When I was six, give or take, I told my friend Zeke the truth about Santa Claus: his name was Mr. and Mrs. Zeke, he rode in a motor vehicle instead of a sleigh, and he didn’t have enough money to buy gifts for the other five billion people on the planet. Zeke didn’t take it very well, and replied with, “Oh yeah, well I don’t believe in Hanukah!”
As the story goes, Zeke’s mom later called my mom to complain that I shouldn’t be telling her son such blasphemy. Was it wrong of me to share my innate knowledge with my friend? Perhaps. Is it wrong to force little Jewish boys to lie about flying caribou and an old man who trespasses and steals cookies? Absolutely.
That said, I’d like to wish you all a belated Happy Hanukah, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Forefathers Day, Happy New Year, Happy early Birthday to Sandy Koufax, Tiger Woods, LeBron James and me (all December 30), and a Happy Boxing Day.
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
When I was six, give or take, I told my friend Zeke the truth about Santa Claus: his name was Mr. and Mrs. Zeke, he rode in a motor vehicle instead of a sleigh, and he didn’t have enough money to buy gifts for the other five billion people on the planet. Zeke didn’t take it very well, and replied with, “Oh yeah, well I don’t believe in Hanukah!”
Thursday, December 20, 2007
The parents of graduating seniors in my high school were able to publish a message to their child in the yearbook. Pictures could be added along with the message. My parents chose to use two pictures: one taken recently, and one from when I was a youngster.
When I picked up my yearbook at the end of the year, I flipped to the back to see what kind of embarrassment I should brace myself for. Luckily, there was nothing awkward or humiliating. However, there was something that made me angry – my parents submitted a toddler picture of my older brother, JD.
“I can’t believe my own parents don’t remember what I looked like,” I complained to my friends. “Everybody knows I was a better looking two-year-old.”
When I got home I called my mom into the kitchen and opened the yearbook to my segment in the back. “Notice anything wrong with this?” I asked, pointing to young JD.
“No, it looks great. You and JD were both such good-looking kids.”
“That’s just it…you sent in a picture of JD!”
There was a long pause as my mom looked hard at the page.
“…No, I didn’t!” she yelled. “That’s you!”
Bullshit, like I wouldn’t recognize myself.
I then began to argue with my mom that the picture was NOT me, and even made her prove it, which she gladly did.
Apparently, I don’t even know what I looked like. And as to who was a better looking kid, I have no idea because I can’t tell who is who.
Saturday, December 15, 2007
When I was 16 I nearly got in collisions on a daily basis. Zeke was often in the car with me during these frightening experiences and would give subtle warnings such as “pole,” “car,” or in one case, “big black guy.”
I was giving Zeke and Big Easy a ride home after school one afternoon. We met in the lobby where I told them I had "phat jams" we could listen to – I got the new CDs of Jay-Z, Eminem and Dr. Dre. We couldn’t have been more stoked to cruise through the mean streets of Northern Virginia with the windows down and the stock stereo system rocking.
Shortly after exiting the school parking lot, I turned left onto Liberia Avenue and accelerated to 50 mph as sounds of Dr. Dre’s Chronic 2001 filled the warm air. Once my car climbed over the hill and began its descent, I saw that the light up ahead was red and there was a long line of cars. I was given no warning and there really wasn’t much room to stop. I was also going 15 over the limit. I slammed on my brakes as hard as I possibly could and came to a complete stop no more than 2 centimeters behind the Honda Accord in front of me.
Two seconds later we heard a loud screeching sound. I looked at my rear-view mirror and saw the car behind me rocking from side to side, and the driver horrified. “Oh man, that’s RightStuff!” Big Easy exclaimed.
Our friend, RightStuff, had just turned 16 and was driving by herself for one of the first times. She made a soft stop the correct distance behind me and then got slammed by the car behind her. Then, a Ford Ranger collided into the second car, creating a three car fender bender. As the light turned green I asked Zeke and Big Easy, “Should I go?” Before anyone responded I gunned the accelerator and left the scene of the accident.
The three of us blamed the crash on me and my incredibly hard stop. We also found weeks worth of humor in RightStuff’s facial expression after getting hit, as well as the fact that she got in an accident on one of her first days driving and through no fault of her own.
The following school year I wrote a story about the incident in my Honors English class. The story’s focus was on the priceless entertainment Zeke, Big Easy and I gained at the expense of RightStuff. The day we had peer editing I happened to be absent for cancer tests, and RightStuff happened to edit my story. I wish I was there to see the look on her face.
A few months after the collision, an electronic sign was installed on the hill on Liberia Avenue which warns drivers when the upcoming light is red. I can’t describe the pride I feel, knowing that I was part of the incident which led to what was surely a costly project. You’re welcome, Virginia Department of Transportation.
Saturday, December 8, 2007
During the spring semester of 2004 I was living in a house with three friends, including Duckman and Mr. Mountain Dew. The Thursday night before spring break began, two of our more rowdy friends came to visit (Colossus and Vodka/Benadryl), bringing two of their rowdy friends (Strict and EMP).
We were chilling in the living room when Mr. Mountain Dew got a call about a party. At the time my immune system was still recovering from a bone marrow transplant, so I wasn’t supposed to be around large groups of people. But this was meant to be a relatively small birthday party for our friend, RightStuff, at her boyfriend’s house.
Duckman opted out, so the other six of us packed into my car and drove down the street to RightStuff’s party. When we got there we all split up and I quickly found myself talking to a hot little number we’ll call Shawty. As the night went on I seemed to be making progress with Shawty, as my friends pounded Long Island Iced Teas and got absolutely hammered.
Around midnight Colossus became belligerent and started yelling at everyone at the party, including the residents of the house. “Alright,” one of the guys said, “I think you should leave.”
“Fuck you, I ain’t leavin’.” Colossus walked over to the living room, found a metal pipe on the floor and threw it. “You wanna kick me out? Let’s fuckin’ fight!”
Realizing that Colossus was about to get his ass kicked, I rushed outside to find Mr. Mountain Dew and Vodka/Benadryl. “Hey guys, I think Colossus is about to get in a fight.”
“Dammit!” Mr. Mountain Dew sighed as if this had happened several times before. He walked into the house to talk things over, or fight if necessary. Vodka/Benadryl stumbled behind him. Should he really be fighting that drunk?
The next thing I saw was Mr. Mountain Dew pushing a cursing Colossus away from the house. Vodka/Benadryl once again stumbled behind him. “Colossus, you’re a drunken idiot. Let’s go,” Mr. Mountain Dew said.
“FUCK THEM! Let’s beat d’ shit out’m!” Colossus screamed.
“We need to find Strict and EMP and get out of here,” I said.
Everybody was pissed at Colossus, especially EMP who was getting some action in the corner when we pulled him away and told him we were leaving. “Fuck you Colossus, you drunk-ass bastard. Did you see that girl I was with? Damn!”
As we approached my car, Shawty walked over to me. “You sure have your hands full, huh?”
“Yeah, these guys are way too drunk,” I replied.
“Let me help you out. I’m usually good at this stuff.”
I got to my car and unlocked the doors expecting people to pile in, when Colossus grabbed my keys and crawled into the driver’s seat. “Colossus, get out!” I yelled. “Get the fuck out!”
Colossus slowly put the key in the ignition. Shawty was attempting to sweet talk him out of doing anything stupid, while the rest of us were screaming until our veins were popping out. But none of it seemed to bother him. He turned the key forward. I heard the engine start. He looked over at me with a mischievous smile and started his usual demonic laughter.
“That’s it!” Strict yelled. “It’s time for you to get out of the car.”
Strict grabbed Colossus by the neck and yanked him onto the cold concrete. I immediately reached in, turned the car off and ripped the key out of the ignition.
EMP entered the car through the passenger door. “Alright,” he began, “Colossus stopped me from getting play tonight, so let’s leave NOW.” Fine, I’ll take one home at a time.
There was so much commotion around me I couldn’t even think straight. Colossus and Strict were wrestling on the moist ground directly in front of my car. Mr. Mountain Dew was beside the car laughing at them. EMP was in the backseat shouting, “Get me out of here!” Shawty was in the passenger seat, and I couldn’t find Vodka/Benadryl, who was insanely intoxicated. Without hesitation, I put the car in reverse and very lightly pressed the accelerator when Mr. Mountain Dew screamed, “BEN STOP!”
I slammed on the brakes. “What is it?”
“Vodka/Benadryl is lying on the ground right behind your car. Your tire is seriously an inch away from his head. You almost ran him over.”
“Holy shit, is he okay?”
“Yeah, he’s fine.”
