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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Friday, August 19, 2016

A Book Party: All It Takes Is One

Reclined on the patio chair with my feet propped on the other chair, hearing screams from the drunk man who lives in the tunnel down the street and the lyricless music playing through the Bluetooth speaker on the bistro table next to me, my attention occasionally altered by a plane taking off at the airport one mile away or the flickering television through the window of an apartment dweller across the way, I read Olive Kitteridge on my Kindle Touch going on three hours now. It is a Friday night and I am across the river from the most powerful city in the world and I am not texting friends "What are you up to tonight?" or flicking my thumb right or left on an LED screen. I sense that I have a complete absence of pain and discomfort. I sense that the world around me is huge, and the world described in the book's words are large, and that I am small, so small that I feel elated knowing there are few places I would rather be right now.

Reading Olive Kitteridge on Kindle on my balcony this Friday night in Arlington, Virginia

Media
I've now appeared in my first music video, for about three seconds (at the 1:20 mark). Diane Trivelli made this music video. She is the founder of the Arielle Anacker Cancer Foundation which raises funds to benefit cancer research and families victimized by childhood cancer.

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Monday, August 1, 2016

I’m Proud to Be Like My Dad

Two months ago I shared an interview I conducted with my dad for Huffington Post's new blog series "Talk To Me." Huffington Post promoted it on its Facebook Page and then later asked me to write a story and re-post the video on its site.

father and son both exercise and listen to music together

As published in The Huffington Post

I was 12 when my dad and I took our first trip as just the two of us. As he drove his brand-new minivan while listening to country music, I tested all the buttons and levers and seats and I counted the total number of cars he passed: two. My dad may have been the only country music-loving, minivan- and slow-driving Jew from Brooklyn, but damn could he tell stories.

He told me one of my favorite stories of his on that trip. Back when he had attended college at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, he played percussion in the marching band. After practice he and his fellow band members ate dinner at a little-known buffet nearby with all-you-can-eat steak for a special price on Mondays.

My dad mentioned the deal to one of the football players whom he was pretty sure played on the offensive line. Keep reading I’m Proud to Be Like My Dad

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Lessons From My MFA Creative Writing Program

In the moments after I listen to each new episode of the Tim Ferriss Show, I want to redesign my entire life. Especially after The Terminator was a show guest. In other words, I'm easily inspired. After completing my second residency in my master's of fine arts in creative writing program, I felt like I absorbed the one-liners from all of Arnold's movies since Conan.

I can't properly show you how meaningful this Stonecoast experience has been for me, but I can share some of the insights I transcribed. I think many of these are true in writing and storytelling and life.

Author Rick Bass says:

  • So much of writing is physical. You have to be in shape for it.
  • If you have a story focusing on sadness, contrast it with a paragraph about great joy. Always be aware of the opposite.
  • Your answer to any question about writing is "specificity." It overrides everything.
  • If you have to use a big moment to keep your reader engaged then maybe you have bigger problems.
  • Write a great sentence. Your next sentence has to be even better. And the next even better. That's how you keep the reader engaged.
  • Short stories are a time-tested way for humans to relate to each other.
  • The first sentence in a story is the second most important; the last sentence is the most important. Get the reader to commit to the journey.

Rick Bass is a fascinating man and he led me to coin a term: when your writing group is critiquing your story in workshop then you're getting "Rick Bassed." This diagram he scribbled on short story structure only increases my fascination of him.
Author Rick Bass diagram on short story structure

See author Justin Tussing's insights I transcribed after my first residency in January.

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