Monday, December 30, 2013

On the road to Ibagué, a detour into the past

Coqui and Ingrid, after eighteen years apart
Last week, my wife Ingrid and I drove an hour through a fertile basin of the Andes to visit Coqui, a friend she hasn’t seen in nearly two decades.
Despite the years and distance between them — Coqui lives in the central Colombian city of Ibagué, Ingrid in New York — they have a staggering amount in common. Both of their fathers were murdered in violence in Colombia.  They went to medical school together. And both are doctors now, having recovered from personal tragedy to live full, stable lives.
On the road to Ibague, Colombia
On the road to Ibague, Colombia
Last month, on a whim, Ingrid touched base with Coqui (her nickname) for the first time in years and proposed a get-together during our annual vacation in Colombia. As she hung up the phone, it occurred to her why she’d reached out. She felt strong enough in her own life — emotionally and economically — to reach back through time to share her accomplishments with Coqui. To see how Coqui was faring — to renew the friendship that once gave them the strength to make it through the tough times.
But as we neared Ibagué, followed by Ingrid’s family in another car, my wife grew sad as she pointed out changes in the scenery along the highway. Business and housing developments had sprung up, pushing into farm fields. The highway was smoother – a toll road now — having lost some of its charm.
Homecenter comes to Ibague
Big box stores come to Ibagué
It reminded Ingrid of the distance between she and her old friend. Would they rediscover the familiarity that drew them together? Or feel awkward because of changes wrought by time? Ingrid’s anxiety increased as we drove into Ibagué. Her memories of the place were wiped clean. “It’s not a town anymore,” Ingrid said, simply. “It’s a city.” Where were the simple neighborhoods, with small family houses and uncrowded streets divided by islands of trees? Exito and Homecenter, Colombian big-box chains, had sprung up out of nowhere. Roads had widened, open spaces paved over with well-to-do housing developments.
I did my best to reassure Ingrid that all around Ibagué, wherever we looked, the Andes mountains jutted up in the distance, as ever – green and craggy and indomitable. A record of the past that can never be swept away.
Ingrid’s memories of Coqui are mostly happy ones.
They met at medical school in Bogotá in 1985, where they sat next to each other for six years in class, since their last names began with “B.” Coqui was pretty – the sister of a Colombian beauty queen. This thrilled Ingrid. She and Coqui became fast friends.
They had hard times at medical school, known for tough classes many students didn’t pass. But they also let off steam together. Since Coqui was from outside Bogotá she had her own apartment, a precious commodity at school, where most students lived with their parents. Coqui hosted more than her share of parties, inviting students who sat near her in class — whose last names began with A, B, C, and D. The parties were a time to unwind from the stress of studying. Lots of frenetic dancing to salsa, merengue, and other music of Colombia.
After the murder of Ingrid’s father in 1989, Ingrid and Coqui drifted apart. Ingrid worked three jobs as a doctor to make ends meet, supporting her widowed mother and two younger brothers, trying to keep her father’s factory afloat. She didn’t have time for socializing.
Coqui, meanwhile, went through her own rough patch. The last time Ingrid saw her was in 1995, at Coqui’s lavish wedding – a marriage that collapsed just a year later. A few years later, Coqui’s brother was almost murdered in a kidnapping attempt.
For her part, Ingrid fled the instability of Colombia and moved to the United States, where she met me, married, bore our daughter, and opened her own medical practice.
As we wended through traffic in Ibagué, so many landmarks were gone from the city that Ingrid got lost, and kept circling back. We were late. We finally came to the gated community where Coqui lives with her second husband and three sons.
Outside Coqui's home, in the foothills of the Andes
Outside Coqui’s home, mountains as indomitable as ever
Coqui was waiting for us outside their spacious tile-roof home. She had olive-toned skin and black hair, slender in her dark dress, as beautiful as Ingrid’s memory of her. She and Ingrid embraced with smiles and glistening eyes, but no tears. “Hey you got lost!” Coqui laughed. The first thing out of her mouth was a joke, which instantly relaxed Ingrid.
She welcomed us, and Ingrid’s family, into her house. We sat in her patio overlooking her small backyard, filled with a large Nativity scene. Her husband Marcelo arrived home. He is a tall handsome businessman who used to be Coqui’s boss, which is how they met.
Our family and hers chatted over lunch of sancocho, a soup rich with meat and potatoes and
The Ruminator catches up on some much-needed sleep
Catching up on some much-needed sleep
plantains, and a side of arroz con pollo, Ingrid and Coqui talked as if they’d never been apart. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to keep up, and I took a well-deserved nap after lunch. But Ingrid later told me they spoke little of their fathers’ deaths, which is perhaps as it should be.
We said goodbye a few hours later, hugged, and promised to see each other next year – or, at least, before the next eighteen years go by. As we drove away, the city of Ibagué seemed a little less foreign to Ingrid, the changes having settled in. Because sometimes we revisit the past, to reality-check if the memory is accurate. To see how time has colored our recollections.
Ingrid received confirmation last week.
David Kalish is the author of the comedic novel, The Opposite of Everythingwhich will be published in March.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Awkward Situations in Colombia, Solved

