Making the Most of Having Been the Least of These —Granite Leaders Program

“Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”

—JC, as quoted in Matthew 25

In my previous life, I ran an agency that provided housing for formerly homeless veterans and food and clothing for anyone who came to our doors. I’m never going back to Liberty House, of course, but I haven’t shut the door on future leadership positions with social-service agencies. In short, I am now a columnist, a memoirist, and a modified hermit in a Tiny White Box in New Hampshire’s Great North Woods. The future is a big place, and may well include anything short of a career as a midget wrestler.

While running Liberty House, I had certain advantages that other agency heads may have lacked. I am an alcoholic and addict, making it easier to establish rapport and identification with folks who are still active or, like me, in recovery. I’ve been homeless, and have lived as a “client” and as a “resident,” viewed by staff members as a bundle of “issues” instead of as a human being struggling to find my way back to normal. As a formerly-homeless alcoholic veteran, I see things very differently from leaders with more traditional backgrounds. I may have a master’s degree, writing skill and some speaking ability, but it was my life as a person in need that informed my day-to-day decision-making.

As it happens, the Granite Leaders Program sponsored by the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness, has asked me to speak briefly about my use of media. More honestly, Cathy Kuhn (GLP/NHCEH, pronounced glip-ne-ceh) finds me amusing in a lowered-companion way and occasionally enlightening when I stop cracking wise and demonstrate wisdom. She’s asked me to talk about—although she wouldn’t put it this way—how I’ve managed to get so much publicity mileage while still remaining a chucklehead.

The Granite Leaders Program is my kind of organization. Cathy has identified homeless (or recently homeless) (or one-step-away-from homeless) folks who have some leadership skills and a desire to change the world, beginning with homelessness in New Hampshire. My presentation will likely consist of a few anecdotes starring me as a dumb guy, then a few more featuring me as a mensch, with a theme of “How to tell stories people want to hear—and how to get the media to act as a loudspeaker.”

As a former teacher and principal, I’ve got more material than I’ll be able to cover in 45 minutes, so I don’t know if I’ll get to the six principles below. They aren’t written on tablets, but I do think they provide a good overview. If you don’t have time to read on—in which case, I wonder what kind of life you’re living and would suggest you reexamine it before it drifts away—a simple summation can be found in Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies,

you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-

“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Principles for Agencies Working with Homeless (or nearly homeless) Folks

1. Look at everything you do through the eyes of the folks you’re paid to help

Think about what it’s like to be homeless or nearly homeless. Almost every minute of almost every day is filled with contempt for you. I’ve lived without teeth, and folks who met me seemed to believe a lack of dental work indicates a significant loss of intelligence and moral fiber. When you’re homeless, no one wants you around—not the shopkeeper, not the librarian, not the school crossing guard, no one—so the agency from which you seek help should be different. Being kind costs nothing, so do it.

When you’re homeless or nearly so, you may still have a job, even a job that requires you to be there during regular working hours. As an agency, keep your hours as flexible as possible, so you can help the largest number of people. There’s no reason, if you offer health care, for instance, that your clinic can’t be open from Noon until 7 six days a week, so folks can be served at a time convenient to them, not simply to your staff.

2. Go through every agency process as if you were a person needing your services

I mean this literally. Have every employee experience what your services are like, without any special treatment. If people need to wait three hours on line at your food pantry, make sure every staff member has had that same boring frustration—although almost none of your employees will have that empty-belly boost to irritation the working poor often carry with them. Make it part of your agency’s culture that the needs of the needy come ahead of the needs of the staff.

3. Model respect and regard for every person coming through your doors. Demand this of every one of your employees.

At Liberty House, I fired two different case managers within a six-week period for disrespecting folks coming through our doors for food, clothing or shelter. The employees hadn’t insulted or denigrated the folks; they’d simply been dismissive and discourteous to them. Treat every person who walks in your door as if they were your twin, and you won’t go wrong.

4. Have as few policies and procedures as possible. Write them in plain English, understandable by a typical fifth grader, and follow them.

“The more laws, the more criminals” is the kind of thing you find in fortune cookies, I know, but it happens to be true. You and your staff need to focus on the people coming in through your front doors, not the rule book being generated in a back office.

