Monday, November 30, 2009

Am I Thankful? Are You Kidding?

Last weekend was just about as wonderful a Thanksgiving season as anyone has a right to enjoy. On Thursday evening, seated around our sumptuous dinner feast, we instituted a new holiday tradition: We went around the table and asked each person to say what they were most thankful for this year.

A few tears were shed in the process, and I'm not ashamed to admit I may have dropped one or two into the turkey gravy myself. I think they finally had to ask me to shut up before the meal got cold. What am I most thankful for in 2009? How about everything?

You know how some years seem to blend into each other with the passage of time, and it becomes difficult to remember exactly what milestones happened when? That certainly never will be a problem for me when it comes to 2009.

It isn't every year that a guy gets married, loses a job, leaves the city where he's lived for 30 years, moves three times in six months, relocates to his in-laws' basement, becomes a co-parent to 9-year-old twins, passes out on the bathroom floor and gets hospitalized for a gash on his forehead, and has a catheter implanted in his midsection in preparation for kidney dialysis. Yeah, it'll be a hard year to forget.

Through it all, I'm extremely thankful for my health, odd as that may sound. I don't have to look too far to find people in much worse shape than I'm in, Vicodin is a miracle in terms of lessening the pain from my recent surgery, and all in all I'm feeling great. People who oughta know tell me I should
begin feeling even better once my dialysis begins and my body receives the help it needs to cleanse my system properly. I'm looking forward to finding out if they're right.

I'm also thankful for a wonderful, caring family that has taken me into its fold as if I was a prodigal son, expressing love for me in so many ways despite the physical infirmities I brought along as baggage.

But what am I most thankful for? That's easy. Anyone who has met my wife, Karen, comes away remarking about what an amazing person she is, and if you haven't met her, my sincere hope is that you get to someday.

Regretfully, I've had a bit of experience assessing wives in my lifetime, and no man could ask for a more supportive, loving, objective, cheerful, committed partner than the one God has blessed me with. There is no doubt in my mind that the Lord brought us together, because I cannot think of another possible scenario where a guy living in the 'hood on Detroit's East Side could meet and fall in love with a woman residing and working in central Illinois.

Karen is truly one of the nicest individuals I have ever known, and I am a better man today for having her as such an integral part of my life. Happy Thanksgiving to me.

And she can make some mean stuffing, too.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Wanna See My Scar?

Well, you can't. I haven't even seen it yet, and probably won't for at least a couple of weeks.

Here's what we all can see, the surgical dressing placed tightly over the site where my dialysis catheter was inserted, then taped down tighter than an Adam Lambert liplock. If you look hard, you can see the outline of tube that's now sticking out in the suburbs of my belly button.

The whole procedure went very well (or so I was told; I was out like a power shortage) and thank you all for your prayers and support. I could feel your encouragement.

I had to wait more than two hours in prep before finally being wheeled into the coldest operating room I can ever remember. Surgery in a meat locker; how invigorating. The delay did give me time to watch "Divorce Court" and "The People's Court," however, and allow me to extol the virtues of Xanax as a quality mood relaxer!

Dr. Neuwirth, the surgeon who implanted the catheter, said he was going to put me into "twilight" for the operation. It might as well have been "midnight." I remember remarking to him that his "third cousin," actress Bebe Neuwirth, is playing Morticia Addams opposite Nathan Lane in The Addams Family musical in Chicago through January. We chatted about that briefly; the next thing I knew I was in recovery. I love it when operations go like that!

So, like Uncle Joe, I'm a-movin' kinda slow, but I should be able to sit upright and take nourishment – especially with Thanksgiving just two days away! The tube is inside me now. The adventure continues.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Hole Truth

OK, I've really been obsessing over the implanting of my dialysis catheter.  I didn't want to annoy anyone – especially you – by whining and wailing about it the past few weeks, but I've really been able to think of little else.

