Saturday, December 17, 2016

I Like Literary Fiction and I Cannot Lie

This semester I read literary fiction for the first time in my life. In August the following idea entered my mind, in September I acknowledged it, and in October I asked others about this idea to see if I was being absurd or dramatic; to see if I was crazy:

Is it possible to learn more about life by reading literary fiction than through actual experiences?

Let me explain before you go looking to buy me a straight jacket for Hanukkah. We move through life with just one point of view—our own. We can try putting ourselves in others' shoes and seeing the world from their perspective, but that's nothing more than an exercise in building the capacity to empathize. Besides you, only Russian hackers can actually see the world from your perspective, and even that's only if your mobile phone is on your person. (Of course it is.)

More than any other activity besides hacking, reading may bring us closest to seeing the world from another's point of view. As Elizabeth Strout writes in her latest novel My Name Is Lucy Barton, fiction "reports on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do."

My question tore at me. If the answer is "yes" then what have I missed out on by not reading literary fiction most of my life? And if the answer is "no" then why have I spent my life in such un-fulfillment that I would even ask that question?

My writing mentor this semester, GrilledCheese, guided me. GrilledCheese said that reading and writing are actual life experiences, so not only do they teach us about life but they also don't compete with life. The two are complements.

So my question, Is it possible to learn more about life by reading literary fiction than through actual experiences? should be re-framed as, How do I use literary fiction to enhance my life experiences?

I saw the same ear, nose and throat doctor from before I had a memory through my teens. Typically my parents took me to see him every three months, though more frequently around the five ear operations he performed on me as a boy. And nothing or nobody caused me more pain than this man. He shot alcohol into my holey eardrums when they got infected; he cauterized and stuck needles through their membranes. Sometimes I imagined the bacterial infections, or the things he shoved into my head to treat them, going all the way to my brain.

Dr. Wadley was not abusive. His methods were just the standards of the time, and whatever he did saved me from deafness. Even as a boy I understood that he hurt me because he cared. I could see that he cared.

After my second operation he wrapped a bandage around my stuffed animal's head identical to the one around mine. Eight years later he attended my bar mitzvah, and three years after that he sent me frequent "get well" cards during my year in treatment for my first cancer.

When Dr. Wadley retired I began seeing his partner, who I still see—now about every four months, not three. The two doctors kept in touch and I asked about Dr. Wadley every time I saw Dr. PoorBrownsFan. Dr. Wadley had moved to southern Virginia, got very involved with his church, and was loving retirement, according to Dr. PoorBrownsFan. I liked the idea of my old ear doctor, who had looked like an aged Cal Ripken Jr., riding a lawnmower to cut the grass around his large property and no longer having to shoot fire into little boys' ears.

As years passed I inquired about Dr. Wadley less. That's what happens as we age. The recency effect takes hold and old memories of old friends get buried by new ones.

After finishing My Name Is Lucy Barton tonight, I thought of Dr. Wadley. That's what reading literary fiction can do to you. One minute you can be sitting on the sofa with a Kindle in your hand and the next you can be searching the internet to see if a man who had cared for you for half your life has passed away.

Dr. Wadley died in May of this year at 82 years old. I am sure I would have learned of his passing at some point. Maybe Dr. PoorBrownsFan would have informed me the next time I see him, even. But for whatever reason, my reading a great piece of literary fiction triggered in me the thought of Dr. Wadley; it connected me with actual life experiences.

If there is an afterlife then I'm sure Dr. Wadley is hanging out with his former Army buddies. Maybe imitating Cal Ripken Jr. in a heaven talent show. Definitely painting on giant murals because he deserves a large canvas after decades of making masterpieces on tiny membranes.

Leia Mais…

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

I Quit TV But I Can’t Quit Watching Trump

As published in The Huffington Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leia Mais…

Sunday, September 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leia Mais…

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

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

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

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

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

Leia Mais…

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

My Katie Campbell Story

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

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

“Not exactly.”

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katie Campbell
June 22, 1983 - August 20, 2016

Leia Mais…

Friday, August 19, 2016

A Book Party: All It Takes Is One

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

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

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

Leia Mais…

Monday, August 1, 2016

I’m Proud to Be Like My Dad

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

father and son both exercise and listen to music together

As published in The Huffington Post

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

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

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

Leia Mais…

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Lessons From My MFA Creative Writing Program

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

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

Author Rick Bass says:

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

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

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

Leia Mais…

Sunday, July 17, 2016

I Created This Fictional Character on Instagram

Instagram lends itself to fiction and I just created my second character on the social network. Follow my "quadsteppers" if you want some silliness sprinkled with all the selfies in your Instagram feed.