Enjoying my daughter's new underwater camera
GIRARDOT, Colombia — On Christmas Day, as I lounged poolside in this hot tropical town, sweating and reading Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October, an email popped up in my iPhone. It was the foreign editor of The Gringo Herald-Tribune.
He sounded desperate. Readers were barraging the newspaper with questions in response to my interview with the newspaper last week – just before I left with my family for our annual vacation in Colombia. I’d offered tips for Americans considering a similar trip, and now the newspaper’s email inbox was flooded. Readers referred to me as “The Gringo Guru.” Would I be so kind, the editor asked, to take a look and send answers via email to the GH-T,which would then publish them?
I hesitated. Here I was, a week into my vacation, full of good cheer from Christmas Eve. The night before, the nine of us – my twelve-year-old daughter, Colombian wife and her family — had spent a decent evening around the tree, unwrapping several hundred presents and dining at midnight, per tradition, on arroz con pollo. What I really wanted to do now was jump in the pool and cool off with my daughter, who in that moment was snapping underwater photos of her cousins with her new Christmas acquisition: a waterproof camera.
But curiosity gnawed at me. I read a few of the reader emails. A wave of empathy washed over me. I realized I’d become some sort of go-to guy on how to endure awkward cultural situations. And my readers desperately needed help.
Hardly realizing it, I began typing responses.
Here’s some excerpts from this morning’s edition of The Gringo Herald-Tribune:
 Dear Gringo Guru:
I’m not an arepa man. I’m a Dunkin Donuts man, trying to get by as a banker in Bogota. But last weekend my Colombian co-workers took me to San Gil to an outdoor market, where one of them bought a bucketful of what looked like very dark popcorn. He told me, in broken English, it came from a special native corn. Figuring he knew, I crunched down. My co-workers broke into hysterical laughter. They blurted out the Spanish word “hormiga.” Also known, in English, as ant. I immediately spit up, grabbed the closest water bottle, gargled. Spit. Gargled. Spit. Gargled. Spit. Gargled. Spit. My Colombian co-workers reassured me all I’d eaten were ant abdomens, since the local ant chef had snipped off the little heads and legs. I gargled some more. Spit. Gargled. Spit. Gargled. Spit.
Since then, I’ve had nightmares about vengeful insects eating me. The mere thought of popcorn makes me want to reach for the nearest can of Raid. I’m considering a transfer to another bank branch, perhaps in Miami.
– Sandbagged in San Gil
Dear Sandbagged:
In America, we have the saying, “Don’t eat the yellow snow.” This roughly translates, in Spanish, to “Stay away from black popcorn.” So chalk it up to experience. Then reward yourself with a dozen Dunkin Donuts. Colombia has plenty of ‘em.
— Gringo Guru
Dear Gringo Guru:
Thanks for those great tips last week! Would you mind sparing one more? Here’s the thing. I’m on vacation in Cali with my Colombian girlfriend at her family’s home. But their generosity is killing me! Her family insists on cooking for us morning, noon, and night, and won’t let us eat a single meal out. Yesterday they served cow tongue, and tomorrow it’s tripe. There’s no way I can stomach cow intestine, but I don’t want to insult them. Colombia’s a polite society. What should I do?
– Bob from Kansas City
Dear Bob:
When your hosts aren’t looking, nonchalantly slide your tripe into your girlfriend’s plate, hiding it under her fried plantains. Quietly tell her she better eat it or else. It will be a valuable test of your relationship.  And stop complaining about cow tongue! Once you get past the taste buds, it’s not so bad. My orthodox Jewish grandparents used to serve me tongue when I visited them in Brooklyn, and look at me, I survived.
– Gringo Guru
Dear Gringo Guru:
I’m just about at my wit’s end over the toilet situation. Every fifth bathroom stall I enter has a trashcan full of soiled toilet paper. Needless to say, I find this disgusting.
– Flushed away in Funza
Dear Flushed Away:
photo (35)
The Ruminator assesses the bathroom situation
Sure, the pipes in Colombia can have a tough time handling toilet paper. This happens all over Latin America. But let you in on a little secret. Even when a toilet says it can’t handle paper, it usually can. Here’s my advice, based on personal experience. Go ahead, toss toilet paper in the bowl, just less so than in America. As a general rule of thumb, don’t drop more than twelve squares of paper in the bowl. If you use three feet of paper (twenty squares) in America, I’d suggest half that amount in Colombia. Then cross your fingers and flush. If need be, flush twice. Think of it as a compromise between your needs and the local sewer system requirements. In short, learn to get by with less. That’s what adapting to a foreign culture is all about.
David Kalish is the author of the comedic novel, The Opposite of Everythingwhich will be published in March