5. Get to know the people who come to your doors. While you can’t know every person intimately, choose a diverse group of folks and know them as friends—their names, their families, their circumstances, their stories. If you’re thinking of Joe and Magda and Francis and Takeesha, you’re less likely to think of “clients” or “consumers” or whatever bloodless euphemism your agency prefers.

6. Be honest and forthright about what you can do and what you can’t. Remember to undersell and overdeliver—many folks you work with see you as their last best hope to get through the week and back into the game

Please, be kind.

More Rejected Book Titles—My Favorite Columns to Write!

The secret to having good ideas is having a lot of ideas and discarding the bad ones. Titles have always been difficult for me. Whether for songs (“Out-of-Town Tuna Fish”), albums (Songs from the Zen Baptist Tradition), poems (“Drowning in the Fountain of Eternal Life”), stories (“Let Me Begin Again”) or novels (What Trouble Looks Like), I’ve always agonized over titles. Believe it or not, the above are what was left after I’d thrown out the bad ones.

I’m currently writing a memoir, a thriller and a love story, so I need three good titles.

Here are a hundred-and-one I’ve rejected so far:

1. A Smuggler’s Guide to Body Orifices

2. Changing Your Eye Color with Bleach: A Doctor Speaks Out

3. Whatever Doesn’t Kill You Can Still Leave You Paralyzed

4. Asparagus and Urine: A Scratch-N-Sniff Book

5. The Dummy’s Guide to Counting

6. Change Your Fingerprints and Change Your Plea

7. Cleaning with Fire

8. Dental Problems You Can Cure with Pliers

9. A Child’s Guide to Surgery

10. Calendar Colander: Straining Spaghetti through April and May

11. Christmas Gifts for Your Secret Family

12. Tax Strategies for the Indigent

13. 31 Ways to Attract People

14. 32 Ways to Make People Leave You Alone

15. Ankles: How Many Do You Really Need?

16. A Kid’s Guide to Adultery

17. An Adult’s Guide to Kidnapping

18. Choosing the Right Peanut Butter: A Hollywood Insider’s Guide

19. Your Dreams Determine Your Dreams

20. Diarrhea Diorama: Art Projects Using ALL Your Senses

21. Why All Scorpios are Big Meanies

22. Learn to Read in 31 Days

23. This Hurts Me More Than It’s Hurting You: Suing Your Victim

24. Ex-Boyfriends and Castration: A State-by-State Guide to the Law

25. The Little Golden Book of Arson

26. The Bobbsey Twins and the Lindbergh Baby

27. An Agnostic View of Fish

28. A Book of Common Slayers: Obscure Murderers

29. Toaster Recipes for a Crowd

30. No Little People: How to Stop the Coming Midget Apocalypse

31. Cold Feet: A Guide to Warm Socks and Wedding Wear

32. 101 Euphemisms for Passing Gas

33. Jokes about Foreigners in Their Own Language

34. Ash Trays and Ass Trays: Where to Put Your Butts

35. How Your Imaginary Friends are Out to Get You

36. Where to Go When You Need an Alibi

37. Recipes for Things That Are Not Food

38. Friendship Shouldn’t Hurt: Home Anesthesia

39. Why Just 26?—The Lost Letters of the Alphabet

40. How to Grow Taller Using Just the Items in Your Wife’s Digestive System

41. A Man Walks into a Bar: A Choose Your Own Punchline Book

42. Reading Your Own Entrails

43. Nancy Drew and the Mystery of Life

44. The Dog-Shaped Rug: Let that “Sleeping” Dog Lie!

45. Napster Made Me Do It: 137,671 Songs I’ll Never Listen To

46. The Hardy Boys and The Andrews Sisters: Va-Va-Va-Voom!

47. Downsizing? These 25 Books Will Show You How!

48. Lose Weight through Not Eating

49. Toast Sweat: A Christian Explanation

50. What If Shakespeare Had Been Left-Handed: A Lengthy Thought Experiment

51. Why Does Daddy Cry?

52. What Happened to My Old New Daddy?: Parenthood in an Age of Serial Monogamy

53. Change Your Lightbulbs and Change the World!

54. Tiny House Living on $350,000 a Year: It CAN Be Done

55. Virgin Martini Recipe: How to Make Ice

