The Rodney Curtis interview on his Laughing in the Face of Fear trilogy

Click this image to visit Rodney Curtis's author page.

Click this image to visit Rodney Curtis’s author page.

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.

HIGHLIGHTS
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’

Rodney Curtis and Darrel Ellis Dreadlocks For LoveDAVID: 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 unorthodox 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.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Sorting Fact from Fiction in Church Growth & Social Media

The following column was reported by Read The Spirit Editor David Crumm and nationally known church consultant Martin Davis. To read Martin Davis’s earlier columns in Read The Spirit, start with his recent columns on the challenges of change and on why your church newsletter may shock you.

TWO HEADLINES compelled us to help readers sort fact from fiction concerning the popular myth that church growth depends on widespread use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the like). While Facebook, in particular, is a very valuable way to let church members share the richness of congregational life—the myth of explosive growth is perpetuated, we both agree, by a new report in the online Christian Post, headlined: Top 5 Churches That Use Social Media Best. Some truths, we think, come from a second new headline out of the Pew Research Center. Here is our report …

3 SOCIAL MEDIA MYTHS BUZZING IN CONGREGATIONS:

Twenty something social networking on his laptopMARTIN DAVIS WRITES: There were no surprises in the Christian Post list. The winners were Mars Hill Seattle, Oklahoma-based Life Church, Tennessee’s Cross Point, Gateway Church in Texas and San Antonio’s Community Bible Church—five leading mega-churches with massive audiences, bulging budgets, and staff members dedicated to social media. “When it comes to churches,” begins the Christian Post article, “having at least a minimal digital strategy has become crucial in expanding Christian outreach even locally within their own communities.”

Here are three myths that I think the Christian Post article may fuel:

MYTH: Social media is the key to congregational growth. The view that social media is essential to growth is intoxicating, and wrong. Megachurches—if that’s the type of community you’re trying to cultivate—were around long before Facebook hit the scene. Social media in megachurches is more a reflection of the population served than a distinguishing trait.

MYTH: The purpose of social media is to produce growth. Here’s the real problem. By tying social media to growth, Christian Post overlooks the more important point: Electronic communications (e-mail, e-newsletters, etc) and social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) are first and foremost about communicating, not growth. As with any form of communication, executed properly, growth may be an outcome. But growth is not an indication of success.

MYTH: Effective social media requires top professionals. Most leaders of small to mid-sized congregations—at least occasionally—cast longing glances at the huge staff rosters of megachurches. The five models held up by Christian Post suggest that experts are central for social media success. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes, communicating through social media requires our adjusting to these media; and, good advice and guidance helps. If you are a poor communicator in person, or have difficulty writing coherent thoughts, social media will only compound your difficulties. People who communicate effectively will amplify their voices through these tools. All good writers know that an editor helps. All great public speakers can name their teachers and mentors. Professional advice helps. Occasional training helps a lot. In fact, I regularly consult with congregations on smart ways to use websites, newsletters and social media.

But congregations do not need to go out and hire top guns to run their websites, newsletters and social media. In fact, doing so can often hamstring congregations with a distant webmaster who can’t communicate as immediately or as effectively as the people already leading the congregation.

3 SOCIAL MEDIA TRUTHS TO PROMOTE:

Four hands claspingDAVID CRUMM WRITES: This week, Joanna Brenner and Aaron Smith of the Pew Research Center are releasing an update on social media tracking that is causing another flurry of news stories. You can read their entire report via the Pew site. In fact, their latest headline—72% of Online Adults are Social Networking Site Users—may fuel assumptions that social media is a life-and-death issues for congregations. But, read the whole report. When I completed it, I found: Martin Davis is right.

Here are three truths—highlights from the latest Pew report, and the past year or so of Pew social-media tracking:

TRUTH: Twitter is a trap for congregations. Want to leave your congregation in the dust? Announce that, henceforth, you’ll mainly be Tweeting the latest congregational news. That seems like a reasonable move, doesn’t it? Every prime-time television show seems to be promoting Twitter hash tags these days. But, look at the data. Pew reports that Twitter usage is growing but has only reached 18 percent of the online population. Mostly, these Tweeters are aged 18 to 29—not the main demographic in most congregations. (It’s important to note that the ’72 percent’ and other percentages cited in Pew’s new report are based on people who already are Internet users. That group is huge, but it’s still only 85 percent of all Americans. That means each percentage cited in the Pew study actually is a smaller portion of the population as a whole.)

