Monthly Archives: April 2012

Memories of Miss Patton

My very first class at Huntington College was Honors Writing. Most freshmen took English Composition, but about 20 of us, probably based on our SAT scores (I never signed up for the class) were placed in Honors Writing. Two of my best lifelong friends, Brian Hughes and Ted Doolittle, were also in that class.

The teacher was Miss Edwina Patton. At that point, she would have been 60 years old. From the start, she spoke with enthusiasm. I’m just delighted that you’re here and we can spend the semester together, and oh, we’re going to have a good time and learn a lot, and I was at this writing seminar over the summer, it was really good, and I wrote this story I’m just dying to tell you about, and let’s get started.

She dressed meticulously, wore perhaps too much lipstick, and seemed just a tad eccentric. But I loved Miss Patton.

Miss Patton was also my faculty advisor. Every semester, I met with her to finalize my next semester’s schedule. She always spent a lot of time going over my options, offering advice, and calling around to make sure the classes I wanted were still open. She put a lot into it, investing herself in me. My friends would tell of quick, cursory meetings with their advisors, who basically just signed off on whatever the student had figured out. Miss Patton was not like that. She cared deeply.

But that was only part of what made her a special advisor. Throughout our meeting, she would shower me with affirmation. As we talked, she would throw in a comment to the effect that she liked me, that I had a lot of talent, that she enjoyed reading my assignments, that I had a great future ahead of me, that it was a pleasure to be my advisor. I always left her office covered with warm fuzzies, feeling exceedingly good about myself. I had just been with somebody who thought I was special and would go out of her way to help me.

There was also some mystery to Miss Patton. She was single, never married, yet she was attractive and smart and talented and kind and utterly likable. I understood that she lived in Bluffton, Ind., with her sister Elizabeth, also a teacher. What was her story? I never heard and never asked, but always wondered.

I don’t know how much potential Miss Patton actually saw in me. At that point, I was just a fairly ordinary student who showed real motivation only in her classes. She didn’t know I would go on to a career in writing. But partly because of her continual affirmation (coupled with a fair amount of conceit in this particular area), I came to believe that I was a genuinely gifted writer.

Miss Patton was in my grandstand, watching my progress and cheering me on. And that continued long after I graduated.

She was excited when I told her I would become assistant editor at the United Brethren Headquarters. “Oh, you’ll do just marvelous,” she would say. And, of course, I believed her.

Miss Patton stopped teaching in 1978, after 18 years at HC, but just couldn’t separate herself from the college. Over the years, I ran into her seven or eight times at Homecoming, Commencement, plays, and other college events. She was always excited to see me, greeting me exuberantly. I would tell her the latest things I’d done and where I’d been published, as if she were my mom and I knew she’d be proud. And indeed, Miss Patton would practically burst with pride, affirming me all over again. Though no longer my teacher, she remained in my grandstand.

Interestingly, even though my ability and credits quickly exceeded Miss Patton’s, I still looked to her for affirmation. Maybe because I knew I would get it. It’s hard to overdose on affirmation.

A teacher can have a tremendous influence not just on a student, but on a life. Few teachers exercise that influence, as Miss Patton did for me. When Miss Patton died at age 82, she left an empty seat in my grandstand. I want everyone to know that I was, and still am, in Miss Patton’s grandstand.

 

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Book: “The Good Soldiers,” by David Finkel

The Good Soldiers (2009) opens with this paragraph, and you immediately realize you’re in for a literary treat.

