Sunday, April 22, 2012

When Thinking Positive Gets You In Trouble... and Half Empty

We are currently in the age of thinking positive.  I think thinking positive is a good way to think.  I also think that what we think becomes what we are.  I think, therefore I are.  I've discovered, however, that thinking positive can get us in trouble.

To illustrate this theory, that thinking positive can get us in trouble, I shall use my recent discovery of a jacked-up extremity.   On March 1, 2012, I was thinking positive.  "It's fine!" and "I just need a little rest!" and "It's no big deal!" and "I'll be running in a week!"

No, Rabid, it was not fine.  You couldn't even run a quarter mile.  So, had I considered the worst case scenario on March 1, had I prepared a contingency, and had I gone to the doctor with a runner's worst (or second worst) fear, instead of the rest-a-week, injure-it-again, rest-a-week cycle, then I'd be all sorts of hunky dory now.

Hunky Dory... that's a great album... sigh...

Which brings me to today's book report...

Half Empty
By David Rackoff


Let's take a moment to ponder the cover, shall we.  First, notice the bright yellow "Warning!  No inspirational life lessons will be learned in this book!"  Don't you love it when book covers don't over promise?  Me too.  I hate to disappoint, my dear Mr. Rakoff, but I did learn some inspirational life lessons in this book!  I did!  Lots of 'em.  I want to send you some fan mail to tell you all about my life lessons!

But back to the cover... the cover is brilliant... we have the guy in the canoe, smiling and waving as he's about to drop off the edge of a waterfall, two rabbits who smile at us stupidly while a gun is ready to aim 'n fire.  We also have some volcanos.

Now, here's what I think is brilliant about this cover, it's not pessimism.  It's not thinking the worst will happen, it's that in this day and age, all of these things can be predicted and planned for.  What Mr. Rakoff is saying, in this hilariously entertaining and insightful collection of memoirs, is that sometimes positive thinking gets in the way of planning and making accommodations for the worst case scenario.

(Somebody turn Mr. Rakoff on to the Mormon way of Food Storage!)

I learned of this David Rakoff by reading a book report from Jessica.  Her book selections (which in this case was another one of Megan's book selections) never disappoint.  Rakoff's writing is so smart (like, need a dictionary all the time smart).  And witty (like, need to read some parts two times to take it all in.)  And respectful (like, he respects stuff he doesn't truly understand, like Mormons... like, he's Jewish and gay but still visited "God's Country" or Salt Lake City and, well, you just gotta read that chapter.)

So, to contradict the cover's promise that "no inspirational life lessons will be learned in this book," I shall document the life lessons I learned in this book.

Life Lesson #1: Gossip is oxygen deprived vitriol.  

In the chapter called, On Juicy, Rakoff describes how he can keep secrets better than a vault.  People have always confided in him and he has always held their secrets sacred.  He is a "practitioner of discretion" and drove a point straight through my heart with his interpretation of a Yiddish parable:

"An old woman is called out of her house to join her neighbors in the fun of watching the village idiot ranting in the square.  She goes, and there he is, a grown man, raving like a lunatic, spewing saliva-flecked curses at the crowd, who are all hugely amused, with the exception of the old woman, who doesn't crack a smile.  'If he wasn't my idiot, I'd laugh, too,' she tells them. This, then, is 'juicy's' toxic bit of transubstantiation:  secrets turned into gossip; your pain into someone else's pleasure.  Every hilarious town fool is someone's schizophrenic son.  So my answer to that question 'Want to hear something juice?' is almost always no." (page 103)

Life Lesson #2: Crappy childhoods do successful writers make.  

Rakoff says, "Nothing assails the writer's credibility more than the pleasant childhood.  I freely admit to having had one myself.  A happy fact reflected sadly in my book sales."  He also says he had "a golden upbringing, under the loving guidance and tutelage of two caring and adoring parents whose own path was illuminated by the sunlight they were convinced shone straight out of my ass." (page 29 then 30)

(I consider David Rakoff a successful writer, so perhaps life lesson #2 is more of a life funny.)

Life Lesson #3:  "I saw you eat a ham and cheese sandwich" is the worst accusation you can throw at a Jew.  

This I learned in chapter Dark Meat, where he relishes the beauty of pork products and other edible unmentionables of the Jewish religion.  I read this book around Easter.   On Good Friday I was shopping for groceries, and after witnessing the max exodus of hams, was hit between the eyes with some Jews-no-pork, Christians-lotsa-pork irony.

Life Lesson #4: All these years I've been doing mesearch.  

Rakoff is a journalist.  Whenever he researches stuff it always turns into research that will help him, or mesearch.  Me too!  I just didn't know that's what it is called.  We should totally be friends.

Life Lesson #5: Don't get offended.

Rakoff has had cancer twice.  The second time, a doctor had informed him that he would lose his entire arm.  And while friends would pay him a get-well visit, they'd say some stupid things.  Sometimes we say stupid things don't we?  We sure do.  Sometimes we even type them out loud.

Here's what Rakoff has to say about that: "Unless someone looks you in the eye and hisses. 'You [effing] a--hole, 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?"

(Oh, and sorry about the censorship Mr. Rakoff, this here's a family blog and the in-laws have been known to read it.)

Life Lesson #6: Lachrymose is an awesome word!

Life Lesson #7: Sweating the small stuff is good preparation.

"Defensive pessimism is about sweating the small stuff, being prepared for contingencies like some neurotic Jewish Boy Scout, and in so doing, not letting oneself be crippled by fear.  Where a strategic optimist might approach a gathering rainstorm with a smile as his umbrella, the defensive pessimist, all too acquainted with this world of pitfall and precipitation, is far more likely to use, well, an umbrella." (page 9).

There's preparation, and then there's worry.  Worry has no function other than to produce anxiety.  Worry and fear go hand in hand; put 'em together and they cripple progress. Therefore, the true task (for me anyway) is to channel my worries into contingencies and the preparation therein.

Life Lesson #8: Bad times always sweeten and strengthen the good.

We all know this is true, don't we?  When we are bushwhacking our way through a rough patch of life, we all know that when it's over, and you're back in one of those dreamy sweet spots, they will taste all the better.  Rakoff, however, says it better than any one else.

"I keep flashing back to what it says in the Inferno: 'There is no greater pain than to remember happiness in the midst of one's misery.'  There will be peaks of great joy from which to crow and vales of tears out of which to climb.  When and why they will happen, no one can say, but they will happen. To all of us.  We will all go back and forth from one to the other countless times during a lifetime.  This is not some call to bipartisanship between inimical sides.  The Happy and the Sad are the same population." (page 15)

"Even the most charmed life is a veritable travelogue of disappointment.  There will always be an inevitable gulf between hope and reality.  It is how we traverse these Deserts of Letdown that shows us what we are made of." (page 25)

Perhaps I should print that last paragraph and post it largely in every room in my house.

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