Outside the Cubicle: 2009 for PR pro Jeff Blumenfeld meant achieving lifelong dreams, losing a kidney

Some years of our lives are crazier than others. For Jeff Blumenfeld, owner of the Blumenfeld Associates PR firm, 2009 included the publication of his first book, the removal of a kidney, a return trip to Woodstock and, oh yeah, a trip to Antarctica. Now, that’s a year to remember.
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To further a long-standing goal at SNEWS® to build our community through communication, in Feb. 2010 we launched a column called Outside the Cubicle to highlight the extraordinary, awe-inspiring or just plain wonderful things those in the industry do outside of the work environment (click here to read about its launch). The column gives us a chance to write about all the “oh wow” things we hear people did, do or have accomplished that have utterly nothing to do with work and otherwise go unnoticed. The stories may inspire or entertain, or make you laugh, look at somebody differently or prompt you to wonder how they found the time. From the warehouse and sales floor to executive lounge or road-warrior sales rep, we are looking for great stories and great people to profile. Is it you? Your boss? Your colleague? Tell us who should be next. Email us at OutsidetheCubicle@snewsnet.com or call 530-268-8295. To read other Outside the Cubicle stories, click here.

Writing your first book. Taking the trip of a lifetime. Having a kidney removed. Any one of these events could define a year as being memorable. But what if all three happened in the same year? Now, that would be extraordinary.

In 2009, that’s exactly what happened to Jeff Blumenfeld, owner of the marketing and public relations firm Blumenfeld and Associates (www.blumenfeldpr.com) in Darien, Conn. In a year of great highs and lows, Blumenfeld not only achieved a lifelong goal of having a book published, but he also had a kidney removed, ventured to Woodstock for the music festival’s 40th anniversary and then, four months later, stood on the rocky shores of Antarctica. As Dickens said in “A Tale of Two Cities” -- a line Blumenfeld may have been repeating to himself last year -- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”

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Good times, bad times

“I can’t remember another year with so many incredible highs and lows,” said Blumenfeld, recalling that he had expected 2009 to be a triumph. At 57 years old, he had finally realized his dream of writing a book based on years of experience reporting on adventure expeditions. Blumenfeld not only runs a PR agency for companies in the outdoor and fitness industries; he also, since 1994, has published “Expedition News,” which chronicles the far-flung adventures of today’s explorers.

Throughout the 1990s, while publishing “Expedition News,” he compiled countless stories of Mount Everest climbs and sea voyages, and he knew he had the ingredients for a book -- particularly one that would educate people on how to get others to pay for their adventure travel. “Writing a book was a lifelong goal of mine, but I didn’t know anything about how to do it,” said Blumenfeld.

Then, in 2008, at a meeting of the American Society of Journalists and Authors in New York City, Blumenfeld was manning a table for the Coleman Company when he chatted up W. Terry Whalin, a book agent and the author of “Book Proposals that Sell. 21 Secrets to Speed Your Success.”

“I told him my book idea, and he liked it,” said Blumenfeld. “He said I should buy his book -- and I read the whole thing at the conference and then wrote a 30-page proposal.”

Skyhorse Publishing accepted the proposal, and during the winter Blumenfeld wrote the manuscript for “You Want to Go Where? How to Get Someone to Pay for the Trip of your Dreams.”

Of course, the writing process wasn’t easy. “They say everyone loves to be an author, but nobody wants to write. The process is definitely hard; it’s agonizing,” said Blumenfeld. “Thankfully, I did it in the wintertime when it’s nasty outside.”

He completed the manuscript in March 2009, but the excitement and pride of completing the project was quickly trumped by startling news.

Carving out a kidney

Just a month later, in April 2009, during a routine physical exam, doctors found a small, cancerous tumor on one of Blumenfeld’s kidneys.

“It’s like walking down the street and getting hit in the head by a piano. It just comes out of nowhere,” said Blumenfeld. “And this is during a year that had been the most exciting of my professional career.”