Quadsteppers in a recycling bin

Sometimes I use crutches, or what I call quadsteppers, but I don't want to carry them once I reach my destination. So I place them behind couches and under seats; prop them against walls; plop them in recycle bins. In what other ridiculous places can I stow my quadsteppers? Find out on

You can also follow Cancerslayer, who is my first fictional character on Cancerslayer fights illness by day and bad guys by night. He goes around the world and says lots of stupid shit. Follow him if you want to get dumber.
Cancerslayer scrambling across stones at Frost Point in Odiorne Point State Park

Leia Mais…

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Talk To Me: Me, My Dad, and Foul-Tasting Medicine

When Justin Halpern's hilarious hit book Shit My Dad Says published, I thought, I wish I thought of that first! My dad has been sharing with me his goofball stories, philosophies, and OCD-like behaviors my whole life. I have written about him, of course in my books and also in this blog about his thoughts on exercise and clothing. Now I get to share an interview I conducted with him.

Two months ago The Huffington Post invited me to be part of its new video series called Talk To Me in which children interview their parents. The Huffington Post is sharing many of these interviews online and I hope they share this interview so even more people can enjoy my dad's quirkiness, but if not then I still enjoyed the interview process.

I hope you enjoy this short interview I conducted with my dad in which we speak about his time managing a division in the federal government during the 1995 shutdown, the value of health, and foul-tasting medicine. I asked my 71-year-old dad what one thing he wishes he knew when he was my age.

You can watch our interview on YouTube or directly below if your web browser allows.

I've now appeared in my first short film, for at least three seconds (around 3:30). The non-profit Teen Cancer America traveled around the country interviewing teenage cancer patients and survivors of teenage cancer from every state. I got to represent Virginia. I'm going to change my LinkedIn profile's job title to author/speaker/horrible actor for three seconds.

Leia Mais…

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Continued Phallic Stage

My first fiction story to publish is about a penile operation.

During my first residency at Stonecoast, everyone talked about "submitting." I knew what that meant—my agent and I had submitted my first book about a hundred times before landing a publisher. I just didn't realize I could submit anything.

I began researching publications. There are so many, for every genre and story length. I created an account on The (Submission) Grinder to track my work. And then I submitted two stories to a total of six publications, and have since received three rejections and one acceptance by the website A Story In 100 Words which publishes stories exactly 100 words long.

Enjoy my first published fiction story titled "Continued Phallic Stage."

Typing a story
As published on A Story In 100 Words

Clifford consulted his companion Coleman before Clifford’s penis-extending surgery.

Clifford: I’ll be courteous to Doctor Coen. A Clip Magazine column confirms kindness cultivates better care.

Coleman: Christ you’re crazy!

Clifford: You conclude I should be cruel? Then Doc Coen might compress it! Conceivably I could court him with chocolates.

Coleman: Chocolates, come again? Keep reading Continued Phallic Stage

Leia Mais…

Sunday, May 8, 2016

My Greatest Professional Accomplishment Was a Bureaucratic Miracle

When we achieve our all-time greatest professional accomplishment, we know it right away. Like Dr. Carl June developing a novel way to treat cancer, Mark Sanchez not throwing an interception, and me breaking through bureaucracy in the U.S. federal government to author a column in my organization's 18,000-circulation newsletter.

Last summer, the communications office where I work wanted to create a new feature in our newsletter focusing on a different employee every other week. They asked me to write it. They said, "We want it to be about people's day-to-day lives at work."

I said, "That's boring, how about instead I interview and write about the people who work here, and not write about what they do."

They said, "That would be too long. Not relevant. Nobody would read it."

I wrote one such article anyway, a 1,200-word behemoth. Then I presented it to them and they said the same thing they had said before. I fought harder, asking them to trust me, stating that readers would enjoy it, asking them to give it a chance just one time and see what happens.

I fought and fought for my work until they agreed and it published. And besides messages related to policy, jobs or benefits, it became one of the most read pieces of content ever at my organization.

Now, I write a new article that publishes in our newsletter every other Wednesday. These articles highlight the extraordinary in our seemingly ordinary employees. I've had the privilege to interview and write about an actress, a soldier, a triathlete, a refugee officer, a former refugee, and more.

