Sunday, September 28, 2014

Derek Jeter Taught Me How to Survive Cancer

I was 16 years old. I hated talking to girls and other emotional and fearful situations, and I loved imagining talking to girls and being a good kid and sports. Derek Jeter taught me how to survive cancer in October 2000, the month after I was diagnosed and began treatment, and 11 months before finishing it.

Cancer consumed my left ilium, so I couldn’t play. And chemotherapy had killed nearly all of my white blood cells, so I couldn’t visit friends. And chemo also had killed half of my red blood cells, so simply standing up made me dizzy. But I could still begin the first Saturday of October the same way I would had I not had cancer, by watching College GameDay on my favorite couch in my parents’ rec room.

I remained on the couch through the Miami-Florida State “Wide Right III” game, and through part of an extra-innings National Leagues Divisional Series playoff baseball game. I finished watching that 13-inning game on a 13-inch television at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on my retractable hospital bed, after my doctor admitted me with a fever and neutropenia.

The next day: NFL pregame show and two afternoon games. NIH did not offer cable television, so I could not see NFL Primetime and Sunday Night Football; I could not complete my 13-hour NFL Sunday ritual. My dad recorded them and brought the tape the next day.

When cancer took control of much of my life, I retained the things I loved—most notably, sports. I watched every televised college and pro football game and baseball playoff game (except those I missed while at NIH), including most of the Yankees' 16 games. By the time Derek Jeter and his Yankees won the World Series three weeks later, I learned when my blood cells would rise and fall; how I’d feel and where I’d be on any specific date; how to transform anger and sadness into motivation; how to believe that cancer would never change me. I learned so much about surviving cancer that I had become the self-proclaimed Greatest Cancer Patient Ever; I had become Superman.

Today, after 20 seasons on the Yankees, Derek Jeter played in his final game. Sports fans across the country are remembering Jeter. They are sharing what Jeter means to them, like the 36-year-old man who feels that Jeter’s retirement represents a piece of his youth dying. Jeter is also sharing how grateful he is to New York City.

I may have retained more vivid memories during October 2000 than any other period in my life, which makes that month historical and important to me. I connected that month’s activities with learning how to survive cancer. Like he has represented his sport, adopted city and team—and youth—Derek Jeter represents one of my life’s most important lessons. Though I will never forget it, I am grateful that I no longer need that knowledge.

Benjamin Rubenstein visiting Yankee Stadium in September 2009
My dad and me at Yankee Stadium, September 2009

Leia Mais…

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Lonely Planet: Traipsing Around Europe, Part III

Read these first: Lonely Planet: Traipsing Around Europe, Parts I and II

EuroBen, Day 8

I am back on the train headed to a small town north of London where I will stay with friends, the Stroopwafels. Unlike during my last train ride, I maintain awareness of my new crutches in the storage compartment above me. I am also aware of my job, nationality and lack of debt that together allow me this privilege to travel. I feel fortunate.

I get off at Peterborough and board my 4:20 p.m. bus to Cambridge—exactly as my ticket says, at bus bay B8, which is the only one where buses heading to Cambridge pick up, according to the sign. The bus driver reads my ticket and says, “This is Stagecoach and you need National Express coach. That’s over there,” he says, pointing to the opposite side of the station with 10 more bus bays.

I rush over to the other side of the bus station and speak with an attendant. He points to a bus just driving off. “That’s your bus.”

I can catch it if I run. I grip my rolling carry-on tighter and brace to run, and then I freeze. Three days ago I ran and jumped through the train cars looking for my crutches. Since then I have moved gingerly. Unable to bend, I must crawl my hands down my legs to tie my shoes, further stretching my tight lower back and hip muscles with each millimeter that I get closer to the laces. I imagine stretching a guitar string to attain a higher and higher pitch and then, ping. I complete the knot and slowly straighten my posture, now each millimeter in reverse causing an equally painful flame through my muscles.

The next day I bought Tylenol after waking. I could not have navigated Edinburgh Castle without it. I've been reading A Tale for the Time Being in which the main character learns to sit zazen for meditation and posture. As I rode the hop-on hop-off bus for an entire loop waiting for the medicine to take effect, I sat in a seated zazen position, perfectly straight, moving only my neck to see Scotland's beauty.