Blumenfeld said he was so surprised because he had no idea anything was wrong before the diagnosis. “It was totally asymptomatic,” he said, “I didn’t feel any physical effects. This is what’s so scary about it.” He had always led a healthy lifestyle, but the condition is determined by a person’s genes. “There are 50,000 new cases of kidney problems each year, and it could be fatal,” he said.

Doctors informed Blumenfeld that he would need surgery, and they scheduled to remove his kidney in July. After getting this news, Blumenfeld called Chris Goddard, owner of CGPR Public Relations, who has been one of Blumenfeld’s best friends for 17 years.

“When he told me about the surgery, he was pissed,” said Goddard. “He skis, sails, fishes, and this just comes out of the blue. You never think it’s going to happen to you.”

John Wilson, president of the fitness apparel company CW-X, one of Blumenfeld’s clients, said that even though the news was upsetting, Blumenfeld remained steady and upbeat. “I think it shook him, no question. But he dealt with it very well -- calmly,” said Wilson. “I didn’t see anything other than how it would affect anyone when you consider your mortality.”

On July 7, 2009, Blumenfeld underwent surgery, which was successful, but painful. He said the discomfort gave him a whole new appreciation for organ donors. “Anyone who voluntarily donates a kidney is a saint, because it is a rough procedure and it hurts,” he said.

Despite the pain, Blumenfeld said he mostly felt fortunate. “I’m lucky the tumor was caught,” he said. “You feel bad about having the tumor the size of a raisin, until you meet the guy who has the tumor the size of an apple, and they don’t know it’s in there.”

After he exited the hospital, Blumenfeld focused on making a quick recovery -- not just because there was a pile of PR work waiting, but also because he was anxious to promote his book, which had been released in June 2009.

Getting on with life

Just 22 days after the procedure, Blumenfeld stood before a crowd at the New Canaan Library in Connecticut to deliver his first talk about the book. His weight had dropped from 156 to 143 pounds -- the lightest he’d been since high school -- and he was weak. “My voice cracked, and I was really pale, but I got through it,” he said.

Blumenfeld’s health improved steadily, and his friends say he probably did so well because he never lost his well-known sense of humor and level headedness.

“He has a good, upbeat positive view of things in the world, but also a reality check, so you have that good balance,” said Wilson.

“With Jeff, somehow that sense of humor never disappeared,” said Steve Cohen of Masterfit University, who has been friends with Blumenfeld since they met in the ski industry in the ‘80s. “Jeff said, ‘I’m a lucky guy. If you have to lose something, it might as well be something where you have a spare.’ He’s already starting to negotiate with friends, saying, ‘OK, if I lose this one kidney I’ve got, you’re gonna kick in, right?’”

Blumenfeld is always quick to joke, but the surgery was frightening enough that it awakened in him a greater appreciation for his opportunities in life. He has jumped at any chance to share his book, doing three presentations a month and meeting with pretty much any group that is willing to host him.

“He’s done more promotion for a book of this type and size than I think anybody in the history of publishing,” Cohen said with a laugh. “Any library that’ll open up the door, he’ll be there.” And Cohen added very sincerely, “If there’s anybody that will turn it into the biggest success possible, it’s Jeff Blumenfeld. For him, it’s not the money; it’s just the pride.”

Blumenfeld’s trademark sense of humor comes out when he describes the challenge of keeping an audience riveted. “I gave a talk at a senior men’s group in Darien (Conn.),” he recalled. “As I’m talking, there are two men in the front row sleeping. I talk louder…and louder, and they’re not waking up. I asked the organizer afterward how I did because there were two guys snoring, and he said, ‘Only two! Just two? You were terrific!’”

A ‘60s flashback

Given his love of adventure and work with “Expedition News,” it’s no surprise that Blumenfeld would pen a work concerning outdoor expeditions. But it is surprising that in 2009 he also contributed to the book “Woodstock Revisited: 50 Far Out, Groovy, Peace-Loving, Flashback-Inducing Stories From Those Who Were There.” The book was released to coincide with the 40th Anniversary of the 1969 music festival and a 2009 reunion at the Woodstock site.