It's normally inappropriate for me to share these articles on this blog, but during Public Service Recognition Week my organization published four of them publicly. And so I share those four below. Enjoy.

For This Political Refugee, U.S. Was Land of the Free, Home of the Berries
"I don't have a lot of memories from before I was 7 years old. I don’t remember a playground or riding bikes. I don’t remember much about playing except for one event at a refugee camp in the Philippines. Every Friday night someone would set up a play and refugees would watch. I remember that very explicitly being entertaining, maybe just because they made funny noises and made us laugh. I don’t even quite understand what they were talking about." Keep reading For This Political Refugee, U.S. Was Land of the Free, Home of the Berries

Texas Officer: How a Small Gesture Translated Into a New Career
"Growing up, I never knew that life existed outside of the 48-mile radius of Eldorado, Texas," says Maribel (Mary) Gonzalez, an immigration services officer at the Texas Service Center in Dallas. Keep reading Texas Officer: How a Small Gesture Translated Into a New Career

A Refugee Officer's Story: 'Countless Narratives of Suffering and Loss'
For six years, USCIS Refugee Officer Slava Madorsky traveled the world interviewing applicants to determine if they were eligible for refugee status, because of persecution or fear of persecution. For three of those years, until she was able to use a laptop during interviews, she handwrote up to 40 pages of notes each day to record their stories. Once, as she interviewed a man in Baghdad, her pen flew from her hand in a bad case of writer’s cramp. The man – who had been describing torture and being shuttled from prison to prison – laughed. Madorsky apologized. “‘It’s just my hand. I’m not actually throwing a pen at you.’ He was the nicest man in the world. He actually felt bad for me, and I was thinking, ‘Why is this person feeling bad for my stupid hand?’” Keep reading A Refugee Officer's Story: 'Countless Narratives of Suffering and Loss'

How ‘I Will Be Right Behind You’ Means Reuniting 12 Years Later for This Budget Analyst
When Sanh M. was 8 years old, she loosened her fixed grip on her father's hand as he sent her towards a boat that would take her from Vietnam to a refugee camp in Thailand. She says her father told her, "Go…go with your sisters. Your mother, brothers and I will be right behind you." Keep reading How ‘I Will Be Right Behind You’ Means Reuniting 12 Years Later for This Budget Analyst

* * *

On April 23, I modeled in a fashion show supporting the 2016 Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Man & Woman of the Year campaign. Two years ago I was a candidate in this fundraiser and my team raised over $50,000. I am proud to continue volunteering for LLS as part of the campaign's "leadership team" which is composed of former candidates. You can contribute to the 2016 Man & Woman of the Year campaign which concludes June 4.
modeling in a cancer survivor fashion show supporting Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

Leia Mais…

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Fiction-Writing Guide Worthy of Dave Eggers and God

I am afraid to write fiction.

Two months ago I wrote a jokey blog about being in over my head in my writing program despite having authored two memoirs and an essay that got anthologized. But there is truth in comedy. Compared to the personal stories I've been publishing on this blog the last nine years, writing fiction takes me longer, leads to anxiety, and usually lags in quality.

It doesn't make sense. A story is a story, and the same elements that make a story entertaining cross all genres. But telling myself that didn't help, so I imagined myself as the protagonist, which I usually am in my blog stories. That, too, didn't eliminate my fear.

My next step was to write a guide on writing, developed using notes from the craft books I've heavily studied. For the past two weeks that is all I have done. I spent so much time writing this guide that I lost track of days and felt like a hermit. My hope was that the guide would eliminate my fear of writing fiction; lead me to write better and faster; and make writing fiction as fun as I have writing jokey blogs about myself.

the best and curated guide on writing fiction stories

I don't know if the guide will achieve those goals, but I know I completed The Fiction-Writing Guide Worthy of Dave Eggers and God (for now). It is a living document—as I study more craft books I will add to this guide. Ultimately I want a notecard-size list of rules to follow to write a great piece of fiction. Rules, because following rules did well for me against cancer, and following other rules helped me live a more complete life in my twenties.

It seems I will forever thrive on prescriptions, and if this guide achieves its goals then I'll write more guides like this: maybe one on being a more effective person, and definitely one on how to be attractive to women (hint: I think they're one and the same).

But first, I have about 40 pages of fiction to write before May 2. Guide, please guide me.

