I Resolve to Eat No Kale

2020 is here. I can tell because the diet and fitness ads are everywhere. Until political ads and H&R Block replace them, we will be made to feel guilty for every gluttonous crumb that has made our clothes tighter. From the kids’ fun-size Halloween candy, which initially led us into temptation like Eden’s serpent, through New Year’s Day brunch, which you might be eating as you read this, our over-indulgence has met an abrupt end. We begin a penance that the Dominican Savonarola would view as over the top. His Bonfire of the Vanities will seem like a homecoming pep rally compared to the purging of our refrigerators.

Those four slices of cheesecake on the fridge’s second shelf, the various sacks of cookies we gladly accepted from co-workers and loved ones alike, bottles of wine, Scottish shortbread, imported chocolate, cheeses of the month, restaurant gift cards, and bags of chips in the pantry that didn’t get eaten during the festive season. Gone is that platter of tamales that you promised yourself you wouldn’t eat at one sitting, and you probably have no memory of all those other baked goods like the muffins, breads, and pies. Shall I remind you of the pizza and spicier foods we ate to break up the monotony of roasted birds, stuffing, and gratinéed casseroles?

If you’re like me, you’re thankful that the annual physical and doctor’s visit occurred before the end of the insurance year. You don’t want a medical professional peeking under the gown this month! Most of us will take a reactionary approach to regaining the lost ground since October 30; not that we were in great shape after a summer of picnics, grilling parties, and vacation indulgence. Like many, I was still carrying the weight of a big Super Bowl party, which was spread before me in early 2019 to sabotage my healthy efforts.

But I’m serious this year. I know I was serious last year, and all the years going back to Y2K, but I really am going to do something about my diet this year. 2020, the last year of the teens (or the first of the twenties if that’s the way one chooses to look at the decades) is going to motivate me. I’m so motivated that I replaced my annoying chips and salsa habit with alternatives. I gave away the tortilla and kettle potato chips last week. I replaced them with BBQ sweet potato chips, plantain chips, and something that looked interesting called honey mustard kale chips.

I might be able to stay committed with two of the alternatives, but sweet Jack LaLanne! Have you ever tried a honey mustard kale chip? I’ll save you the trouble. Imagine that you have found a dollar bill crumpled and lying in the street. It’s been run over by a city bus, three taxicabs, and a bike messenger. It blew into a crosswalk where five thousand Times Square revelers staggered home after the ball dropped. You picked it up, forgot about it in your pocket, and it went through the laundry. You found it in February and decided to eat it after dipping it into a jar of honey mustard and letting it dry on the counter for a week. That is the taste and texture sensation that awaits you if you disregard my advice and eat what the FDA should never have approved.

I remember when kale was the darling of the butcher shop. This leafy green was a marketing tool like mannequins in a store window. It was attractive enough to get your attention, but not so prominent that you took your eyes off the goods that the merchant wanted you to see. If anything good has come from kale it’s that I’m drinking more water. It’s the only way I can get rid of the aftertaste.

© 2020 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the three featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

 

 

 

The Loving Season

It’s that season again. I can tell by social media that some of you started decorating on Labor Day weekend while others have shown more restraint. One reveler I know at least waited until mid-September to set up her newly purchased tree. I made no comment (where she could hear), but I believe she kept everyone out of her house until Thanksgiving night when she revealed it.

I’ve been known to make a little holiday effort myself, but some years have been more challenging than others. If nothing spoils the mood, you’re apt to find every surface of the house covered in something celebratory. What could spoil the mood, you ask? During the retail employment years of my life, any number of things could set me off. It’s best not to take a peek behind that curtain.

For this blog, I haven’t written much, if anything, about my years as a church organist. Yes, once upon a time I was one of those maniacal manipulator of stops and keys; a special kind of control freak that can bring on waves of tearful sentimentality by simply pulling out the celeste stop. I can also pile on reeds and mixtures to drown out the disrespectful chatter of a cluster of parishioners who think they have something more important to say when it’s my turn to be heard.