Monday, December 23, 2013

Postcard from Colombia: City of Eternal Spring

MEDELLIN, Colombia – Just days into my family’s annual vacation in Colombia, I have seen butterflies with wings transparent as glass. Thousands of candles floating in the air above a rushing river, flanked by lit-up fairy tale homes. A park full of giant fat people, sculpted in bronze, in a city better known for beautiful slender women.
Blogging to you live from Medellin, the City of Eternal Spring, I can confirm that toilets do not in fact flush in the opposite direction south of the equator. But I’ve found the sort of spectacles I hoped for when I handed over the keys last week to friends housesitting our upstate New York home, and flew 3,000 miles south with my twelve-year old daughter and Colombian wife. Though we’ve visited my wife’s home country more than a dozen times, each visit we sift for something new, opening ourselves up to places and people we’d otherwise miss.
On a mirador overlooking the city of Medellin
On a mirador overlooking the city of Medellin
So far, this trip has not disappointed. After landing in Bogota last Wednesday, we flew, along with five members of my wife’s family, to Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city, known for its year-round spring-like climate. In a van on the winding road from the airport, we passed farms rising on green folds of land, ramshackle huts peddling everything from fruits to doghouses. Suddenly the city appeared in a valley, stuck between cloud-swaddled mountains, tall sleek buildings vying for attention with orange tiled roofs. It was morning; we’d been traveling by plane and vehicles since 4:30 a.m. We stopped at a mirador, or overlook, to check out the city below.