“Sorry Vodka/Benadryl,” I said. “I didn’t mean to run you over. You want to go back to our place?”
Vodka/Benadryl mumbled something along the lines of “it’s alright” as he crawled into the back of my two-door coupe.
After thoroughly beating the shit out of Colossus, Strict also found his way into the backseat. Colossus was still lying on the ground, so Mr. Mountain Dew agreed to wait with him until I returned.
I drove back to my house as the three assholes screamed obscenities at every pedestrian we passed. “I’m really glad you came with me,” I said to Shawty.
“Oh, it’s nothing.”
When I got to the house I put the car in park and let the guys out. “Duckman is in there; he’ll let you in.”
After dropping them off, Shawty and I went back to the party to gather the rest of the troops. When I got there Mr. Mountain Dew was standing in the street. “Where’s Colossus?” I asked.
“Man, he just started running. I have no clue where he is.”
“Will he find his way back?”
“Shawty, do you want me to give you a ride home?”
“Yeah, that would be great.”
When I reached her apartment complex she asked if we wanted to come inside. “My roommates and I will be getting drunk and would love for you to join us.”
Mr. Mountain Dew and I painfully glanced at each other. “We’d love to, but I think we better go check and make sure our house isn’t burning down. Sorry.” Fucking Colossus.
Right after arriving at the house I saw someone run down the street and turn the corner into our driveway. Sure enough, Colossus managed to find his way back. He had dirt on his face, his shirt was ripped and his pants were muddy. “What the hell happened to you?” I asked. “Better yet, how’d you find your way back here?”
“I on’ know, jus started runnin’”
“Did you get in a fight?”
Colossus went into the house and collapsed on the floor in the middle of our living room, right next to EMP and Vodka/Benadryl.
“Are we just going to let him sleep?” Mr. Mountain Dew asked.
“Screw that,” Strict said, as he reared back and punched Colossus in the leg as hard as he could.
Colossus made a groaning sound and lifted his head up, then went back to sleep.
“I need to get in on this,” Mr. Mountain Dew said. He clobbered Colossus on his left hamstring. Once again, Colossus screamed in pain, mumbled some random letter combinations, and then went back to sleep. “I think the whole house just shook,” Duckman said as he came out of his room.
Mr. Mountain Dew and Strict traded off punches several more times. Eventually, Strict had enough and let Colossus be.
“No way man, I want one more,” Mr. Mountain Dew said. He walked to the end of the hallway and ran toward Colossus. He wound his arm back and swung it around, clobbering Colossus right on the thigh. Colossus let out a bloodcurdling scream before passing out for good.
“Wow – that was seriously the hardest I’ve ever seen someone get hit,” Duckman remarked.
“He’ll definitely be feeling that in the morning,” Mr. Mountain Dew chuckled.
I went to sleep happy that nobody died. For all of spring break Mr. Mountain Dew had a sore hand and Colossus walked with a limp because his leg was so bruised.
Saturday, December 1, 2007
Read this first: Bombs Over September (Part I of II)
I itched with senioritis. On the morning of May 3, 2002, Big Easy and I planned our elaborate escape from school and past the security guard for the first showing of Spider-Man. When second period ended we left our respective classes for the front door. I saw Big Easy 20 feet ahead. Please don’t look back and make us look suspicious. We escaped unharmed and saw Spider-Man in a packed theater. “I wish I was bitten by a super spider,” Big Easy said when it ended.
My calculus homework packet was due that afternoon. I left it with a friend to turn in for me, along with a note for my teacher that read: “I had to go see Spider-Man. Please don’t punish me. Actually, today is my last day of physical therapy. After 15 ½ months I’m finally done.” I finished the note with a smiley.
Rehabilitation helped bring my life closer to its pre-cancer equivalent, namely the ability to walk again without assistance from a crutch or cane. Aside from my hip strength, other things came back following treatment. My bowels and radiated skin normalized. My intelligence returned to pre-cancer levels, which my friends may joke weren’t very high to begin with. I even gave Colossus rides to school just like during my sophomore year. And he always made us late, just like two years before.
Some things never returned to normal. Some friends, including TerribleAtHoops from my neighborhood whom I’d known my entire life, unintentionally drifted when I had cancer. I was rarely around and there comes a point when you miss so many experiences that you just can’t entirely catch up. It felt like my high school moved on and left me behind, evident in my junior yearbook which didn’t have a single picture or mention of me. I was such a ghost that a friend asked, “Where’ve you been, I haven’t seen you in forever?” He either didn’t know I was back to school or didn’t know I had cancer to begin with.
I like to think I came back with a bang my senior year. I didn’t miss a day of school except the week I was forced out because of the shingles. Though, my senioritis led me to dip out early for golf, Star Wars and Spider-Man.
I surely made my mark in the senior yearbook. I was in the photo for clubs I almost never participated in. I was voted Parliamentarian of the Chess Club without knowing what that meant, but since so many non-members flooded the Chess Club photo, the yearbook gave no mention of my crucial position. Zeke, a non-member, claimed to be “Director of Pieces.” I would’ve been upset if they printed that and not Parliamentarian.
With pride, I was the reason my class got booted from the senior lounge during the final weeks of school. An epic food fight started when I threw a balled up aluminum foil at BornWithFullBeard. He returned fire with tater tots. Soon after, some girls ran screaming into the cafeteria and others hid behind tables.
At the end of the year, my teacher and former blood and platelet donor, Mr. Spunkmeyer, emceed a ceremony honoring our graduating class. He read which college each of us would attend, as well as scholarships earned. One of my scholarships was from the American Caner Society. Not wanting to embarrass me, Mr. Spunkmeyer hesitated before reading that one, unsure whether he should say it aloud.
That was the approach most people took, based on my lead—to move on as if cancer was a tiny roadblock from my past, not even deserving of mention. That’s what I wanted to believe and what I wanted others to perceive. I was Superman and didn’t need to acknowledge that I was any less normal or healthy than anyone else.
Just as my supreme ability to fight cancer fueled my Superman complex, my Superman complex further fueled my belief that I was invincible in every way. Looking back, I don’t think it’s possible to leave cancer behind the way I attempted to. Those experiences and memories, both positive and negative, will always be with me. They helped shape the person I’ve become.
Continue reading "My Cancer Story": Again (Part I of III)
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Much like other Washington Redskins fans and non-fans living in the DC Metro area, I was deeply saddened by the loss of our star safety, Sean Taylor, early Tuesday morning. This community seems to be in a state of mourning – Sean was the front page story of The Washington Post both yesterday and today. I never knew him, spoke to him or saw him, and probably never would, but somehow it still feels like I lost a friend.
This is the saddest I can remember being in a while. That in itself sounds a little crazy. I mean, he was just a football player, right? Correction: he was just a former All-American safety with a combination of speed, leaping ability, strength and hitting power that we’ve never seen before, right?
I can’t speak for why the thousands of other fans have taken his death so hard. I can only speak for myself. And to be honest, this is a new experience for me. In the past I’d feel bad certainly, but I wouldn’t feel the kind of sadness I do now. In fact, I’d probably laugh at the hundreds of fans who gathered at Redskins Park for a candlelight vigil. I’d probably want to punch each and every one of them in the face for being such a pussy. Now, I just want to join them.
And I think that’s where the answer lies. Sean Taylor and I are somewhat similar, even aside from the fact that he was born only nine months before me. From the hours of coverage I’ve watched and listened to since he was shot, what struck me the most about Sean was his maturation. His teammates and coaches all say how much Sean matured over the past 1.5 years, after the birth of his daughter. Unless the employees at the sperm bank have been messing with my frozen samples, I’m fairly certain I don’t have a child of my own. However, I have matured much like Sean over the past year or so. After all, it takes loads of maturity to accept that Jack Bauer is fictional. After six years I finally came to grips.
Sean was perceived by others and most likely himself as invincible. How could somebody fly through the air catching balls and crushing skulls the way he did without possessing that trait? He even lived for an entire day after getting shot in the femoral artery and his heart stopping twice. The way I survived my illness made me think I was invincible, as well. Sean and I also shared similar shy and quiet personalities.
When I had cancer seven years ago I watched just as many sporting events as I do now, if not more. I guess they acted as diversions from the real world. The games allowed me to enjoy a few hours of my time in the midst of short bursts of chaos. Sean’s passing does just the opposite – it brings the safe and innocent world of sports into the cycle of life and death. It makes us realize how one individual’s life, however much a stranger to most and meaningless to some, can have such an enormous impact on others.
