Getting radiation treatment is a lonely sort of thing.
It’s not for a lack of people being around. At any given session there were at least two to four (and, once, five) radiologists, technicians and nurses hanging around while I became more and more comfortable with essentially being naked from the waist down in front of strangers*. But that was the flurry of activity before and after. In between, during the actual treatment, I was alone.
Just me and a radio.
This is what happened every weekday for three weeks. I would show up at the oncology center, sign in and wait a few minutes. Then I would be escorted to one of the rooms where a radiation machine was waiting for me, filling a large, darkened room with its bulk. Attached to it is a narrow rack to lay on, while the rest of the machine hunches over you and lasers in the walls and ceiling help line up the machine’s radiating eye. The room is dark and cool, and directly above where you lay a couple of the flourescent lighting panels have been replaced with a translucent image of a pretty stream running through a well-manicured park. Something to relax you.
I think that’s what the radio is for, too. Without it the only sound in the room would be the air running through vents, the clunk-whirr of the machine as it rotates into place, and then the cheap-microwave buzz as it cooks away any stray cancer cells that might be lurking in your body. The total time for treatment was only 10 to 15 minutes, and most of that was prep; minutes are used aligning the machine, and only a few seconds at a time are spent getting irradiated. But during the few minutes alone, I was glad to have music.
Quiet time is empty time, and whenever that happens my mind tries to fill it. Usually that’s good since that’s often when I’m most creative. But when I’m worried or anticipating something stressfully beyond my direct control, my imagination runs wild. Without that radio – tuned to an 80s station mostly, sometimes to country – I wouldn’t have had anything to distract me from the machine driving radiation into me. Nothing to help me ignore the awkwardness of laying there, vulnerable. Everything a reminder of the cancer that had pushed its way into my life and the bodily soil I was salting to make sure it doesn’t come back.
The first song I heard on the first day of treatment was so cheerful, so peppy, that it took me aback. So much so that the treatment was over before I realized it, and now “We Got the Beat” by The Go-Go’s is my own Fry-like “Walking on Sunshine.”
After that I decided to keep track of the music playing while I got my radiation treatments, and now I’m sharing it with you. This list was formed completely by chance; I didn’t have any say in what music to listen to, and I didn’t necessarily like everything that was played or even know the artist playing. But this is the way it happened. And now this is music that will always, in some way, be part of my personal soundtrack.
“We Got the Beat” – The Go-Go’s
“Gone Country” – Alan Travis
(I stopped listening to new country music sometime in the mid-90s, which is why I was still able to recognize this one.)
“Promises, Promises” – Naked Eyes
(A lot of 80s songs remind me of my wife Sandy, which makes me like them more; this is one of them.)
“Two Princes” – Spin Doctors
(A song from early in our relationship; Sandy and I had just started dating a few months after this was released.)
“Stayin’ Alive” – Bee Gees
(Nice one, Bee Gees.)
“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” – Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
(Kick-ass song from a kick-ass lady; I probably sang along to this one.)
“Only Prettier” – Miranda Lambert
(I had to ask who this was, though I got the idea she’s a Big Deal.)
“Paper in Fire” – John Cougar Mellencamp
(I’ve always liked this song.)
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” – Thelma Houston
(Great song; don’t worry, you know it even if you think you don’t.)
“Some Like It Hot” – Power Station
(Pure, 80s supergroup; this one makes me think of Sandy – the biggest Duran Duran fan I know – too.)
“Footloose” – Kenny Loggins
(Confession: When “Footloose” hit the dollar theater, I must’ve seen it seven or eight times.)
“Sledgehammer” – Peter Gabriel
(This was played into the ground when it was released; all these years later, I still like it.)
“Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me)” – Train
(Sandy and I have dozens of “our songs,” and this is one of them.)
“Small Town U.S.A.” – Justin Moore
(I’m sure Justin Moore is a very nice guy.)
“Holy Diver” – Dio
(I’m cheating a little bit here, because this was actually playing in the car when we left after my last treatment. But I have a history with this song - one shared with Sandy and some close friends – and its pure, undistilled, classic heavy-metalness has always been a source of head-banging joy. I couldn’t have picked a better song to end on. Except maybe “Rainbow in the Dark.”)
If you’d like to listen along, here’s a playlist I put together on Spotify. Weirdly, neither “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” or “Sledgehammer” were available, so here are the original videos (along with “Holy Diver,” because it’s Dio).