My wife, and a Botero sculpture
My wife, and a Botero sculpture
After settling in at the Medellin house of friends where we’re staying, we went downtown to check out a park filled with 23 bronze sculptures of fat characters created by Botero, the renowned Colombian artist and native of Medellin. The idea behind the permanent display was to rejuvenate the downtown, but there’s few signs of rebirth beyond the sculptures. The area is packed with unsavory characters, traffic, and thousands of small vendors selling everything from imported shoes to incense to drugs. We kept a sharp eye on our kids and wallets. Nevertheless, we enjoyed taking photos alongside the sculptures.
Soaring above Medellin's poor communities, where Pablo Escobar once hired henchmen
Soaring above Medellin’s poor communities, where Pablo Escobar once hired henchmen
On Sunday, we traveled on the Medellin Metro, Colombia’s only subway system, which in fact only travels above ground. Sometimes way, way above ground. Subway fare of 1,800 pesos, about a buck, includes a stunning ride on cable cars up a mountain crammed with poor neighborhoods known as comunes (in Brazil they’re called favelas). It was from here that Pablo Escobar once hired his henchmen. The eight of us squeezed into a cable car that slowly jerked us diagonally higher, soaring above tin roofs weighted with bricks to keep from blowing off, impossibly steep steps connecting unstable huts, and, implausibly, three cubic glass library buildings jutting out amid this mini-city of poor residences.
After a few miles up the mountain on the cable car the communes gave way to pine forest and we switched to another cable car section that took us to Parque Arvi, a nature preserve spread over hundreds of acres. It includes forest trails, a mariposario, or butterfly house, zip lines, and a small outdoor market of locally grown fruits, vegetables, and typical Colombian foods. It was inside the mariposario where we witnessed one of Colombia’s most striking butterflies – the crystal wing, with wings you can see right through.
Medellin is not shy about Christmas
Medellin is not shy about Christmas
After returning by cable car back down the mountain, we rested at the house of our hosts before returning with them by van that night to witness Medellin’s audacious display of Christmas lights. At 6 p.m. the lights come on around Rio Medellin, where candles suspended above the river glow between rows of illuminated houses. All told, some 27 million Christmas lights spanning 472 miles decorate the city, according to the Medellin public utilities company. According to my daughter, “They’re awesome.”
NEXT: We travel to the tropical city of Giradot, which has more swimming pools than Malibu
David Kalish is the author of the comedic novel, The Opposite of Everythingwhich will be published in March.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Before I fly to Colombia, some tips for gringos