This morning at about 10 a.m. EST, Dr. Michael Neuwirth, chief of interventional radiation at Carle Hospital in Champaign, Ill., (doesn't that sound impressive?) will cut open a new hole in my midsection, stick a wire inside it and use the wire as a guide to insert a tube into my peritoneal cavity. The tube eventually will carry fluid to cleanse my blood the way my kidneys would if they were working properly.

I realize I'm probably making a mountain out of a meatball, and the reality of the operation likely will be far less ominous than the horrors I've concocted in my mind. But I'm extremely sensitive to the fact that after today, my body image will be altered for a long time – possibly forever. And having a tube sticking out of your side changes the way you do almost everything, from taking a morning shower to getting dressed, to exercising – I'm not even sure I'll be able to sit the same way anymore.

I guess one fortunate thing is that I do have some personal history to refer to here. Back in 2002, my family doctor detected a lump in my neck during a routine physical and recommended I get it checked by a specialist. A year later, during my annual physical, my doctor asked, "Whatever happened with that lump?"

"What lump?" I asked, channeling the comedic timing of the late Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein.

(Those who know me recognize that I have a memory like a sieve.)

This made the doc pretty steamed, and he insisted I make an appointment with a specialist while I was sitting in his office. A week or so later, the ear, nose and throat surgeon gave me the news: He was going to have to operate and cut the lump out of my neck for examination.

I remember looking in the mirror the night before the surgery, staring at my face and thinking, "I will never, ever look this way again." The eight-hour operation went smoothly, the growth turned out to be benign, and the recovery process was painful but brief. I had a tube coming out of my neck and into a small bag at my side for nearly two weeks to collect excess blood and fluids while the healing took place.

Eventually, though, the tube came out (with a large sucking sound, as I recall), and today the scar behind my ear is virtually invisible. So as horrible as I thought having neck surgery was going to be, time truly does heal all wounds.

One unusual side effect remains, however: During the operation, surgeons had to remove my saliva gland along with the tumor. Now my body has never recognized the fact that the gland is no longer there, so every time I eat something particularly spicy or flavorful, the "ghost" gland on the left side of my neck begins to sweat. (Someone once said my neck is spitting, but that seems a bit distasteful.) I asked my doctor about it and he says he's never heard anything like it before.

So that operation made me unique long before the procedure I'm having today. If you think about it, though, send up a prayer or a few good wishes for today. And if I'm ever having a meal with you and you see my neck begin to perspire, you'll know I'm really enjoying my food.

Monday, November 16, 2009


I had a most productive and interesting five days in Detroit last week. In addition to meeting the dynamic and compassionate philanthropist Doreen Hermelin (see recent "Doreen" and "Rootlessness" posts), I spent a fascinating afternoon with a Detroit historian, John Green, who seems to be waging a valiant – but losing – one-man war to ensure the achievements of African Americans throughout Michigan history aren't forgotten.

I spent one evening "receiving visitors" at Dino's Lounge in Ferndale, MI, and caught up with two beloved friends I don't see hardly often enough: Bill Jentzen (left), my former assistant at Wayne State University, and Santiago (why he prefers "Jimmy" I'll never understand!) Martinez, who had been part of my life in Detroit for decades.

I spent an extremely enjoyable and constructive Wednesday morning in the office of my longtime friend Carolyn Krieger-Cohen, one of Metro Detroit's most creative and effective PR executives. In the course of three hours we came up with at least a half-dozen ways we could work together to support some of her clients and make me some money!

Thursday morning may have been the unexpected highlight of my trip. Got a call from my old friend Brian Pastoria, who with his brother Mark runs the Harmonie Park recording studios in downtown Detroit, asking if I could squeeze in time to come in and record the voiceover introduction to "Christmas in Detroit 3," their annual benefit CD featuring holiday songs recorded by local artists. He wanted me to do it because of my many years working with Detroit musicians in my role as a music critic. It's very nice to be remembered for past accomplishments, and may I add that I nailed the intro in one take! Yeah, I still got it!

I also ran into another great guy at the studio, Jimmy Risk, currently publisher of the online publication Your News Detroit. All in all an extraordinarily delightful visit!