I let the bus go by. I have my freedom and possessions. I have a Kindle book to finish and new Gaslight Anthem and Rise Against albums to listen through. Life, sometimes, is really amazing and I’ll just catch the next bus in two hours. In one week when my pain begins fading I will think life is even more amazing, as the fear that I had caused permanent damage to my vulnerable hip also fades, a fear I must live with forever because my hip looks like this. From now on I will try to move slower with a shorter gait and coddle my left leg even more than before, and sit straighter and breath deeper like zazen, though this effort, too, is likely to fade, because I am still human.

Visiting Ely and Newmarket in England
Mrs. Stroopwafel took me around small-town England including Newmarket, which is considered the birthplace of thoroughbred horse racing, and Ely, which is home to Ely Cathedral which dates back 900 years. I don't think the public would tolerate tax money going into projects like Ely Cathedral nowadays so we will just have to look in awe at this and other ancient creations.
Riding replica horse at Newmarket's National Horse Racing Museum in England
At the National Horse Racing Museum, Mrs. Stroopwafel mimicked a jockey on this fast-moving replica horse as I stood and laughed
EuroBen, Day 12

Amsterdam’s architecture and water engineering amaze me. So does the blending of bicycles and nude women and hash and transsexuals. There is no judgment in this pretty city.
Visiting Amsterdam's attractions including The Heineken Experience, brown cafes and canals
Left: The Heineken Experience in Amsterdam goes from cheesy to techno to beer-providing and is great. Top: Amsterdam's authentic pubs are known as brown cafes and serve great coffee and beer (and maybe marijuana). Bottom: Amsterdam was designed in the 1600s on canals. The engineering and architecture blow my mind and this may be the prettiest city I've ever seen. Seen here is a houseboat. The government limits the number of permits for houseboats, which makes these extremely expensive places to live because of their high demand.

“I want to kill 1.5 billion people with all my guns because everyone else in the world doesn’t matter.”

I sit at a bar that locals frequent—away from the red light district and its tourists—and this extremely intoxicated local does not like hearing that I am American and speaks to me as he imagines an American thinks. Many people here in Amsterdam are as welcoming as the Scottish. They love their culture and want to share it with me. Some others though, including this gentleman who is oddly wearing an I ♥ NY t-shirt, do not.

“Everyone in your country is either rich or poor,” he says. “You Americans and your arrogance.” He starts patting me on the back, and then he starts feeling my shoulder and arm. “I haven’t gotten my fucky fucky today.”

A second later I am standing and tell the bartender to run my card. I disregard my new objective to move slower in life and instead I trot on my crutches faster than I ever have, down the dark streets towards Central Station. I buy a tram ticket back to the airport, and then a bus ticket back to the hotel where I close the door and lock it behind me.

Maybe some cities are meant to be experienced in groups.

EuroBen, Day 13

I chose not to pack my computer because I didn’t want to take time away from vacationing. Who am I kidding: I’m a writer.
Writing on the ferry from Amsterdam--typing is overrated
This very story, version 1
Mr. Stroopwafel enjoyed our short vacation and having a break from work. I had a blast with my Americans-temporarily-living-in-England adopted family.
Riding the ferry from Hoek van Holland
Relaxing on the seven-hour ferry ride from Amsterdam's Hoek van Holland back to England

EuroBen, Day 14

I have learned by many different methods, and perhaps none more densely than by traveling myself. I feel more courageous and worldly for having done this. For those reasons I think everyone should try traveling alone at least once.

I understand now that there are many ways to live beyond the Merika' way, with our ease of freeriding and mega-consumption; arrogance; and above all, freedom. I know that I never want to live anywhere else long-term. I love my country. I have felt others' hatred because of my nationality, but after seeing firsthand how hundreds of millions of people want to live here and the risks they will take for that dream, I wonder if sometimes that hatred stems from jealousy. I am sorry everyone in the world can't be as free as I am.

Where will I vacation next? Will it be on a group trip overseas, on a cruise, or by myself again? All I know is, wherever and however I travel next, I’ll get more magnets.
You can never have enough magnets

Leia Mais…

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Lonely Planet: Traipsing Around Europe, Part II

Read this first: Lonely Planet: Traipsing Around Europe, Part I

EuroBen, Day 5

I am very proud for going on this trip—now in my second leg heading to Edinburgh, Scotland. I am carefree, shut off from work and daily responsibilities and routines. I am freed from time which both passes and leads to new futures, but I can do anything I want so time means nothing to me. I think I am addicted to traveling.