If you wish to see The Fiction-Writing Guide Worthy of Dave Eggers and God then contact me and I'll share the link to it on Google Docs.

Leia Mais…

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Writing Exercise: Develop Your Craft by Alternating Perspectives

If you want to improve your writing technique then—just like building physical strength and endurance—exercise. One of the books I read for school, The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, offers many writing exercises. One is to take a simple event and describe it using the same characters and setting in five radically different ways (changes of style, tone, sentence structure, voice, psychic distance, etc.).

taking public transportation on bus

The event: A man gets off a bus, trips, looks around in embarrassment, and sees a woman smiling. Below are my five radically different attempts to describe this event. How would you write this scene? Email it to me!

The man, draped in purple velvet—who wears velvet in the summer in Los Angeles?—large enough to play offensive line for the Raiders, and maybe he does play for the Raiders, stood when the bus stopped but the bus didn’t stop completely—it inched closer to the sign in fits and starts—and now the purple man, holding a mobile in one hand and Infinite Jest in the other and no hands on a railing or seat, caught his right foot behind his left and I saw it in slow motion, the world just kind of paused, as he fell forward just tumbling down the bus aisle and I saw him choose—yes, I swear he chose—to drop the mobile and protect the book and not vice versa and he crashed—you’d think it was another earthquake—right on his right shoulder with the novel tucked in his other arm like a football and suddenly I recalled my mother, night after night, reading me fantasy stories before proclaiming the night was over and gently placing the closed book in its proper place on the shelf, never a scratch or mark or scuff. I smiled at the purple man and I believe he felt my mother, too.

In 1987, the National Football League Players Association went on strike and men across the league, like the Raiders’ Jacob Breele, understood the day would come when football would be over, not just for a season but for permanence. So men like Jacob began spending time learning new skills like public speaking and writing. Some men, like Jacob, even visited their first library, checked out their first book, and read their first complete novel. Some men, like Jacob, became so engrossed in their new skills that they forgot that Los Angeles buses were notorious for false stops and Jacob, well known for his false start penalties on the gridiron, fell flat on his face clutching the monster 1,079-page book he adored, smiling at the woman across the aisle thinking that this penalty hurt less than his previous ones.

They thought they owned it all: mansions, bank accounts, sports cars, Sundays, our children’s awe. One word came to mind amid all that greed and gluttony: karma. When the football players lost their jobs to the scrubs, it all came crumbling down on them and commoners could only smile at their supposed suffering. The day star lineman Jacob Breele fell on the city bus, toppling over his own huge body, all Maya could do when their eyes met across the aisle was smile.

Chairs made of brown, faded plastic, stiff as redwoods. Grimy windows locked shut, barred shut, or never able to open to begin with, some so graffitied they lacked all transparency. Air so thick with racism it was equally cloudy. A large, disturbed man covered head to toe in purple velvet falls attempting to exit the bus and all the woman across the aisle can do is laugh at him. Southern California Rapid Transit District, 1987.

Beginning in the womb, our lips stretch, curl upwards at the ends, and we smile. After bruising and tumbling as toddlers, we cry, and then we smile. After heartache in adolescence, we curse the world and the boy or girl who ripped out our insides, and then we smile at the next one we see at lunch. After graduating college, we think, where did those 22 years go?, and then we smile and rejoice with our friends over our accomplishment. After losing our job because our employer thought it could skate by with replacement staff, we wonder where our place is in the world, and we fall over and over, we fall over our savings and our possessions and even the very bus we ride for transportation, and then we smile because we can still pick ourselves back up.

* * *

I'll be signing books at the Spring Jewish Food and Heritage Festival on April 17 at Congregation Sons of Israel, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, from 12:30 - 3 p.m. See the festival's flyer for information on purchasing tickets. Synagogue address: 209 E. King St., Chambersburg, PA.

Leia Mais…

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Our Safari in Tanzania

For me, few things are more fun—and time-consuming—than creating videos.

In February I went on an incredible group safari in Tanzania, in eastern Africa, through the nonprofit First Descents which sends young cancer survivors on free adventure trips. I made a video of our adventure which you can watch on YouTube or directly below if your Web browser allows. You can also read about my trip on First Descents' blog: FDX Africa: This is Way Better Than ‘Planet Earth’.