               Jimmy Risk, Mark Pastoria, me and Brian Pastoria

And just before I dashed out of town, I got the chance to have lunch again with my "media lunch bunch," including Specs Howard School of Broadcast Arts VP Dick Kernen, marketing exec Michael Seltzer and the always delightful Terry Bommarito Holmes, who I've known since I first moved to Detroit in the late 70s. Let me tell you, we laughed until we cried – especially when I went into my shtick about the differences between Detroit and my current life in central Illinois.

             Me with Yoda (Dick Kernen), Terry Holmes and Michael Seltzer

Wherever I went, it seemed, I would hear someone say, "You look great!" as if they were more than a bit surprised. They would say it the way people say it to someone who's returned home after major surgery, or a person who'd dropped 40 pounds since the last time they were seen. And the people who made such exclamations later said that they had been reading this blog.

Made me think: I've got to start emphasizing the fact that despite my kidney ailments, I'm still feeling fine. I'm getting the sense my Detroit friends and acquaintances expect to see me on crutches, hooked up to filtration devices or rolling through in an iron lung!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Feeling Different

I didn't even know I was receiving comments on some of these blog entries until last week, when my wife pointed out that a number next to the word "Comments" at the top of the page meant that someone had responded to what I'd written.

Hey, I never claimed to be real bright.

So immediately I raced back through all my postings, from the very first, to catch up on the reader comments and reactions. Many were quite gratifying, and my sincere thanks to everyone who took the time to write back. But one recent note really stood out from the rest. I don't know if you have the ability to read the blog comments along with me (darn, I wish I was smarter), but in case you cannot I won't identify the writer by name. Suffice it to say the reply comes from a woman I do not know.

"Jimmy, if you are like me," she wrote, "the only time you feel like you are really different from everyone else is when the doctor looks at you and says, 'I don't think you realize how well you are doing for as sick as you are.'"

She goes on to describe her debilitating, life-altering affliction: ulcerative colitis with systemic disease that has affected her entire gastrointestinal system as well as her eyes, skin, liver and joints."I have been what I call 'real sick' intermittently over the past 20 years, but I do not think of myself as real sick," she wrote.

"Have you felt like people treat you differently after they find out? I have. Anyway, changes are hard, especially when they seem so invasive."

The funny thing about my condition is, I don't feel any different. At all. I think about it when I swallow my handful of pills a couple of times a day, but physically I feel exactly like I did before I knew anything was wrong with my kidneys in the first place.

But I understand what she's talking about with the reactions of other people. When they ask, "How are you doing?" you can sense the deeper meaning. Some people say it the way they would to a senior citizen in the hospital. And if you look into their eyes, often you can see the hint of sympathy, or concern, or pity, or – I'm not sure what the emotion is, and it may be different for different people, but you can tell there's something going on behind their faces.

That's why I try not to talk much about my kidneys or health (he says, writing about them in a blog). I try to politely answer questions when I'm asked, but I'd really rather talk about almost anything else. I get tired of thinking about it, and my condition is going to do what it's going to do. Talking about it isn't going to improve it, far as I know.

Sometimes, however, that approach will come back to bite me. I'll casually mention something about dialysis in a conversation, for example, and the person I'm talking to will say, "Dialysis? What? What are you talking about?" Then I realize I may have done too good a job of keeping the details to myself.

Thanks for that provocative comment, you-know-who-you-are. Keep 'em coming, y'all.


Well, I had an amazing first evening back in Detroit Sunday. Drove seven hours to spend 30 minutes with my interview subject, an amazing woman named Doreen Hermelin who I'm profiling for HOUR Detroit magazine. (See "Doreen," Friday, Nov. 6 post.)

A half hour was literally all the time she could squeeze in for me, as she was dashing to fulfill family commitments and business details before boarding a flight to Argentina this morning. I was happy and thankful for every moment. Writers know that face-to-face contact, however brief, still is infinitely better than telephone or Internet communication when you're assignment is to capture the essence of a person through words.

When I arrived at her home for the interview, however, I literally could not believe my eyes. You hear so many Chicken Little stories about the doom and death of Detroit that, even though you know better, you sometimes tend to forget that everyone here is not in foreclosure or waiting for their government bailout.