You may be aiming at young adults. You may think that Tweeting is an ideal way to attract 20-somethings, but people outside your community are not likely to see your Tweets among the zillions of 140-character messages flooding Twitter every day. And here’s the Achilles Heel for most congregations: Among 50-to-64-year-old adults—the life’s blood of most congregations—Twitter users comprise only 13 percent of people who already are online. Considering the population as a whole, that means you’ll be leaving nearly 9 out of 10 of your members aged 50 to 64 in the dust with your Tweets. The problem of heavily focusing on Twitter is even worse among 65-plus men and women. Only 5 percent of online users in that age range ever touch Twitter. For that big portion of your community, you can Tweet like crazy—but 65-plus folks will perceive that you’ve suddenly fallen silent.

TRUTH: By itself, social media is not a true open door to the community. These days, “Open Doors” is a mantra echoing in congregations coast to coast. By the thousands, church leaders have updated their signs and newsletters to de-emphasize denominational divisions and stress their wide-open civic appeal. Social media may seem to reach broadly across the entire community. In fact, among 20-somethings, virtually everyone uses some form of social media. The use of social media also is rapidly rising among men and women 65 and older. But—even with all of that growth—Pew reports that social media use by Americans 65 and older still has not reached the 50 percent mark among online Americans. Do you really want to leave half of your seniors behind by putting too much emphasis on social media?

TRUTH: We should dive into social media, and—right now—we should be swimming in the Facebook pool. Don’t misunderstand today’s column! Martin Davis and Read The Spirit both strongly encourage vigorous use of social media! The vast majority of Americans use some form of social media every day. If Anthony Trollope or Susan Sontag were still alive and writing, they would wryly describe social media with their now-classic phrase: It’s become The Way We Live Now. We must dive in!

But, drawing upon the past year’s findings from Pew researchers, this pattern is clear: Facebook is, for the moment, the closest thing we have to a new public square. Here’s a widely reported Pew conclusion: “People who use Facebook have more close friends, get more social support and report being more politically engaged than those who don’t.”

Facebook social patterns make a lot of sense—just use your own common sense. As in most public squares, Facebook has its gregarious communicators and greeters—and, Facebook also has its avid followers. In fact, as Pew reported last year, “Facebook users get more than they give.” What does that mean? Think about your own congregation. Some folks enjoy standing around after a service, greeting friends and making people feel welcome. Others enjoy taking part in this experience—but don’t initiate it. They look to a smaller handful of extroverted members to get things rolling. The same is true on Facebook. Pew found, for example: “only 40% of Facebook users in our sample made a friend request, but 63% received at least one request.”

The social principles you already know so well in your community have moved into the heart of Facebook. Rather than rushing out to buy the services of a high-priced media professional, you’ll do far better by identifying men and women who enjoy extending greetings in your building—then encouraging them to extend greetings on behalf of the congregation, day by day, on Facebook.

Beyond “friending” and sharing greetings, what else do Facebook users love? Sharing photos. In your own congregation, what do members enjoy when they have time to sit and chat with friends? Sharing photos. Do you have members in your congregation who avidly snap photos? Why not share them on your church’s website so men and women can easily find photos of congregational life—and share them further via Facebook.

This isn’t arcane science. These are the social principles you know so well in your community—moving online.

CONCLUSION

FROM MARTIN DAVIS and DAVID CRUMM: Much of our communication with family, friends, co-workers and neighbors already is digital. It’s The Way We Live Now. Facebook use dwarfs the readership of all congregational bulletins and newsletters put together. Do you feel pulled in too many directions? Want to skip Tweeting your congregation’s news? Go ahead!

But the basics of congregational life—the truly timeless spiritual treasures within our faith communities—remain the same. The majority of Americans seek God’s love in community with similarly inspired men and women and, then, we feel moved to share these experiences with others.

And, that’s … Well, from both of us: That’s the truth.

Want more?

Want Martin to help you? That’s easy! Visit the website for his courses and consulting: Sacred Language Communications. You can contact Martin Davis via this page within his website. Martin plans to regularly publish helpful columns in Read The Spirit through the autumn and winter.

Agree with our analysis? Then, take action on what you’ve just learned: Please, share this column with friends by clicking on the blue-”f” Facebook icon or the envelope-shaped email icon. You also can email us at [email protected] with questions.