Leia Mais…

Thursday, March 31, 2016

My Batman-Loving Colleague's Opportunity of a Lifetime

I write a lot: for work and school, as a hobby, in my sleep. It is usually not appropriate for me to publish what I write for work, but I can in this case. Yesterday this story I wrote about my colleague published in my organization's newsletter. Enjoy.

* * *

James Olsen, an ace interviewer at Manhattan's immigration office, arrived at work March 28 with a case already resting on his desk. His supervisor left a sticky note on the file: “For James only.”

Olsen spent his entire lunch break studying the file and preparing for his 1 p.m. interview. After the interview, he would have to recommend that the immigrant either get approved or denied for citizenship.

Olsen, the only employee at his office to wear a bow tie—or for that matter, the only person at the supermarket, swimming pool and Sahara desert to wear one—waited his entire life for this opportunity. Olsen grew up as the “smart kid” in Yonkers, New York. Other students teased him for his quick brain and too-polite manner. Olsen didn’t care because his mind was always elsewhere, on his next project or big idea.

He never imagined his next project would be conducting this naturalization interview.

With his typical afternoon glass of cucumber juice in front of him, Olsen called in the applicant. He introduced himself and offered his coat rack for the applicant’s cape, though the applicant respectfully declined. Olsen began. “Please raise your right hand. Do you solemnly swear that the statements you are about to make will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”

“Yes,” the applicant said, and sat.

“Thank you,” Olsen said. “I hope traffic wasn’t too bad. I know how it gets around lunchtime.

“Please state your name.”

“My name is Kal-El,” the applicant said.

“Have you gone by any other names?”

“Yes. Many people call me Superman,” said the applicant.

“Great. And Kal-El, what is your date of birth?”

“February 29, 1938.”

“Wow, you are 78 years old. Bravo! Thank you for giving me that information. And what is your country of origin.”

Kal-El looked down and fidgeted with his cape. Now suspicious, Olsen sat upright and motionless in his chair, waiting for Kal-El to respond, and when he did, Olsen could hardly hear it. Olsen asked Kal-El to repeat himself. Kal-El raised his eyes and voice, yet spoke with a softness that would calm a Black Mamba on a 115-degree afternoon. “I hail from Krypton, a planet in the nearest major galaxy to the Milky Way called Andromeda Galaxy. Krypton once boasted a great civilization but exploded as a result of unstable geological conditions. My loving parents rocketed me away to survive and I landed in Kansas, USA, where I grew up.”

Kal-El went on to explain how his adopted parents, the Kents, raised him to love his adopted country—America!

Olsen glanced at his Batman action figure sitting on his desk, a remnant of Take Your Action Figure to Work Day on March 4. Batman rescued a woman in his apartment building when he was a boy and Olsen loved the Caped Crusader ever since. He knew Batman had said unkind things about Superman in the past, but he could not let that cloud his judgement. The integrity of the U.S. immigration system was extremely important.
Batman action figure
James Olsen's Batman figurine, still on his desk weeks after Take Your Action Figure to Work Day
Olsen concluded the interview and thanked Kal-El for his time. Kal-El extended his hand which Olsen returned with a firm shake and a smile. "Take care, sir," Kal-El said, and left.

Olsen finished adjudicating the case and closed the file. Someday his children, and his children's children, will read about this in their history books. Olsen felt joyous knowing that he played a role in making America better.

Superman would soon be a citizen of the United States of America.

And Superman's first words as an American would be: Happy April Fool's Day.

Leia Mais…

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

FDX Africa: This is Way Better Than ‘Planet Earth’

Last month I traveled to Tanzania in east Africa and I wrote this story about my trip.

As published in the First Descents blog

Tree in Tanzania during safari
My new friend Spaceballs and I walk through the tall grass at the Lake Manyara Rift Valley and enter the clearing where zebras, jackals, gazelle, wildebeest and warthogs all roam close enough to kill us before we could utter “hakuna matata.” We turn our heads and see more animals. Then we turn our bodies in a full circle and see animals everywhere. We are wearing long pants and button-downs coated in permethrin to deter malaria-carrying mosquitos, safari hats, daypacks, sunglasses and binoculars.

All that lies between the animals and us is Lingato, our guide who is a Massai warrior. Lingato, dressed in a red sheet, holds a spear with which he can throw at and hit a precise blade of grass fifteen feet away. Lingato tells us about the time he killed a lion—out of self-defense and never for sport. “When lion attacks, I throw my spear from far enough away that if I miss then I can still grab my knife. That is my last line of defense. Maasai warriors do not fear the lion. Maasai warriors do not hesitate.”