Once a year, around this time, I travel with my wife and daughter to Colombia to spend the holidays with my wife’s family. On Tuesday, the eve of this year’s trip,The Gringo Herald-Tribune graciously asked to interview me about our plans. I sat down for a few hours to share my exclusive tips for other gringos considering the journey.
GHT: Thank you so much for taking time out before your flight! Honestly, Colombia isn’t a common destination for gringos. We’re dying to know more about why you’re going there.
Me: It’s my annual trip with my family, and I plan to blog all about it. We fly Wednesday to Bogota, the capital, where we stay in a small apartment with my wife’s aunt, cousins, brother, sister-and-law, niece, a big dog and several canaries. We’ll make a side excursion to Medellin, which once was Pablo Escobar’s native city, but now claims to have the most beautiful women in the world. We then drive to the tropical city of Giradot, a city with more swimming pools than Malibu, to spend Christmas together.
GHT: Interesting. What’s Christmas in the tropics like?
Me: Well, we don’t have Jack Frost nipping at our nose. But we can fry an egg on the street.
GHT:  Sounds like quite the adventure! But how does your family in the United States feel about you going? A lot of Americans worry because Colombia is still on the State Department Watch List.
Me: Fears about Colombia are way overblown. It’s a beautiful country with tons of variety and my wife’s family treats me like a king and pretends they understand my English. The country is way more secure than it was in the 1990s. Besides, when I first told my family in the United States we were going to Colombia, they thought I meant Columbia University in New York City. No, the main worry I have about Colombia is throwing out my back at the airport.
GHT: You mean, while airport security is patting you down?
Me: No, that’s not what I mean. I’m referring to the fact that some Colombians, such as my wife, take several fifty-pound bags resembling body bags when they visit their home country. These bags are filled with a gazillion items ranging from flip-flops to Lego sets to MP3 players, because to buy these imports in Colombia – where Marshalls and TJ Maxx don’t yet exist– is prohibitively expensive. After hoisting these behemoths from the rear of my SUV, I have written the heads of several airlines to lower the weight limit to something more reasonable. Say, 10 pounds. But no luck yet. I have also emailed the CEO of Marshalls asking they move ahead with plans to open one in Colombia.
GHT: Thanks for that helpful information, and good luck. While we’re on the subject, what should a typical American pack on a trip to Colombia? Drinking water, for instance, is a big concern for gringos in Latin America. Do you bring a few cases of bottled water with you?
 Me: I would, but my wife says there’s no room for that in the luggage.
GHT: Er …
 Me: No, the real thing I’m worried about in Colombia is, frankly, the crazy drivers and the air pollution in Bogota. Oh yeah, the lack of coffee lids. Outside of Juan Valdez, Latin America’s version of Starbucks, coffee lids are practically non-existent. You know how may times I scalded my hands crossing the street?
GHT: You’d think they’d have a lot of coffee lids in Colombia.
 Me: You’d think. But coffee lids could be a huge business opportunity for some smart gringo entrepreneurs.
GHT: What about the language? Can you offer any language advice to visitors?
 Me: If your Spanish is basic, like mine once was, restrain your urge to venture beyond simple statements such as Donde esta el bano? (Where is the bathroom?). Because you might accidentally ask to marry someone’s first cousin, Pedro.
GHT: Interesting!
 Me: It’s the equivalent of Latin American natives visiting the United States and saying, in broken English, “My English is good.  I just have a little problem with my bowels.” In short, don’t go beyond your ability.
GHT: Excuse me for sounding argumentative, but if people shy away from conversing with the natives, won’t they miss out on the cultural closeness one discovers by lifting the cloak off foreign customs?
 Me: Run that by me again?
GHT: Isn’t conversing with the natives the best way to feel accepted by a foreign culture?
 Me: For a newbie, it’s just the opposite. Once, many years ago, I tried to tell a group of Mexican men that I was hungry. But instead of saying, “Yo tengo hambre,” I said, “Yo tengo hombre.” Just a slight difference right? But my pronunciation made it sound like, “I have a man.” The Mexicans all moved away from me at that point. That’s how precarious the language situation is.
GHT: OK, let’s move on. Your wife, judging from the photo in one of your blog posts, is an attractive Colombian woman. Are you worried that Colombian men will hit on her? They have a reputation for romance and know how to dance.
 Me: My first time with Ingrid in a Latin country was in Dominican Republic back when I was on chemotherapy, white and hairless as a mole. As I stood in the shade of a palm tree, to avoid sun-burning my chemo-sensitive skin, I saw four shirtless buff young Dominicans approach her. I wasn’t sure, but they seemed to be flirting with her in Spanish. Occasionally they cast a glance my way. Perhaps they were saying to my wife: Why bother with that pale guy who lacks eyebrows? Come with us! We speak your first language, and we will fulfill your every dream. Ingrid, of course, admitted to none of this conversation.  But she still stayed with me anyway.
GHT: So in short, you feel secure in your relationship?
Me: Without a doubt.
GHT: Do you look forward to greeting the New Year with your wife’s family?
 Me: Quick story here. Last year, in the hot tropical town of Giradot, around 5 a.m. on New Year’s Day, loud drunk people paraded around the block and woke me from a deep sleep. They played trumpets out of tune and banged drums. Ingrid’s family also woke up, and I suggested we call the police. They laughed and pointed out that the police were in the parade. It’s a Colombian tradition.
GHT: Well, that about wraps it up. We look forward to reading your blog posts about your trip!
Me: Gracias.  
David Kalish is the author of the novel The Opposite of Everything,  which will be published in March 2014.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Series Shocker: I'm not telling!