One particular organist position was a misery unlike any other. The congregation was grand, and I was given artistic freedom. The only things not musically under my control were the choir, its director, and his wives. Yes, I wrote wives. He wasn’t a polygamist, but a serial monogamist. I didn’t have to deal with a harem all at one time, but I might as well have when it came to Christmas and Easter. The director seemed to have exhausted the last of his choral creativity, but his wife was brimming with ideas. A regular Oracle of Delphi, she could dream dreams, alter the course of events, and screw up men’s minds when she dug in.

I could feel my nausea setting in by late August because I knew enough about Madam and her machinations. She had more climbing skills than a mountain goat, and manipulated less astute church members like Frank Underwood on House of Cards. When she returned from her honeymoon, she officially switched denominations and rose rapidly in church leadership. She knocked the music committee chair off the throne and grabbed the orb and scepter before they hit the ground. We walked into the next meeting, and she had recruited enough new committee members to back her agenda, which was to replace dignity with chaos.

The choir would no longer be doing Lessons and Carols. My repertoire would no longer be required. I was to be set free from an autumn of holiday music preparation because Madam had selected a musical! She insisted that it wouldn’t sound right accompanied by a three-manual (keyboard) organ. Her idea required an orchestra. It didn’t matter that we had no budget to pay for an orchestra or square footage to seat them. You see, all she had to do was buy a soundtrack, and our 22 mostly amateur voices would magically sound like one of those “fancy choirs” one can pull up on YouTube. “Patrick, we only need you for Wednesday and an extra two-hour rehearsal each Saturday to hammer out the voice parts. Oh, and if you could go ahead and learn the full ninety-page score and set aside some time each week to practice with the eight soloists, that would be great!” So much for my fall freedom.

You just know I wasn’t very nice about this to anyone who would listen. There would be NO holiday decorations at my house that year. I wouldn’t even turn on a porch light as I contemplated my revenge in the dark. Who was this low country contralto who’d swept into our musical lives like a demon in search of a soul to possess? I phoned the senior minister who said that it was too late for any type of containment. We were well beyond a simple musical. “Patrick, it’s being staged… with costumes.” They heard me screaming across three counties.

Just exactly how was this banshee going to transform the interior of a dark-paneled gothic church with an acre of stained glass into her Space Odyssey vision of Heaven? Based on her recent behavior, I had my doubts that she’d ever be allowed to see the real Heaven much less design one within our building’s confines. Her cumulus concept was to be populated by 22 amateur elderly angels who could no longer walk and sing at the same time. They’d never be able to perform “off book,” find their marks, and hit their notes.

When word got out that Madam was “producing” the Christmas musical, five soloists dropped out on the spot. One of the remaining soloists, the best soprano in town, was going to have to take on triple duty, but Madam’s ego couldn’t deal with a better singer getting more solos. Two weeks before performance, she reassigned the parts, which left the best singer with one solo and, you guessed it, Madam doing all the rest of the women’s parts in a lower register since you can’t change the key of a pre-recorded soundtrack.

11 days prior to the big day, we were informed that dress rehearsal would take place on the eve of the performance. “We’re going to start at exactly 8:00 on Saturday morning. Plan to stay until 4:00 that afternoon!” Such hours are fine if you’re running through a Wagnerian opera, but for a 55-minute cantata this was a sure sign of trouble.

I had the feeling we were headed in this direction because I was still being called upon to hammer out the parts for those who were having difficulty with harmonies and rhythms. With the exception of the remaining soloists, that meant the rest of the choir. Madam was still determined to stage the production, and had even added a few speaking lines here and there, as if the performers didn’t have enough trouble with the music while trying to find their marks on the cotton batting that kept slipping all over the floor. There were rumors of a forthcoming fog machine, and I could only hope that everyone’s Medicare co-pay was up to date.