I will have two lasting memories of Sean. The first will be when he punished Terrell Owens with a monster hit. Owens then whined to the refs and tried to persuade them to call a penalty. He was terrified of Sean thereafter. The second memory will be when Sean catapulted Brett Favre to the number one spot on the list of interceptions thrown, picking him off twice and getting his hands on another four. It was like he knew exactly where the ball was going to be before it was even thrown. If he had successfully caught the other four passes it would’ve been the single greatest defensive performance in history, but was pretty awesome as is.
When my brother raved about Sean on daft day back in 2004, I thought he was exaggerating his ability. But, he wasn’t. Sean Taylor was an unbelievable talent with a limitless potential whose life was taken at the shockingly young age of 24.
For the first time in a lifetime of Redskins games, I will watch them play this Sunday without much care for the final score. I will simply enjoy watching. I just wish the hardest hitting safety in the land was out there.
A Gladiator at Heart
Sunday, November 25, 2007
Continued from “My Cancer Story": Welcome to the Cancer Life (Part III of III)
Read "My Cancer Story" from the beginning: The Golden Age (Part I of III)
My radiation nurse gave me a Hershey’s chocolate bar and a hug on my last day. I’d miss her a little, knowing I'd never see her again. That was her job—to send people on their way back to normal life or on the road to death.
The nursing staff and doctors on my clinic and hospital floor wished me luck with a congratulatory banner. Some of them made a major impression on me and I hoped I did the same to them. I didn’t want them to ever forget that I was the teenage patient who physically and psychologically annihilated bone cancer to the extent they’d never before seen.
I always found it interesting that I became cancer-free one year after learning of my tumor, almost to the minute. Not symbolic, just coincidental. My friend, RiddleMeThis, invited me over to his house that night. I had always thought RiddleMeThis was a cool dude, but never hung out with him outside of school. It turns out my group of friends had been spending time with him on many Friday nights. I wondered when this had happened, and where was I?
When I arrived they were on his deck listening to Outkast’s "Bombs Over Baghdad." When the verse “Cure for cancer, cure for AIDS” played, PepperoniNip turned the volume all the way up. “That one’s for you, buddy,” he said.
Everyone congratulated me including one of the more popular kids, Mr. Clean, who gave the most thoughtful compliment. I wondered when I earned the privilege to converse with him, and thought it was cool that he knew and cared about my freedom.
Other things had changed. Some friends had begun drinking and most were dipping. I had been unaware that one of my good friends was sent across the country to rehab until he already left. I didn’t know he was coming back home until he already arrived.
Aunt Marchi sent me a $50 gift certificate to Outback Steakhouse for being done with treatment. I saved it for a special occasion, like taking Veronica Varekova out on a date. I ended up using it three years later for my anniversary of surviving cancer. Veronica Varekova wasn’t there.
During an editor’s meeting in journalism class our pregnant teacher mentioned her morning sickness. “Oh yeah?” PepperoniNip butted in. “Well, Ben just beat cancer.”
“You win,” my teacher said.
My port—a device surgically implanted in my chest to make chemotherapy easier to deliver—was removed earlier than usual, by my request. Removing it was like eradicating everything cancer entailed. It was the last piece of physical evidence that proved I ever had cancer. I left the disease in the BIOHAZARD receptacle right alongside my port.
Ports are usually kept for a year in case of recurrence, similar to buying health insurance to mitigate the cost of getting sick. I gave cancer recurrence a zero percent chance and wanted the port out of me. My head doctor authorized its removal, showing that I wasn’t the only confident one. Besides, if my cancer did return then having my port surgically implanted a second time would be the least of my worries.
Keep reading: Bombs Over September (Part II of II)
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Read this first:
The First Atlantic City Trip
My second visit to Atlantic City was spent quoting the comedian Dave Chappelle, talking shit to Hamburgers for bad directions, and worrying about the “Check Engine” light that was lit in Froddy’s car the whole ride. We also stayed overnight this time at the Borgata, again without prostitutes.
For weeks I told my two friends how casino buffets are amazing and how we had to eat at one. Those of you who have been to Las Vegas know exactly what I’m talking about. Anyway, they bojangled for too long, probably on purpose to spite me, and by the time they were ready to eat the buffet was closed. Coincidentally, the next time Hamburgers went to Atlantic City he ate at a buffet and loved it. I’m still bitter.
At midnight we went down to the food court because that was the only place open. While waiting for my order, an obviously crazy and homeless man approached me and asked to see my hand. I looked over at Hamburgers for guidance in regard to the strange request. He was baffled and actually thought the dude might hit me. Not knowing what to do, I showed him my left hand which happened to have an “AGE 21” stamp on it.
“You know, back in my young days, we used to rub our hands together to spread the stamp around.” The man grabbed my hand and began pressing it against the back of his. “We all used to get into clubs when we wasn’t supposed to ‘cause we rubbed our hands together.”
I hadn’t seen anything so strange since the times I rode on the New York City subways. Once while with my parents, a homeless man asked if he could live in our house. A different time an Asian man was trying to sell dolls. He gave everyone a demonstration of what made the doll unique. He pulled a chord in the doll’s back. When he let go, water started streaming out of the doll through a fucked-up looking penis.
When the crazy dude stopped touching me he said, “You have weak hands,” then walked away. What the fuck does that even mean?
Hamburgers ordered a chili dog which he would later describe as, “The most disgusting thing I have ever consumed in a lifetime of fast food and frozen shit.” It was shriveled and discolored. Neither I nor the Italian man sitting near us could believe he ate it. The Italian man cracked jokes about the chili dog for the next 10 minutes. He was possibly the funniest person I’ve ever met. Out of the blue, he stood up and walked away. Hamburgers and I looked at the guy sitting across from the Italian, whom we assumed was his friend, and asked where he was going. “Heck if I know,” he responded. “I don’t even know the dude.”
That night Froddy and I shared one of the two beds. In the strangest awakening of my life, I found myself huddled in a tiny corner of the bed with Froddy literally hovering over me, propped up and positioned just centimeters away. If it were a movie, you would’ve wondered how long ago I dropped the soap. He was all up in my grill. I looked up to see what the deal was. His eyes were wide open and he was staring directly at me. But he was asleep. I just hope he wasn’t dreaming about me. I bet he was.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Experiencing casinos is almost a rite of passage for 21 year-olds, so two years ago C-Smoke, Big Easy and I took a trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey. After two poor excuses from them, I got stuck driving. That didn’t stop Big Easy from complaining about my music selection, but that’s neither here nor there.
We were supposed to leave at noon, but those two are worthless and we ended up leaving at 2:00. If you don’t believe they’re worthless, keep reading.
C-Smoke didn’t have any money with him, so he made us stop at his brother’s to borrow some. He expected $50, but only got $40. “You’re seriously going to Atlantic City with only $40?” I asked. “That’s not nearly enough.”
“Don’t worry about it; I’ll be rich in no time. And after I am, the hotel room and hookers are on me.”
“I brought $40, too,” Big Easy said, laughing. “And I can’t afford to lose it.”
“You morons better not complain when you’re broke after an hour.”
Big Easy told me to take a short cut, which actually made us lose 30-45 minutes. It also put us in rush hour. After two short stops for food and to urinate in corn fields, we made it to the Tropicana around 9:00.
Those casinos are unbelievably huge. When we finally found the poker room we put our names on a list and waited 30 minutes for a no-limit Texas Hold ‘em table. Still far down on the list, Big Easy then suggested that we sit at a $1/$2 limit table, which had plenty of open seats. We had never played limit Hold ‘em. Not only did we not know the rules, we didn’t even know it existed. But we were so tired of waiting for a no-limit table that we gave it a shot.
It was a stupid decision. We quickly realized we had no chance at winning money, so we played extremely conservatively just to get a few free drinks from the well-endowed and barely dressed waitresses. When three spots opened, we left that game for a no-limit table hungry for money and glory. In order to even have a shot at competing, the two morons needed more starting money. I lent them $25 each.
It turns out our confidence was much more bountiful than our talent and luck. We were out of chips before we knew it. No chips meant they had no money, which meant no hotel and no prostitutes.
Just as I had suspected, C-Smoke and Big Easy wanted to drive back home after gambling for only four hours. Correction: they wanted me to drive back home. I declined, and instead took a seat at a $25 minimum blackjack table. I would’ve preferred a $5 table, or $.05 table for that matter, because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I got advice from the older woman sitting next to me, who coached me to instant success. I got up to $100, then $200, then $250. That’s when Big Easy foolishly thought his blackjack skills were on par with mine, and when I foolishly lent more him money. But without an older woman, my older woman, he had no chance. Several hands later I was up to $325 and Big Easy had lost $125 of my money.