Don't look at this if you haven't seen Planet of the Apes
If you’ve managed to live your life without going to a movie theatre, watching a DVD, downloading a flick, or buying a book, read no further. I want to warn you right away that today’s post involves an extremely sensitive topic that may cause you to blurt out, “I can’t believe Darth Vadar is Luke Skywalker’s father!”
I’m talking about spoilers. Cinematic history is littered with ‘em. An old girlfriend of mine once bragged how, upon exiting the movie The Crying Game, she shouted to the people on line: “The chick’s got a —- !” It’s true. She is a he in that movie. And Bruce Willis was dead, all along, in The Sixth Sense. Rosebud was his sled, in Citizen Kane. Then there’s the famous line of dialogue, “Soylent Green is people!”
Though spoiling can be a cruel sport, I know most people won’t get mad at me for revealing these endings. They’re imprinted in the consciousness of people. Everyone knows, upon seeing the half-sunken Statue of Liberty, that Planet of the Apes is set in a future earth.
All of this is a long, long way of saying that the four-part series I’ve posted these past three weeks – extracting sections of my forthcoming novel and converting them into real-life cliffhangers – is formally over. For now, at least.
Unlike the movies I listed above, my darkly comedic novel, The Opposite of Everything, is not imprinted in anyone’s memory. It’s not even printed yet. When it comes out on March 11, my novel will start fresh, a babe on the bookshelf. All of which is a way of saying I hereby decline to spoil it. The four episodes I posted – about my humorous journey as a cancer survivor to find love in this crazy world — represent a small part of my 250-page book. I’d like to keep it that way.
My posts differed in crucial ways from the contents of my novel. First, my book is fiction, not fact. I dramatized my real life, gave everyone different names, made them do wacky things that their real-life counterparts wouldn’t dream of doing. As I say in my book acknowledgment, any resemblance between my novel and real life is coincidental to my goals as a novelist to create a fully realized dramatic story.
Still, the events depicted in recent posts are structurally similar. Devoted readers of The Ruminator learned a lot about my quirky pursuit of the woman who would become my future wife –a tough Colombian doctor who’d been through a battery of personal problems that rivaled my own. This storyline also runs through the novel.
My post on Monday of last week – the final episode in the series — ended on a pivotal moment. I invite Ingrid, for our first date, to hear me read publicly from my memoir-in-progress, in which I reveal details of my cancer and checkered emotional past. I’m afraid she’ll reject me, thinking I’m a head case. So after I finish reading, I delicately approach her.
“What did you think of what I read?” I asked.
Her fingertips circled the glass brim of her beer. “Was your story fact or fiction?”
“Fact,” I mumbled.
Ingrid started looking around, fidgeting.  “Where are you … going?” I asked.
“I drove for two hours to get here, and I just drank two cups of coffee.” She smiled with embarrassment. “Do you know where the ladies room is?”

And that’s where things end – with the implication that Ingrid, despite or because of everything she’s been through herself – is cool with my meshugas.
And yet, several questions still dangle. Will my pernicious disease behave itself? Will we marry and have a child? Will we stumble across a half-buried Statue of Liberty and discover that our lives are actually set on a future earth?
Well, I’m not telling! At least for now. I leave myself the option of resuming this series, mining my novel for more material. I walk a fine line between spoiling the book and my impulse to write stories about my life in new ways that capture your attention.
David Kalish is the author of the novel, The Opposite of Everythingwhich will be published on March 11.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