56. Queen Victoria Never Ate Pasta: The Case Against Globalization

57. It Was Just a Tap: An Emergency Guide to Hiding Bruises

58. Claim Your Last Meal Now!

59. The Idiot’s Guide to Primary Colors

60. No Atheists in Foxholes: Killing the Nonbeliever Combatant

61. Fried Clams Were Not Served at the Last Supper

62. Things to Do When You’re Trapped in a Hole

63. Jesus and Vegas: A Believer’s Guide to Card Counting

64. Don’t Be So Sensitive: A Conservative Guide to Race Relations

65. YIKES: 27 Things to Be Afraid of

66. A History of Flashlights

67. Ali Baba Alibi: If 40 Thieves Got Away, You Can Too!

68. The Snickers without a Toothbrush Diet: Lose Weight Through Losing Your Teeth!

69. What Do You and Daddy Do at Night?—A Pop-Up Book

70. An Illiterates Guide to Tarot Reading

71. Don’t You Want Me Baby: Songs You Only Know the Chorus To

72. If I’d Only Known: Partial Prophecies and Predictions

73. You’ve Got to Understand: A Liberal’s Guide to Recovering from a Mugging

74. I Want Your Used Q-Tips!

75. Some Things to Hide in Your Socks

76. Kissing Your Sister: Stop at First Base!

77. Time Travel Tips for Ghosts

78. Unsolvable: Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of Bugs Meany’s Disappearance

79. Rabbit’s Feet are Only the Beginning: Talismans Made from Pets!

80. Butt Pimples or Messages from Beyond? A Connect the Dots Book

81. Satan and Satin: Trading Your Soul for Comfortable Sheets

82. Songs That Can’t Be Hummed

83. Cake Decorating and the First Amendment: Is Your Baker Liable for Libel?

84. Drink Your Way to Sobriety!

85. Things You Can Accomplish without Leaving Your Chair

86. A People’s History of People’s Histories

87. Things to Make You Feel Old

88. Feeling Bad? Buy This Book!

89. Untraceable Wedding Day Pranks

90. Feeling Good? Buy This Book!

91. Fighting Fliers with Fliers: Combat on Your Laundromat Bulletin Board

92. Feeling Meh? Buy This Book!

93. How to Tell if Your Dog is a Democrat

94. Ampucoffee: How to Get off Caffeine for Good

95. Our Bodies, Our Shelves: Home Decorating with Surgical Waste

96. Home Tongue Repair

97. Acid Flashbacks as a Legal Defense: Walls Melt and So Do Jailhouse Bars

98. “In My Day” and Other Phrases to Repel Teenagers

99. It’s Not Murder if He Survives: Home ICU Construction

100. Plot Summaries of Famous Paintings

101.Battle of the Elmers, Volume 1: Fudd vs. Gantry

President Trump, I Want to Praise You—But You Make it Damned Near Impossible

Let me open my computer’s figurative kimono and tell you a little bit about how I work. I use an old MacBook, and on my desktop is a “Ready to Publish” folder and columns in various states, ranging from Nearly Completed to Just a Title to Somewhere in Between. Among the latter is a column I’ve started a number of times, tentatively called “In Praise of Donald Trump.” Really! I want to give the President credit for the things he’s done well, but like a puppy who keeps on jumping on the table, Mr. Trump keeps on upsetting things before I have a chance to offer praise. For example, I think the President’s State of the Union Address a few weeks ago was a good, solid effort. While there were a few pieces of red meat thrown to his base, overall it was a perfectly good speech. A couple days ago, I got three or four paragraphs into writing my encomium, when all of a sudden I heard a sound bite from the President suggesting Democrats who didn’t cheer good news during his speech were “treasonous.” I have heard the White House has labeled Mr. Trump’s comments a joke.

Oh.

As a man who has always been willing to lower his standards for a laugh, I’m sympathetic to joking around in front of an audience. Still, there are some untouchable subjects. For instance, in public I wouldn’t joke about a priest, nun or minister being in league with Satan. I wouldn’t accuse anyone of molesting children. I wouldn’t joke about another man’s genital size.

I also wouldn’t joke about treason.