When I dropped back down to $250 I decided to get out and go home. Exhausted, I focused as hard as I could on the road as C-Smoke and Big Easy slept. On several occasions I actually fell asleep and was awoken by the rumble strips on the side of the road. Not wanting to die, I had C-Smoke take over driving duties at a Maryland rest stop.
I walked into my house at 7:00 AM. 10.5 hours of driving, 1.5 hours of walking and 5 hours of gambling. Big Easy still owes me $60 for this trip and another $40 for reasons I’d rather not say. If I was a bookie and had some legbreakers I might see that money, but since Big Easy is in debt to just about everyone he knows, I kind of doubt it.
The Second Atlantic City Trip
Thursday, November 8, 2007
Read these first:
Welcome to the Cancer Life (Part I of III)
Welcome to the Cancer Life (Part II of III)
I didn't understand why I had to get more chemo following surgery—almost twice the number of cycles as before my surgery—since the tumor was completely dead and had been entirely removed. Actually, research on different protocols showed that to be the proper amount.
After surgery, my friends always knew where I was because I couldn’t go anywhere. The one time I visited my surgeon, Zeke and PepperoniNip came around back to my porch expecting to see me sitting in my La-Z-Boy through the window. When I wasn’t there they thought something was wrong.
I was going out by the end of winter. One morning I got blood work, and then ate breakfast at IHOP with my mom. It snowed on the way home and for the rest of the afternoon. I spent my day playing a snowboarding game, SSX, on PlayStation 2 and staring out the window. What a sight. Zeke was supposed to come play, but didn’t want his car getting stuck. I wished I could sled, or walk across the woods to Zeke's house and toss the football. Maybe next year. During the blizzard of ’96 while walking from my house to his, we each had to pee. “There’s too much snow!” I complained. “I can’t whip it out; it’s up to my belly button!” Height was never my strongest attribute.
Rehabbing became a part-time job after surgery. Fortunately, I had the best physical therapist, Formula-6. He pushed me to my limit, and then beyond. Once while exercising on the horizontal leg press, I used so much force that I squeaked one out. Weeks later while visiting my surgeon I was performing leg extensions. I was showing off my tremendous progress and Dr. M&M was showing off his great surgical work to his fellows. I put all my energy into one huge leg lift and it just came out. I couldn’t help it. I got some giggles and one comment: “Too much pressure, huh?”
Before walking on land I walked in the swimming pool, without the full force of gravity. I rehabbed at my local pool twice a week. When I told my leg to move, it responded through a significant range of motion. When summer came around, PepperoniNip’s family allowed me to use their pool. When those hot summer days began I knew it would be over shortly.
And just like that, it was all over. I finished chemo and several weeks later my radiation. The doctors sent me on my way, not to return for a month. One minute I was the perfect cancer patient with the Superman-like ability to battle one of the world’s nastiest diseases, and the next minute I was just another one of the millions of cancer survivors.
My goal that year had been to become cancer-free, and I reached it. I had expected something dramatic to accompany the freedom, but nothing really changed. Having cancer was similar to not having cancer—they were both part of the gradual and linear path known as my life. Over the years I’ve noticed that to be the case for a lot of things. Events take place, milestones are reached, and life just keeps moving along seeming not to care about our individual accomplishments and tragedies. I think I understand now that it’s the journey that matters.
Continue reading "My Cancer Story": Bombs Over September (Part I of II)
Saturday, November 3, 2007
Read this first: Welcome to the Cancer Life (Part I of III)
I despised how people always asked, “How are you?” because I knew they were really asking about the cancer. Some people asked in a manner that suggested, “I’m glad you’re not dead, but I won’t be surprised when you are.” This often happened at Temple, where people knew me as the guy with cancer whose name was on “The List”—the names of ill people the congregation prayed for.
“No, I’m great,” I would respond.
“I’m so glad to hear that. Keep it up.”
Someone questioned me that same way just this past summer. I’d been cancer-free for over four years. I politely responded that I was doing fantastic, about to graduate, healthy as an ox and strong as a bull. But really, I wanted to break her fucking neck.
Since the age of eight I’ve saved every card people have given me and stuck them in my desk drawer. A couple weeks ago I read through and organized them. I noticed a few trends. Aunt Flojo always apologized for sending late birthday cards. My parents always wrote, “You are a great son and we love you very much.” My brother always finished with his signature logo, “JD Products” written inside a baseball diamond. And Zeke’s handwriting was always terrible.
I stacked them in two piles: cancer cards and everything else. My cancer stack was almost as high as the one for everything else, which included 15 years worth of cards for graduations, birthdays, Hanukahs, my bar mitzvah and more.
At the time I hated receiving the get well cards. I didn’t need or want the pity, support, or whatever it is that compels people to send those kinds of cards. I usually stuck them in my desk drawer without reading them. I appreciated that people cared, but I didn’t want them to think about me. Why aren’t they thinking about JD? What’s the difference between us? Nobody meant to upset me—they just didn’t know what else to do. I guess if they knew I was Superman then they wouldn’t have thought the cards were necessary.
Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, but when I looked through the cards two weeks ago, they meant something to me. All those people cared enough to send their thoughts and wishes, and in the case of some people like Zeke’s parents or my math teacher, a dozen or so times. My mom’s friend, who volunteered at the White House, sent a card signed by the president. It was automated, of course, and President Clinton probably wasn’t even aware of it, but still pretty cool. Zeke had my friends sign a card when I was first diagnosed. My older relatives sent what few thoughts they could muster. My young cousins even sent me some of their artwork.
Many of the cards were either words of encouragement before my surgery, a show of admiration afterward, or praying and pleading that I successfully make it through. Those were the most personal and touching. Although I didn’t entirely know or act like it, my surgery was a big deal. When I finally was sent home after two weeks, some friends came over to see me. One told me years later that after she left my house she began shaking and crying. I’m glad nobody photographed me directly after the surgery. I have an idea of what I looked like, but it’s nice not to have that visual image. Too bad some people still have it.
Keep reading: Welcome to the Cancer Life (Part III of III)
Monday, October 29, 2007
Continued from "My Cancer Story": Welcome to the Good Life (Part II of II)
Read "My Cancer Story" from the beginning: The Golden Age (Part I of III)
I can hear the screaming. I can barely remember anything from the first 36 hours after my surgery, but I will always remember the screaming. The dude next to me in the recovery room whined about his knee pain. The girl to my other side had just had brain surgery. No amount of opiates in the world could stop her pain, stop the screaming.
A year after my surgery, Dr. Phil told me they took digital pictures of the operation. I asked him to email them to me, and reluctantly, I looked. I was split open and the skin was folded down. Blood puddled inside me. I could see the bone, which was colored blue either because of added dye or because of the cancer cells. I was unrecognizable, even to myself.
After my first cycle I didn’t think chemo was bad, but by the third cycle I realized chemo was awful. It causes cottonmouth, a metallic taste, brain fog and nausea. It smells coming out through sweat and even worse through urine. It makes you not want to do anything except finish the day and get to the next one.
For my lengthy hospital stays one of my parents accompanied me, always carrying bagfuls of mini cereal boxes. While getting chemo my food selection was cereal, pretzels or nothing.
At first I felt odd discussing my bowel movements to my attractive nurse practitioner, Kiva: size, frequency, pain, bleeding, density, cramps, color, and my favorite, shape. I could never get used to pooping in a plastic container for my nurse to measure or culture.
As a child I hated vomiting, and just because I now developed nausea several times each cycle doesn't mean I got used to it. I took anti-nausea drugs around-the-clock, often staying drowsy for entire days. I can’t imagine treatment before the invention of the best of them, Zofran, which helps to deactivate the brain's vomiting center.
I made sure everyone at the hospital knew I was the healthiest patient there, the only non-sick one in the whole damn place. Instead of allowing my time there to make me feel really sick, I used it for energy by comparing myself to the less fortunate ones. Though unethical, it was also refreshing: I needed to feel and project that attitude.
Cancer provides an abundance of time. So often we’re incapacitated, unable to contribute to society or even ourselves. We do what we can to waste time, make it go faster. I listened to a lot of music. And when I had enough energy, like when riding home from the hospital with my mom on those cold fall nights, I pondered.
I thought about the enormous change my life had taken in such a short time. I thought about how strange, almost surreal it was that I actually had cancer. I thought about how I had become an outcast, different from everyone in a way that’s obvious just by looking. I couldn’t help but wonder how others thought about me.
I thought about school, and whether anything exciting happened, whether I missed anything really funny, what my friends were doing. I thought about Orange, and K-Dubs17, and every other hot girl at school. I thought about playing football and how much I missed it. I thought about how I loved the cold air, bare trees and dark nights. It was so peaceful.
