Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Late in a Career, Blooms from the Compost Heap

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Late in a Career, Blooms from the Compost Heap

Article excerpt


I was delighted by an invitation to speak with Robert Olen Butler, whose story collection "A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain" won a Pulitzer in 1993, when he was in town to read for the Ringling College Writing Program.

Partly because I loved that book, and also because I've been thinking about creativity and aging.

I haven't yet read his new novel, "Perfume River," described as a sort of coda to Butler's lifelong engagement with the Vietnam War. But I was intrigued by his description of producing a major work at age 71: "I feel like I found a new gear in the gear box."

I wanted to know what he meant by that.

"This book came from my compost heap, the stuff I had forgotten, the stuff that I've been through and has been dissolved," Butler said. "In a composting way, I've been working on this book for at least 60 of my 71 years. ... The past is always with us, in a dialog with the present. ... Now I'm beginning to embrace that godly position, backed off, where you can see into people and identify things that are going on, those missed connections ... the influences of the past."

Social change medicine

When it comes to the 50-year history of Medicare, I thought I knew my stuff. Then I heard Edith Peterson Mitchell speak to the medical staff at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

Some of her story was familiar, like the part about President Harry Truman being the program's early champion and the first Medicare card recipient.

But then I learned that we have Medicare to thank for saving us from the days when Americans of different races got "separate but unequal" medical treatment. When African-American patients were relegated to shoddy wards with too few nurses. When black newborns slept in hospital hallways because they weren't allowed in white- only baby nurseries.

Mitchell just finished a term as president of the National Medical Association -- founded in 1895, when African-Americans were not welcome in other doctors' groups. …

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