As I understand the word, “treason” involves trying to overthrow one’s government. aiding its enemies in time of war or murdering its leader. Its definition has not grown to include failing to cheer for your political opponents. Oh, yes, the penalty for treason is, I believe, execution. To death. For good.

So, I still want to write that “In Praise of Donald Trump” column, and maybe I’ll have a chance to regarding a solution he brings to the potential government shutdown. Perhaps he will demonstrate Solomon-like wisdom and help Democrats and Republicans come together. I hope so. And if he does, I promise I’ll write and post that column right away, before he has a chance to yank it away from me.

ADDENDUM

A few weeks ago, I posted the column below, but I need to update it again, now that President Trump has used the word “treason” to label Democrat politicians who didn’t applaud or stand up during his State-of-the-Union address. Having no access to video, I only listened to the President’s speech, and don’t know the opposition’s optics. Since I haven’t heard of any raising their middle fingers or baring their backsides, though, I must assume their disregard was standard political nonresponsiveness, the kind seen, one imagines, from the beginning of our republic. They were borderline rude and unsupportive, not treasonous.

+ + +

In real life, I’ve got friends from all over the political spectrum. From Trotskyites (really) to borderline fascists, I’ve shared meals, walks and weeks with men and women far from my center-left point of view. After all, even the communist may be a pleasant companion while hiking, and the John Bircher may be a good chess player and conversationalist—until the topic of fluoridation comes up.

With social media, the field becomes even broader and weirder. I’ve also got Facebook Friends who are outside any spectrum, any measure of political conservatism or liberalism. This last sentence can be read as “thanks to the First Amendment, people can spew poisonous nonsense all the live-long day.” Or “free speech is protected; freedom from bat-shit craziness is a pious dream for some.”

So . . . I’m a defender of people’s right to rant and rave while recognizing that’s what they’re doing. That said, I have grown tired of the word “treason” being used to mean “an act of which I strongly disapprove.” Just now, for example, my Facebook feed showed a picture of New Hampshire’s two senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, labeling them “two treasonous gutter rats” for not voting for a budget bill unless it included provisions for DACA participants. Now, I think it’s disingenuous bordering on dishonest for Democrats to use a government shutdown to force action on a particular issue, particularly given the party’s holier-than-thou rhetoric five years ago when Republicans did the same damned thing. Not only is it ethically suspect, I think it’s also politically stupid, for the inconvenience—real or imagined—of a shutdown will simply make immigration reform more difficult.

While I like the sound of “treasonous gutter rats,” I like accuracy and honesty more. Stupid, short-sighted political grandstanding is not treasonous; it is stupid, short-sighted political grandstanding. Using the harsh and crime-tinged label “treason” simply cheapens the word, which carries, by the way, the death penalty as a possible punishment.

Before you send me notes of support, my Democrat friends, let me point out another hyperbolic use of the word treason. In Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, Steve Bannon calls “treasonous” the meeting at Trump Tower among Russian emissaries, Russian attorneys, Russian translators, Russian pop-music impresarios and three high-ranking Trump campaign officials, two of whom are related to the president. That meeting was not treasonous, for we are not at war with Russia (cyber doesn’t count), and anyway they discussed adoption of Russian babies. Trump, Jr., Kushner and Manafort may have been criminally stupid, but they were not treasonous. No matter what laws they may have broken, they are not traitors and should not be shot.

And what a happy thought that is to begin the week! In these two cases, neither Democrats nor Republicans are treasonous and bound for execution. I do dearly love my country and its possibilities, but I’m often reminded of Chesterton’s “Saying ‘My country right or wrong’ is like saying ‘My mother drunk or sober.’”

Storm Warning! Get Me Oatmeal! STAT

A hermit’s life is easy—you just assume the worst, prepare for it and move on.

According to the weather report, Pittsburg is scheduled to get about a foot of snow tomorrow. When I lived among others, I had a bunch of calculations to make. How will this affect my drive in to work? Where do I need to park tonight? Do I have enough cold cereal to survive a day? If the electricity goes out, how will I live without Wi-Fi?

Living alone with Sam (is a dog) in the Tiny White Box in the Great North Woods, when I read about the storm coming, my preparations were all physical, all easily accomplished in about two hours and caused no emotional stress at all. Let me explain.

The Tiny White Box is located close enough to a bunkhouse at Warriors@45North so I’ve plugged in a heavy-duty extension cord to an outside outlet. This provides the juice for my day-to-day life. It powers the radiator, coffee pot, microwave and wall outlets. Because the power does occasionally go out, I’ve got back-ups for everything—propane-powered heater, propane burner for coffee and cooking, deep-cycle battery for lighting. At nine a.m., I began my preparations.

First, I plugged in the deep-cycle marine battery to check its charge. First thing, it was at 43%. Two hours later, it’s at 83%, so I’ll let it continue charging until it’s at about 90. This will give me about a week of draw to the overhead lights, which are really bright. Maybe I wouldn’t want you to operate on me, but there’s enough illumination for me to take out your appendix—as long as it was properly labelled. Light is really important, of course, so I’ve also got three bright flashlights and plenty of batteries. Even without deus luxit, Keith will be able to say “let there be light” for the duration of any power outage. I then plugged in everything that can be charged—computer, phone, battery packs, so I’d be able to eke out an electronic and technological existence for a while.

Last summer when I began this life, my friend George gave me a liquid-filled electric radiator. Being hubristic instead of realistic, I scoffed at the idea, telling George I’d use propane instead. George was right. I was wrong. The radiator provides soft, even heat that keeps the Tiny White Box at a comfortable 65 to 70 degrees no matter the temperature outside, serving as a temperature gyroscope, if that makes any sense. When I’ve had to use the propane heater, there’s nothing like steady heat. The Big Buddy burner, designed to heat a two-bay garage, I think, has two settings, High (aka The Hottest Pits of Hell Itself) and Low (aka A Steel Furnace Running Full Blast). Either setting takes the chill off; unfortunately, that happens with all the subtlety of a haircut with a hatchet. Still, the Big Buddy is my backup, so I checked the propane supply—full five-gallon tank and 10 or so one-pound camping cans for the cooking burner—fired it up and immediately shut it down to keep from hyperthermia. While the radiator is a gyroscope, keeping the heat balanced, Big Buddy rolls the heat up and down like a mercury-filled egg. Still, all is ready on the heat and cooking front.

I made a 12-cup pot of coffee, to ensure proper caffeine consumption, and checked the stovetop percolator just in case. Everything in order. Looking in the larder, I’ve got plenty of oatmeal—enough for about three weeks—soup, canned spinach, Ritz crackers, dried fruit and a megalithic chocolate bar I bought at Trader Joe’s for just such emergencies. Likewise, the water supply is adequate—five gallons or so—and even I, a Boy-Scout-in-Disgrace, can manage to transform North-Country snow into potable water.

Although I drink my coffee black, and typically make my oatmeal with water, I did have a hankering for some half-and-half, just in case, so I drove to Young’s Store, swapped gossip for a bit with neighbors and picked up the cream. I also made another purchase, one I know will knock my rural cred down a bit. I bought a 10-oz. jar of Polaner All Fruit (seedless raspberry) with which I will sweeten my already decadently-rich oatmeal.

I am prepared for a terrible, awful, no-good, very-bad storm, and will ride it out in sweetened, creamy oatmeal.

A Thousand Words about Seven Pictures

Sean McDonald of “Chronicles,” the WMUR TV show, after visiting the Tiny White Box last week for a segment, contacted me to ask for some photographs of me over the years. It seems I only keep pictures of people I can’t see in the mirror, so I only have one photograph of myself from before 20013, my high-school picture. I told Sean to feel free to do a Google Image search, but I knew he wouldn’t find anything earlier there, either. Still, Sean asked me to send him what I have, so I did.

Obligatory Promotional Paragraph:  The segment on the Tiny White Box is scheduled to air Tuesday, February 13, at 7 pm on Channel 9, Manchester, NH. While I’m having dinner with a friend in Manchester at 5 or so that evening, I have not decided where or whether to watch the show. If you’d like me to attend your Chronicle Watch Party, please contact my management agency.