I wondered how much the chemo would punish me in the next cycle, how low my blood counts would drop. I thought about how cool it would be if I had a stress fracture instead of bone cancer. I thought about my surgery and wondered why I couldn’t have just left the bone in there since it was already dead.
I thought about all the other cars on the road, all those red and white lights. I wondered why people were out, where they were going, where they were coming from. I had cancer and that's the reason I was on the road, but what were their stories? They were just several feet away and I'd never know. I thought about how much older they were than me and what it would be like to not be a teenager.
Keep reading: Welcome to the Cancer Life (Part II of III)
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
As usual, my Baltimore Orioles didn’t participate in the baseball playoffs this year. In fact, this was their tenth consecutive losing season.
In 1996, during a playoff game between the Yankees and Orioles, a young hoodlum named Jeffrey Maier illegally reached over the wall and grabbed a Derek Jeter fly ball that would’ve fallen into the Baltimore outfielder’s glove. It was ruled a homerun, propelling the Yankees to their first of four World Series Championships in five years. In my extremely biased opinion, if Maier didn’t steal the ball out of the air, the Orioles would’ve gone on to win the World Series that year. Not only did that little thief go unpunished, he became a hero in New York.
Despite the poor team performance, my aunt and uncle have been season ticket holders for as long as I can remember. The seats are incredible, located in the third row directly behind the Orioles dugout. They even get on TV anytime a left-handed batter is at the plate. Every year they give my family a set of tickets. Years back I took a couple friends to the game and somebody saw Zeke picking his nose on TV.
About ten years ago I took a picture of Cal Ripken, Jr. as he was entering the dugout. Just as I flashed he looked directly at me. For any nonbelievers, I have proof. What I can’t prove is how much that moment influenced Cal’s career. I was very hurt when he didn’t mention me in his Hall-of-Fame speech.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Last week I saw the movie Into the Wild, which is about a guy (Emile Hirsch) who dips out after college and travels the country with the goal of reaching Alaska and living alone in the wilderness. Along the way, he documents his journey in his diary. Not only did I think it was a very good movie, it also inspired me to go on a similar adventure surviving in the wild and writing. I think it would be fun, exciting, and above all, postpone me getting a job.
There are only two problems with my idea. First, I hate insects, bees, snakes, spiders, and most other outdoor critters. For example, last month I reached into my pocket and felt something funny. I pulled it out and it was an enormous beetle. I flipped out, screaming and stripping off almost all my clothes just to make sure there were no more bugs. I clobbered the little bastard with my big shoe for payback.
Second, I know almost nothing about surviving in the wild. My limited knowledge comes from two Discovery Channel shows, Survivorman and Man vs. Wild. I now know that I can drink my own urine and take a bite out of a live fish, but I don't think those will help me much.
And besides, research shows that bears are more aggressive toward cancer survivors and people who actually liked the movie Catwoman. I'd be fucked.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
Read this first: Welcome to the Good Life (Part I of II)
Besides staying alive and completing my minimal schoolwork, I had almost no responsibilities or commitments. I often judge days based on my productivity, whether it be exercising, engaging in social events, finishing tasks or doing work. When I had cancer, I could watch television the entire day and that would be considered productive. That mindset was unique to cancer and I don’t expect will ever be duplicated.
I quit receiving piano lessons, my soccer team, and teaching Sunday school. I stopped using my Ab Crunch Trainer, shaving, shampooing and bathing daily. Who was I trying to impress? A bi-daily shower would suffice.
I quit worrying about a balanced diet, and instead took advantage of the delightful dishes my parents and aunt provided me. My friends Ink and Ho-Train came over almost daily to play video games, and there were always Ho Hos for us to demolish.
I had cancer, yet was as worry-free as I'd ever been. Instead, I focused on having fun and staying relaxed. I learned that limiting stress could improve one's mental and physical health, and I did it better than anyone. The fact that the ideal cancer patient wasn't "supposed" to have that ability made me feel special.
Everybody has challenges, and I understand that now. But back then I didn't think anyone else's difficulties compared to mine. Yet, they all complained about trivial things. And I just sat back and laughed at them for being such pussies.
Throughout the year I was severely deprived. The periods before being privileged again were possibly my greatest times of joy. Those 60 minutes before my first meal in days, or the morning when I would be released from the hospital and take that first breath of fresh air, or the first blood test that showed my numbers were on the rise. The buildup, in part, made normalcy so unbelievably sweet.
At sixteen I doubt I was fully aware of cancer's benefits. It seems like other cancer patients, and most people for that matter, aren't aware of them either. Thinking that cancer totally sucks might be a defense mechanism, something we perceive so that we're better able to survive. Now that I have been a survivor, I'm able to look back to my time with cancer with a clear head and I see that the Good Life existed.
I will always remember and occasionally get nostalgic for those brief moments of bliss that I'll hopefully never get to experience again.
Continue reading "My Cancer Story": Welcome to the Cancer Life (Part I of III)
Monday, October 8, 2007
Continued from "My Cancer Story": Teeter Totter of Life (Part II of II)
Read "My Cancer Story" from the beginning: The Golden Age (Part I of III)
People bought me things—some who I'd never met before, and some expensive things, like video games, an mp3 player and a portable CD player. NoCommonSense's dad wanted to impart some Beatles culture on me, so he bought me their greatest hits. My rabbi bought me the new Ja Rule CD, Rule 3:36. I wanted him to listen with me, but he wasn’t into gangsta rap.
My parents and Aunt Flojo ordered whatever I wanted to eat. Huge, fatty, delicious milkshakes and greasy, heart-clogging foods were shoved down my throat. If I had the ability and desire to become obese, they would’ve gladly financed my girth.
School became a circus. I attended when I could and took breaks when I wanted. I dropped one class and spent those 90 minutes in the guidance office with two other kids. Our conversations probably led the guidance counselors to wonder why we weren't with other learning disabled students.
My mom drove me to my clinic checkups. Sometimes on the way home we went out to eat or rented a movie. It got even worse (or better) after surgery when I didn’t attend school for three months and my mom and I frequented Pizza Hut or the mall for Roman Delight Pizza, my favorite. We did not bump into the truant officer.
Maybe my slackness is why my SAT scores declined between the beginning and end of treatment. Did I get stupider? Is stupider even a word?
Because of my pooping troubles, breakfast decisions were simplified to oatmeal. Because of my reduced schoolwork, at night I familiarized myself with obscure shows such as Titus, Gideon's Crossing and Grounded for Life. Most aspects of my life outside of cancer became easier. Some people don't like easier; some people don't like using the cancer card, including me. But when that kind of lifestyle is available, it's hard to decline.
Seeing the good side of cancer was not a function of fearing death and the accompanied desire to treasure my remaining time. I didn't fear death. It was a function of, at least partly, my simplified life and the reduction in choices and activities. I didn't always eat, so when I did that Starburst tasted sweeter. My hospital didn't have cable, so when I was home, SportsCenter made my mornings more entertaining.
Going to the movie theater or dinner became an event, not just something you do, but rather something truly special. And I can still remember them all: Olive Garden with my mom after Cycle 3; Uno's with my mom and Aunt Flojo after Cycle 4; Cast Away with my family after Cycle 5, to name a few.
I can remember everything about those special events. We saw Cast Away on Christmas in 2000. I wore my white Eddie Bauer sweater and olive green cargo pants. I got up to pee halfway through the movie and wondered, do these people know that I have cancer from one look in a dark theater? I was so happy that day. I was happy that I finished Cycle 5 and was healthy enough to see that great movie with my family. I was genuinely happy with life. I was so happy that I almost wanted time to stop. It is times like that I miss so badly now that it hurts.
Keep reading: Welcome to the Good Life (Part II of II)
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
Read these first:
The Stumbler: Part II
My 7th grade English teacher was absolutely obsessed with The Rosie O'Donnell Show. She loved it so much that she had us spend months of class preparing to do a mock Rosie show. Her plan was to ultimately record our show, send it to Rosie and get on TV. After the first month we thought she was nuts. After the second we thought she was the greatest teacher ever because we didn't really do anything. Case in point, my job was to play the drums to One Headlight by The Wallflowers, as the rest of my "band" played air guitar and lip synched. Since my dad had been giving me drum lessons for three years, I rocked out on the real thing.
Our class was broken into two groups. The other group needed one more band member and asked me to play air guitar to Korn's Blind. The Stumbler played lead guitar and vocals. Everything was going well during the final taping, until Dookie started spraying water at us with a spray bottle "for effect," as he called it. When I jumped up for a power cord, I slipped on some of the water and did the mini-splits. I think I pulled something, but I was a trooper and continued playing.