* I should point out that the staff at the oncology center were fantastic, and very literally lifted my faith in human beings. Every single person was kind and friendly, taking time to talk to me not just about treatment but about my day and my life. They took something that could have been scary and stressful and smoothed it down into something easy to handle. They are amazing people. If this was a mixtape, I’d dedicate it to them.
75 years ago a strange visitor from another planet came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and since then has become one of the most enduring, recognizable and popular superhero characters in the world - which is why today we celebrate Superman’s first appearance ever, way back in Action Comics #1.
I could go on and on about Superman’s legacy - as a cultural icon, as an ideal, as well as my personal attachment to the Big Blue Boy Scout - but this time I think I’ll just point you in the direction of what I’ve said before. I will say, though, that a character doesn’t last for 75 years – and come out as strong and relevant as ever – without resonating with people in some deep and signifcant way. The term “modern mythology” could have been invented just to encompass Jerry Siegel‘s and Joe Shuster‘s creation.
There is a very simple reason for this. Superman isn’t the greatest hero – not just in the DC Universe, not just to comic fans, but even to the average person on the street – because he’s perfect. He’s not. But he tries to be as good as he can, and inspires the same in others. He aspires to greatness without thought of ambition or personal gain or ego; he does it because that is our duty as human beings. A super-powered alien rocketed to Earth as an infant from the doomed planet Krypton, Superman is the most human of us all.
Everyone thinks Batman is cool, but deep down we all want to be Superman.
Happy anniversary, big guy (and you, too, Lois!). Up, up and away.
To be honest, it was my own fault. I’d been blowing off a couple of classes, thanks to a combination of laziness and a growing sense of futility where me and math were concerned. Most of my other grades were fine, and in a couple of cases even better than average, and maybe that’s why I thought I might be getting away with something. But my parents had warned me that another failing grade at the end of six weeks — and the possibility of summer school if I wanted to get out of junior high — would bring down wrath the likes of which I had not yet seen. My folks were good, kind and encouraging people, and I was scared to death.
I turned a five-block walk into an hour-and-a-half long trek as I meandered up and down side streets, trying to form some sort of plan, some way to survive what was sure to be a nuclear winter that mild Spring day. This was harder than it sounds. Only a few years earlier, my neighborhood had been long acres of cotton fields in what was known as El Paso’s Lower Valley. A quick bike ride east would put me in the middle of what agriculture was left around there, but still within sight of a McDonald’s and the gang-controlled territory of Los Kennedy’s projects. It was that kind of neighborhood. But to the west, between my school and home, were just more suburban homes, a few ditches with concrete drainage pipes to hide in, and the parents of everyone I went to school with. I wasn’t the only one bringing home a stinker of a report card, and the psychic humidity of disappointment was thick in the streets.
Walk, walk, walk. Think, think, think. Only one of these things was getting me anywhere and it wasn’t anywhere I wanted to be. Between my frustration at the growing realization that I was in an inescapable trap of my own design and the arm-aching weight of the over-sized bass trombone case I dragged home every day, I was ready to give up. The surrender of the condemned washed over me just as I found myself in front of the neighborhood convenience store.
The C&L (actually a Good Time store at that point, but it used to be a C&L and that’s what everyone called it) was only a block and a half from the school, but my dedication to avoidance had put me on a six-block path to get there. Like someone facing the end of their time on death row, I decided to treat myself to a final morsel, something to savor when the ax fell.
The store gave me more aisles to shuffle up and down, another way to try to hold off the inevitable. I started in the back, where the preheated snacks and bottled sodas were and thought I’d yak. I was way too nervous to eat anything. The glass case at the counter had real metal ninja throwing stars and elaborately decorated pocket knives (it was the early 80s, and it was that kind of neighborhood), but I had less than two dollars on me. I was lucky to even have that much.
Desperate and running out of options, I decided to check the spinner rack, where the shrinking number of battered and only occasionally restocked comics floundered. I had already picked up an issue of Flash (my favorite) a couple of weeks before, and was ready to have another thin hope crushed.
At 13 years old, I was already taller than average, and maybe that’s why I got lucky. At the very top of the spinner rack, hidden by some ragged comics that would never find a home, I saw a big, gold banner peeking out. Taking it down, the comic was heavier than usual and had a cover obviously meant to impress. It definitely made an impression on me.
Detective Comics #526 was published in 1983 and is the 500th anniversary of Batman’s appearance in the title (as that brassy banner at the top trumpets), and at $1.50 it was more than twice the cost of an average comic. But the cover by Don Newton and Dick Giordano — Batman, Robin and Batgirl running toward the reader, surrounded by the white-on-red profiles of almost everyone in their rogue’s gallery — already had me hooked. Flipping through it and seeing more of Newton and Alfredo Alcala’s muscular but naturalistic work put me in the boat. This was something I could savor for a while, an Everlasting Gobstopper of a comic.