Looking over the six or seven pictures I sent Sean, it became apparent I am a shape-shifter, or at least no two pictures of me are definitely of the same person. Bear in mind that all the photos that follow (other than the yearbook one, obviously) were taken within the last five years, yet the person within them doesn’t look like me, and none of them look like each other. I’ve never thought I was photogenic, but I’d at least I’d assumed I was photoconsistent. Apparently, I was wrong. Still, I may not look the same over time, but I am the same person. Or at least that’s what I want me to think.The quick tour of the last five years is presented in chronological order, but that’s the only organizing principle I can find.

(The accompanying text is from a recently declassified report from the House Intelligence Committee on Keith Howard and his role in the 2016 election.)

IMG_1439This  picture, taken in the fall of 1975, looks, like all yearbook pictures soooo innocent. I mean, no one ever looks at childhood photos of mass murderers, tyrants or serial jaywalkers and says, “Look how evil he was even then.” While Howard has quote from Bob Dylan under his picture and a suitably boyish nickname, at the time he said in writing his goal was to work toward the overthrow of the United States government and was voted “Class Revolutionary” and “Class Clown.” Yet he still managed to get a security clearance and serve in the United States Army. Could it be the FBI has been corrupt for decades? And have the Joseph McCarthy Army Hearings been officially terminated, or is it possible to perhaps bring back Tailgunner Joe from his drunken afterlife?

The picture on the right, likely showing Howard receiving instructions from his “handlers,” whether a foreign government or an extraterrestrial contact, was taken in January 2015. Where have the glasses of 1975 gone? Human vision does not repair itself, yet Howard seems to have shed the only device known to aid sight! Howard is IN FACT a consumer of an approved Affordable Care Act alternative (aka OBOMAcare). Sneakily, Howard’s chosen option is the very Veterans Administration health care he would have been denied if the FBI had prevented him from enlisting in 1976!

By March, 2015, as shown in the picture on the left, Howard had traveled from New Hampshire to San Francisco, California, a distance of more than 3,000 miles! California, of course, is a bastion of Clinton supporters, and Howard may well have met some of 
them under the guise of what he called “a family trip with two of my daughters.” Note the larger nose and determined look on Howard’s face. Was he perhaps dreading the transformation to come before the next image?

 

Forty years after that high-school yearbook picture, and six months following the pensive and forlorn image in San Francisco, Howard looks amazingly boyish in this picture, taken in September 2015! My God, man, he looks younger than he did in 1

975! Could it be he sold his soul to become Peter Pan, never aging, but always ready to lead a so-called “Lost Boys” gang, whether made up of teenagers or formerly homeless veterans? Or is it something even more nefarious? Something involving politics? Something involving his long-suppressed dream to overthrow our government? Although the 2016 election was still more than a year away, Howard’s nose is already significantly smaller and his hair has grown out to be more “stylish.”

 

This television screen grab from a CNN (aka Fake News) Town Hall is what’s known in adult film-making circles as the “money shot.” Here, Howard on national television, embarrasses Senator Bernie Sanders by asking the only candidate running against Hillary (The Beast) Clinton why no Democrat presidential candidates have visited the facility for homeless veterans Howard runs. Clearly Howard’s question was planted by that she-demon Clinton and her minions, helping Howard achieve his mayhemic teenage dreams. Howard must have wanted Hillary Clinton to be elected president of the United States—how else explain his treatment of Clinton’s rival? In fact, Howard went so far as to be a registered Republican and vote for John Kasich in the NH Primary, demonstrating there is no depth to which he would not sink.

In July, 2016, in a New Orleans hotel lobby. Howard smiles smugly, believing he has accomplished his plan. Looking like some talk-show host whose program has just been regionally syndicated, Howard exudes confidence. After years of fruitless work, Howard believes he has undermined America and made it possible for a treasonous, liberal (but I repeat myself) pantsuit-wearing woman to be president.

What Howard couldn’t know was that shortly after this picture was taken, he would be brought to justice in the Garden District by Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club and Defender of the American Dream! By the fall of 2016, with the help of great patriots in Moscow and Milwaukee, order would be restored, Clinton would be

vanquished and Howard would be sentenced to a year of wilderness reeducation in the Great North Woods.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Frigid Saturday Morning Hike

At 0 degrees Fahrenheit, with a projected midday high 10 degrees, Sam (is a dog) and I went for a long walk this morning. In the interest of full disclosure, a long walk on a February morning is significantly shorter than the same journey in September or November. Back then, we’d begin the day with four or five miles, heading home only when forced by my desire for oatmeal and more coffee. This morning’s walk, on the other hand, was only about two miles. In terms of discomfort inflicted, though, today’s wins hands-down.