In memoriam to my oncologist, whom I outlived

Dr. Steven Grunberg
1950 - 2013
Five years ago, I enrolled in a cancer clinical trial at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Vermont. The oncologist running the drug trial was Dr. Steven Grunberg, who took me under his wing. At the time my cancer was spreading — years of traditional chemotherapy had done little but make me feel sick. But Dr. Grunberg reassured me with quiet confidence. We’re going to help you stick around, he said.
Today, thanks to Dr. Grunberg and his staff, I’m still here. But Dr. Grunberg isn’t. He died of lung cancer in September. It’s a painful irony I’m still sorting through.
Since my diagnosis in 1994 of a rare, incurable condition – Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma — I’ve been searching for an effective treatment. The cancer spread to my lungs in 2000, and despite several operations and years of chemotherapy that battered my body, continued to spread. In my mid forties, with many things yet to accomplish in life, I researched experimental treatments and exchanged information with other sufferers of my rare disease through the Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association.
One day I clicked to the clinical trials page of the National Institutes of Health, and learned of a novel drug being tested against my specific condition. Made by AstraZeneca, the drug, then called Zactima, was known as a tyrosine kinase inhibitor. Basically it worked to block proteins that tell tumors to grow.
Vermont’s Fletcher Allen Health Care was among the study sites. One weekday morning I drove three hours from my Clifton Park, N.Y., home to Burlington, Vt., to meet Dr. Grunberg and get the ball rolling. Though untested drugs can be risky, he quickly earned my trust. A thick haired man who spoke in quiet intelligent bursts, he’d keep a close eye on me, monitoring my status through bloodwork and scans. He spoke frankly of possible side effects, which included skin and intestinal problems. There was another concern. Two-thirds of study participants were supplied with the drug – but one-third received a placebo. Neither doctor nor patient knew which one patients had. I could be left without a life preserver.
But by my next appointment, three months later, my levels of Calcitonin – a hormone stimulated by my cancer – crashed to 10,000 from over 100,000 before the trial. It was apparent I was among the lucky two-thirds of patients. The drug was working! Dr. Grunberg wasn’t one to show a lot of emotion with me, but he shared an enthusiastic  smile when he told me the good news. I immediately called my wife to tell her, and drove back to New York that afternoon, my heart singing with hope for my future.
Over the next five years I visited Fletcher Allen every three months. I came to refill my prescription of once-a-day Zactima pills, undergo CT Scans and bloodwork — and to feel supported by Dr. Grunberg and his staff of nurses and researchers. I remember pricking my ears to catch every morsel of what Dr. Grunberg was saying. He was a steadfast presence, and when he examined my neck and chest for recurrence, I was in sure hands.
But he was more than a doctor to me. As a theater buff, he took an active interest in my writing, and spoke to me of his daughter’s creative pursuits. I emailed him several of my short stories, and he always took time to send me a complimentary email back. I considered him a friend.
The drug kept my condition at bay, and as a result of the trial was approved by the federal government, with the brand name Caprelsa, for use against my cancer. Today thousands of patients like me can now benefit from work by Dr. Grunberg and other study researchers.
The last time I saw Dr. Grunberg was this past spring. I noticed no difference in his manner toward me. He seemed healthy, energetic – his hair as thick and dark as ever. He gave zero hint he had cancer – let alone terminal cancer — even as he treated mine. He betrayed nothing. But when I visited Fletcher Allen again in summer I received the odd news he’d taken a leave. I asked for elaboration but the staff was oddly quiet.
It wasn’t until I visited again this fall when his staff told me Dr. Grunberg had died of lung cancer.
I was stunned. But he didn’t seem sick, I insisted. He kept working right up until the end. That’s when it hit me: he didn’t want his patients to know their doctor was dying of the same condition they hoped to beat. Dr. Grunberg didn’t want them to lose hope, even as his own situation grew hopeless. My sense of betrayal at not being told sooner melted away into gratitude. His silence was admirably selfless. The world – my world — is poorer without him.
When I revisit Fletcher Allen for my next appointment in January, I’ll see another oncologist who has replaced Dr. Grunberg on the trial I’d entered. Dr. Claire Verschaegen is a smart caring doctor originally from Belgium. I recognize signs of selflessness in her as well. Because I now have a standard against which to measure people’s worth. Because Dr. Grunberg gave me a new lease on life – even as his own lease expired.
David Kalish is a cancer survivor and author whose novel, The Opposite of Everythingwill be published this coming March. If you’d like to make a contribution in Dr. Grunberg’s memory, his family asks you make one to:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

An interview about my writing journey

Good morning friends. I'm so grateful to my fellow blogger and social media guru Crystal Otto for posting an interview today about my writing journey. Here 'tis:

For convenience, I'm copying and pasting here:

Interview with David Kalish, Novelist and Playright

Good morning, Muffin readers! I am super excited about today's post: an interview with David Kalish, Novelist, Playright and Friend who will be releasing his debut novel The Opposite of Everything, on March 11, 2014.

David Kalish is a novelist, blogger, and playwright with an MFA from Bennington College. His short fiction appears in many literary journals, his nonfiction in The Writer’s Chronicle, and a film of his won honors in festivals in the states and abroad. Before Bennington, he was a journalist at The Associated Press. He lives in upstate New York and is at work on a second novel, Stoner Hero, and a Latin-themed comedic musical, The Gringo Who Stole Christmas.

WOW: David, the main character in your book The Opposite of Everything is Brooklyn journalist Daniel Plotnick. I'm curious how you chose the name and the main character's occupation. Please give us a bit of back story if you would.

David: Before he was Daniel Plotnick, my main character had my name. That’s because my book started as a first-person memoir about my struggles with cancer and divorce. But over years of revision I decided the book worked better as a third-person comedic novel. So I chose a name for the protagonist that sounded Jewish, like mine, and a bit hapless, as I imagine myself. One of my roommates in college had the last name Plotnick, so I stole it. Because the character is based on me, he’s also a journalist – I used to work as a reporter and editor with The Associated Press in the 1990s.

