Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Can't Forget the Motor City

Today is a travel day for me. I'm driving from Champaign back to Detroit, about six hours, to spend a few days conducting interviews, checking in with editors, reassuring clients and assessing the progress of my new Web site, coming soon to an Internet near you. It's a round trip I take at least once a month.

Detroit is a rush of mixed emotions for me now. It's the city of my greatest victories and my naughtiest iniquities, the place where I became a man, the location where my career soared and swooned. For so many years, it was home. My residence now, in central Illinois, is as far removed from the Motor City as the east is from the (Mid)west. And in the few months since I've relocated, many acquaintances from Detroit and elsewhere have said something to the effect of, "So! You decided to move to small-town Illinois and leave your wild, flamboyant life behind, huh? Huh? Huh?"

While that was not the reason behind my address change, my simple response to them all is, "Yeah." I am far closer today to retirement age than drinking age. I spent my formative young adult years as the rock music critic in the home of Motown, Seger, Nugent and Aretha, writing for the largest evening newspaper in America at the time. I had the coolest job in America, if I say so myself. I sowed so many wild oats, I should buy a couple of acres around my new house. And if you're going to sow 'em, I say do it young, do it till you're satisfied and, if you survive, sit your butt down somewhere and cherish the memories. Cherish mode now.

I'm sublimely happy and calm in my new surroundings, and I believe my best writing is yet to come. Welcome to my Walden phase. I was saying the other day that I still get a rush of excitement when I  return to Detroit, but I predict there'll soon come a day when I arrive and can't wait to escape the noise and tumult of the metroplex to return to my little nest amid the cornfields. When that transition arrives, I truly will have more than a new address. I will have a home.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


My new blog already has inspired messages from many corners, some from friends I haven't communicated with in a long time. I received an e-mail last night from a dear acquaintance in Detroit who wrote, "(It's) oddly comforting in the way you're dealing with your kidney failure. ... If it's OK, how about a phone conversation? I'll call you, and if you're not up for it...."

Whoa, Nellie; back the truck up. I realize there is something about the word "failure" that sparks visions of hospital beds, tubes, monitors and Jimmy Cagney's last scene with his father in "Yankee Doodle Dandy." But don't start sending the cards and flowers just yet, please. The fact is, I feel fine. Except for the 10-15 pills I now take every day, I feel pretty much like I did before my condition was diagnosed.

That's the insidious part about kidney failure – scratch that, I hate that word; kidney "disease" – there's no pain. As my first nephrologist in Detroit, a delightful and intense little doctor named Fawaz Al-Ejel, once told me, "Your kidneys will never hurt. Pain won't indicate the severity of your condition." Great.

It sneaks up on you. You don't know you have it until you have it. That's why annual checkups, especially as we get older, are so critical. Often you can lessen the severity of a condition if it's detected early enough.

I think the big problem is the words used by the medical community. I particularly detest the phrase "end-stage" renal failure; makes it sound like you're already beyond the pale. Yes, my kidneys are failing, but they haven't "failed" yet. They're still in there churning, fighting, doing the very best they can. I'm sure it's going to get worse before it gets better, but for right now I'm holding my own.

So please don't conceive me as an invalid in your mind. I feel perfectly normal right now. Walked two miles with the girls after school just last night, in fact. Feel free to call, write, text, twit or e-mail. If I don't respond, it's not because I'm sick. I just don't want to talk to you. :)

My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you, too.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The End of the Road

I'm writing this entry from the sunroom of a lovely little house at the end of a short road on the outskirts of Decatur, Ill., (home of Archer Daniels Midland, "Supermarket to the World"). There are deep woods next door and behind the house, and cornfields are not far away. Around these parts, they are never far away. This isn't exactly the end of the world, but you can see it from here.

This is my in-laws' home, and it soon will be ours as well: After considerable prayer, discussion and rumination, Karen and I have decided to leave our place in Champaign, Ill., and move 50 miles west to Decatur to help my in-laws, Larry and Linda, co-parent the 9-year-old twin girls they have raised practically since birth, Emma and Madison. A drive-in garage has been converted into a new bedroom and walk-in closet, and Karen and I will set up the downstairs as our separate home. (She's writing a blog of her own about the experience, called Love Nest on the Prairie; you can read it at )

Emma and Maddie are typical 9-year-old girls; rambunctious, curious, chatterboxy. My in-laws are...well, nine years older than when they began parenting their second generation of children. Karen and I are committed to serving as the buffer, the DMZ for the well-being of both sides.

For someone who spent three decades amid the bustle and big-city energy of Detroit (which, despite what you continue to hear and read, is a wonderful city), this is the definition of culture shock. I remember the first time I went to visit Karen in Champaign and asked her about the large flat field next to her gated community. "Are they planning an expansion?" I wondered. "No, silly," she replied. "That's where the corn will grow." Stranger in a strange land, come in.

I feel far removed from the life I grew to know and appreciate, but the more I think about it, that may be why I'm here. I'm a firm believer in the will of God and that everything happens for a reason. Here, in this quiet and tranquil place, my body may be relieved of the everyday stress that urban living inflicts, and thus aid in my kidney preservation and overall health. When the loudest noise you're likely to hear is the spontaneous giggling of children, the end of the road feels like a very good place to be.

The precious reasons I'm moving: Emma, and Madison with me on Gull Lake.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


I can't allow too many of these notes to go by before introducing you to the most wonderful person in my world: my wife, Karen.