Random neighbor on train traveling around Europe
While passengers ride the Tube to reach their destinations in the shortest amount of time, trains are an intimate and charming part of the culture of traveling across Europe. Riding trains provides ample time to think about where you've been and where you're going geographically and in life. And what about other solo travelers, like the relaxed girl with the pretty pink socks and her shoes kicked off, well-dressed with a coat and scarf—where is she headed? What led her to travel to Scotland by herself?
I stow my carry-on between cars five and six and my crutches in the overhead in train car four. I move freely to different cars and seats, enjoying the views and experience. I could ride while listening to The Gaslight Anthem on repeat the entire day.

Ten minutes before we arrive at Edinburgh Waverly station I go looking for my crutches. They are not where I left them. I suddenly feel like the train car is a chamber that is tightening around me. Pop quiz: if you can retrieve only your luggage or your crutches before the train leaves your stop while you are still on board, which do you choose?

If I search for my crutches instead of my luggage then I may end up in Edinburgh with neither, so I push through other riders to find my suitcase. Whew, it's there. The doors are open and I rush out to speak with a station attendant. “I can’t find my crutches!” I say. “I left them in the upper left compartment in car four. I can't walk far without them.”

“You can get back on the train and search for them. The train leaves in seven minutes,” he says.

I leave my carry-on behind a post and hope nobody steals it. I get back on the train and run through the cars, jumping on seats for a better view of the open storage compartments that line the cars from end to end, forgetting I can’t run and jump. I would tell passengers to get out of my way but my eyes say it more clearly. I check under seats, in between cars, in every nook. The doors close and it feel like my lungs do, too. Now I must choose between continuing my vacation without crutches, or stalling the vacation—still possibly without crutches. I remember the rules that guide me, that I desperately want to live by: Live without regrets. Live for adventure.

I must go. I look at the sign above the exit describing how the door opens, but my brain can’t comprehend the words. A girl sees my despair and pops the window and pushes the lever for me. I walk away and retrieve my suitcase. I will visit the East Coast rail office at Edinburgh Waverly and get all the stations’ lost property phone numbers, but my crutches will never show up.

In my book I wrote that the best thing in life is health. I offer a revision: the best thing in life is freedom. Somebody stole my crutches. Somebody stole my freedom.

EuroBen, Day 6

Life just works out sometimes: I share my tale with the young woman, Ring, who is hosting me on Airbnb for two nights and she finds spare forearm crutches in her closet from when she broke her ankle last year. “I hope I don’t need crutches again, but if I do then they will be free thanks to our National Health Service. I can’t let this ruin your holiday. Take my crutches.”

Every so often someone goes out of her way to improve your life. The magnet from Edinburgh Castle that I gave Ring and my offer to pay 1.5 times the price of replacement crutches (which she declined) don’t compare to Ring’s gift, so I will keep my eyes open for my chance to pay it forward.

Edinburgh Castle, Whiskey Experience, National Museum of Scotland and Dominion Cinema
Counterclockwise from top: Edinburgh Castle, Castle cannon, best animal exhibit ever at National Museum of Scotland, 3,400 bottles of Scotch whiskey at The Scotch Whiskey Experience, and best theater ever with reclining sofas at Dominion Cinema. Edinburgh's landscape, architecture and whiskey are only surpassed by its people: always welcoming and so easy to befriend. This is among my favorite cities and I will surely return to Edinburgh and see more of Scotland.
Renting an Airbnb room in Edinburgh during the Fringe festival
My Airbnb room with the loft bed reachable by ladder. The view and host (Ring) were special; the ladder, not so much.

Keep reading: Lonely Planet: Traipsing Around Europe, Part III

Leia Mais…

Friday, September 5, 2014

Lonely Planet: Traipsing Around Europe, Part I

"So you just go up to strangers at the pub and hope they want to talk to you? Don't you fear rejection?" my beautiful Australian hostelmate, Conversary, asks.

I think of all the girls over all the years; the publishers who didn't want "Twice"; the people I approached last night who kept their circle closed to me; Conversary who will likely tire of me soon. "Yes, I fear rejection."

EuroBen, Day 1

Benjamin Rubenstein departs for Europe with few possessions
Beginning my first solo trip to Europe with just a carry on, sling bag, sweatshirt and crutches
I pass through customs at London Heathrow Airport after 11 a.m. and two hours of sleep. I take my time. I go through my morning ritual in the washroom, clean my Nalgene and drink my protein shake. I follow signs for the London Underground.

My first four hours in London validate all the time I spent preparing for this trip: I purchase an Oyster card for the Tube instead of taking Heathrow Express, saving 18 pounds; secure my luggage at the hostel with the most expensive Master Lock padlock, which I bought; and buy a Vodafone UK SIM card so my mobile can function completely. It takes another hour to find a stop for the hop-on hop-off bus tour. I am exhausted and fall asleep on the bus.