WOW: David, I have a feeling that same thing happens more often than we may realize. I'm sure your roommate is flattered!

I know this book came about after your own personal battle with cancer and your painful divorce. Did you start journaling for therapeutic reasons, or what made you decide to put the pen to paper and when did you decide it was something you wanted to publish?

David: I’ve always written fiction, from the time I wrote my first poem in kindergarten, but my diagnosis of cancer in 1994 -- and the collapse of my first marriage it triggered -- gave me lots of material to mine. So my creative writing began to reflect those experiences. Sure, it was therapeutic in a sense. I think as a writer I try to make sense of painful situations by dramatizing them, giving them a narrative arc, a beginning, middle and end. It’s all about making lemonade from lemons, putting things in perspective. From the moment I began writing my book more than a decade ago, I’ve wanted to publish it. With each revision I sent the book out to agents and small publishers, and with each rejection revised it a little more. It wasn’t until early this year that it was accepted by a small but traditional publisher, WiDo. It’s been a long long journey.

WOW: So I guess I'm not being too terribly optimistic thinking my 5 and 6 year old might become writers since they do so well with poems and short stories. I'm sorry it took the collapse of your marriage to bring you back to creative writing, but I'm sure glad you're writing!

David, who has been your biggest supporter through the publishing process and what are some ways they have supported and encouraged your journey?

David: I would have to say my wife and daughter, in part because the characters based on them figure so prominently in the novel. They’ve been my second readers as I strived to create credible characters with three-dimensional lives and personalities. They’ve also been incredibly tolerant of the fact I need oceans of time to write, because I’m a perfectionist, to a fault. 

WOW: This definitely sounds like a family affair and labor of love! So... what's next for you? You seem like the type of person who is always busy and I have a feeling your next published works is likely already waiting in the wings - can you tell us more?

David: I’m revising my second novel now, and hope to complete it in the spring and send it out once my first one is published in March. Problem is, I’ve been so busy laying the groundwork to promote my first novel I have hardly any time to work on my second. But novel is called Stoner Hero. It’s a satirical comedy about an underground society that uses time management techniques, team building and sweat lodge retreats to help stoners lead more productive lives through weed.  I’m also a playwright. I’m collaborating with Alex Torres, the Latin musician and composer, on a musical comedy I wrote, called The Gringo Who Stole Christmas.

WOW: David, I'm so glad you're doing so much promotion since that is what brought us together. I cannot wait until your WOW! Blog Tour next spring!

Other than your upcoming blog tour and writing, what sorts of activities do you enjoy? Give us a peek into your personal life and what makes David Kalish tick.

David: I’m an early riser, and after a few hours of writing from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. I drive to a nearby forest with our two dogs. The three of us roam briskly between the trees for an hour. It clears my head and I often work out problems in my writing, and plan my day. I consider a good day when I also get in a walk in the afternoon. I guess I’m always writing, except when I’m cooking dinner, paying the bills, taking out the garbage, and spending downtime with my wife and daughter.

WOW: Now I understand why you are so happily married - not only do you take out the garbage, you cook dinner too? I love it! Thank you so much for sharing with us today. Readers - be sure to leave comments and ask questions as David will be checking in to chat with us today!

Interview by Crystal J. Casavant-Otto

The Opposite of Everything

When Brooklyn journalist Daniel Plotnick learns he has cancer, his fortunes

fall faster than you can say “Ten Plagues of Egypt.” His wife can’t cope, his

marriage ends in a showdown with police, and his father accidentally pushes

him off the George Washington Bridge.

Daniel miraculously survives his terrifying plunge, and comes up with a zany

plan to turn his life around: by doing the opposite of everything he did before.

Inspired by his own brush with cancer and divorce, novelist David Kalish

makes comedy out of his painful past to create a startling and surprisingly

philosophical story.

Paperback: 250Pages
Publisher: WiDo Publishing
ISBN-10: 1937178439


David plans on touring in April 2014. To view all our touring authors, check out our Events Calendar. Keep up with blog stops and giveaways in real time by following us on Twitter @WOWBlogTour.