Meanwhile, Dookie sprayed The Stumbler in the face and he was furious. Somehow, someway, our crazy teacher didn't see this occurring. She also somehow didn't notice when both The Stumbler and I flipped the bird to Dookie. The Stumbler was caught on camera. I wasn't.
This was before the days of digital editing, and nobody told our teacher about the incident. So, she finished taping the rest of the show and gave it one last look-through before sending the tape to her idol. And that's when she saw The Stumbler blatantly sticking his middle finger in the air to the left of the camera. The words "fuck you" may also have been mouthed.
I thought both groups beautifully executed our skits and produced one hell of a mock show. Our crazy teacher disagreed and had a near-psychotic breakdown. "I didn't even know kids your age knew what that was," she said. Lady, I'm pretty sure I knew when I was just getting out of diapers.
The Stumber got suspended, our teacher scrapped all our work, and I couldn't have been more grateful the camera wasn't focused on me. Is it wrong that the entire class thought it was the absolute perfect ending to the three-month extravaganza? Except our crazy ass psychotic teacher, of course.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
While C-Smoke was shuffling the deck, I closed off my right nostril and blew hard into my left hand. The process would have been a success—except the booger missed my left hand and flew through the air like a missile. I couldn't see where it landed and hoped nobody saw what happened.
Then, everyone started laughing because they knew exactly what happened. It was gross—I knew it, they knew it. I continued searching for my booger, but I was laughing so hard I could barely focus. Suddenly, I found the slimy creature.
"You know, this is funny and everything," C-Smoke said, "but could you please take this thing off me?"
The huge booger landed on his blue shirt.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Read this first: Teeter Totter of Life (Part I of II)
When I finished my first chemo cycle I called a friend from my hospital room. She was having people over and I wanted to share my joy that chemo wasn’t all that bad. The superhotty, Orange, answered the phone and asked how I was.
“I’m doing fine,” I said.
“That’s great. Do you want to talk to Zeke?”
I spoke to Zeke and a few others. They were just living their normal lives and I was living what had become mine. Getting out of the gossip loop was inevitable, considering I missed so many days of school. One of my best friends, HollaAtYoBoy, got a new girlfriend and I didn’t meet her for a month. I was spending much more time with my new "friends": my doctors, nurses and other patients. My primary nurse, Laughy, was one of my favorites. She enjoyed teasing me for being so quiet and always greeting her with a simple “hey” in my deepest voice.
I refused to hold my old friends back or complain about anything. I never said, “I’m not feeling well, come over to my house,” or “I just need someone to talk to.” Simply bringing up the subject of my troubles, mentioning it, was an act of complaining, to me. That’s a philosophy I continue to live by.
Looking back, I don’t know if I was fooling myself into thinking that certain normal human emotions and behaviors didn’t apply to me. I also don’t know that my never mentioning cancer allowed others to misinterpret what my days were like, how important milestones were, or cancer itself. But certainly that outlook aided in my feeling of invincibility. All those other cancer pussies complained about how hard it was, but I never once did, and often didn’t even think cancer was that difficult. I was better than the other patients, better than everyone, better than humankind. I was Superman.
My boycott on complaining didn’t diminish when cancer ended—actually, it became stricter. I created the ill-worded “no pussy rule” in which complaining was a sin.
My school status changed. Whereas in the past I went relatively unnoticed, now people sought me out to discuss the Redskins or wrestling. I even got asked out to homecoming. Are you asking out of pity?
Sports kept my life steady. I watched every televised NFL game and critiqued all the Redskins games, just like normal. The NFL season kept life moving, like each NFL week equaled one more cancer week I could cross off the list. No matter what went into or happened to me, I could count on football weekends.
I watched a great playoff baseball game between the New York Mets and the San Francisco Giants. In 13 innings the Mets won 3-2. After watching that game I realized everything was going to be okay; I was going to be alright. Even the stress-induced acne that had broken out across my upper body disappeared. Who would’ve thought a baseball game between two teams I don’t care about would have such an impact?
I was restricted physically, and substituted television and video games for playing backyard football. When I was aware of a neighborhood football game being played I almost didn’t want to hear about it.
I had my restaging scans after several weeks to gauge my tumor. It shrunk, as I expected. My teeter totter of life tipped back to my side a little bit, which unfortunately doesn’t happen for everybody. I had trouble understanding how some people could receive chemotherapy and it didn’t kill the cancer. I also struggled with the idea that not everybody expects perfect results. Do they actually acknowledge the possibility of death?
Continue reading "My Cancer Story": Welcome to the Good Life (Part I of II)
Saturday, September 15, 2007
Continued from "My Cancer Story": The Golden Age (Part III of III)
Read "My Cancer Story" from the beginning: The Golden Age (Part I of III)
I climbed on the table in front of the large CT scanner. That three-minute scan of my lungs would shift my teeter totter of life. No spot, I’d probably live. A spot and I’d probably die. Simple statistical probability. I’d later learn of the anxiety my parents and close relatives felt before the excellent results. At the time I didn’t even know what a CT scan was, let alone the significance of those three minutes.
The CT scan was just one of the 18 tests I underwent before treatment began—measuring everything except the size of my dick. There were two reasons for all those tests: to make sure I was healthy enough for what was to come, and to set a baseline for the rest of my life. It was expected that the future results of those tests would worsen from the treatment, some of them immediately. I was only sixteen and my health had supposedly climaxed.
I was barraged with information from so many doctors that I couldn’t remember all their names. I retained the important stuff: time before starting treatment, time before ending treatment, time between cycles, time I’d be fucked-up, time I’d miss school. What it really came down to was the time I’d lose my old life, and the time it would take to get it back. What they couldn’t tell me was how slow time would go, and how I could speed it up.
Another teenage cancer patient remarked that I was good-looking, which made me wonder if those days were over. I didn’t want to look like her or any of the other sick kids. But according to Cancer, it was inevitable.
At school everyone was overly kind, including friends who had always poked fun at me for my lack of common sense, among other things. I missed bearing the brunt of their jokes. I didn’t want to be treated differently.
The day before treatment began I was drowning, alone and helpless. I sat in the back of the car with my parents, listening on my headphones to a mix CD my brother had burned for me. I heard what immediately became one of my all-time favorite songs: "Until We Rich" by Ice Cube & Krayzie Bone. I’ll never forget two verses: “The best thing in life is health,” and, “Don’t talk about death, I got too much life to live.”
I started treatment as soon as possible because each day that passed without getting chemotherapy reduced my probability of survival. As if there was a percentage timer continuously ticking down, ten-thousandths of a percent at a time. The teeter totter of life levels off at the 50% mark, and then tips over to the other side until eventually there’s a 500-pound wrestler named Yokozuna sitting across from you.
Beginning treatment quickly was for the best, though, because one of the worst aspects cancer is fearing what’s next. Fearing the unknown. Once I’d experienced each part of the routine, I was no longer scared. It’s similar to a painful injury—once you’re used to the pain, you’re no longer bothered by it. I can live with this so long as it doesn’t worsen, you convince yourself. And when the pain does get worse, you acclimate to that and say the same thing. I suspect there’s a pain threshold that acts as a breaking point. Similarly, I suspect there’s a cancer threshold that becomes intolerable. I’ve never reached those points.
Just as I didn’t worry myself with making decisions such as which hospital to be treated at, I didn’t agonize about exactly what was going into me. I trusted my doctors and nurses with my infusions the same way I trusted my parents to make the best hospital choice. In fact, it was my parents who constantly checked the bags of chemo to ensure all the information was correct. I was laid-back before treatment and would remain that way. Cancer isn’t going to change me.
Keep reading: Teeter Totter of Life (Part II of II)
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Seven years ago this Friday afternoon, I learned of my tumor. I have a difficult time believing it has been that long. I remember the day, the whole year for that matter, like it was yesterday. Time has gone by so quickly that in some respects I still see it as the year 2000, still see myself as 16.
Exactly one year later, give or take 20 minutes, I finished treatment and became cancer-free. As I wrote in Happy Birthday, Bone Marrow, some cancer survivors celebrate the diagnosis, but I celebrate the freedom. And even though last year was my fifth anniversary of being cancer-free from my first cancer, or what is commonly known as CURED, I will always celebrate.
Coincidentally, the holiday Rosh Hashanah, which marks the Jewish New Year, occurs around the same time. Because of that, this time of year marks new beginnings for me. A new football season has arrived. A new autumn is approaching. A new year is marked on the Jewish calendar. And a new year of cancer freedom will begin.