His soldiers weren’t yet calling him the Lost Kauz behind his back, not when this began. The soldiers of his who would be injured were still perfectly healthy, and the soldiers of his who would die were still perfectly alive. A soldier who was a favorite of his, and who was often described as a younger version of him, hadn’t yet written of the war in a letter to a friend, “I’ve had enough of this BS.” Another soldier, one of his best, hadn’t yet written in the journal he kept hidden, “I’ve lost all hope. I feel the end is near for me, very, very near.” Another hadn’t yet gotten angry enough to shoot a thirsty dog that was lapping up a puddle of human blood. Another, who at the end of all this would become the battalion’s most decorated soldier, hadn’t yet started dreaming about the people he had killed and wondering if God was going to ask him about the two who had been climbing a ladder. Another hadn’t yet started seeing himself shooting a man in the head, and then seeing the little girl who had just watched him shoot the man in the head, every time he shut his eyes. For that matter, his own dreams hadn’t started yet, either, at least the ones that he would remember, the one in which his wife and friends were in a cemetery, surrounding a hole into which he was suddenly falling; or the one in which everything around him was exploding and he was trying to fight back with no weapon and no ammunition other than a bucket of old bullets. Those dreams would be along soon enough. But in early April 2007, Ralph Kauzlarich, a US Army Lieutenant colonel who had led a battalion of some 800 soldiers into Baghdad as part of George W. Bush’s surge, was still finding a reason every day to say, “It’s all good.”

Isn’t that some amazing writing?

The Good Soldiers follows an army battalion during their 15-month stint in Baghdad, at the beginning of the surge. These soldiers were stationed in a bad neighborhood of Baghdad (was there a good one?), and under almost constant assault. Here’s a lot of military lingo to identify who exactly they were: 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, also known as the “2-16 Rangers.”

David Finkel, a Washington Post reporter, was embedded with this battalion in 2007. The year before, he won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles about a US effort to encourage democracy in Yemen. The Good Soldiers made just about everyone’s list of the best books of 2009.

The central character is Ralph Kauzlarich, the battalion commander. He’s a good guy, very competent, a veteran soldier. He knows what he’s doing, and is a real leader.

Before the tour was done, 14 soldiers had been killed, and we are privy to the details of every death. Many others–many–are wounded. We watch as numerous explosive devices ravage vehicles and maim the occupants. Legs and arms and hands are sheared off. This happens over and over and over, and we watch. It becomes excrutiatingly disturbing…which is Finkel’s point. This is what American soldiers dealt with constantly. We need to know. One soldier took a sniper’s bullet, but all of the other deaths came from explosive devices.

We come to understand counter-insurgency tactics, and how they worked and didn’t work. We see the frustrations of working with Iraqi leaders, while getting acquainted with some highly admirable and heroic Iraqis who risk their lives for Americans.

We follow David Petraus to Washington to be grilled by showboating Congressmen, and watch him deal admirably and calmly with the circus.

We follow Kauzlarich to San Antonio, to the amazing Brooke Army Medical Center. There, he meets with a number of his soldiers who are recuperating; most have lost at least one limb. One soldier had lost all four limbs. These are moving, troubling encounters. Again, it’s a product of war-waging which Finkel want readers to understand. But the hospital, with its Wounded Warriors program and its Center for the Intrepid, is also an inspiration. In dedicating the facility, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated, “There are those who speak about you who say, ‘He lost an arm. He lost a leg. She lost her sight.’ I object. You gave your arm. You gave your leg. You gave your sight. As gifts to your nation. That we might live in freedom. Thank you.”

Back in Iraq, we read in detail about the time two journalists, their cameras mistaken for weapons, and Iraqi civilians are attacked by a US Apache helicopter, an incident caught on tape and made scandalously famous. Eight men were killed. Finkel was there. His account is captivating.

I was halfway through the book before I realized something unusual Finkel was doing.

David Finkel

In War and Generation Kill, two other excellent books about the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, the authors did a great job of bringing soldiers to life. We were told what they looked like, their mannerisms, their childhood, their families, what they were doing before before entering the military–everything about them. Their ethnicity, obviously, was an important element in the character portrait–black? Hispanic? American Indian? Most reporters follow this approach. I would.

But Finkel didn’t. He never called attention to race or ethnicity. Never described someone as African American, or Hispanic, Asian. Never even called attention to class–if they came from a poor, middle class, or wealthy home. They were just soldiers. When he gave background information, it was race-neutral and class-neutral, able to apply to a white or black or Hispanic, rich or poor, southern or northern, urban or rural. Being a good reporter, Finkel knew everything there was to know about these soldiers. But while he was able to describe them as compelling individuals, he left race and class out of it.

