Laugh in the face of fear.
Wow! Do we need this now!
Just in time for gift giving, our beloved ReadTheSpirit columnist Rodney Curtis finally has completed his trilogy of books about tackling each new day with friends, family—and laughter. That idea may sound simple, but this is deep wisdom. We all remember, “Laughter is the best medicine.” We recall how the famous journalist Norman Cousins laughed himself back to health in the 1970s—and was played by Ed Asner in the movie version of his inspiring story. Now, there’s scientific research on the value of laughter—ask Dr. Bernie Siegel, who we interviewed recently in these pages.
Rodney has weathered life’s toughest challenges—and has taken this hard-earned wisdom in a fresh direction. He invites readers to laugh along with him in these real-life stories. His books also are packed with photos and even links to audio and video.
That’s the big news from ReadTheSpirit this week: Just in time for Christmas, we are releasing Rodney Curtis’s third volume, Getting Laid (off). His first book—before Rodney was hit with the twin plagues of cancer and job loss—is Spiritual Wanderer. That was followed by A “Cute” Leukemia. Now, it’s a complete trilogy, perfect for that hard-to-shop-for friend or relative.
In this week’s Cover Story, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Rodney Curtis about this amazing and amusing journey.
OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH RODNEY CURTIS
DAVID: I think your books are perfect gifts for someone who desperately needs a little laughter.
RODNEY: (laughs) Oh, now that’s a pitch! Who wouldn’t want to find cancer and unemployment under their Christmas tree! Just look at what Rodney’s brought you!
DAVID: Hey, no kidding. This trio of books can be the perfect gift for a lot of hurting people. And, right now, you’ve reached a pretty wonderful milestone yourself, right? You’re feeling so good, now, that I understand you would like to be back in a classroom again in 2014, teaching college students.
RODNEY: I’m up for almost anything the future may hold.
DAVID: That phrase really does describe you as a writer: “Up for almost anything.” So, let’s begin this interview by bringing readers up to speed about your three books. I’ll ask you to describe each one. Let’s start with Spiritual Wanderer. In just a few words: What’s it about?
RODNEY: That first book is a mishmash of stories, full of my meanderings and a lot of my silliness, too. The stories go from walking my dog to really deep spiritual issues. Although, now that I think about it, we should probably put the words spiritual issues in quote marks because—when it comes to religion and me? Or, when it comes to spirituality and me? We go together like hot sauce on candy bars.
DAVID: Good point. I often tell people that Spiritual Wanderer is the first book I’ve read in years that always makes me laugh out loud. I mean, I’ve read that book a dozen times—and I still laugh when I read the story about your dogs—”Dog Duty.”
RODNEY: Yeah! That’s one of the funniest stories in that first book—and it’s absolutely true. Our dog went out in the back yard one day in December and—well, if you’re a pet lover you know what happens: The dog relieves himself—except, this time, out pops figures from our Advent calendar!
DAVID: No “spoilers” here, so we’ll leave the dog story with that one strange image. In reading that story, I’ve seen grown men and women spit their morning coffee out their noses because they get to laughing so hard. Let’s describe the second volume.
RODNEY: My next book, A “Cute” Leukemia, is about what happened when I got leukemia. The title comes from June of 2010, when I checked into the hospital and they told me, “You’ve got acute leukemia.” And my immediate thought was: “Oh, this is fun! I’ve got A ‘Cute’ Leukemia.” That’s how my mind works. My first response was to try to treat the cancer as some kind of little, tiny, ridiculous baby that was fussing at me. And you know what we’re supposed to do in those situations, right? We use good humor with a fussy baby.
Of course leukemia is a savage disease—very serious. Yet, when you’re faced with it yourself, the question is: How do we respond? What do we do? And this humorous approach I took really did help me get through this.
DAVID: What’s the correct way to describe your relationship to leukemia today?
RODNEY: I am cured. That’s how we say it. I had a stem-cell transplant in October 2010. It is true that after some kinds of cancer treatments, people say they are in remission. That usually means the cancer isn’t visible anymore, but still may be lurking. I say: I’m cured. After a successful stem-cell transplant, the goal is to make your chances of getting cancer just like the chances for anyone else. And, that’s what happened to me. Thank goodness! Right?
DAVID: And the third book?
RODNEY: The third book, Getting Laid (off), is about just what the title says—losing your job. I worked in journalism and journalism cheated on me. I had been married to journalism for many many years and, then all at once, journalism went out and decided it didn’t want to be faithful to me anymore. It left me—and I was out.
‘A CROSS BETWEEN MITCH ALBOM & DAVE BARRY’
DAVID: I tell people that in facing all these challenges—from ordinary daily adventures to big life-threatening crises—you write like a cross between Mitch Albom and Dave Barry. You’ve got the heart of Mitch—the inspiration and the sentiment of Mitch—but you’ve also the humor of Dave. You’re funnier than Mitch and you’re often more serious than Dave. Your style is somewhere in the middle, I’d say.
RODNEY: Well, thank you for saying those very nice things. That’s high praise.
I’ve written all my life. For years, I did it in the background of my work as a photographer. I’ve always felt that writing and photography can go hand in hand. It was the fall of 2006 when I think I found my voice for real and started writing intensively at home—and couldn’t stop. I’d be out mowing my lawn and I’d think of something—and I’d just have to write it down. That was really an epic change for me. I’m amazingly thankful for all of that.
DAVID: When you write, you often write funny stuff—but these aren’t joke books. You’re not going for a laugh specifically. You’re more of a storyteller than a jokester.
RODNEY: That’s how I think of what I’m writing. I tell stories I’d like to hear. I like to hear people tell real stories about their lives, so I write stories about my real experiences. I’d probably be a failure as a fiction writer. And, no, I don’t set out to tell jokes. I’m sharing stories and I am inviting readers to have fun with me.
DAVID: Tell us the story behind the hair photo, in the cancer book, which took place when you were losing your own hair. One day, you decided to share someone else’s hair.
RODNEY: That was the day in July of 2010, when my friend from the Detroit News, Darrel Ellis, visited me along with his wife Leslie. He had these long, long dreadlocks and I was mostly bald by that time. I said, “Oh, man, Darrel! I wish I had your hair!”
Then, we said: “Wait a minute! We’ve got a camera. This can happen!” We lay down on the bed and his wife snapped that photo.
I think that photo epitomizes my stay in the hospital—which my family and I often called the hotel. From my first day in the hotel, I tried to follow the advice: “Make it your own. Be Rodney.”
DAVID: What does that mean? “Make it your own.”
RODNEY: My aunt works for the Mayo clinic and she happens to study my exact illness. She told me, “You’re going to be in the hospital for a while. Try not to wear hospital clothes and lay there all the time. Wear your own clothes. Move around.” I did listen to what she told me. She said, “Be Rodney.”
DAVID: That matches up with a lot of other advice we’ve published in WeAreCaregivers, which is hosted by Heather Jose, and I know that she’s asked you to write a guest column for WeAreCaregivers about this very issue. So, I’ll recommend that to readers.
The attitude you’re describing here really shines through in your book, A “Cute” Leukemia.
RODNEY: It was therapy for me simply to put together that book—one story and photo and media clip at a time. And I’ve already heard from readers that it has helped them, too, as they try to deal with what really is a dreaded and deadly disease. My father died of lung cancer at age 56, so I know all about the tragic side of cancer. I dreaded it like nobody’s business. When I faced it myself, I said: “This is huge. This is my choice, now, as to whether this will be the end—or it will be the beginning of something new.”
And, believe me: I wanted this to lead to something new!
DAVID: We just published an interview with Dr. Bernie Siegel, who was widely slammed by his colleagues when he began writing about his unorthodox approaches to healing. Now, in fact, a lot of his early un–orthodox ideas have become by-the-book orthodox approaches to healing. With Bernie, we talked about this whole history of changing perceptions. We talked about Norman Cousins, who checked himself into a hotel room and got—at that time—a bunch of VHS tapes of funny TV programs. He insisted that laughter was a huge part of healing. Cousins was slammed, too, at the time. Now, Bernie Siegel points out that no one doubts this wisdom, anymore. I see you in this tradition of Norman Cousins, coming at this from a journalistic perspective. Now, there’s even solid research into the benefits of intentional laughter—actually helping yourself by making yourself laugh.
In your case, Rodney, you were confined for a long time, right? You were laughing in some very tough situations.
RODNEY: I was in three different facilities. The first one was for six weeks night and day. Then, a second time I was in for several days. And, finally, I was in for about a month.
DAVID: You spent about three months in hospitals in 2010.