Lingato says it is possible for two lions to attack at once. “I only have one spear, so I can only kill one lion.”

He doesn’t describe exactly how we would survive if two lions attack.

This is Africa. Keep reading FDX Africa: This is Way Better Than ‘Planet Earth’.

Leia Mais…

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Nine Years of Blogging

Last Friday I was on a plane headed to Sarasota, Florida, where that night I was the guest speaker at services at Temple Beth Israel, and will speak again at its adult education class Monday. I rehearsed my talking points on the plane. I opened my speech with a story from my 2011 Birthright Israel trip and needed to re-read my blog post about that trip to remember the story's details.

I've been blogging for nine years and, more than my blog's entertainment value for you (at least I hope it has been entertaining!), for me it has become a wonderful peek at my life and my past adventures. The average blogger stops after three months. I'm in it for life.

This is my 420th blog entry. In cancerslayerblog's first year—back when it was titled I've Still Got Both My Nuts—I posted 70 entries. Last year I posted 22, and this year I'm on pace for far fewer. At 23 years old, I had misconceptions about how websites and articles gain popularity and go viral. I saw super popular mommy blogs and thought, I could do that with funny cancer stories and get millions of visitors!

I didn't consider the readers' preferences and how demand for mom/kid/dog stories differs from stories about teens getting boners during cancer checkups (my second blog post, titled "Salutations"). I toiled for years tweaking the blog's look and feel. I studied the best times of the day and week to get the most readers, and wrote as many entries as I could while still studying or working full-time. I don't regret writing my 420 blog entries because they built my skills for what I'm doing now.

I'm in a master's program in creative writing in fiction. Every semester I must read ten books and write 125 pages of prose. Right now I'm writing flash fiction, which is stories about 750 words in length; later, I will write slightly longer stories and also much longer stories. I will submit the best of these stories for publication. And I will publish many of the remaining ones on this blog. I hope you enjoy some of my fiction.

You will continue seeing new blogs from me, ranging from updates on my writing to short stories to published articles in The Huffington Post and other sites. I just won't be posting frequently. I have also decided to post some of my shorter writing and ideas, and tons of photos, on Facebook instead of this blog, so visit that site for more content.

Thanks for reading and tolerating stories of boners and other ridiculousness.


Leia Mais…

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Post on the Bulletin Board at Your Own Risk

People will draw funny things on marketing material. If you're going to post something on your apartment building's bulletin board then assume the worst will happen to it.

I noticed this in my elevator. No, I didn't draw on it—someone did that before I got the chance. Yes, I made a video about it, which you can watch on YouTube or directly below if your Web browser allows.

Leia Mais…

Friday, February 19, 2016

An Illiterate Walks Into an MFA Program

As published in The Huffington Post

Despite having written two nonfiction books, I don't know how to write. Shh.

Have you ever done something without knowing how but you just did it anyway and could never explain it? That's me for writing, and now I'm attending a low residency Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program for fiction.

I arrived at the program's first ten-day residency in Maine with my cohorts, ranging from 22 to 86 years old, all excited to avert real life for a week and a half. I first met Cameron, who had just finished undergrad, and we went out for lunch. Cameron played outfield for his college baseball team but writing is his real passion. I admired how he writes every day no excuses. He built writing into his daily life, like brushing my teeth, and even then every so often I drink whiskey and forget.

During the residency, I often sat with Cameron in front of our hotel rooms after seminars just listening. Cameron taught me about profluence--keeping the story going--and inserting detail and untraditional sentences at select moments. Cameron offered as much valuable insight as the bestselling authors who served on the faculty. He helped me maintain footing in an otherwise overwhelming environment.

"What writing classes did you take in college?" I said.

"Just Reading in Poetry. And Adventures in Nonfiction, Argumentative Writing, Literary Theory, Major American Authors, Brit Lit 1 and 2, Film and Literature Adaptation, Grammar, Young Adult Lit, Comparative Lit, and two creative writing classes. How about you?"

"...Shit this pho is spicy!" Keep reading An Illiterate Walks Into an MFA Program.

Leia Mais…

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Beginning my Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing

I have been busy and, I think, this has been the longest amount of time in between blog posts since I began blogging nine years ago. My latest video suggests why. You can watch it below (if your browser allows) or directly on YouTube.

Leia Mais…