Tuesday, November 8, 2016

I Quit TV But I Can’t Quit Watching Trump

As published in The Huffington Post

Episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia from 2014 remain un-viewed on my DVR, and I didn’t know the Oprah Winfrey Network existed until yesterday. I have quit TV, or to be specific, I have quit watching programming with story arcs.

I just don’t have the tolerance to commit to shows any more. I prefer watching movies because the story ends in two instead of 100 hours. I would rather research the health benefits of a squat toilet than starting a new series. But sometimes being out of touch with pop culture poses social challenges.

Last month, two coworkers and I were still in the office at 7 p.m. That isn’t unusual—we work in federal communications and sometimes the agency director or the president of the U.S. makes an abrupt policy change that forces us to scramble to inform the public. In this case, Alison, Margaret and I were definitely done working and we were also hungry. Before we could even get to the point of deciding which D.C. Chinatown restaurant to visit, I stood watching my friends banter about The Walking Dead. And Fear the Walking Dead. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer (yes, still). And shows I’d never heard of and can’t repeat because I forgot them as soon as their titles touched my tympanic membrane.

At first I chimed in to say things like, “Who is that?” and, “That’s the name of a TV show?” Then, I felt too inadequate to enter the conversation. I just stood there waiting until Alison and Margaret tired of standing. Thirty minutes later, we began walking towards the door and eventually to a little sandwich place. The thing is, my coworkers were never done discussing television.

TV is always one of the most popular topics of discussion for my friends. Even if initially my friends and I discuss something else at first, someone steers the conversation to TV. With shows at the forefront of their minds, that transition is simple.

Transforming from an active conversationalist to a bystander is annoying but I accept it because it means I can log more films. I accept never seeing a single episode of Westworld or Stranger Things or whatever the hottest new show is. But somehow going a day without seeing news on Donald Trump is unfathomable because this election has been the greatest real-life story arc of our time. Keep reading I Quit TV But I Can’t Quit Watching Trump

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During the first presidential debate, while in a room full of 15 others who say they are fanatical about politics, this was the scene from my perspective. See more of my Instagram photos.

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

My 9/11 Shows That Cancer Patients Aren't Saints

I finally got a hold of my mom on the telephone on Sept. 11, 2001, just hours before I was supposed to receive my penultimate dose of radiation to treat my bone cancer. After nearly a year of treatment, I only had two days left. My mom said the National Institutes of Health was closed and I couldn't get radiation that afternoon. The NIH would probably be closed the next day, too, my mom said. Instead of feeling sadness for my country and for the thousands of Americans who were injured or killed, I felt anger that I would have to wait to call myself "cancer-free."

Cancer patients are often portrayed in the media and on television as physically and psychologically weak. But we aren't all weak, and even if we are some of the time, we aren't weak all of the time. Cancer patients are also often portrayed as saints, and that is equally inaccurate. As I sat on my couch watching CNN and eating cherry Twizzlers and stewing over having to wait two extra days to move on with my life, I was far from acting like a saint.

Today I'm thinking a little bit about cherry Twizzlers and a good bit about tomorrow's Redskins game. And I'm damn sure thinking about those who suffered and died on 9/11 and everyone else who have had to endure because of the attacks.

Visit my Cancerslayer table at this year's CureFest for Childhood Cancer event next Sunday afternoon, September 18, on the National Mall. (Photo, below: my Cancerslayer table at the 2015 CureFest event.)

See me in The Story Collider's next D.C. show on Thursday, September 29, at Busboys and Poets. The Story Collider is a show in which storytellers tell personal stories about the deeply human side of science.

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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Road Trippin' from D.C. to Portland, Maine, in a Nissan Maxima

In July I went on a road trip from Washington, D.C., to Portland, Maine, where I participated in my second residency in my fiction-writing program. Of course I made a video of my adventures. Enjoy. You can watch it on YouTube or directly below, if your web browser allows.

I delivered a public speaking workshop to leaders from the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority at George Mason University on August 21. Want to compete against me to see who can speak with the fewest "ums," "uhs," and "likes"? Book me for your next conference or event for a showdown.
Benjamin Rubenstein speaking at George Mason University on public speaking for leaders from Alpha Omicron Pi sorority

See me in The Story Collider's next D.C. show on Thursday, September 29, at Busboys and Poets. The Story Collider is a show in which storytellers tell personal stories about the deeply human side of science.

Leia Mais…

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

My Katie Campbell Story

We look down at the iPhone directing us from the Maryland home of Katie “Crush” Campbell and her husband to our writing getaway in West Virginia and the battery is almost dead and it isn’t charging even though the charge plug is snug inside and the plug’s indicator light is bright blue. “This always happens,” Crush says in the way I imagine a monk says anything.

“Do you know how to get to the cabin?” I say.

“Not exactly.”

Crush stops the navigation to save her phone’s battery for when we get closer and possibly really need it. Thankfully between us we have three phones. I look at my two smartphones. One’s battery is in the teens and the other has a relatively healthy 30 percent left. I put both in airplane mode.

Crush continues telling me about her latest treatment in Germany using her dendritic cells. I’ve known Crush for almost two years. When her rare breast cancer returned her oncologist told her modern medicine couldn’t cure her so she consulted experts around the world in both traditional and nontraditional medicine. Crush has absorbed all their knowledge and my immediate thought is that, this weekend, I am getting a $10,000 education on cancer for free. Since I have known her, Crush has taken on a treatment plan to destruct her cancer or, at the least, keep it status quo. The types of treatment I had thought were science fiction.

Crush drives down an exit she’s certain is the correct one. Before we turn GPS back on, I tell her we should visit a supermarket. I can’t keep track of what Crush eats, or if she eats—at this point I would not be surprised if she only consumes water mixed with exogenous ketones and scorpion venom. But I need food, and I need a few craft beers. I mean, shit, we are about to dedicate ourselves to writing, not bear watching, and I take this seriously which means I need creative energy.