Sam, in addition to being “is a dog,” is a boxer/lab puppy, short-haired and lean. Although he’s got a sweater, he refuses, out of vanity, to wear it. I think he thinks it makes him look fat and less dogly. His only defense against the cold is to keep moving, and since his gait is a high-stepping prance, in frigid weather he bounces down the path like a drop of water on a pancake skillet. While he’ll occasionally veer into the deeper snow of the woods, following who-knows-what scent, he typically likes to keep his underbelly well away from that damned cold white stuff.

I made up for Sam’s nakedness by wearing layer upon layer: t-shirt, Henley, sweater, vest, parka. This kept my trunk warm, and flannel-lined khakis protected my legs, and my feet were protected by the same Timberland hiking boots I’ve worn in the desert, the Grand Canyon and along Hadrian’s Wall. When it’s this cold, I don’t bother with winter boots, if that makes any sense, because nothing melts so I don’t need to worry about sogginess. Despite the main parts of my body being protected, the mittens I wore still allowed in some cold, and the knit watch cap on my head was entirely unsatisfactory—this special pleading can be called WHINING, though, since during my time at Liberty House I met dozens of folks who were living outside with only the donations we provided them.

Part of our walk always takes us past the home of Sam’s lowered companion, Boone, a black retriever mix who is allowed to run free. Boone is a good dog whose owner has no control over him, so he has developed some not-good-dog habits, primarily chasing cars, trucks and snow machines. On the one hand, the road we live on isn’t well traveled, so Boone’s chase opportunities are limited; on the other, the road we live on is narrow, icy and snow-packed, so drivers veering to avoid Boone have to fear they’ll end up in a ditch. Needless to say, Boone is not a popular dog in the neighborhood—except to Sam, and a lesser extent me.

Sam and I have reached an unspoken compromise—always a good strategy when negotiating with dogs—and if Boone follows us home at the end of our walks, he and Sam can play grab-ass to their heart’s content—if they stay in our yard. The minute Boone looks like he’s trying to lure Sam off to chase trucks or other adventures, it’s time for Sam to come inside, have some water and take a nap. These last two actions were added by Sam, for even I’m not dumb enough to try to enforce drinking or sleeping.

Luckily for me, but disappointingly for Sam, Boone wasn’t out, so I walked and Sam dance/skittered home. Sam is now watered and sleeping, and I am making oatmeal.

Life is good.

VA Medical Care: The Worst Thing You Know about a Man Isn’t Necessarily the Truest

It’s very au courant to criticize the Veterans Administration, particularly its medical wing. Waiting lists have apparently been manipulated. Opiates have apparently been overprescribed for pain management. According to a report on Page One of the Union-Leader, at the Manchester VA Medical Center, the former head of its spinal clinic is accused of cutting and pasting patient notes and leading a clinic where 59% of patients suffered myelopathy, a loss of spinal-cord function.

These are terrible truths, but they haven’t been my experience with the VA. I know the dangers of argument by anecdote, and have protested against it in other circumstances, whether used positively or negatively. For example, Mother Theresa may have been short-tempered and cranky with her underlings—that doesn’t take away from the good work she did. Contrariwise, Bill Cosby was an incredibly funny role model for Americans—until it came out he was a chemically-enabled rapist. Anecdotes are just pieces of information, and they don’t compose an argument by themselves.

Still, my experience is all I have, and the three stories I’m about to tell are my experience with the Veterans Administration, even though they don’t fit into a larger critical narrative.

Anecdote One

Ten-and-a-half years ago, I walked into the VA Medical Center in Manchester and told the nurse behind the Urgent Care Desk, “My name’s Keith Howard. I’m a veteran, but I’ve never used VA services before. I don’t want to be alive anymore.” That nurse, whose name is lost to history, helped save my life. She didn’t send me to see a Primary Care Provider. She didn’t tell me to go to the psychiatric clinic on the fourth floor. She didn’t tell me I needed to demonstrate eligibility. She treated me like a human being who wanted to kill himself—or at least let his life go like a bread wrapper in the wind. She sat down with me, talked about what was going on inside me, and arranged for me to be transported to White River Junction, where I would be treated for depression and introduced to a program of recovery that remains central to my existence. She helped protect me from myself, and made it possible for me to go on doing that for other people.