This also applied to gender. He never identified a soldier as a woman. He didn’t write, “The doctor, a woman, applied a tourniquet….” No, he wouldn’t call attention to gender. He would just write, “The doctor applied a tourniquet, and then she….” You learned it was a woman only when he used a feminine pronoun.

To Finkel, everyone was just a soldier. A “good soldier.” It was a fascinating, and effective, choice.

In the very back of the book, I eventually discovered photos of the soldiers who were killed, all 14 of them. Photos of a few other soldiers were scattered throughout the book. Only then did I know ethnicity. And you know, it didn’t make any difference. They were just soldiers, doing their job and dying for their country, sometimes in horrible ways.

This was a remarkable book, as I had heard it was. There are many books by embedded reporters or officers which tell the story of individual units in Iraq or Afghanistan. I’ve read several–Joker One, War, Generation Kill–and they are all excellent. I don’t want to say The Good Soldiers is better than those books, because they are all well-written and engaging, and leave an emotional wallop. But there is, indeed, something special about The Good Soldiers.

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My War on the War Metaphor

We’ve got a real live war in Afghanistan, part of the larger War on Terror. We had a second war in Iraq, but we’re putting it behind us. However, there is a lot of desire to start a new war in Syria or Iran or both.

Point is: we have real wars.

We don’t need to invent new wars.

  • Hillary Rosen’s stupid, and much apoligized-for, comments about Ann Romney gave rise to charges of a War on Motherhood.
  • Comments by Rick Santorum and Rush Limbaugh incited charges of a conservative War on Women.
  • Every fall, FoxNews obsesses over an alleged War on Christmas, which is all part of a larger War on Religion.
  • Liberals, citing denials of evolution and climate change, imagine a conservative War on Science.
  • Conservatives, who most like the war metaphor, also talk about a liberal/Democratic War on the Constitution and War on Freedom.
  • People talk about a War on the Rich, or a War on the Poor, depending on your political persuasion. All part of Class Warfare.
  • Both parties accuse the other of a War on the Middle Class.
  • It seems like forever that we’ve been fighting the War on Drugs.

I weary of this endless faux war-mongering, this War of Words. I’d like to declare a War on the War Metaphor. As with all of those Hitler analogies, we’re going way overboard.

Truth is, these wars are mostly just policy differences. I’m a Mac guy, but that doesn’t mean I’m waging a War on PCs. It’s just a personal preference. I don’t like spinach, little yappy dogs, Facebook Timeline, or the New England Patriots, but I’ve not launched any kind of war, declared or undeclared.

War is a terrible thing. When we describe policy disagreements as a war, we diminish the real deal. Just as describing political opponents as Hitler or Stalin diminishes the true evil of Hitler and Stalin.

So let’s stop it. No more wars. Just Afghanistan. Let’s fight that war, fight it well, and get it done. Everything else is just a difference of opinion.

(Postscript: Just watched the Monday night edition of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He riffed at length on this same subject. But hey, I was first!)

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My Miniere’s Surgery, Two Years Later

Just looking at this photo gives me vertigo.

Exactly two years ago today, I was in Indianapolis preparing for surgery. An endolymphatic shunt was implanted behind my left ear. I don’t know how big it is, what it looks like, what it’s made of, how it works, or exactly where it’s located. But it has changed my life.

I was diagnosed, back around 2004, with Miniere’s Disease. It’s an incurable ailment characterized by vertigo, and it comes and goes. You feel fine for a while–weeks, even months–and then you enter a period in which you feel like you’re swimming in cloudy water. The only thing you can do involves diet–limiting salt, caffeine, and alcohol. A fourth trigger, stress, isn’t always something you can control.

Along with Miniere’s Disease comes vomiting. Your head is spinning, and up comes supper. Happily, I’ve not had a vomiting episode for a whole year. The last time was around the middle of April 2011. Strange that my life is timelined around vomiting episodes, but that’s the way it is. Going a whole year is pretty amazing. Other Miniere’s sufferers would consider that extraordinary.

