Saturday, December 5, 2020

My Benjamin Hartman Story

“I need intravenous Beefsteak,” I texted my forever-Beefsteak date Ben Hartman, who others called Benjie or Bean or sometimes Boozey, and who I called Kryptonite or sometimes Sushi Ben. 


“See you there at 6:30,” he texted back. 

Since meeting in 2014, we each accommodated the other when it came to Beefsteak — a fast-casual restaurant near George Washington University that served paleo-friendly fare before paleo was cool and offered outdoor seating long before covid-19. My gcalendar archive shows that we made seven Beefsteak dates in advance, though that’s a fraction of our total as most stemmed from middle-of-the-day inquiries as to the other’s availability hours later. Just a partial archive of our texts shows we discussed Beefsteak 40 times. We rarely visited Beefsteak with someone else because that would be unfaithful.
May 16, 2017: one of the few times I visited Beefsteak without Kryptonite. “I'm eating at Beefsteak by myself,” I texted him before delving into this bowl of chicken sausage, steamed vegetables, and toasted seaweed. “I miss you. I'll pour out some sriracha for my homeboy.” 

At Beefsteak, we discussed women, movies, writing, philosophy, and cancer. In 2012, Kryptonite developed adenoid cystic carcinoma — a rare cancer that usually starts in salivary glands. That was before I met him. The only Kryptonite I knew was healthy enough for his nickname to mean something. He inherited it while on an outdoor adventure exclusively for young adults who had had cancer, and it meant that he was cancer’s demise. The Kryptonite I knew cared nothing about what others thought of him, or how others said everyone should view the world. His curiosity and quirkiness could never be contained within those confines. 

Like, you may contend that Krispy Kreme is the maker of the tastiest donut, or that Dunkin or whatever bougie spot you happened to have stumbled into holds that title. Not Kryptonite. To him, the hands-down best-donut-frying champion of the universe was 7-11.

One midnight after hanging out at a bar, before retiring for the night, he demanded we visit the 7-11 a few blocks from his place in Foggy Bottom. “The chocolate-iced donuts typically sell out mid-morning, but we must find out,” he said.

A couple left turns then a right and we were at his local baker, 7-11. It buzzed with drunks acquiring all their witching hour needs. Kryptonite forced his way through them in a beeline towards the pastry window. He investigated the display, and when he turned back to me his expression left me a bit saddened. I just wanted my friend to be able to get his one wish during this one evening in our existences.
December 5, 2015: While attending a holiday party, a friend’s child we’d never met played with Kryptonite all night. He wouldn’t have been able to fend her off even if he wanted to. The girl didn’t seem to want to play with anyone else. She was magnetized to Kryptonite, I think because he exuded a rare warmth that pulled most people in.

During a two-year period in my life, before he moved from D.C. back to his hometown Minneapolis, Minnesota, Kryptonite was among my closest friends. We attended baseball and basketball games and the cinema together, texted the kind of random goofballery that only ultra-comfortable friends text about, and had many Beefsteak dates. He was among my friends who came to watch me tell a story about my brain trauma for The Story Collider. He was my only friend to opt for supermarket sushi in place of the fried foods I served at an NFL Playoffs watch party. 

Hence: Sushi Ben. 

Two years ago, Kryptonite — the human mineral that I thought would always deprive cancer of its powers — informed me his cancer had returned. I asked my parents to add his name to their synagogue’s list for Mi Shebeirach, the prayer for healing, and Kryptonite and I spoke on the phone and met for Beefsteak on the occasions he returned to the area to visit, but otherwise I merely watched from afar. It seemed to me that Kryptonite again refused to abide by any of the rules that govern many people’s decisions, most specifically the one that states we must blindly trust those in power, like our doctor. It seemed to me that regarding his treatment he only trusted himself, and only after turning over every possible stone. Kryptonite held sovereignty over his healthcare: he researched his treatment providers and clinical trials; he knew more about his drugs (especially their potential for dangerous allergic reactions) than any doctor or nurse administering them.

And then two months ago, after tumors kept appearing across his body despite radiotherapy and immunotherapy and [name any other -therapy], he refused to abide by the unwritten rule that states we must pursue every option until we have no more breaths to give. That merciless rule proclaims we must die with chemo in our bloodstreams because that’s the American way, the only path to victory, the only path for the courageous. I’ve seen people blindly follow that rule, and maybe at some point I have feared that would be me one day.

But not Kryptonite, who was courageous enough not to care what anyone may have thought of him for choosing his own path. “I’ll pursue hospice care and cease curative treatment,” he wrote in his online journal. “I want to enjoy the final quality months of my life and don’t want to spend them chasing a miracle.… It’s been a wild, eight-year cancer ride, and though I was hoping for a better ending, I’m excited about maximizing my remaining time through meaningful end-of-life activities with my favorite people.”

I hoped to be one of those people. The last time we spoke, on October 25, we made tentative plans for me to visit him just before or after Thanksgiving at the Palm Springs house his parents rented out for his final months. Kryptonite said some days he felt poorly, and some days he felt good, but that he had come to adore speaking and spending time with friends, in ways maybe only the dying can understand. He said he thought he had a few good months left and would love for me to secure an N95 to my face and get on a plane and head west.

