To my friends, colleagues, and readers:
Many of you have noticed my absence from The Kansas City Star. In fact, I haven’t had a byline there since Christmas. I’ve been on a long medical leave, one that was longer and more medical than I ever bargained for.
More on that in a moment. But let’s not bury the lede: I am happy to report that I am fully recovered and ready to get back in the saddle. As I do, however, I will be riding away from my employer of 15 years and life as a professional media critic. I’ll continue to blog and blab about media, but in the months and years ahead I will be pushing myself into the field of longform writing — essays and books — and embarking on some other projects that were impossible to even think about while in daily journalism.
If you haven’t got time to read another 1,400 words, will you do me this one favor? Join Aaronslist, my new announcement list that will send out emails on those very occasional occasions when I publish something or have some news to share. If you join, I will send you a free e-book (that you’ll actually read).
On February 17, 1994, I started my newsletter covering the TV talk-show competition that was, in those pre-9/11 days, blithely referred to as the “late night wars.” The novelty was that I was writing for the Internet, something hardly anyone was doing at the time, so it was easy to get noticed. Within three weeks the Village Voice was paying me to write a freelance column. A year later, I quit my day job.
So here I am again, leaving the security of a paycheck to do something new. It’s time. A memo from the editor-in-chief went out today to the staff, and included this farewell statement from me:
“First let me say how grateful I am for all the cards and emails of encouragement sent in the past few months, messages that I have read and re-read. Thank you as well to everyone who protected my privacy during this long healing process. Not only did I have a full recovery, but my clinical trial at NIH has given me a way forward with this chronic condition, so that I don’t have to fear the kind of debilitating relapse that sidelined me for much of the past year.
“Being sidelined, however, did give me a chance to contemplate what I might do with my life once I recovered. I realized that I had a strong desire to take my writing to the next level, and that this would likely involve stepping away from the world of mass media. In addition, there were other projects I have wanted to pursue but couldn’t because of my employment at The Star. In the end, the force of these possibilities proved irresistible.
“The irony is that I could only imagine leaving The Star because of all The Star has given me. Simply put, I would not be the writer or the person I am today had Steve Paul not called out of the blue nearly 16 years ago to inquire of my interest in coming to Kansas City. Though I am eager to do new things, my affection remains undiminished for this great newspaper and the community of FYI who supported me in sickness and in health all these wonderful years.”
About those projects, I don’t have much to announce right now, which is the reason I set up the cleverly named Aaronslist, so I can let you know when there is news. But I will say that a couple of projects are collaborations with my wife Diane Eickhoff, including a travel guide to the Border War region that should be ready for sale by the spring.
I know there have been questions asked about the secrecy with which I conducted my recovery. Many of you will recall that this was not my first struggle with hairy cell leukemia. After my initial diagnosis nearly 12 years ago, I shared my story freely. I even kept a cancer blog. (That too was a novelty; David Handelman devoted a column to it.) I would come to regret my openness, because much of what I shared turned out to be wrong. I was told recovery would be a snap. Instead, the initial round of treatment failed, I broke up with my doctor, I got myself into a clinical trial in Texas, and though I recovered, staying healthy meant frequent visits to the cancer clinic — something else I hadn’t been warned about.
What I learned from all that was that when everything else in your world seems to be spinning out of control, the one thing you can control is your story.
So this time around, once I decided I needed a leave of absence, I shared my news only on a need-to-know basis: my employer, my colleagues in FYI (the features section), relatives, select friends, and church. Diane generously gave of her time to act as the gatekeeper, sending out email updates to the need-to-knows and replying to the many messages of support and concern. This sounds more coordinated than it was; we patched together the network as best we could. I apologize to those of you I overlooked who probably should’ve been in the loop.
I figured I would share the news with everyone else after I recovered. But recovery took twice as long as I had anticipated, thanks to an opportunistic infection that sidetracked my clinical trial and made my life hell for two months until doctors could identify and tame the beast. I wish I could tell you I caught that sexy superbug floating around NIH, but it turned out to be a bad case of histoplasmosis, one of the most common fungal infections in the Midwest. I probably got it from gardening.
Throughout my ordeal, Diane remained by my side, sleeping on couches and pull-outs at the hospital, being my advocate when I was too sick to think clearly, running errands and interference for me. For that matter, the only reason I’m feeling great today is because she — not I — pushed for new options after it had become clear to her that my treatments in Kansas City were no longer working. Thus began the search that led me to NIH, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
The person in the first picture is Jon H. It was his cancer blog that made me aware of the clinical trials underway at NIH. Jon strongly urged me to contact Robert Kreitman, the person I’m standing with in the other picture.
Kreitman has been at NIH since 1988, researching immunotherapies for the National Cancer Institute. It’s a cliche to be in awe of your healer, but even among patients not prone to doctor worship, Kreitman commands respect. In part that’s because he’s chosen to specialize in a disease that’s diagnosed less than 1,000 times a year. “I trust my oncologist,” one of his patients told me, “but as he put it, ‘I’m a leukemia expert … Kreitman is a hairy cell leukemia expert.’ There aren’t many of those in the world.” Mainly, though, Kreitman is revered for his total commitment to getting you back on your feet. There hasn’t been an hour of the day, including 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., when we haven’t talked or exchanged emails. In every crisis, he was there when I needed him.
And this is Jesse, one of my nurses at the NIH Clinical Center, where I spent nearly four months as an inpatient. I wish I had taken more pictures of the nurses who were so helpful and kind to me: my research nurse, Rita Mincemoyer, who retired after 39 years on Thursday (I was her last patient); Kerry Ryan and Kathy Singer, the nurse-practitioners, who made up for the relative brevity of doctors’ visits by talking and listening for as long as was needed to understand my condition and treatment; and, last but not least, all the excellent nurses on 3 Southeast-North, among them Laura, Mike, Tammy, Amber, Amanda, Jeany, Judith, Roxanne, and Jesse.
Friends, if everything run by the government was as well-run as the NIH Clinical Center, even our enemies would have to admit we were the greatest nation on Earth.
Well, that’s it for now. As I say, I’d like it if you joined Aaronslist, and I’ll make it worth your while to do so. I’ve resumed daily blogging on Twitter, so look for me to scratch my media itch there (don’t be surprised if you also see links about gardening, climate change, Greensburg, and religion). I’m using Facebook for what it’s meant to be, a place to yak with my neighbors and friends. If you want to join me there, be sure to send a message with your friend request saying you saw me on TV Barn.
And if I go missing from those platforms, it’s probably because I’m reading a book!