I toast this New Year with continued freedom for myself and others, as well as new freedom for some. After all, the best thing in life is health.
Thursday, September 6, 2007
Tonight kicks off the 2007 NFL season, and I couldn't be more thrilled. I've been a huge fan my entire life. In fact, one of my earliest memories is sitting on the couch next to my dad watching a game.
In honor of tonight I'd like to make my Super Bowl picks. Anyone who has ever been around Redskins Nation knows two things: we have the best fans in all of American sports, and we always pick the Redskins to win the Super Bowl. Generally speaking, they've sucked for about 15 years, so usually it's a joke when we pick them. However, last year they were coming off a solid playoff season, and I legitimately picked them. But, they let us all down, going back to their stinky ways with a 5-11 record.
As a joke, like most seasons, I will pick the Redskins to win the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots.
Super Bowl pick #2: Patriots over the New Orleans Saints
Sunday, September 2, 2007
After my book gets published, I told PingPongGirl if she ever wanted a real job as an editor then I would write her a letter of recommendation. Of course, she'd still have to edit it.
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Earlier this summer I spotted a cottontail rabbit nibbling in my front yard. Over the next couple weeks my parents and I saw him scurrying about, and even found that he lived in a bush next to our house. The prime conversation at home revolved around our new rabbit friend: has anyone seen him today, was he eating, did he run away?
I haven’t had a pet since I was five, so at first I wanted to cage him up and domesticate him. But, I didn’t think he’d like that. I’m sure he enjoys living each day in survival mode – scrounging for food, making his own shelter, trying not to be eaten, and desperately searching for some rabbit poonany.
My dad and I did the next best thing to caging him up – make his life easier by leaving food in his bush. I had no idea what rabbits eat, so I asked my dad. Just so you know my dad grew up in Brooklyn, where the closest thing to a wild animal is a non-kosher hot dog.
“Rabbits eat carrots,” he said. “That’s his favorite food.”
“How do you know? You only say that because Bugs Bunny eats carrots.”
“No, I’m telling you he eats carrots any chance he gets.”
“I doubt he’s ever seen a carrot in his entire life. You think he just roams through the woods and finds random carrots on the ground?”
We left one bright orange carrot next to his bush and waited, but he didn’t show up. After I went inside I checked my window every ten minutes, but still he didn’t show up. “I told you he doesn’t eat carrots,” I told my dad.
But, the next day the carrot was gone and we assumed he ate it. We continued leaving him more carrots and celery sticks. He continued to eat them. Days later, while eating lunch, my mom looked out the window and saw him squaring off with a squirrel. The rat-with-a-bushy-tail was about to pounce on my rabbit friend, so I immediately stopped eating and rushed outside ready to beat some squirrel ass. “Get out of here rodentfucker!” I screamed once I got in site.
I am The Rabbit Protector. Mess with him and pay the consequences.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Yesterday I received my very first one, left as an anonymous comment on book excerpt: Forever Sweet Sixteen (Part III of III). Here it is in its entirety:
TRASH...pure vulgar trash. Your parents should be severly punished for having a son like you...an maybe, just maybe, in the after-life, if there is such a thing, you will be publically, spiritually and MORE physically punished. If not for your morals, for your lack of ethics and priniciples...you have none. May the Devil have mercy on your soul, God doesn't want you.To whoever wrote this, I might be able to hook you up with some Xanax to help chill you out. Better yet, if I dig hard enough I may find my old 3rd grade spelling book. I know how tricky words like "severely" and "and" can be.
Friday, August 17, 2007
Barely over six years ago I finished my final round of chemotherapy for my first cancer. I watched as the last drip made its way through the tube and into the catheter in my chest. My nurse disconnected the chemo tubing and threw it away. That’s it, no more chemotherapy ever again, I remember thinking.
When I left the hospital the following day, my nurses gave me a banner that read Congratulations Ben! The doctors and nurses all signed it, and several gave me a hug. One would think this was a hugely important accomplishment worthy of a Diddy yacht party. But actually, it was the most anticlimactic event of my life because I had to begin radiotherapy just three days later.
Three days ago I officially graduated from the University of Virginia in the second most anticlimactic event of my life. If I had graduated back in May then I would’ve participated in the ceremony, including walking The Lawn, sweating my ass off in the heat while hungover, and listening to John Grisham give the commencement speech. But UVA frowns on people like me that need more than their eight-semester allotment. There is no ceremony for me until next May, which I’ll be invited to but will likely decline out of both spite and not giving a shit.
My old first-year hallmates were so ashamed I missed the May graduation deadline that they voted to ban me from the 25-year hall reunion in 2027. Over the next 22 years I plan on making a strong appeal to relinquish the ban. If I can convince the almighty Zim, who lived across the hall and one room over, then I should be welcome.
And the question of the day…“Ben, now that you’re done with college, what are you going to do?”
Three years ago when I had my epiphany that I should write a book, I told my friend Hamburgers, “If I sell even one copy then it will all be worth it.”
Shortly after I became drunk with ambition, already pondering which car I would buy. On one hand was the Aston Martin Vanquish for a quarter-million.And on the other hand was the McLaren F1 for a cool mil.I really didn’t care all that much about the money. It was just fun thinking of all the cool shit I could buy if I sold millions of copies. My brother used to say those fantasies made buying lottery tickets worthwhile, even though he knew he’d never win.
When I got to my last year of college still with zero books sold, I began thinking rationally. Now I merely wanted to make enough money so that I didn’t have to get a real job and could write another book. Unless a significant advancement heads my way over the next couple months, that doesn’t seem likely, either.
But like Tony Montana from Scarface might say, The World Is Mine.
Monday, August 13, 2007
In the summer before my first year of college I got a pair of black Oakley sunglasses, complete with orange prescription lenses. They were as kickass as shades get. In fact, I rarely wore them on campus because I was afraid girls would be instantly attracted, dump their boyfriends and begin pursuing me. The angry boyfriends would then form a cult intent on destroying me and my Oakleys. A legitimate fear, I know.
I decided to take the risk one late afternoon on the way to the dining hall with my friend, PingPongGirl. I walked across the quad to wait for her in front of her dorm. I sat on the bench and stretched out my arms, looking cool as can be. A different girl in her dorm stepped out and looked at me. “Nice sunglasses,” she said with a smile, and then walked away.
Holy shit, is it really working? What if these really are a babe magnet?
PingPongGirl walked out of her dorm shortly after and looked at me funny. Oh no, not you too. She began laughing hysterically.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Benjy, look at your sunglasses!”
“What are you talking about? Some girl just hit on me because of them.”
“Seriously, just look at them,” she said, continuing to laugh.
I took the Oakleys off my head and looked at them. Incredibly, without me noticing, one of the lenses had popped out. I was walking around campus looking like a pirate with an orange Oakley lens of an eye patch.
Monday, August 6, 2007
Read these first:
The Golden Age (Part I of III)
The Golden Age (Part II of III)
I got my first MRI in August and didn’t know what to expect. “It’s just a bunch of really loud noises, like a jackhammer,” my friend Hamburgers assured me. I expected a stress fracture diagnosis, and when my doctor prescribed a second MRI, I was surprised. Did you have trouble finding my hip the first time? It’s only a bigass bone. It took three weeks to schedule me for the second MRI, though the bone scan was scheduled one day after that. My doctor must’ve known.
The bone scan technician surely did: she saw my future in perfect clarity on her computer screen as a bright white spot over my left hip. After the bone scan I was instructed to drink two bottles of water because they had injected nuclear medicine for easier detection. I drank three bottles because I was scared of nuclear medicine, a minute fraction of the toxicity of chemotherapy. It’s all relative, isn’t it? A healthy person fears nuclear medicine and a cancer person fears his future amputation or cancer recurrence. They may be equal, just different.
After everyone else was too much of a coward to tell me, it came down to me and my mom at the kitchen table. “Benjamin…you have a tumor.” I understood then what the bone scan technician had already known—cancer was growing in my pelvis and I would need treatment to kill it. I didn’t know much about chemotherapy or radiation except that they made people very sick, physically and in appearance. And I only knew that from watching Charlie Salinger receive treatment on the TV show Party of Five.
I went to school the next day after telling only three friends. I had been rocked by a life-altering uppercut and was now walking around the halls listening to classmates complain about petty high school problems.
Two days later, on Sunday morning, I taught Hebrew at Temple. There was confusion regarding the teaching assignments, so I waited in the sanctuary. Mrs. R, the mother of a student I had just finished tutoring for his Bar Mitzvah, sat next to me. “Tell me what you know,” she said. I guessed my mom had told a few people.