It was a good choice. In addition to the dynamic, gritty artwork by Newton and Alcala — all shadows and wonderfully expressive close-ups, punches that have enough force to make the reader’s teeth rattle —the script for “All My Enemies Against Me!” by Gerry Conway is nearly flawless. Conway takes what could have been a mess of a story, something that ties up loose ends, branches off in new directions and juggles a huge cast of diverse characters, and makes producing a solid and relentlessly paced script seem easy. On top of that, the story has at it’s heart Batman being both a crime fighter and a detective; a full embrace of circus-version Jason Todd into the Bat-family; and a classic, albeit doomed, Joker triple-cross. It is, without doubt, one of my favorite comics ever and definitely my favorite Batman story.
Before I knew any of that, though, I had to use the last of my money to buy it. I might have even used change from the take-a-penny dish. I gently placed Detective Comics #526 in a notebook, sandwiched that in between school books, and trudged the rest of the way home. My sister had arrived long before and helpfully stuck her report card to the fridge.
I went to my room and waited. My dad, who worked graveyard as a switchman with the Southern Pacific, was getting ready for the start of his day and Mom was probably already on her way home from the county clinic where she was an OB/GYN nurse. Pointedly, I left the issue of Detective in my book bag — like a salve kept in anticipation of the third-degree reaming I was sure to get, I was saving it.
I didn’t have to wait long, and as predicted, I was bawled out for what seemed like forever. Excuses, threats, disappointment, tears — it was all there, until my parents declared they were tired of looking at me and sent me to my room.
Sent me to Detective Comics #526.
Gerry Conway helped take me out of my self-inflicted misery, and Newton and Alcala put me in the heart of Gotham. Batman told me there was always a solution. Robin and Batgirl showed me that failing doesn’t mean you stop trying. The rogues gallery reminded me that crime — even a small, personal one — doesn’t pay.
I must have read that comic two or three times that night. I’ve read it dozens, maybe of hundreds of times since then.
I read it before I started writing this.
I’ll probably read it again when I’m done.
And Batman, in a celebration gilded in celebratory gold, will save the day one more time. The bad guys will be defeated once again. A young boy will learn a painful lesson, and start on a new path. And trouble will seem far, far away.
One thing you can say about Spring Breakers is it’s not a middle-of-the-road kind of movie, and its bound to inspire strong opinions on both ends of the scale. Another thing you can say about Spring Breakers is that it’s an artless kind of art film, an inch of a movie that dreams — desperately — of being deep.
The film by Harmony Korine (Kids, Gummo) is described by the studio as “a crime comedy-drama thriller,” which I can only assume means everybody wanted to make sure this adolescent fantasy of a music video had every base covered. More specifically, the movie is about four college students (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) who want to go to St. Petersburg, Florida for Spring Break, badly enough that they’re willing to break rules (and laws) to get there. The only one to hesitate at all is Faith (Gomez), and that’s only after they hook up with James Franco‘s drug dealing Alien.
Let’s point out something that’s probably already obvious: Spring Breakers wants to speak to its audience, but it chooses to do so with a bullhorn and a sledgehammer. Faith is a “good girl,” who calls her grandma to let her know she’s alright and attends cool-kid Bible study when she’s at school. When they meet Alien, it’s like meeting someone from another world. GET IT? (The names of the other women are unimportant because, really, the audience is never given a reason to care. Faith is the only one to get any kind of characterization, and even then it’s only enough to give her a second dimension. It’s not surprising that she gets on a bus about halfway through and literally leaves the movie, never to be seen again.)
From there, things quickly fall apart, fueled in equal parts by Alien’s hip-hop hillbilly influence and the girls’ own tendency toward self-destructive mayhem. Booze, drugs, money and guns take their toll on the group until it all ends in a sequence that is amazing in its unbelievability.
It doesn’t help that the 10 pages of dialogue on display is terrible, wooden and often veers directly, with no tap of the brakes, into the ridiculous. The acting is non-existent with the exception of Franco, who single-handedly keeps the movie afloat with his addictively hilarious, over-the-top performance. Franco brings a clownish menace to Alien, and I’d be willing to bet that much of his highly quotable dialogue was improvised. The film’s structure is ambitious and interesting, and while it could have worked, it just ends up being repetitive and repetitive. The way the film is edited winds up being a cinematic version of dubstep, and though it’s clear Korine is enamored with the idea of “atmosphere,” what’s left is ultimately just as substantial.