I waken and exit the bus at Covent Garden after one complete loop. I enter a café and order Americano (which is espresso dunked into hot water—Brits don’t care much for freshly ground drip coffee). I sit at the bar and ask the fellow next to me for a fish and chips recommendation. He is excited to offer one and even draws a map to reach the restaurant. I connect to the free Wi-Fi and email my family “London rules,” so they know I am safe and that they can reach me by email.

I eat dinner with strangers. Italy’s employer sent him for training and Spain is here on holiday. We all roar with laughter about London’s cost of living (fried fish, fries and a beer cost us each 18 pounds, or about 31 U.S. dollars, which is a fair price there). Spain is interested in my writing and asks me to type this blog’s URL into his mobile browser. He will read it this evening, he says. Solo traveling rules. I’ve never felt so free.

EuroBen, Day 3
Collage of London sites during vacation
I tackled most of London's landmarks in one day. It was invigorating rushing from one to the other.
Collage of museums in London
I don't care much about history or art and sped through museums (except for the powerful Holocaust and mummy exhibits at Imperial War Museum and British Museum, respectively). I just had to make sure I got my souvenir magnets.
London reminds me of Washington, D.C.: the sidewalks, streets and landscaping are immaculate and blanketed with incredible and free museums; there seem to be more foreigners than locals; and people on the Tube stare at nothing while listening to music with earbuds or Beats headphones. These cities, full of people from across the planet and webbed with a beautiful rainbow of train tracks, are turned inwards. I may be right next to you here, but we are utterly alone.

There are no seats in the bar area so the pub waitress sits me in the corner. I am trying all the traditional British dishes on this trip—“bangers and mash” for this meal. When a family sits at the adjacent table, I smile and move my crutches out of their way. Like me, they order unhealthy food. I actually can't recall seeing or eating a single vegetable, and yet people are leaner here.

I mosey back to Covent Gardens and into a different pub. Whiskey in hand, I set my crutches in a corner and stand in the open, searching for my next friend. A group of four next to me talk and laugh. I interrupt with a lighthearted question and a smile. They stop laughing, answer me, and return to their banter.

I realize I must adjust my traveling expectations. Expecting I’ll find my next girlfriend, pen pal, pub buddy for the night or even a single conversation could ruin EuroBen. Now I expect to see the world and write about it, taste new foods, and meet new people during a night out or maybe just in a curt response.Yes, Europe can still rule with these expectations.

Naturally I am more introverted than extroverted. Seeking new friends depletes my energy and I have just enough left to try once more. Five Brits are out celebrating one of them losing her job—seriously, celebrating—and they take me in because “nobody should drink alone in a pub,” they say. They teach me what “taking the piss” means, and about Pimm’s cocktails and Sunday roast. I laugh at everything because they are hilarious no matter what they say or how often they curse. They buy me many drinks and won’t let me return the favor because I am a visitor. And they prevent a different Londoner from taking advantage of me. We close the pubs down. We are all Facebook friends. They rule.

EuroBen, Day 4
Haggis and jam doughnuts, two of Great Britain's culinary treats
Two of Great Britain's treats: raspberry jam donuts from Sainsbury's, and Scotland's haggis: sheep's heart, liver lungs, and stomach

I visit a pub attended by locals, away from the tourist areas. It is sparse with some old-timers watching Premiere League football and shooting pool. They also watch me. After I finish two quick pints they welcome me. Beer, I decide, is the sign of acceptance in England or maybe the world.

I ride the Tube to meet Conversary. Yesterday, we hung out at the British Library and went on an adventure to find real coffee. I forgo seeing a theater show to be with her tonight. This is not because I am a pushover—I just have a rule that, with pretty girls, I play it through until they opt out, no matter what.

Conversary is more guarded and less talkative now. I pick up the slack. “What does your sister do?...Do you like your two- or four-year-old niece more?...I bet you miss them…What does your sister do for work?”

“Are you joking?” she says. “You just asked me that. What’s wrong with you?”

I falter instead of making a joke, the wound too deep to recover from. I take Conversary back to her hostel and return to my hotel. I really wish I saw “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by myself on my last night in London instead of this, though I know I’ll always make the same mistake, as hopefulness and a desire for adventure always outweigh a life of rejection.

Keep reading: Lonely Planet: Traipsing Around Europe, Part II

Leia Mais…