Dad of Divas' Reviews: Book Review - Rodeo in Juliet

Friday, July 2, 2010

Book Review - Rodeo in Juliet

About the Book
How do young people deal with cancer? A view from the bed side.

What does it feel to be young, alive, with your whole life in front of you and have someone tell you that the world as you know it is about to end with a single word:


Can you imagine beating it, not just once, twice, three times, mind you, but four times (and still counting)? 

Well, one special person has come up with a novel solution to cope, how to have the courage, strength and hope. Develop a sense of crude humor. Give life the finger when faced with the impossible.

Seattle based writer Glenn Rockowitz, is a four-time cancer survivor (still counting). He is author of the memoir, Rodeo in Joliet which chronicles his journey from the doctor’s prognosis of “three months at best” to his miraculous remission several months later. In a recent interview, he described his life to date with one word:


“That’s probably the best word to describe the lion’s share of my adult life.  Although , actually the word ‘screwed’ is probably more appropriate. Let me explain. Here’s the nutshell of the last ten years of my life:

When I was 28-years old, my wife eight and a half months pregnant with our only child, I was diagnosed with a very aggressive, late-stage cancer and given three months to live.

The following week, I drove five hours to share the news with my atheist father. He responded by offering up his first and only prayer to the mythical God he mocked for 57 years:

Please God take away my son’s cancer and give it to me.

And God responded:

Careful what you wish for, big guy.

Stage IV. Three months to live.

Screwed, right?

A couple years earlier, I started a nonprofit company called Best Medicine that brought stand-up comedians to the homes of terminally ill cancer and AIDS patients. I started that company two years before I was diagnosed with my own cancer.

Yes, two years before my own diagnosis.

Ironic? Sure.

But again, probably better to call it screwed.”

Rodeo in Joliet was released nationally earlier this year and quickly became a word-of-mouth bestseller.

Be forewarned though: it is not easy to be in Glenn Rockowitz’s head. As he is staring down his own death, he doesn’t much care whether you like him or not. There is plenty of dark humor, vomit and absolutely no sugarcoating. You will see, hear, taste and smell his cancer experience, including the rollercoaster of volatile emotions and occasional self-sabotage during his Hail Mary experimental treatment. And as he white-knuckles his way through the cancer trenches, you can’t help but come around to root for him. So instead of a memoir, call it a love letter: a visceral, powerful love letter from a man to his father and to his son that will leave you gasping and grateful to be alive when you reach the final page.

We asked Glenn, “Where does the title of the book come from?”

He responded:

“During one of my many initial chemo sessions, I had the pleasure of sitting next to a leather-skinned ex-con who had done fourteen years in Joliet Prison for assault and armed robbery. He shared one story in particular that has stayed with me to this day:

A dark ritual that the prisoners of Joliet performed on every new inmate as they entered prison. A ritual they affectionately referred to as the Rodeo in Joliet

And it worked this way:

Every time a newbie was admitted, the general inmate population had an unspoken agreement to let him feel safe, let him feel like everything he may have imagined prison life to be was probably all in his head.

That period of calm would last three days.

And then on that third day, a group of the other prisoners would surround the new guy and…uh, well, make love to him. And not in the robes, scented candles, Kenny G kind of way.

Once that initial ‘lovemaking’ session was over, they would let the guy stand up and walk away, let him think that the rite of passage was over, let him think he was now safe to go about his day.

But, before making it to the other side of the prison yard, the Rodeo would begin all over again.

I quickly realized that the ritual he spoke of was actually the perfect metaphor for this disease.

Just when you think you’re safe, BAM!  Down for another round.

Welcome to the Rodeo.

Now, ten years after my initial death sentence, I sit and I reflect on the four (yes FOUR!) different cancers I’ve fought and beaten since. 

And all I can feel is gratitude.

Gratitude for the fact that now, looking at all of these things in my rearview mirror, I can take all of that suffering and direct it into helping other young adults navigate through the hell that is this disease.

We asked Glenn “So what are you doing about it?” 

Glenn said:

“I’m taking my 20 plus years of experience as a professional stand-up, filmmaker and television writer and using it to raise awareness of the AYA plight.

I am currently forming Change It Back, an Adolescent & Young Adult (AYA) advocacy group that works to improve treatment standards for the tens of thousands of young people just like me.  Being a part of this AYA demographic through all of my cancer battles, I’ve learned some astonishing facts.

Did you know that over 70,000 AYAs like me are diagnosed with cancer every year?

Did you also know that we haven’t seen an increase in survival rate since 1975?