It was time to pray for a Christmas miracle. Madam’s supplication was that her cast and crew would somehow fall into place and replicate the skills of a Tony-winning Broadway production. The soloists prayed that they didn’t cross paths with ill people coughing and sneezing in their direction, and I petitioned for a drastic change in the Jetstream to blanket the city in ice long enough for Madam to abandon her folly.

The true miracle came from Mother Superior. That was the sobriquet of Valera Thurgood Harper, our stereotypical church lady. Every parish has one. You know, graduated two years after Jesus, and has thought of nothing for centuries but how to control the institutions, the traditions, and the long string of clergy that have stumbled into her lair. My initial run-in with Valera was the first day on the job. During my interview, I’d been shown where my office was to be. When I arrived, this resolute character informed me that no such room existed. The chamber was hers – note the handwritten nameplate next to the entrance – as she required a place to conduct her business as church historian, Sunday school recording secretary, and budget chairlady. (She was not a chairperson, she insisted, because she learned English grammar before that “Steinem woman stirred things up!”)

Mother Superior had first attempted to dissuade Madam by pointing out that the rood screens and mahogany pulpit were part of the building’s structure and couldn’t be moved without the strength and authority of the actual archangel that rolled away the stone from Christ’s tomb. Madam took the edict of immovable altar furnishings in her stride and announced that they could be covered in a few more bolts of cotton batting. “Perhaps the kind with glitter in it to reflect the light, and maybe some plastic snow!” Frosted white helium balloons could also provide a sense of floating, and that meant renting a tank.

When two totalitarian super-powers clash, people take cover. Some of us like to peek out and see whether the ancient foundations can withstand the onslaught or whether the trifling upstart regime can gain an advantage. Mother Superior was not the fainting type. That’s why she’d reached the pinnacle of parishioner power. She firmly explained to Madam that collections were down, and that there would be no discretional spending before the new year. Besides, balloons were akin to sacrilege, and the use of glitter could cost the offender his baptismal certificate and anything else to bar entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Undaunted, Madam hastily enlisted two altos and discussed the possibility of special donations to pay for the set. The ex-chair of the music committee got wind and, still smarting from the coup, informed Mother Superior of brewing trouble. Dress rehearsal was cancelled, and Heaven on Earth remained as illusive as ever as the musical would now become a no-frills event.

On performance day, the soundtrack blared over the ancient public address system as the choir remained in its normal place on the chancel. The only point that Madam was unwilling to concede was that the singers remain dressed as angels. The poor soloists even had to wear halos fashioned from stiff wire and tinsel that wobbled precariously as they belted their parts above the overpowering accompaniment.

The Christmas Pageant of 19— was but the first battle of a four-year war filled with intrigue, espionage, and other un-churchly activities. There was never an armistice; peace was unattainable until the choir director’s next wife arrived. She couldn’t care less about music. Her zeal was foreign missions. I liked her very much.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the two featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

 

Sharing a Dark Secret

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The Vegas Strip can be exciting with a view from the right hotel.

I’m finally able to talk about it. More than a decade has passed, and even though I can still recall every minute of the trauma, I can finally admit the truth. There is still a great deal of shame attached, but I have an obligation to share my story even if only one person learns from my misfortune and avoids the same consequences. Yes, I once spent Thanksgiving in Las Vegas.

You can read about past trips to one of my least favorite cities on earth, but I’ve never been able to describe the weekend that was the furthest thing from a Norman Rockwell painting. Gary had gone to Vegas countless times before I knew him, and he received a notice in the mail that a venerable old casino hotel had just undergone a multi-million-dollar renovation. For special customers, enjoy a two-night stay for a ridiculously reduced rate and dinner for two in one of the hotel’s fine eating establishments. Let me be clear; they described the restaurants as “fine.” I didn’t. Come to think of it, they also used “restaurants” but this was a broad definition of the word.

We arrived on the Strip about noon and valet parked at the hotel. We walked from the covered driveway into a lobby enshrouded by cigarette smoke. Some group had decided to hold a convention during Thanksgiving weekend. Either bad planning or a need to take advantage of the special renovation rates had caused them to convene during a national holiday, but we pushed our way through this frontline of nicotine fanatics.