Anecdote Two

After I’d been sober and relatively sane for a few years, I developed a hairless spot, but not on the top of my head as a sign of incipient baldness. My spot was on the right-hand side of my skull and started off the size of a quarter, growing slowly to silver-dollar size. Oddly, the hairless flesh on my scalp was as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Having other things to occupy my energy, I didn’t give it much thought until I went to see my VA doc, who called it alopecia, ordered some tests and referred me to dermatology. The skin doctors gave me a topical ointment which grew my hair back, but the tests showed I had Hepatitis C, a potentially deadly disease, especially given the hard roads I’d led my liver down through years of drinking.

The Hep C diagnosis introduced me to a true secular saint—Linda DeOrio, a VA provider. Linda talked with me about the possible routes of my infection—IV drug use, unprotected sex with a positive partner, other blood-to-blood contact—ways to prevent my infecting others, and possible treatment. At the time of my diagnosis, the only approved treatment for Hep C was Interferon, which carried with it side effects ranging from suicidal depression (YIKES to a man who’d wandered back from the abyss) to severe weight loss (I’d finally gotten up to my target weight after drinking most of my caloric intake for a long time) to exhaustion (making it difficult for me to go on working). Linda also told me my liver tests showed my years of abuse hadn’t done significant damage to the organ’s function, my viral count was manageable and, biggest of all, there were new drugs in the pipeline that seemed not to have Interferon’s complications. In consultation with Linda, we waited to begin treatment; instead, I would meet with her every quarter, as I recall, to monitor the disease’s progress.

During these meetings, Linda was informative, delightful and optimistic, keeping me updated on my health and the progress of the medication approval process. Just as important as the information, though, was her presence, her kindness , her spirit—she kept me believing we were going to beat this disease. Eventually, a newer new drug was released, with none of Interferon’s side effects, Linda put me on a regimen of it and, ta-da, I was cured. Today, other than an inability to ever donate blood again (because, I believe, the antibody still shows up in my bloodstream), I am completely free of Hepatitis C. The medicine killed the virus, but it was Linda that kept it from killing me.

Anecdote Three

I’ve had a lot of primary doctors in my life, beginning with Dr. Jesse Galt in Dover, my pediatrician and family doctor until I went into the Army. Doctor Galt was a good man and a good doctor, I’m sure, although I’m biased against him based on his change of heart regarding circumcision, a rethinking that took place when I was eight. When I was adopted, I hadn’t been circumcised, and Dr. Galt saw no reason to recommend the procedure to my parents. Fine. Unfortunately for me, he read an article when I was in third grade that changed his opinion—he forced me under the knife and I’ll never forget how mortified I was to have to explain my absence from school.

The best doctor I’ve ever had, hands down, was my provider at the Manchester VA, Dr. Muhammed Huq. He was the doc who started my alopecia treatment, oversaw me during my hep treatment and acted as a cheerleader throughout my recovery. Each time I saw Dr. Huq, he remembered me well, inquiring after my daughters and their activities, encouraging me to take on new responsibilities in sobriety and was very proud when I was named director of Liberty House. No matter what life brought me, Dr. Huq was there, cheering me on and treating me like a fellow human being, an equal. A year or so ago, he was transferred to, I believe, Annapolis, and while my new doctor is great, she’ll never have shared the experiences I had with Dr. Huq.

I began this column talking about criticism of the Veterans Administration, all valid, I’m sure. I mentioned the Manchester VA Medical Center’s spinal clinic and the doctor who oversaw its 59% complication rate, the doc who reportedly cut-and-pasted patient notes, which may or may not have been a factor in that statistic. That doctor was Dr. Muhammed Huq, the best doctor I’ve ever had. I feel horrible for anyone who suffered myelopathy; I want the VA to investigate the reasons for this occurrence; I want the government to hold accountable any provider who did a shoddy job.

But I also want you to know the worst thing you know about a man isn’t necessarily the truest.