A friend of mine saw Spring Breakers with my wife and I, and he has a theory. The film, he says, might be a statement on everything it puts on display. And by extension it’s an indictment of the audiences who watch movies that really are that superficial, and who, reality-TV style, get a thrill out of watching the corruption of a couple of former Disney princesses. If that’s true, then Korine is a genius, a subversive filmmaker who has fed the viewers exactly the kind of artificial, unhealthy buffet of boobs and bullets we’ve learned to gorge ourselves on, served wrapped up in a package as bland and familiar as Styrofoam.
I’m willing to concede that this might be true; there is certainly enough in the way the movie is made to support that. But there is also plenty to lend weight to the idea that Spring Breakers is just a dumb, dumb movie.
I must have come up with a dozen different ways to say this.
I thought about being witty. I thought I could be funny. Or somber. Or brave. Strident. Shaken.
Finally, I decided it was best to just say it: Two weeks ago, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
The only way I can keep everything straight is from the beginning, so I’ll start there. About three weeks ago I noticed a bump on my testicle. It didn’t seem to be very big — around the size of a small pea, maybe — and it wasn’t painful; I’d had a slight groin pull around the same time and thought that might have had something to do with it. But when it didn’t go away after a week I told Sandy and together we decided that I should go to the doctor. On Monday, Feb. 25, I went to see my GP.
The doctor didn’t like it, saying it felt like a solid mass. Our doctor, thankfully, has always been very proactive both in terms of treatment and prevention, and she sent us to get an ultrasound that same afternoon. She also told me to get an appointment with an urologist, who would take a closer look at it and make a more definitive diagnosis. In the meantime, an ultrasound is essentially giving real-time images, so my doctor’s initial assessment was confirmed immediately — the mass wasn’t a cyst.
When I called her Tuesday to let her know I had an appointment with the urologist for the following Monday, she said, “Mmm, no, you need to call back and get something sooner. Something no later than tomorrow or Thursday.” Luckily, there was a cancellation, and I managed to see him that same day.
I think that’s when things started getting scary. Things were quickly going from abstract to concrete, and it was a reality that frightened me more than I could have expected. My mom and both of my grandmothers had cancer, and in a way I always kind of thought, in the back of my mind, that I would get it someday. But that is a long way from actually getting it. Unfortunately, that’s what the urologist confirmed, and that’s when he diagnosed me with testicular cancer.
It’s an awful experience, in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Waiting for answers is one of the worst things; worrying about what it could mean for Sandy the absolute worst. For the next few days we alternated between being positive and crying in each other’s arms.
Things had already been moving fast, and it just got faster. That afternoon I had blood work done; two days later, on a Thursday, I got a CT scan to see if the cancer had spread. The CT tech, like every one else I had dealt with to that point, was nice — cheerful, positive, careful not to promise any results one way or the other. I had a follow-up with the urologist the following Monday, which meant a long weekend of being desperate for answers but dreading a phone call from the doctor. We figured if we didn’t hear from him, that was a good sign — otherwise it would mean things were worse than we’d hoped.
Friday, while we were out for dinner, we allowed ourselves to relax just a little because we had arbitrarily decided that if we made it to 6 p.m., it probably meant the doctor’s office wouldn’t be calling. A few minutes after 6 the phone rang; when I answered, it turned out to be a wrong number. I didn’t know whether to laugh or spend the next half hour cursing at the girl on the other end of the line.
The weekend slowly came and went without a phone call. On Monday we worked until it was time to go to the doctor’s, and then we waited some more in a tiny examination room. When he came in he said, “The CT scan was clean. The blood work didn’t show any of the proteins we talked about. It’s clean. This is very good.” I had to ask him again just to be sure – did he mean that the cancer hadn’t spread? Yes, he answered, the cancer was isolated to my right testicle. My liver, my kidneys, my pancreas were OK. We cried again, this time with relief.
My surgery was planned for Wednesday, just two days later. Usually it’s considered too risky to just remove the tumor, so standard procedure is to take out the testis completely. I was no exception and my testicle was removed in what was, amazingly, an out-patient procedure. Thanks to my urologist I’m resting comfortably at home now, sore from the 3-inch incision slashing diagonally across my pelvis but getting by with Tylenol, ice packs and plenty of TLC from Sandy, my mom, and my nephew Pato (who lives with us while he goes to college). My mom flew down for the surgery as soon as it was scheduled; when I told her about the diagnosis, I could hear her starting to hyperventilate over the phone with shock. No parent wants to hear their child has cancer, even if that child is 43. Later she told me that until we started getting test results, she felt as if an elephant was sitting on her chest. “I feel like I can breathe again,” she said.