We hadn’t even reached check-in before noticing the limitations of a multi-million-dollar renovation. One should ask how many millions have been multiplied. Two? Three? If one divides $2 million across 1,000 rooms, that’s $2,000. Even at bulk rates and corporate contractor discounts, the budget is quickly eaten up by new televisions, bedding, and a few coats of paint. There is absolutely no money left to professionally repair the damage to bathroom doors where I can only imagine the scene that left such an impression in ours. $2,000 also doesn’t buy new plumbing.

This renovated room was on the 16th floor. We stepped into the elevator for our long ride, which took all of eight seconds between the closing of the doors to their re-opening. That elevator was so fast we felt like we’d barely moved. In fact, we had. Barely moved. I wanted to meet the genius who thought it would make more sense to call the fourth floor of the north tower Floor 16 rather than call it North Tower Fourth Floor. It’s an unpleasant surprise to realize your view is of the HVAC system when you had your heart set on a skyline.

I was already beginning to shut down emotionally and decided that I could take advantage of the hotel’s spa since the room was discounted. I’d driven for five hours and had a terrible shock. A massage might be nice. There were a few staff on duty, but the spa had the vibe of a hospital ward. Very little privacy, a few curtains, and a lot of people moving about. “We also have mineral baths.” Would I like to see? Yes. I’m glad I did before pulling out the credit card. Two gray porcelain/cast iron tubs from 1970 sat side-by-side with shell-shaped inflatable pillows suction-cupped for headrests. There were no privacy curtains, and I couldn’t believe that a pair of vessels filled with 40 years of unwashed gambler bodies could ever be made clean enough to suit me. The bath would be anything but soothing.

I worried about dinner reservations, but there was no difficulty getting a table. We got right in at the time we requested, and a retired showgirl in peach chiffon showed us our seats. Thanksgiving dinner was the only option, and it tasted as though it had all been poured from a series of cans.

I should have learned from The Rocky Horror Picture Show that it’s better to keep driving than to spend the night, but a pair of tickets to one of the hotel’s shows came with the weekend so we stayed over. We saw a commercial for the famous drag show. It had been years since they’d made a new one. I could tell because the performer who used to impersonate Liza was now playing Judy, and Cher looked like what Cher would actually look like if she hadn’t gone in for cosmetic surgery.

We opted for the other show, which was an international tour of Russian ice skaters and acrobats. As special guests of the hotel, we were placed in the center section before they lowered a barrier behind us. The barrier was covered in ice, and our four rows were basically being held hostage for the next 90 minutes. Our heads appeared to bob in the center of an ice fisherman’s large hole.

The performers opened the show with enthusiasm, but their zeal couldn’t have been because theirs was the greatest show on earth. To be filled with such joy while whizzing around the stage on ice skates while a man in the center climbed a stack of chairs and boxes to balance precariously without a net was a strong indicator that life in Putin’s Russia is bleaker than we realize. I could only imagine the families held under duress while their loved ones were forced to travel abroad and perform in this chaotic exhibition.

Whether real or fake, there was one performer that seemed to gain great pleasure from his portion of the show. He was the lead acrobat wearing only a pair of white pants with silver threads to catch the light. He descended the rope and performed some tricks, and then he ascended to take a bow. He descended over and over, performed more tricks, and took more bows. I didn’t realize it until the woman seated in front of me gasped and whispered to her husband. He leaned over and whispered to the man next to him, and everyone began taking notice of the only moment of the show that we could understand.

Gary and I looked at each other, and then in the direction where the people in front of us were pointing. Apparently the acrobat got a lot of pleasure descending and swinging from his rope. The result of his stunts seemed to arouse something within him, and his costume changed shape. With each ascension, he and his costume returned to a more relaxed posture.