“I don’t know much. They don’t know what it is yet, or if it’s anything.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
“No, I’m fine. Thanks.”
Like I said, when I turned sixteen I was no longer a kid. I didn’t need help or anyone to do anything for me. I may spend my whole life investigating why, but within the first couple months of treatment I realized I was invincible. I saw myself as a real-life Superman. Unable to be penetrated. Unable to be destroyed.
A week later I was diagnosed with bone cancer. My best friends and I went to Hamburgers’ house where I told them all that I knew. It was a typical Saturday night with our usual laughter and jokes. Before driving to Taco Bell, I walked up Hamburgers' basement stairs and said, “I can feel my cancer poking out my ass.” At the Taco Bell drive-thru, Zeke upset the employee and we’re sure she spit in our food.
Less than one week later my new life began. I am certain that the girls at school no longer saw me as the mysterious guy who cracks two jokes before taking Zeke and Big Easy home. They now saw me as the sick kid. I know this because that is how I would’ve viewed anyone else with cancer. I did everything in my power to show them otherwise. I’ve done everything I can since then, and I’ll do everything I can forever.
Last year I watched a skiing documentary with my roommate and some of the students he’d been giving skiing lessons to. When we left I asked him how old his students were. “They’re around sixteen,” my roommate said.
I couldn’t believe it. They looked so young—like kids. And that’s when I recognized that we don’t suddenly stop being kids when we turn sixteen. And I didn’t stop being a kid when I got cancer, even though Sweet Sixteen was over. I still say it was the best year of my life, perhaps never to be topped. There is something powerful about that age—maybe it’s because my life changed then. Or, maybe it had something to do with that "Super-Jew" t-shirt.
Continue reading "My Cancer Story": Teeter Totter of Life (Part I of II)
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
Read this first: The Golden Age (Part I of III)
That summer in 2000 was one of the best three-month periods of my life. We had no responsibility and the freedom to do whatever we wanted. HollaAtYoBoy and I chilled together every day and played a lot of Super Tennis on Super Nintendo. “Who else should we recruit to be in the Super Tennis Club?” we joked. Other popular activities included watching Half Baked and searching for pictures of Mandy Moore’s butt. It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.
Life was so easy-going that when the game Perfect Dark released, my friend Infinicuralier and I played it 11 consecutive hours, with a short dinner break. I was sixteen without a care in the world, except how to seduce Orange without having to talk.
My family vacationed to Israel. Our flight from Washington, D.C., to Toronto was delayed four hours. When we took off from Toronto to Israel it was already midnight. An hour into the flight, the captain said one of the computers was down and we would turn around and dump fuel in the air. We touched back down in Toronto at 3 a.m., where we waited in chairs another three hours, and then a hotel for the next three. We were supposed to depart again at 11 a.m., but were delayed several more hours.
We sat on the plane waiting, not knowing if we were staying or going. My brother JD and I played "Survivor" by observing who from our area of the plane could stay in his seat the longest without using the restroom, returning to the terminal, or losing his mind. We arrived in Israel 21 hours late.
We met the rest of our tour group in Jerusalem, which included the goalie for the Olympic Development Program soccer team and a really hot Jewish girl. On Shabbat we went to the Western Wall and watched hundreds of Jewish men in black top hats davening. It was my most religious experience. The next night we walked up and down Ben Yehuda Street with all the shops and bars. I bought a white t-shirt with the Superman shield wearing a black top hat and Hasidic sideburns. It read “Super-Jew”.
All the kids avoided Israeli food and ate McDonald’s or Pizza Hut when we could. Israel is littered with stray cats. None of the food, even the Big Mac, tasted normal and we joked that we were eating cat burgers.
I tried alcohol for my first time. JD and the others bought a bottle of vodka and took long, eight-second swigs. It looked so easy that I didn’t use a chaser. I grabbed the bottle, gulped, then stared blankly across the room at the hot Jew for a second before coughing wildly. “That shit burns!”
My parents thought Israel's drinking water came from waste water treatment facilities, so they supplied us with two-liter bottles of water. But rebellious JD chose to drink the sewer water instead, pretending to love it.
The Dead Sea has so much salt that you float. Word of advice: after you get diarrhea, which you unquestionably will if you eat cat burgers, don’t try to sit and float in the Dead Sea.
On one of the last nights we played soccer where I, instead of the junior Olympian, played goalie because of my pain. “When we get home I’ll see the doctor and get it fixed,” I told the group. “It’s probably just a stress fracture.” I later told them through instant messenger that it was cancer.
The trip was awesome. We joked, pulled pranks and spoke in surfer lingo. The hot Jew recorded some of our adventures, though we lost touch and I never saw the video.
At the end of the summer I took an SAT prep course with SuperSoccerStar, who was my friend’s cousin. We had always snuck him onto our house soccer team as a ringer. Through the prep course we became pretty good friends, and after the last session we played video games at his house. I developed terrible cramps, probably from the cat lingering in my gut, and quickly left because I didn’t want to destroy his bathroom. That was the last time I saw him before I was well into my chemo regimen.
Keep reading: The Golden Age (Part III of III)
Friday, July 27, 2007
Welcome to the beginning of "My Cancer Story." Continue reading and following the links if you wish. Enjoy.
It was a cold, dark December night when I hopped in my car alone for the first time. I filled my 12-disc CD changer my parents me bought for my birthday with all-time favorites. It was my sixteenth birthday and I just wanted to cruise.
I wound through the curvy streets listening to Dave Matthews Band’s "#41" and U2’s "With Or Without You." There’s something special about sixteen, which is weird since it’s just one year, or in this case, one day past fifteen. The freedom was a powerful thing. I no longer had to wait for my mom to drive me to Best Buy to buy that new CD. I no longer needed a ride to hang out with friends. I was no longer just a kid.
Usually I drove my friend Colossus to school. He made us late almost every day, but my homeroom teacher didn’t care. Once Colossus was nearly an hour late, so we skipped first period and ate breakfast at Burger King. Once I wanted to see if we could still make it on time, and passed a car on the double yellow. She flipped us off.
Since I turned sixteen before my friends, I became the permanent driver. They started inviting me to events with people I didn’t used to hang out with, including females. Back then I was too shy for my own good, scared of girls and large groups. The hottest girl in our grade, Orange, once called me “the man of few words.” So when I just cracked a joke here and there the girls probably thought I was Ben, the mysterious friend of Zeke and Big Easy who drove them everywhere and never said much. And I loved it.
Most of our fun involved teenage silliness: blasting ‘N Sync while driving 95 miles per hour with Zeke sticking his head out the window; trying to get into R-rated movies (and getting caught); forcing our religious friend, Crest, to listen to the Methods of Mayhem song "Proposition Fuck You"; and making bets. We once bet Crest five dollars that he wouldn’t drink the water from a flower vase off a McDonald’s table. We added chewed pieces of M&M’s and French fry. He won.
I bet Big Easy 30 dollars that he wouldn’t wear a colorful serape he purchased at an antique shop around school for a day. “I almost got beat up in the bathroom,” he said the day he wore it. Though, I heard from an inside source that he briefly took it off, thus breaking the rules for the bet.
When school ended and I passed through the lobby to get to tennis practice, everyone was there to see him cash in. “I don’t know Big Easy, I heard you took it off one time in the hallway.”
There was too much pressure. When Orange chimed in that he deserved his money, it was over. No way could I hold out on a request from Orange.
Tennis attracted the kids who weren’t athletic enough to play baseball or soccer. That attitude made practices informal and fun, though we played hard and we played to win. My doubles partner was Froddy, and we annihilated opponents even after I started experiencing pain in my left hip. On our last match together before the coach paired him with somebody else, I was totally and completely unable to run. Other players had jokingly been calling me a pussy, and now I started to wonder if I was a pussy. I also wondered if my tennis skills were diminishing, or if the new $80 racket I bought was worse than my old $20 one.
Later in the season my teammates stopped calling me a pussy because I was diagnosed with a heart murmur. Before my echocardiogram I thought it was a big deal and tried to garner sympathy, though the ultrasound showed it was as benign as heart murmurs get. It's funny that a massive and aggressive tumor made me a pussy, but an almost undetectable heart murmur made me a badass.
My pain was substantial and worsening, and I had a permanent bruise on my lower back, right on the pelvic bone. A couple teammates mentioned cancer, but we all laughed it off. Cancer was impossible at our age—something reserved for the “sick kids.” I was young, strong, healthy and active. There was no chance I was a “sick kid.”
Keep reading: The Golden Age (Part II of III)