The endolymphatic shunt simply relieves pressure that builds up in the inner ear. All it takes is to push a drop or two of liquid into the shunt. From there, it is absorbed into the surrounding membrane. That’s as much as I understand and can explain.

Now, I’m in no way “cured.” That’s not gonna happen. I have noise in my left ear all of the time–usually just low-level static, but it can get much louder and more tone-like. My hearing in that ear is probably around 30%. My right ear is fine; Miniere’s normally only affects one ear.

I also watch my salt and caffeine intake. Especially salt. When I’ve had too much salt (like a pizza), the ear noise increases. The difference now is that it doesn’t lead to full-blown vertigo, with consequent vomiting. I can almost sense the shunt kicking in–what would in the past have led to vomiting now magically dissipates.

Not that I don’t experience vertigo. It’s still there, in milder forms. I’m not real steady. When I ride my bike and look behind me, I feel like I’m gonna fall. There are times when things get wavy and wierd, and during the past year I’ve had a couple very minor cases of nystagmus (a quick fluttering of the eyes, which causes the world to spin around you, rendering you nonfunctional for a few seconds).

But, it’s been a huge improvement, and I’m grateful.

Miniere’s isn’t cancer. There are some extreme forms, but for most people (like me), it’s something you can live with. But you need to adjust how you live. Like, no frozen food (which is huge in sodium).

There are several surgical options, including totally removing the inner ear machinery. The endolymphatic shunt is the least invasive, and has a 90% success rate (70% after 3 years‚). For me, it seems to be working. I just hope I’m in that 70%. Another year to go.


My various posts about the surgery:

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Book: “Sixkill,” by Robert Parker

Sixkill is the last Spenser novel written by Robert Parker before he died in 2010. Or the last “completed” novel, as the publisher puts it. Whatever.

I discovered Spenser around 1983, with A Savage Place, and was immediately hooked. I caught up with the seven Spenser books written before A Savage Place, and have read every Spenser (and Jesse Stone, and Sunny Randall, and Cole & Hitch) book since.

Alas, an era has handed. So Sixkill was to be savored.

Sixkill centers around Jumbo, a disgusting, 400-pound movie star with every vice and personality annoyance known to man. After having sex with a young girl in his hotel room, she dies there in the room, and everything points to Jumbo being the killer.

But Quirk, one of Spenser’s friends on the force, doesn’t think he did it, and he asks Spenser to poke around. Spenser turns up some things, including a connection to West Coast mobsters, who’d rather Spenser went away.

That’s the plot to be solved. Hawk, as it turns out, is in Asia doing something or other. The usual crew put in an appearance one way or another–Tony Marcus, Ty-Bop, Chollo, Bobby Horse, Henry Cimolli–but Spenser is on his own to deal with the Bad Guys.

Except for Zebulon Sixkill, a hulking Cree Indian who began the book as Jumbo’s bodyguard but got himself fired. Spenser takes Sixkill under his wing, and the relationship becomes very much the Spenser-Hawk relationship. Typically, Hawk and Spenser engage in delightful faux street-lingo banter about honkies and the ghetto and such, most of it wholesale politically incorrect. Now we get the same banter, with a Native American twist. Cracks about Tonto and Pocahontas and Custer and whathaveyou. It’s a great deal of fun.

Sixkill also fills the Hawk role in covering Spenser’s backside against the Bad Guys.

Usually, Parker sticks closely to first-person narration. But early in the book, he diverts from that to give us Sixkill’s backstory. It’s divided up into probably five or six sections, always in italics. I didn’t really care for that. Maybe I’m a creature of habit, and this wasn’t what I was accustomed to. On the other hand, I know much more about Sixkill than I know about Hawk. Perhaps Parker, at age 77, was entering an experimental stage.

About every fourth chapter involves just Spenser and Susan talking, eating, and flirting. I didn’t find it as tiresome as it sometimes gets. However, I noticed that their dialogue repeatedly hit the same points. Spenser would mention the danger he faced, and did that bother Susan, and Susan would reply, “It bothers me, but that’s who you are. You wouldn’t be you if you didn’t face it.” We heard that over and over. And it’s not like the same themes hadn’t been struck in previous books.

Beyond that, it was a good book. Sixkill is a great character, a welcome addition to the motley pantheon.

A guy named Ace Atkins was hired to write new Spenser books. Since this is billed as Parker’s last “completed” Spenser novel, maybe Atkins will complete some books where perhaps Parker had sketched out the general idea. Although Parker said he never mapped out his plots; he just started writing, and the tale went where it went.

I don’t have high hopes that Ace Atkins can capture Parker’s style, but I’ll give him a shot. Atkins’ first Spenser book, Lullaby, comes out May 1, 2012. As always, I’ll wait a year for the paperback to come to Sam’s Club.

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Rush Pleads His Case with God

So Rush Limbaugh appears before God, who asks him the question he learned from Evangelism Explosion, “Why should I let you into my heaven?”

Rush: Do you really need to ask? I mean, I’m Rush.

God: Just a formality. Humor me.

Rush: Well, I promoted your cause for 30 years to millions of Americans. Probably more than Billy Graham ever talked to.

God: My cause being….

Rush: The Republican party, of course. Conservative politics. Freedom, democracy and the American way, especially as it relates to the rich people who, by being rich, are obviously your favorite people.

God: As opposed to poor people who I clearly don’t care about, else they wouldn’t be poor.

Rush: Exactly. Like you said in the Bible, “The poor you will always have with you, so just ignore them.”

God: That’s not quite what I said.

Rush: I may be taking some liberties, but I know you don’t mind, if the cause is right. Most people don’t question me.

God: Not used to accountability, are you?

Rush: Nope. That’s why I never let anyone on my show who might question my utterances.

God: Let’s backtrack. You said my cause was the Republican party.

Rush: Or conservative politics, which is embodied in its purest form only in me, but is more likely found among Republicans. Most definitely not among Democrats.

God: So I’m a Republican?

Rush: Very funny. Of course you are. All American Christians know you’re a Republican. At least, all real Christians. Not those phony moderates and liberals who call themselves Christians.

God: Okay, I’ll play along. So what exactly did you do for me?

Rush: I spent three hours every day for over 30 years criticizing people and destroying reputations, even if it meant having to make stuff up about them. We’re talking liberal scum. And I convinced millions of listeners to despise and hate the people I told them to despise and hate.

God: And you’re proud of this.

Rush: Sure. I was quite successful. You wouldn’t believe how many people blindly believed whatever I told them.

God: And that’s a good thing?

Rush: The whole ends-and-means thing. Anything goes, as long as we elect conservatives.

God: So let me get this straight. I want my followers, a holy and separate people, to spend three hours a day listening to somebody do nothing but criticize other people?

Rush: No need to thank me, really.

God: Let me ask you something. If you have an employee there at the EIB Network who is constantly complaining and whining, constantly criticizing, never has anything positive to say–what would you do?

Rush: Probably fire him. Or her. It would probably be a woman, obviously. Can’t have that type of attitude infecting the rest of the staff.

God: But it’s okay for people to listen to you constantly complain and criticize?

Rush: Apples and oranges, God. Not a valid comparison. You know that.

God: I’m not sure I do. Help me with this. You think I want people to subject their minds to continual criticism of other people? That that brings honor to me?

Rush: If I’m criticizing Democrats, sure. Especially [wink] Islamic presidents.

God: In Philippians I tell people, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” You would say that doesn’t apply to the Rush Limbaugh Show, because you are fulfilling a higher purpose?

Rush: Am I missing something here? What’s with the grilling?

God: Just trying to understand why you and your listeners think I approve of how you spent your life.

Rush: It’s not like I’m the only one. Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Dick Morris, Karl Rove, Michele Malkin, Ann Coulter–we’re all dedicated to totally tearing down the opposition.

God: As are Keith Olberman and Ed Shultz.

Rush: I don’t know how anyone can listen to those guys. Constantly criticizing anything Republicans do. Who wants to pollute their minds with that garbage? Why don’t you just send a lightning bolt and fry their sorry you-know-whats?

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