Two days ago, a Friday, I saw my doctor for a post-op follow-up and to have a drainage tube removed. The doctor said the surgery went well, and he didn’t see anything that worried him. The pathology report showed that the tumor was a classic seminoma, which is the least aggressive form of testicular cancer and the easiest to treat. He is recommending a couple of radiation treatments at a very low intensity just to make sure it’s gone, and I’ll be scheduling appointments with the radiologist in three weeks. Just a precaution, he said, because he’s sure we caught it early and that the surgery removed whatever cancer was there.
That’s fine. Whatever it takes.
It still amazes me how fast everything happened. In a little less than two weeks I’ve gone from primary diagnosis to surgery to recovery. In two weeks I’ve gone from cancer patient to cancer survivor. And I’m so grateful. Grateful for the quick response of my doctors. Grateful for the strength and love of my wife. Grateful that when we first started freelancing she insisted one of the first things we budget for was health insurance. Grateful for the support, the fierce affection, and inappropriate jokes shared with family and friends. Grateful for whatever made us decide to get a simple bump checked out instead of ignoring it.
If you take anything from this, let it be that. Pay attention to what your body tells you. Nothing that seems odd, or different, or just uncomfortable enough that you “can live with it” is worth ignoring. Don’t be completely paranoid, but don’t be afraid to be a little paranoid. See your doctor, and ask every question you have when you do.
And then, when you’ve taken care of yourself and your health, take a breath. Take a loving look at this life you’ve been given. And be grateful.
Ask any comic book fan – or any average person, for that matter – and chances are they’ll tell you they don’t think much of the Man of Steel. There might be some nostalgiac fondness for the character, but most people gravitate toward the dark and brooding Batman, who has come to personify bad-assery at DC Comics in the same indomitable way Wolverine has at Marvel.
Superman is dull. He’s a Boy Scout. He’s too powerful. He’s married. Clark is a marshmallow. He is (as so many girls told me in high school and college) too nice. And because of that, when people think about Superman (if they think about him at all), it’s often with something approaching disdain.
Which makes it all the more interesting that while people may not give much thought to Superman, EVERYONE still has an opinion about him. And while his “coolness” or his relevance or his appeal might be called into question, most people have very clear ideas about what Superman is and what he isn’t, as well as what ideals the character represents. As I’ve mentioned before, Superman is a personification of humanity’s best qualities, a character who’s greatest ability is the power to inspire.
Card’s hate speech, his active participation in an effort to restrict and deny the rights of fellow citizens – of fellow human beings – is well-documented. And he’s got every right to it. We cannot rattle our sabers in the fight for free speech and then try to squash it when someone says something horrible and poisonous. Card is a homophobic ass, and he’s got the freedom to be a homophobic ass. And by the same token, DC can hire anyone they want, even if he or she is a homophobic ass. That is their right, as well.
Luckily, it is my right (and the right of anyone who disagrees with what is, let’s face it, a terrible hiring decision by DC) to refuse to buy anything written by Card. We can spend – or not spend – our money and time however we choose. Personally, I choose not to support something written by someone whose views are so destructive and hateful, and which I find repugnant. I won’t be buying the first couple of issues of Adventures of Superman when it launches in April. I’d encourage other comic book fans to do the same. It’s a small statement, and one DC will no doubt ignore the way they’ve ignored a growing petition and public outcry, but it’s one I feel good about.
And for the record, it’s not censorship, no matter what reactionary Card apologists say. No one is saying DC can’t publish the comic, or that anyone can’t buy it. Refusing to buy it – or sell it, as some comic book stores have said they’ll do – doesn’t equal censorship. It’s a consumer choice, and I’ll be choosing to spend my money elsewhere. Will I start picking up issues once Card is off the book? Maybe. Will I buy a print collection that includes Card’s story? No. Again, it’s about choice, and I choose not to support the work of a bigoted hate-monger.
Because, as others have noted, Superman isn’t about hate. Truth. Justice. An “American Way” that reflects fairness, opportunity and the pursuit of happiness for all. That’s what Superman is about.
And that’s something everyone knows.
Some friends of mine have also spoken out on this, and I’d encourage you to take the time to read what they’ve got to say. Go check out: