Friday, December 17, 2010

Who You Callin' Ugly?

The Decatur Ad Club, which I joined last year to increase my local business connections and get out of the basement occasionally, held its first "Ugly Sweater Christmas Party" this week. Because I wanted to be perceived as a participating member of my new group and share in the holiday spirit, I decided not only to attend, but to jump into the competition with both feet. Or sleeves.

I rummaged through three local thrift shops looking for potential knitted nightmares, but came up empty. (I subsequently learned that Ugly Christmas Sweater Parties have become such the rage that you need to start shopping for appropriate garments around Labor Day or pay outrageous last-minute desperation prices to online merchants. To my surprise, my dear friend Laura Foti Cohen has a Web site/blog devoted to ugly Yuletide sweaters and similar follies at

I shared my disappointment with The Wife upon returning home, and probably shouldn't have been surprised by her response. "Oh, honey, you don't need to go shopping for ugly sweaters," Karen cooed. "You already have at least one great candidate in your closet."

(As infuriating as it is to have your wife call out anything in your wardrobe as hideous, men take note: women will almost always think any clothes you bought without her guidance or held over from previous relationships are pitiful and offensive.)

She dashed into the closet and hauled out my "rainbow sweater," a multi-striped, hand-me-down crewneck I usually wear around the house for comfort's sake. "This is the one!" she declared, to my chagrin. Then she cheerfully set about making it even more gruesome, if that's possible.

She sewed a few old Christmas ornaments around the neck of the sweater, including a curiously effeminate little elf she said was one of her earliest childhood holiday decorations. Then, for the coup de grace, Karen attached a string of battery powered Christmas tree lights around the sweater's collar with a remote control switch that could conceal under my clothes to switch on, off or on flicker mode. (The preferred setting, of course.) I was girded for battle.

Because she'd now spent time and care in the preparation, Karen became invested. "I hope you do well, honey," she said, coupled with a facial expression that added, "Don't you dare come home without winning this thing."

The party-slash-contest was held in the library room of the Decatur Club, the city's hoity-toity downtown meeting address. I took a cautious look around the room. The competition was scattered about, and potentially formidable, but I felt confident I could compete. (Some of the challengers are pictured below.) I flipped the switch on my ring of necklace lights to "flicker."

Illinois Congressman Bobby Schilling, who was attending an affair next door, agreed to come over with two of his colleagues and serve as judge. He was wearing a Christmas tie that, had it been knitted and sprouted sleeves, easily could have given me a run for the money.

Schilling to me: "That is one damn ugly sweater."

Me to Schilling: "Thank you, Congressman. And the same to you."

Schilling and his associates conferred, votes were cast and – I WON! I WON! I received a small framed plaque that now holds a position of prominence on our mantle, a chocolate Santa (no jokes, please) that I gave to our 10-year-old, Emma, a PEZ dispenser (don't open it – collector's item, you know) and a miniature ugly sweater that supposedly doubles as a decorative bottle warmer.

Best of all, I got to feel a little bit closer to some people here in Decatur, my address now and for the foreseeable future, with the holiday spirit.

And I got to go home that night.

 I didn't think this one was particularly "ugly," just interesting. Or should I say, "festive"?

I thought this was my stiffest challenge, especially with the antler accents.

         Ladies and gennemen, THE WINNAH!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Flashes From the Frontline

The Wife says I write these blog entries way too long. They're not even blog posts anymore, she claims; they've become "blarticles," a term I hope she copyrights before it becomes all the rage in cyberland.

"They don't all have to be complete, touching essays," Karen says. "Some of them can be just paragraphs." You think she'd know me by now, wouldn't you? I gots a lot to say! And, unlike writing for other publications and their editors, here no one can tell me when to stop! Whoo-HOO!

Still, I believe Karen may have a point, possibly. Maybe. A little. So today I'm going to briefly (I hope) mention a few topics I think are worth sharing with you in bullet-point fashion.

• Happy(?) Anniversary: December marks one year since I started on PD, Peritoneal Dialysis. So far, I'm feeling fine. Hallelujah!

It's Alive! Alive!: Baxter Healthcare, the Illinois-based colossus that manufactures and supplies my dialysis materials, has just launched a new consumer Web site called Live Now: Rethink Kidney Disease. According to its home page, Live Now is "a movement to start living on your terms, with hope, optimism and strength. Kidney disease doesn't define your life – you do. It's time to get up, get out and live for today."

I am proud to say I was asked to serve as a contributing editor on this breakthrough project. The marketing folks at Baxter knew I was a professional writer (in the sense I can actually find people willing to pay me money to write stuff) and that I travel quite a bit for work while maintaining my Peritoneal Dialysis (PD) routine on the road, so they recruited me to create the main articles for the site.

I wrote pieces on traveling with PD, working full-time while on PD and (heh, heh) maintaining intimacy while on PD. (I consulted with Karen for the last one. Thankfully, she agreed it was possible!) The theme of the articles, and the site itself, is, "Yes! Yes! Whatever you did before you contracted kidney disease you still can do while on dialysis!"

The funny part was, when I got the assignment I approached it very seriously. I did my research, compared other articles on the subjects and wrote my first drafts in a very straightforward, scholarly manner. I'd forgotten that the people at Baxter read this blog, too. "There's something wrong with this," they said upon receiving the first draft. "It's not...funny enough! It needs more Jim in it! Are you all right?"

"You mean, you want it goofier?" I asked, incredulous.

"YES! We want you to write it like you write Just Kidneying!"

And so I did. Or tried to, anyway. You can be the judge. I thought about reprinting the articles here, but I'm sure my new clients at Baxter would rather I send you to their site. It's

I'm on Board With This: The miracle of the Just Kidneying blog continues. I have been asked to volunteer to sit on PACt, the Patient Advisory Committee for Baxter Healthcare. (I have no idea what the little "t" stands for.)

That sentence construction is correct: "asked to volunteer." Apparently, the way it works is, Baxter can't reach out and solicit people to join their advisory group. Looks a bit suspicious, like they're stacking the deck in their favor. But if you express some interest and tell Baxter, "Hey, I've got some opinions (I am a critic, after all), and I want to join your board!" then they can extend an invitation to become a member.

As I understand it, representatives from the R&D (research and development) and marketing departments will give presentations on their newest endeavors, and we get to provide input about how far off base they are. As a living, breathing dialysis patient, I hope to provide some real-life insights about how practical their innovations really are. The next meeting is in March 2011.

If you're a dialysis patient (or even if you're not) and would like to add your voice, shoot me a message; I will try to let you know what the bigdomes at Baxter are thinking and solicit your feedback. Think of me as your union rep!

In Praise of the Olfa Touch-Knife: Several months before I started PD, Karen and I were shopping at a Michigan outlet mall and on a whim we bought two Olfa Touch-Knives at the checkout table. They are marvelous little devices, about an inch-and-a-half wide with a retractable blade as sharp as an editor's pen.
They also provide the only real enjoyment I derive from this tedious dialysis process – slicing open the drainage bags after a fluid transfer and watching the liquid gush into the sink or toilet like a waterfall. It's exhilarating!

Sadly, during one of our recent road trips, I lost one of our knives. Crap! I went on the Olfa Web site, but they want you to buy like 100 or more to get an online discount. I only want one or two. So if you spot an Olfa Touch-Knife at any checkout counter or housewares store in the near future, buy a couple for me or let me know where you found them.

Cut me in, so to speak.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Toughest Decision

I was in the middle of a deliciously hot shower not long ago, singing lustily to some bygone '80s hit (probably by The GAP Band), when my mother-in-law came into the bathroom and thrust her cell phone behind the curtain.

She dropped a bomb on me, baby.

"You MUST take this phone call!" she announced.

"Uh, I'm kinda wet, soapy and naked at the moment," I replied. "This can't wait five minutes for me to dry off?"

"NO!" Mother-in-Law declared. "You have to take it RIGHT NOW!"

I understood the reason for her urgency moments after I took the receiver. My wife, Karen, was on the other end. The transplant office at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, where my kidney case is located, called her when they couldn't find me. And how could they? I was singing in the shower!

The hospital had located a replacement kidney for me.

My eyes began stinging, and not because soap was dripping into them. Apparently, a gentleman from Detroit whom I had never met (and whose name won't be repeated here out of respect to his family), upon learning of his terminal illness, designated in his will that I was to receive one of his kidneys.

I've wracked my brain ever since trying to recall any part of my past where his name might be familiar, but come up empty. I can only assume he may have read my medical confessional in HOUR Detroit magazine a year or so ago, or somehow became aware of this blog. However it happened, the thought that a complete stranger personally chose me to receive a life-giving organ upon his death is beyond humbling. It's overwhelming. Praise God.

Since Karen was still in her office, she set up a three-way conference call between her, the transplant coordinator and me. The coordinator explained that the kidney being donated to me fell under what they call the "extended criteria" category. It was a match, but the donor was eight years older, suffered from hypertension (high blood pressure) and had a history of smoking in his past.

"Geez," I thought, "this sounds like my own kidneys, only with more mileage."

If I wanted the kidney, they would start to make arrangements for the transplant operation straightaway. If I decided not to take it, there would be no harm, no foul for me because of the condition of the organ; I would simply be placed back on the transplant waiting list. Whatever I decided, I had to give my answer immediately, if not sooner. The kidney was being harvested, and if I didn't want it, someone else could benefit from the transplant.

I asked the coordinator if we could have a little time to make our decision, and she agreed. (And it is our decision, by the way; the entire family lives with kidney disease, suffers through a transplant operation and assists in the recovery. Everybody gets a vote in this election.) Take as long as you like, she said. You can have a couple of hours.

I thought I had agonized over other major decisions in my life, but they were easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy compared to this. I tried to contact my kidney specialist, Dr. Attia, for a second opinion but couldn't reach him. Karen and I talked intensely, and my mother-in-law had a few more words of wisdom for me once I was out of the shower.

We prayed. We discussed. We debated. Then we prayed and discussed and debated some more. Ultimately, the verdict would be mine.

Two dizzying hours later, I had made up my mind. My decision might have been different if I was in worse condition, or if I wasn't coping so well on Peritoneal Dialysis. But somebody else might need that kidney more desperately right now, and I could afford to wait for a younger, healthier, more ideal organ to come along.

I called the transplant coordinator back and politely said thanks, but no thanks.

It was a gut-wrenching call to make. I felt as if I was slapping a dead man in the face, spitting on his final wishes. Think about his family, Karen offered. They've probably gone through so much already with his illness and death, and rejecting his kidney is almost like you're rejecting him, and the rest of them as well.

Thanks, honey. That helps a lot.

For what it was worth, at my next scheduled appointment with Dr. Attia we discussed my decision at great length. He agreed with my thought process. If some surgeon is going to cut you open and stick a foreign object inside you, he said, do it once, do it right, and do it with the best organ you can find.

Which doesn't mean I don't think about that man I never met and his amazingly selfless offer every day. Did I insult his memory? Did I make the right choice? Who can say for sure?

And what if that perfect kidney never comes along?