … ASSEMBLE.” He tells a story about this Greek ice cream shop he used to work at as a teenager, and the hired a French chef named … Benoît. [BALLS — thanks, Archer.] He mentions the plight of Kitty Geneovese, and I start reciting the Boondock Saints prayer.

Oh look, I’m about to tie the whole thing together! David Rakoff was this generation’s Addison De Witt. He may not have been a theatre critic, but he critiqued our culture, from the weird cults and the survivalists to Tokyo and Icelandic Hidden People. He tried to understand why those people believed what they did and he tried to indoctrinate himself, but his cynicism wouldn’t let him. Which is fine — my cynicism keeps me from believing lots of things. He has an acerbic wit that cuts to the core but also enlightens and reveals hidden depths in his words.

So dear Brad, I’m keeping this book. And Don’t Get Too Comfortable. And I’m going to buy his other book too, and I’ll also keep that. You may borrow them again; that’s cool.

But I really like his writing, and am still very sad that he’s gone too soon. You will be missed, David Rakoff. Very much.

And with that, I am caught up with my backlog. And also, I have internets at the new apartment, so I shouldn’t have to steal from Starbucks any longer. Huzzah!

Grade for Fraud: 4 stars