Anyone who knows the straight-laced Blumenfeld may be surprised that he was there amongst the hippies during the Summer of Love. But he was there all right…for about two hours. And in August 2009, a month after surgery, Blumenfeld traveled to Woodstock for the anniversary celebration and to read the passage from the book about his brief interlude with the counter culture.

Summing up his experience in 1969, Blumenfeld told SNEWS, “I grew up 10 miles from the Woodstock festival site.” When the gathering was in full swing in 1969, Blumenfeld told his mother he was going to go down and check out the scene. “I got there and it was just awful,” he said, laughing. “It was crowded and there were traffic jams…I was there for two hours and went home. I went to the civil defense office and ran emergency communications for the first half-day.”

In the book, Blumenfeld said he “regrets, now almost 40 years later, that he heard not a note of music, smelled not a whiff of grass, didn’t even see a naked woman, which would have been something for a teen who was still sneaking peaks at his dad’s Playboy magazines.”

While he admits Woodstock wasn’t exactly, “the defining moment of my life,” Blumenfeld said that doing the reading was a big thrill, pretty entertaining and somewhat ironic. “There were a lot of gray hairs in the audience, and some of them had their kids there and had them dress as hippies.”

The trip of a lifetime

By the end of the summer, Blumenfeld was in much better shape physically, but something still weighed on his mind. He was scheduled to depart for a trip to Antarctica in December, serving as a chaperone for the group Students On Ice (www.studentson ice.com), which would allow him to go for little to no cost. Antarctica had long been at the top of his list of places to see, a place that he referred to in his “Expedition News” blog as “the only continent on earth devoted to science and peace.” (Click here to read his blog http://expeditionnews.blogspot.com/ ) He longed to go there, but was concerned about traveling to such a remote location with only one kidney.

He consulted his doctor, who quieted his concerns. “We do these things all the time,” the doctor told Blumenfeld. “You’re fine, you’re normal; you just have one kidney.”

“So I got a clean bill of health,” said Blumenfeld, quipping, “I had to go, because here I wrote a book about how to get somebody to pay for the trip of a lifetime.”

He said a highlight of the trip was observing colonies of penguins on the shores of Antarctica. “You’re sitting on a hillside with tens of thousands of nesting penguins; they’re eating krill, throwing up krill, mating. They couldn’t care whether you lived or breathed,” he said.

Of course, a trip guide had given Blumenfeld and his group sage advice on interacting with penguins. “Never hold, never even pet a penguin,” said the guide. “Besides, picking one up is like holding a rugby ball that bites and poops on you.”

Because Blumenfeld is a real student of famous expeditions, another favorite moment was seeing Elephant Island and Point Wild, the precise spot where Ernest Shackleton’s men were trapped for four months during their 1916 expedition. “It was amazing to see how desolate it was,” said Blumenfeld.

While the wildlife and terrain were impressive, Blumenfeld said he especially enjoyed sharing the journey with the young people of Students On Ice, who are from the United States, Europe and the Middle East. “To be on this ship with 64 of the brightest high school kids you could imagine, who at the age of 13 to 18 already were in Antarctica,” said Blumenfeld. “Just think of the bright future they have ahead of them.”

As for Blumenfeld’s future, he’s hoping that 2010 will continue to be bright, albeit slightly less eventful than the previous year. Still, his calendar is quite full with speaking engagements for his book.

“It’s doing well within its category,” said Blumenfeld. “Of course, Sarah Palin sells a few more books than I do. Last week, I was the 247,000th most popular author in America.”

Hey, you have to start somewhere.

--Marcus Woolf

Can we profile you or something you have done? Do you think your boss does amazing things outside of work? Do you know a colleague who deserves to be featured? We want to know! Your stories are important. Email us at OutsidetheCubicle@snewsnet.com or call 530-268-8295.

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