Actually, she's still my "new" wife Karen; we were married six months ago today (Happy Anniversary, Darling!) in an exquisite, romantic ceremony at a state park in Decatur, Ill. We met online (yes, just like in the eHarmony commercials – sometimes those things actually work!) and after a year or so of courtship she consented to be my bride.

She is the reason I have relocated to central Illinois after 30 years of living in Detroit. Bless her heart, she initially offered to move to the Motor City on my behalf. But she holds a responsible, rewarding position at the University of Illinois, and her family is here; I could not in good conscience tell her, "Hey, dump that high-paying position and come to Detroit, where jobs are hanging off the trees!" And here I am.

Actually, knowing the realities and the possibilities of my medical condition, I tried at one point to talk her out of marriage. If and when my kidneys continue to fail, I told her, the upcoming years may not be pleasant ones.

I'll never forget her response to me: "It doesn't matter if we have four months or 40 years together; the important thing is to make the most of whatever time we have." Awwww. Like she often says about me, I think she's a keeper.

So many people in your life, no matter how well intentioned, will talk a great game about what they'll do to support you in troubled times, then collapse like a Bernie Madoff investment when the trouble actually arrives. When I gaze into Karen's brilliant blue eyes, I  have absolutely no doubt that she will be  steadfast by my side in sickness and in health. I have never felt so much love from any one person since my mother passed away.

Kidneys, schmidneys. I am a lucky, lucky man. Thank you, Red.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

How It Happened

One of the many remarkable things about our kidneys – and believe me, I've done enough reading and research to go for my master's in kidney – is that they can go right along performing their vital functions –  filtering the blood, producing urine, eliminating toxic wastes, reducing excess sodium and potassium, manufacturing active Vitamin D – until they lose up to 80 percent of their normal function. Don't you wish you could do your job at full capacity while only exerting 20 percent of your energy?

Anyway, that's where I am now. At my last visit to my nephrologist (kidney specialist), warm and straightforward Dr. Abdel-Moneim Attia (ah-TEE-ya) at the Carle Clinic in Champaign, I learned that my lab work revealed my total kidney function had declined from 24 to 19 percent. Yikes. One doesn't suddenly regain function; kidney damage, I'm told, is irreversible. The trick now is to maintain what I have left.

How the heck did this happen? Some people damage their kidneys due to injury or trauma, diabetes, genetics, abuse of painkillers or other drugs. I, however, basically did it to myself, because I ignored for too long a condition all too common to African American men 30 and older: soaring, uncontrolled hypertension, or high blood pressure.

Your blood pressure should be somewhere around 120/80 to be within the normal range. Even with a battery of medications (and we'll talk more about pills later), mine is running around 135/90, but it's coming down steadily.

An emergency room physician at Providence Hospital in Detroit once explained it to me best, I think. "When your blood pressure is too high," he said, "blood just pounds against your arteries with every beat, as if you kept pounding your fist against a wall. Now, nothing might happen to that wall right away, but over the course of time if you keep pounding away, eventually you're going to damage that wall. Same with your blood pressure. Eventually, something's got to give." For me it was my kidneys, and what a mook I feel like today for not having manned up and dealt with the problem sooner.

People – especially men, especially black men – please do not do as I have done. If you are diagnosed with high blood pressure, do something to control it. Diet, exercise, medication – something. Believe me, ignorance is not bliss. Not forever, anyway.

Friday, September 25, 2009

So How Are YOU Doing?

I must say, I'm as surprised to be here as you may be. My name is Jim McFarlin, and you could have bet me a whole pile o' money that I would never have elected to write a blog.

I'm a writer by profession, you see. I've been writing for a living ever since I graduated from college, and the only time I can remember doing it for free was when I was still IN college, covering pop music for The Anchor newspaper at Hope College in Holland, Mich.

I know many fine wordsmiths who literally live to write: If they're not blogging, they're keeping a journal, working on a spec script or composing poetry. They seem so happy, so lighthearted. I've always envied them. Me, I grew up writing to live. If there was no paycheck attached to the project, I'd rather be in front of the tube watching a game. Any game, but especially a contest involving one of my beloved Detroit sports franchises.

About a year ago, however, something happened that changed my perspective slightly: I was diagnosed with Stage IV kidney failure. Now at Stage V, I'm told, you should start consulting with morticians and florists, so on balance Stage IV isn't too bad. We'll talk more about the illness later, but along the way Rebecca Powers, my wonderful editor at HOUR Detroit magazine where I am a regular contributor, asked if I would write a first-person account of my condition for their annual medical issue.

Now, I like writing about myself as much as I enjoy waterboarding, but after considerable prodding she talked me into it. The article came out in September 2009, and the reader response was unlike anything I've ever experienced – emotional, heartfelt and caring. It made me begin thinking that maybe if I talked about my condition in greater detail, other people might find comfort, or inspiration, or information...or SOMETHING that might help them in some way.

So here I am. HOUR Detroit, in its wisdom, never posts the online edition of its magazine until the newsstand sales have died down, so I don't expect to see the story on the Internet until sometime in October. When it arrives, I'll post a link to it and we'll kick it around a bit together.

My life has changed so dramatically in such a short time: In the last six months I've moved to a different state, from the city to the country, gotten married and assumed co-parenting duties for two amazing 9-year-old twins. Oh, and that kidney thing. We'll talk about it all eventually, I have no doubt. For now, however, welcome to my blog (I NEVER thought I'd read those words!) and let's see how our journey goes from here.