I never made the trip. One day before I planned to call him to confirm a booking, I opened a group text from a phone number I didn’t recognize that read, “You all appear to be friends of Ben, and I just wanted to make you aware that he passed away.” I cried wondering if I was good to him over the last few years and in the end. He was a wonderful friend to me, and I hoped I was the same to him.

At his memorial service, someone mentioned that it wasn’t his medical degree that led him to investigate all potential treatments and fully understand everything related to them, but rather it was his general curiosity. Kryptonite was curious about potential treatments, the depth of people, whether the Foggy Bottom 7-11 had any chocolate-iced donuts remaining at midnight, everything.
March 12, 2015: Me and Kryptonite hanging out after work at a fundraiser event

I have now made future dates with Kryptonite in my gcalendar, though no longer at Beefsteak: my phone will remind me of his death every November 19. I hope this will annually lead me to remember what Kryptonite taught me: that there are other ways to live, namely the Kryptonite way, which I think means to stay curious, and to stay quirky, and to choose to maximize time through meaningful activities with good people, whether you’re at the end of your life or thinking it’s just ramping up.

Dr. Benjamin Jacob Hartman
April 7, 1978 - November 19, 2020 | obituary

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Monday, January 27, 2020

My Tribute to Kobe Bryant

I obsessed over finding statistics to demonstrate that Kobe Bryant played basketball better than anyone not named Michael Jordan; I obsessed over labeling him “the best basketball player on the planet.” Kobe inspired me more than most others inspired me.

Why Kobe? Actually, I can no longer remember the reason I adored him. It’s like how you remember great speeches for how they made you feel as opposed to their words. I don’t know why I loved the dude; I just know watching and thinking about Kobe made me feel ambitious and amazed.

Now, I don’t care about labels or comparing people. Winning isn’t that important to me, either. Kobe still inspires me, though, just probably for different reasons: his seeming focus and drive to improve himself. A few years ago, I read current NBA player Buddy Hield’s essay, The Secret I Learned from Kobe. Hield had gotten the opportunity to practice with Kobe. They poured themselves into the work for two hours. Before parting ways, Kobe turned to Hield and said, “You know, when I was younger I’d have come back in the afternoon and done the other half of the court.”

I love that. If I need some motivation to focus on my work—or really, to focus on any task I’ve chosen to pursue, however mundane—I can still conjure up an image of Kobe and get a boost.

Once, I nearly purchased his t-shirt jersey. That was in my mid-twenties at a time when I was studying men’s fashion. I didn’t complete the transaction because wearing a shirt imprinted with another man’s name seemed silly. But Kobe died yesterday, and now I wish I’d purchased that shirt so I could honor him.

I’ve been thinking a lot about honor lately. Two weeks ago, my essay about my love for sports published. Really, I think the essay is about how I feel compelled to honor sports for how they helped me when I most needed to be helped. To fully honor sports, I also must keep them in my life. I hope that essay resonated with readers, including those who care little about people who get payed to throw balls.

I think the concept extends to other applications. Like, last week I vacationed with a friend I hadn’t seen in over a year. He and I had bonded over severe illness when we were teens. We sometimes talked until dawn about isolation and fearing telling others about our illnesses. For a decade or more, I needed him. I no longer need him, in a similar way as I no longer need sports, yet I try to maintain our bond, in part to honor what it meant for me when I most needed to be understood.

And so now I write this tidbit about Kobe Bryant, not because I think it's more important than the thousands of other Kobe tidbits you can read, but because I wish to honor what he meant to me at one point in my life.


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Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Sports Are More Than Just Sports

As published in Elephants and Tea


When my new girlfriend Anie said, “Why are sports important to you?” I thought, that’s like asking why I value wearing socks. Dressing each morning, like watching (and following, discussing, and planning my life around) sports, is just something humans have done since the advent of knitting. When Anie asked me this in March, days before the University of Virginia men’s basketball team began its run to the national championship, I had no answer.

“I like the Capitals,” Anie continued, though she needn’t have even said more. I understood: Anie, too, watched sports. But only when not doing anything else. She wouldn’t choose watching the Caps over other activities. She wouldn’t schedule her time around sports.

We were walking to her condo from Astro Lab, an airy brewery in Silver Spring, Maryland, where we’d sipped India pale ales as the hockey game blared on the lone TV plastering the back wall. We left before the overtime period because I wanted her all to myself. Was that the first time I quit on a sporting event I’d committed myself to? I felt okay about the breach, which left me wondering why sports were so important to me. ...keep reading Sports Are More Than Just Sports

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Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Words by ruBENstein Newsletter - Fall 2019

I published the sixth edition of my newsletter, Words by ruBENstein. Check it check it check it or subscribe to it!

In this newsletter, I share my two most recent stories plus an oldie but goodie, my most popular social media post, and one story and life lesson from one of writing's greats.


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