RODNEY: That’s right. And the staff loved the way I approached this. They laughed with me. You know, at the end of that year, a bunch of them came to my house and surprised me with some Christmas presents. It was amazing! I made friends I continue to chat with on a daily basis, several years later.
‘Ello, I’m Nigel! (and other tales of comic coping)
DAVID: Self image is a big part of this. It’s tough to see yourself change so dramatically. Hair loss is a big issue.
RODNEY: Some of my friends began bringing me funny wigs. I remember one time, they brought me this wig that made me look like some kind of aging British rocker. That led to this whole story I spun out of being just that—not Rodney in the hospital with leukemia, but a British rock star in rehab. I had this IV pole with me all the time, at that point, and I remember I put on the wig and grabbed my IV pole, which I called, “Ivy.” I found these crazy Elton John-style glasses. And, that day, we wandered around the wards with me appearing as this wild old rock star. “‘Ello, I’m Nigel!” I’d say in this crazy accent. The nurses got into it and pulled out their camera phones. They were the paparazzi. It made us all happy. We all felt a lot of caring and a lot of love that day.
DAVID: I know you live your life this way, every day, wherever you are. But let’s address those readers who are saying: “Well, of course, Rodney can do this. He’s a funny guy. I’m not funny. My family isn’t funny. And these things he’s writing about—cancer or losing your job—those certainly aren’t funny.”
RODNEY: I’d say, “OK, well, humor may not be your thing. So, find your own thing and focus on it.” Music is great and a lot of people enjoy singing. They may not be great musicians who can play an instrument—but singing is a lot of fun. Anybody can sing. Do you like poetry? A lot of people write or read poetry. Maybe sports is your thing. So, focus on sports. Talk about sports with the people you encounter; keep up on sports. Ask yourself: What’s my passion? What can I focus on, every day, that makes me as happy as possible?
DAVID: What prepared you for this approach to life? Let’s go back for a moment. You’ve got some stories sprinkled through your three books about your childhood and early family life. Now, I’m 58 and I grew up, I’d say, in a Leave-It-to-Beaver-era home. You’re about a decade younger than me. So, did you grow up in a Brady Bunch home?
RODNEY: Yeah, Brady Bunch and maybe a little Partridge Family thrown in there, as well.
DAVID: So, one thing that never happened in those classic TV shows was: cancer. And, of course, none of the Dads or Moms in TV families had to worry about job loss. I guess the Partridge Family did have a single Mom raising her pop-star kids. But these huge anxieties so many of us face now—cancer and job loss—are things that in many ways we were not well equipped to anticipate in the eras when we were growing up.
RODNEY: Yeah, the anxiety is huge. And it hits you hard. And most of us aren’t prepared. It’s especially bad when you start to think: You’re someone’s father. You’re someone’s husband.
Comparing the two—job loss and cancer—I have to say that the cancer diagnosis is many rungs higher on the anxiety ladder than job loss. You’re suddenly faced with a life-or-death situation. To this day, I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve got all the anxiety resolved. The stresses still arise in my life—and this is long after the trauma with cancer—when I sit there recalling it for some reason. The worst for me is realizing how unfair this was for my daughters. I feel bad that they had to face this with me.
When you lose your job, you feel like you’ve let down your family and that’s terrible. Then, with cancer, especially if you’ve got kids at home like I did, this feels like you’ve let down your family 10 fold more than that! Thankfully, my family and I, now, have gone through these deep black holes together—job loss and cancer—and now, as we’re sitting here talking, I think I can say we’re all safely out the other side.
You can get through this. If I’ve got one message in all of this, that’s it: Yes, you can get through this.
DAVID: See, that’s not a bad message to wrap up and put under your Christmas tree this season: Life’s tough. But, you know what? We can get through this.
Care to read more from Rodney?
VISIT RODNEY CURTIS’S AUTHOR PAGE IN OUR BOOKSTORE: Learn more about Rodney; read sample chapters—and use the easy links in our bookstore to buy copies of his book through Amazon, Barnes & Noble or other retailers. (Yes, you can buy print or e-editions.)
ENJOY RODNEY CURTIS’S LATEST COLUMNS: His department within ReadTheSpirit has been a favorite destination for our readers over many years.
READ & SHARE RODNEY CURTIS’S ADVICE FOR CAREGIVERS: His new guest column in our WeAreCaregivers department contains some of Rodney’s savvy advice that you’re sure to want to share with friends.