This is the view from the front gate of her home:

And yes, like a goober I stopped to take a picture, like those gawking tourists on the Hollywood home tour, because little brown people who grew up in Spring Lake, Mich., just don't get invited to places like this every weekend.

As I drove down the long, winding road, over the bridge for the creek that runs through the property and past the gigantic lawn sculptures, I kept looking over my shoulder waiting for security guards to demand some identification, then escort me off the grounds. When I finally got to the door, Ms. Hermelin took me into her dining room, an immense space dominated by a long table surrounded by 12 chairs. And there, in one corner of the table, was a tuna fish sandwich on rye she had prepared for me.

Now, in the 35 years or so I've been interviewing people for a living, I cannot remember any subject ever making me a sandwich. She said she was going to make it when we spoke on the phone as I was racing to her house, but I genuinely thought she was kidding. But as she repeatedly said, she knew I had driven a long distance just to speak with her, and figured I had to be famished.

(Problem with eating tuna fish sandwich while conducting an interview: hard to ask questions when your mouth is full, and you don't want to appear ungrateful by not eating it.)

As I drove away from this magnificent residence, though, I got to thinking. I love Detroit, and I always will; I became a man here, and there are so many fantastic people who live here that I'm proud to call friends. One of them, Larry Kaplan, who was the photographer for the first rock concert I ever reviewed for The Detroit News back in 1979, has devoted a room in his condo exclusively for me so I'll never have to worry about accommodations in my travels back to Detroit.

But this isn't home anymore. I'm so thankful to have a place to stay when I'm here, but I don't have an address to call my own after 30 years of living in this city. When I'm here, I long to return to the pastoral surroundings and endearing chaos of my home in Decatur. When I'm in Decatur, I'm girding up to return to the bustle and intensity of a working visit in Detroit. Right now, I feel like a man without roots. That will change with time, I'm certain, but it's a very strange sensation I've never experienced before.

About the only place I truly feel at home these days is behind the wheel of my car – usually driving between Decatur and Detroit.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Last month I was assigned a big feature by my editor at HOUR Detroit magazine, a profile of a southeast Michigan woman named Doreen Hermelin. I had heard her name before, but I think it's fair to say, especially since I now reside at the end of a road in Decatur, Ill., that we don't travel in the same circles.

I had other stories to finish before turning my attention to her article, and I knew I would need to sit down across from her in person, like Mike Wallace used to do on 60 Minutes, if I really wanted to capture the essence of the woman in our brief time together and embellish the story with detail. So, I figured, I would track down Ms. Hermelin this week, solicit her interest in doing the feature, then drive to Detroit sometime next week to meet with her.

Should be more than enough time, right? After all, I'm clearing an entire week on my schedule to meet with her for less than an hour. How busy can any one person be?

Well, did I ever find out the answer to that question! After finally locating Ms. Hermelin and getting her on the phone (no simple task in itself, let me tell you), the cooperative and very gracious lady explained that she was getting on a plane Monday morning to fly to Argentina on business, will travel from there to New York, and doesn't expect to be back in Detroit until a day or so before Thanksgiving.

Hokey Pete! I thought. It turns out, as you may know, that Doreen Hermelin is an internationally renowned professional fundraiser, national president of the educational organization ORT America, former U.S. ambassador to Norway and probably a dozen other things I don't know about yet.

After several minutes on cellphone negotiations, it was decided that she could squeeze in 45 minutes to talk to me while she was packing for her trip to Argentina – and after her grandson's soccer match on Sunday afternoon.

Nobody should be that busy, I thought to myself. Then again, every time we think our lives are too jam-packed and hectic, we run into someone like Doreen Hermelin and realize that by comparison, we're nearly in semi-retirement.

Yet with all that, she makes time for a grandchild's soccer game. I think I'm going to like her.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Tube Stake

Well, the die officially has been cast: After considerable negotiation (and a bit of whining on my part), we have set the date and time for the operation that will insert a permanent catheter through my midsection and into the peritoneal lining of my abdomen. It's 9 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 24, and if you'd like to send up a little Thanksgiving prayer about that time I certainly wouldn't oppose it.