“I think the grocery store is up ahead on this road,” she says.

“Are you sure?” I say.

“…Maybe you should GPS it,” she says, and I fire up my less energized phone and save our most resourceful one.

We find the Food Lion one mile away, on the same road like Crush had thought. Crush parks. Before we go in, she wants to call her friend who owns the cabin, in order to get the code to unlock the lock box which contains the key to the front door. Crush fingerprints her phone and nothing happens. Because the battery is dead. She doesn’t remember her friend’s phone number. Why would she? I don’t even know my brother’s phone number.

I unlock my phone, the one that is more dead than the other, and hand it to Crush so she can log in to Google and find her friend’s number. She finds it and, using my more lively phone, calls her friend and leaves a message. I turn the volume all the way up so I’ll know when he calls. We go inside.

In the produce aisle Crush cracks up when I toss a whole cauliflower and a bag of broccoli into the cart. Even she can’t eat platefuls of raw vegetables, she says. Then, I laugh at her investigating the ingredients in five different containers of hummus. Even though I’m Jewish, I hate hummus and I just hope my religion doesn’t kick me out for it.

My phone rings and we jump for joy anticipating we’ll have shelter tonight, and then we realize someone has to actually answer it first. I quickly hand it to Crush. Her friend tells her he talked to the property manager who thinks he knows the code. Her friend tells her he hopes the code is right. If not, at least for dinner we’ll have hummus and raw cauliflower and the rotisserie chicken I just carted. But do bears also like chicken? Maybe best not to open that yet.

I return my healthier phone to airplane mode. I don’t doubt that Crush will get us into that cabin tonight. Crush is the best planner I know and I sense that in every situation, she will be able to manipulate it so that everything turns out the way it should.

I input our final address, the cabin, into my nearly dead phone. It gets us most of the way there and then that phone dies, but Crush recognizes the surroundings and knows where to go from here. Crush has been here many times before, and actually, I have been here once before but I’m incapable of finding my way to a location 100 feet away without GPS.

She and her husband seem to know everyone, and all their friends want to help them. In this case, her friend who owns the cabin, who would normally rent it out for substantial money during these May weekends, has donated it to Crush to use for the entire month. She is using it for a writing getaway, hence my invitation to join.

Crush finds the cabin. She turns into the driveway and parks. It is beautiful—a long, paneled structure with a giant wooden wraparound patio, and huge windows allowing me to glimpse into fancy rooms. I feel like Ernest Hemingway already.

We unload our computers, bags, food and of course my beers from Crush’s Prius and pile it all next to the front door. The lock box is on the knob. Crush tries the code her friend provided. No dice. She tries again. Shit.

I grab one of the beers but realize I don’t have a bottle opener. I’m such a worthless adult. Crush takes the bottle from me and bites off the cap. She’s beyond adult, and beyond human.

I de-airplane mode our last remaining phone so Crush can call her friend again. I lean on the balcony railing and search for bears, sometimes looking back at my rotisserie chicken next to the front door and wonder if I should just open the container and dig in like a savage. I am hungry.

Crush’s friend must call the property manager a second time to get what we hope is the correct code. I check my phone’s battery. It’s in the teens. Crush joins me at the balcony and, way down below, we see the bright orange pieces from the skeets we broke against trees almost two years before when Crush’s friend donated the same cabin to us and 18 other young adult cancer survivors to use for a weekend getaway. Our friend Amazing Rachel had also been there.

I tell Crush one of my favorite Rachel stories. Rachel hadn’t been able to eat or drink anything. So while the rest of us were snacking and sipping on whiskey our first night at the cabin, I saw Rachel reaching into different bags of chips, grabbing one at a time, and licking the salt from them, one side and then the other. Rachel couldn’t swallow but still found the salt euphoric. Crush and I erupt in laughter.

My phone rings. I hand it to Crush. It is her friend who says he has a new code for her to try. She turns around towards the door and presses the buttons on the lock box in the order her friend instructs. Part of me is praying it works, part of me is thinking How cold would it get out here in West Virginia on an early May night if it doesn’t work, and all of me has no doubt that whatever happens, Crush will have a plan that will lead to success.

The lock box clicks. Crush opens the box, grabs the key to the front door, and lets us in. We have several hours left before bed to write our asses off. This is perfect.

We unpack and prepare our respective meals, grab our computers and sit on the couch in front of the fireplace. I am just beginning my fourth “packet” that I will have to submit for my fiction-writing program. Crush is writing what will become a book.

I start playing one of my favorite lyricless stations through my Bluetooth speaker, and we type away. In between the notes of us creating words on the screen, Crush tells me about her recent lack of energy and cough.

Deep inside me, something stings because I have seen this before. I have learned a life truth. Curing cancer is more than a moonshot. We're only humans, not even crocodiles or cockroaches, and we have the gall to exclaim we'll rid our species of the supreme king of disease. This life truth has taught me that although I feel grateful for my more than 13 years without cancer, I'll keep running from it; I’ll keep living a 99th-percentile-most-healthy-on-the-planet lifestyle so I never have to ruminate about the possibility of recurrence. But if it comes again then I won't think, Damn I really thought I outlasted those fuckers.

The sting disappears because this is Crush, the only person I’ve ever met who not only has learned of every method of survival but has actually tried them. She has a plan to publish a book, travel the world speaking and inspiring others, maybe raise a family, definitely crush cancer. Crush will definitely crush cancer. I have no doubt.

My friend Katie Campbell who passed away from cancer August 20, 2016

Katie Campbell
June 22, 1983 - August 20, 2016

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