“The Q-tips Are for Your M4” and the Art of the Paragraph

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The Q-tips are for your M4, Norah’s uncle said as she held them up when unpacking her 7.62 ammunition canister. Norah reached in the green ammo can and took out 100 feet of 550 cord with carabiner, a hair net, brown hair clips, bobby pins, hair ties, lighters, lint roller, travel-size insect repellent and sun protection, KT Tape, army men gummies, and a four-inch action figure of G.I. Joe. It’s a new era when women’s items make the soldier’s pack list. The can’s essentials were what her aunt and uncle–both army officers with one still on active duty–thought would help when she enters the Army in three weeks to begin basic training. (1)

The opening of gifts followed a senior week my friend said involved the stamina required of the royal jubilee and she may be right. Graduation week kicked in after Memorial Day with Senior Excursion, Prize Day, Pre-Prom and Prom, Yearbook Dedication and Distribution which is a thing, all of these noted with initial caps on the school calendar. For Senior Projects Presentation, Norah chose boxing and made a video of jumping rope, shadow boxing, doing pushups, the clip a spoof on the Rocky films because she must take boxing at West Point and wants to stay fit as she trains for the volleyball team. The week ended in a mostly uneventful commencement with its Pomp and Circumstance, benediction, speeches, caps and gowns, and a weekend of parties.(2)

The Head of School talked about excellence, the kind that is a true stand-out, an exceptional performance over the long haul. That kind of achievement, she said, comes from a lot of hard work and not from, say, your dog’s retrieval of his bone, as in, Excellent job, Buster. Such an idea of excellence was exemplified by the Valedictorian and notable graduates. Commencement in that way is a celebration of the end of school, however, this ending is for most graduates a beginning. The guest speaker and school alum had left the dais as a young graduate herself two decades ago after 9-11. She had not imagined herself in the foreign service, working in the office of the Secretary of Defense. She had an interest in language and going abroad, taking detours and a meandering path that helped her discover her passion for Eastern studies. And, charting this path led to her current role as the Chief of Staff of Indo-Pacific Security. She finished her speech with the idea that going out to learn and live and figure out what she cared about, here she was, right back at the school where she had once spoken as the valedictorian of her class.(3)

The going out and coming back. The ending and the beginning. Norah raced a go-kart around the track on her senior excursion. Arrive and drive, the physical metaphor for embarking on this new phase of the journey, the next lap into adulthood. Norah’s Q-tips might signify the faulty hearing teens have around parents. She hadn’t known until her uncle told her that cotton swabs are vital cleaning implements for her standard issue weapon–the M4 Carbine rifle–and when dipped in cleaning oil they clean the hard-to-get-to spots. Family came from Boston, Virginia, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Germany, with five family members on active duty in the Army. The KT Tape from the ammo can had the image of Kerri Walsh, Norah’s volleyball hero, and on the side of the can, stenciled in khaki were the words: PROPERTY OF N. SHATTAN.(4)

Senior project was to train in local boxing gym with boxing coach and amateur boxer Rafael Castillo, @therafcastillo.

FOOTNOTES

(1)The climactic paragraph begins with specific examples–in this case the Q-tips–and builds to the final controlling idea that Norah is going into the Army. This is the reverse of the direct or next type of paragraph.

(2)The direct paragraph begins with topic sentence and supports it with specific examples. In the case of the second paragraph above, the opening of the gift was the culmination of a long and extensive graduation week, enumerated afterward in detail.

(3)The turnabout paragraph introduces an idea or argument which opposes the idea the writer will make, the turn occurring in the middle and often signaled by words such as yet, but, nevertheless, or in this case the turn is indicated by the adversative conjunction, however.

(4)The “other one” or the fourth type of paragraph is one which begins with a simple statement followed by one that follows the first, then elaborates on that and on. There is no topic sentence but it has a controlling idea. In the final paragraph above, the opening transition links to the paragraph before it with the idea of the circular nature of life and that of the senior go-kart trip. It also circles to the first paragraph with the Q-tips. This gift is a symbol that she too is embarking on the next lap of her own race, her own adventure.

*The four types of paragraphs in this letter can be found in Chapter 19, The Art of the Paragraph, in Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life.

*Many paragraph types exist but this is an easy way to make an immediate improvement in your writing. Thoughtful structure of paragraphs into Long’s four types is a tool, providing options as you write and enriching the experience for readers.

*The second sentence of this letter, in the first paragraph, is a series or list sentence [Link to letter]. Discussed in an earlier letter, the power of the series is in its examples, concrete and specific words which do the heavy lifting. In this sentence words depict the life of the soldier, items unique to a profession which requires wearing a uniform. The reader gleans this from the lint roller and the hair items used for up-style hair, the paracord which can lift up to 550 pounds, the lighters used to burn stray clothing threads or to soften shoe polish or to start a fire in the field. This is a soldier’s life, the Q-tip an essential part of the rifle cleaning kit. My nephew is an 11B (an infantryman) who was able to stop by. He said, “For one cleaning you need probably 30 – 40 Q-tips, but you shoot almost every day for like a week [in basic training] and you’re probably going to need a hundred or so.” Norah received the travel size with 30 and I laughed when her uncle said your M4 because this word for the standard issue rifle carries immediate understanding for the soldier.The pack list has items not only for the soldier but for Norah, with its athletic tape and Kerri Walsh endorsement and of course, her name on the outside, stenciled as names had been, a closing that shows she too will soon be in the Army, her name as the most important, in all CAPS, in the final position of the sentence and paragraph and letter.

Jun 7, 2022

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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