Pediatric oncology and adult oncology have made tremendous strides in survival rates. But AYA…almost none.

There are very specific needs of people in this demographic:  Issues of fertility, insurance coverage and clinical trial participation to name just a few.

And what about my own Rodeo?

No idea.

But I guess that’s the point: it doesn’t matter.

I just have to do what I have been doing for the last 10 years.

And what I recommend my fellow prisoners do when they’re beaten down and feeling scared and lonely and tired and hopeless:

Turn off the Kenny G, put away the scented candles and stand back up."

Glenn offers tips on how to deal (and not deal) with people who have been diagnosed with cancer:

1.     Offer hope and encouragement.  But don’t problem solve.  No emails filled with everything you can find on the Internet about cancer and alternative treatments and God knows what else. We know you mean well, but we have yet to see anyone pull out of a late-stage cancer tailspin by sucking on a panda's claw for two hours a day.

2.     Don’t expect sunshine. Let's be honest, our positive attitudes are really for you, not us. It's like when someone on the plane tells you your toddler was "so great" when they really mean "so great it wasn't annoying me the whole flight." Cancer is often sub-fun. And sometimes we just need to feel down. We still love you.

3.     Keep it together. We know that watching someone you love suffer is extremely difficult. But if you can, try to save the waterworks for the really important stuff. Like the birth of a baby dolphin or the Ice Capades. The emotional weight of dealing with our own mortality is almost too much to bear. Making sure you're OK with it can sometimes be too much.

4.     Lower Your Expectations.  Or just eliminate them altogether. If you did something for a loved one while they were sick with the expectation that a Thank You note would be forthcoming, you should probably consider a career in kitten-punching or baby-juggling. Of course what you did was incredible and sweet and loving. We are extremely grateful, not just lazy or thoughtless.

5.     Stay balanced. Of course it's great to hear the success stories, and thank God they get more common every day, but unfortunately they don't erase the fear we deal with alone every night. Don’t be discouraged from sharing those stories, just make sure you balance them out by just showing up to lend an ear.

6.     Shoot Straight. Tell it like it is. And if you don't know what to say, say just that. Something like, "Sorry I'm such a total rod, but I don't know what to say. I love you and I want to help, so just say the word and I'm there." That's honest. And you're taking ownership of the most important part: You're a total rod. Just kidding.

7.     Be considerate. When you visit someone you love in the hospital, consider the fact that they're probably not super-comfortable. Try not to sit at the foot of the hospital bed sipping a pumpkin spice latte while you’re waiting for us to wake up from surgery. In other words, try to slow down your "moment" while we’re trying to walk away from the light.


8.     Be thoughtful.  Finding out you have cancer is devastating. Hearing reactions to that news can be equally taxing. So pause to think before you react. And really try to avoid saying things like, "Wow! What else is going on?"

About the Author
Glenn Rockowitz was born in on May 27, 1970, Plainview, New York. He is an American writer, filmmaker and comedian who wrote and directed the cult independent film Hacks in 2002. The film garnered many festival awards including Best Comedy at The New York Film Festival; Best Picture at the Chicago Digital Film Festival; and Best Picture at the Orinda Film Festival outside of San Francisco.

A graduate of Chicago’s famed Second City, Rockowitz went on to write and perform comedy for many years throughout the United States. In 1995, he founded a nonprofit AIDS and cancer charity in NYC, known as The Best Medicine Group—an organization that brought hundreds of live comedy shows into the homes of terminally-ill patients throughout the metropolitan New York area. In March 1998 Rockowitz founded Keep Your Receipt, an irreverent line of greeting cards designed to provide steady funding for several cancer charities. Rodeo in Joliet, a memoir of his battle with a very aggressive late-stage cancer, is his first book,.

He is currently forming Change It Back, an Adolescent & Young Adult cancer coalition designed to improve treatment standards for AYA patients.

My Take on the Book
This book is raw and truly provides a first hand account of one person's experience with Cancer. In the way that the book is writer, as a reader you get drawn in to the extent that you are able to feel the emotions from the author.

A powerful book that will leave you wanting to read more. The story is compelling and makes you question how you would act and/or react in the same situation.

With the fact that I have a number of people in my own life who have gone through Cancer, this story gives the reader a first hand glimpse into what Cancer is really like and how it effects another person. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is living with this disease or that works with patients that live with this disease. It is eye opening.

All opinions expressed in this review are my own and not influenced in any way by the company.  Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. Please refer to this site's Terms of Use  for more information. I have been compensated or given a product free of charge, but that does not impact my views or opinions.
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