My nephrologist, Dr. Attia, assures me that this doesn't mean dialysis will begin right away. But my kidney function continues to deteriorate, he says, and when the time does come he wants the dialysis port to be fully healed and ready for operation.

I think it never actually dawned on me that my recent consultation with Dr. Michael Neuwirth, the surgeon who's going to do the implant procedure, would mean plans were in place to do the operation so soon (see "The Doctor With X-Ray Eyes," Oct. 30). I'm not ready. I don't think I'll ever be ready.

When I got the call from Dr. Attia's office, I was told they wanted to do the operation next week. Whoa, too quick! Besides, I plan to be out of town on business next week. I suggested the week after, but Dr. Neuwirth is on vacation. (Whew.) That pushed the creation of my second belly button back to our current compromise date of Nov. 24.

If I've learned anything over this past year or so of infirmity, it's that the body is nothing more than a housing for our soul and spirit – and not a particularly sturdy one, at that. We spend so many years of our youth protecting it and pampering it, trying to keep it smooth and sleek, yet as we grow older we end up patching holes and replacing parts anyway. But there's something about this catheter that really has me rattled.

I think it's because an appendage sticking out of my gut might make me feel weaker, or sicker, more vulnerable – less whole. I had a very soft and intimate conversation with Karen the other night before we went to bed and suggested as much to her.

She looked me in the eye and said, "That won't matter, Jimmy. It'll just be something different. You'll always be sexy to me." What a magnificent life partner I have.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Taking Inventory

I think that any month that includes such phrases as "whooping cough," "overnight hospital stay for observation," "CAT scan," "head gash" and "unconsciousness" deserves a bit of quiet reflection once all the dust and blood have settled. So as we turn a page into November, and because so many of you have asked (thank you), let me give you an accounting of my current condition.

The vicious, body-shaking cough that led to all this foolishness is all but gone. And after a full week of uncontrollable hacking, I can't begin to tell you how welcome the sounds of silence are. The combination of cough medicine with codeine, a prescription cough drug called benzonatate and antibiotics, along with much rest and the natural passage of time, seemed to do the trick. (Antibiotics came into play because doctors at St. Mary's Hospital in Decatur elected to treat my illness as if it was whooping cough even though it probably wasn't, because the symptoms were so similar.)

The lump over my right eye, the result of my passing out in the bathroom at 5 a.m. last Wednesday and banging my head against the sink (I guess, since I was momentarily unconscious; someone could have snuck in the toilet and beat me upside the head with a socket wrench for all I know), has reduced to a swollen ridge behind the gash where I hit the sink, sort of like an eyebrow in 3-D. The cut was fastened at the hospital with super glue instead of stitches; the glue is starting to wear away now and there's an overwhelming urge to rip it away and see how well the wound has healed, but if I do I know there's a good chance my little blood geyser may erupt again.

         Me in St. Mary's Hospital, Decatur, IL, 10-28-09

My eyeball itself is still extremely red and bloodshot, very sensitive to light, and my right eyelid is swollen. I am astonished at how much resulting damage occurred after an injury above my eye. I shudder to think what would have happened if the blow had struck my eye directly.

I really haven't had much time to think about my kidneys the last couple of weeks, which in some ways may be a good thing, although I continued to take all my medications every day as well as the anti-cough prescriptions.

I still get very brief flashes of the body surges I felt just prior to my blackout spells (which I think may have been caused by a negative drug interaction on top of the coughing attacks), so I'm trying very hard to keep all my body functions under control. It's like I'm running system checks every few minutes. "Head OK? Lungs all right? Eyes? How you doin?'"

And before I forget, the arrival of November means that the HOUR Detroit magazine article I wrote in October regarding my kidney adventures is now available online in its complete version. So if you didn't have the opportunity to read the last half of the piece or were too frugal to buy a newsstand copy of the magazine, you can read the entire story at  HOUR Detroit_Best Foot Forward.