The audience couldn’t get out of the theatre fast enough when the show ended. We were caught in a stampede, and I was nearly trampled after tripping over some loose carpet on an uneven section of the lobby floor. Apparently you need billions if you want to renovate an entire hotel.

A few years later we learned that we’d missed out on a major event at that hotel. I would never have spent another night under its many roofs, but I would love to have been there when they set off the dynamite.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the three featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

 

Damaged + Joy

SCHADENFREUDE is one of my favorite words. As a reminder, The American Heritage Dictionary defines schadenfreude as “Pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.” From the German schaden meaning “damaged” + freude meaning “joy.”

Schadenfreude is out of fashion these days, but for decades I have been guided by Jack Kerouac’s words: “Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.” I keep the quote posted in my closet as a reminder that a boring pair of well-made black slacks will get more use than some interesting paisley bell-bottoms I once saw at Nordstrom’s.

Along with my wardrobe that changes with the speed of a sloth, my opinions and habits are hard to break. Schadenfreude is an old friend of mine, and I can’t put it away even when the teeming millions cry out that we are a compassionless society. I agree, we are increasingly lacking in compassion, but I don’t indulge in the misfortunes of everyone. I reserve my schadenfreude for the mighty that have fallen.

Pumped up politicians and preachers have always been my target, and those who have taken to the airwaves have been capturing my attention since I was a teenager. I am talking about the Elmer Gantry pulpit pounders who have wailed like hired mourners on radio and television for the gullible to send a few dollars their way to “Keep the Lord’s message comin’ into their homes each week, and to all the foreign lands where the heathen have never even heard of Jeeee-sus!” as they pronounce the name.

One could easily ignore such fools, even when some old crank cries for his followers to buy him a new jet because he believes that Satan co-pilots all the commercial planes, but if there is one thing we have learned by now (or should have learned) is that a deficiency of altruism fed by too much money results in corruption. I’m not saying that every billionaire deviant shops for a private island to practice his sex trafficking hobby, but a lack of financial restraint is dangerous when the rich stop following the rules.

I believe I made this point in 2011 when Moral Ambiguity was published. The Reverend James “Jimmy” Standridge, a composite of several televangelists, founded a church that grew into a ministry, a university, and ultimately a media empire. He got up to a number of exploits in private when he publicly forbade his followers from materialism and sensual indulgence. The book’s protagonist runs across some photos, and Standridge’s intent on recovering the incriminating evidence leads to the book’s climax.

I do not claim to be a prophet, but as more and more photos pop up with Jerry Falwell, Jr., I’m beginning to wonder how closely my imagination is aligned with reality even if it took reality almost a decade to catch up. Each time my phone alerts me to the latest news stories of pool boys, nightclubs, and other Floridian decadence, I feel myself giddy with schadenfreude over Jerry Falwell, Jr.

Junior intrigues me. Actually, anyone who inherits an empire from his father intrigues me. If the world respected the father, it sets out ready to respect the son, and if the world detested the father, there’s not much the son can do to overcome a bad reputation. People stood along the roadside when Billy Graham’s motorcade carried his body to its final resting place, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Franklin’s motorcade covered in eggs when his remains come whizzing by.

In the past few years, society has been catching on more and more. The chipping away at façades, the revelation of secrets, the abuses of power, the victimization of women and children, and the hypocrisy of iniquitous leaders are increasing at a time when societal gullibility is in decline in spite of bizarrely dressed political groupies we may see filling seats at rallies.

After Moral Ambiguity was published, I heard from several readers who asked why I didn’t kill Jimmy Standridge at the end. There was a great opportunity to do so during the bungled shootout over the blackmail photos, but I would never have been satisfied if Jimmy had died. Even though there is a sense of relief when a malignant old fraud departs the national stage, another one will take his place before the body is cold.

Corruption will be with us as long as people devise ways to exploit institutions, but as long as we have a free press and people who wish to expose corruption, the unscrupulous will be pulled from the shadows and into the light. Their stories will be told, and I will again tingle with schadenfreude.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the two featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1