Can We Laugh During an Apocalypse?

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If you want some good laughs during social distancing, “Moral Ambiguity” will take your mind off all of our problems.

I know a woman who can’t suppress the uncontrollable urge to snicker during funerals, and several times has had to get up and leave while trying to disguise her convulsive giggles as extreme grief. She explained that people understand heavy emotions for a dearly departed loved one, but no one buys it when the deceased is the reclusive distant relative of an elderly neighbor she agreed to drive to the memorial service. What they must’ve thought about that poor woman fleeing the church during the funeral only to be spotted afterward standing under an oak tree grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

“They must’ve thought I was clinically insane!” she declared.

I’ve had my suspicions, but not just because of her uncontrolled laughter, which I once witnessed firsthand. Something in the eulogy landed strangely with her, and before I realized what had happened, she was rocking back and forth with her eyes squeezed shut and her body jerking as though something was coming back up.

Who hasn’t had to fight laughter at the most inappropriate moment?

These days I cherish any opportunity to laugh. Even before the pandemic, a good deal of our waking hours during the past few years has been distracted by the shenanigans of those who dominate the lamentable 24-hour news cycle. Very little has seemed funny except for satire.

Historically, some of the best comedians have drawn from the darkness, transforming it into something acceptable in a way to cope with tragedy. Even if they haven’t succeeded into making the darkest moments acceptable, they’ve helped us laugh at the ridiculous aspects of planetary evil.

Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) allowed audiences the opportunity to see the foolishness of Fascism at the very moment the infamous failed art student goose-stepped across Europe. Thank goodness we have late night shows across many networks as well as countless funny people appearing in various formats to point out the ridiculous as we struggle to find answers to why any number of crises have gotten out of hand.

I have never been nostalgic for any sort of good old days because I have never heard of any. My parents lived through the Great Depression, WWII, the Korean Conflict, McCarthyism, the JFK assassination, and the Viet Nam War as I came along and experienced the 1968 assassinations, the energy crisis, an inflated economy, the Iran Hostage Crisis, recessions, the HIV-AIDS crisis, The Challenger tragedy, riots, terrorism, and now the latest pandemic. It’s hard to believe than anyone could find anything to laugh about during those times, but there have been wonderful distractions to keep us from losing hope between the truly breathtaking moments such as Woodstock, the moon landing, the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act, Marriage Equality, and other moments of resolution that happened after thinking for so long that life would never be good again.

There are so many uncertainties. We have so few answers, and we don’t know if the stores are ever going to have paper products again. We’ve been called upon to adjust in ways we have never had to do. The ennui was unmistakable in the days before self-isolation and shelter in place. I witnessed the feelings of panic and depression as colliding shopping carts overflowed with supplies, a lot of which plays no part in slowing the spread of the virus.

Humor seems to have left the building—literally, as television production takes a hiatus. We’re isolated, so no joyous get-togethers to celebrate milestones or gatherings to take our minds off of the heaviness. But we need laughter to prevent our complete descent into desperation. It’s up to us to find the jokes whether or not we share them with friends. Something that was insignificant until recently was toilet tissue. Now we can’t stop talking about it since its current value is equal to diamonds (well, probably sapphires not diamonds). There are a lot of jokes there, and we should make them.

My parents grew up in the 1930s and 40s, and I heard so many sad stories about starvation and the fear of foreign attack. The available news footage from the era shows a black-and-white world of poverty and loss. There are no smiling faces until after the Normandy Invasion. War and economic depression were sad times, and I assumed no one laughed for decades, but I’ve seen enough comedic films from the era to know that people were laughing. More importantly, my parents and their siblings were very often funny, and that didn’t simply start with the post-war era.

No, we can’t laugh on days like Pearl Harbor and 9/11, as doing so would be like laughing during a funeral, but when the smoke clears and we find ways to adjust to the unprecedented, let’s find something that makes us laugh until we’re once again aching and breathless. The very worst of people and events are weakened by laughter.

© 2020 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, including the three featuring Maggie Lyon and two that are filled with riotously funny moments, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

 

 

 

 

Ghost Lake: A Preview!

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Ghost Lake: The mists rise at dusk.

A few years ago I posted a story about a ghostly lake near my house. One or two comments suggested I develop the theme into a novel. I agreed that I could see the potential, but I was still focused on Murdered Justice, which was still a few months from being released. I was so thrilled to have signed with W & B Publishers, and I’d already begun researching and making notes for Pennington’s Hoax. I’d jotted down some possible ideas for books three and four of Maggie Lyon’s adventures, but none of those plots had her anywhere near what could easily turn out as a gothic mystery. Maggie deals with crime, conspiracy, and international intrigue. She’s not likely to find herself in a haunted house with a flashlight.

However, in real life I continued driving through the spectral mists while imagining the many possible creatures that could spring from the bushes onto the road. All sorts of criminals could be lurking within the brush, but I couldn’t see Maggie willingly leaving New York for haunted wetlands in the Pacific Northwest. As I was preparing to send Pennington’s Hoax to the publisher, I had an idea. Maggie wouldn’t “willingly” find herself living in the woods, but she might be convinced to give it a try. Pennington’s Hoax got a new ending, and readers will soon have a new installment of the Maggie Lyon Mysteries. I hope you enjoy this excerpt from Ghost Lake.

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Ghost Lake: A Maggie Lyon Mystery Coming Soon!

I changed into my hiking boots and decided to venture into the woods now that the rains had stopped for a couple of weeks and our bothersome handyman wasn’t around to stop me from exploring. If I ran across any wildlife, I hoped that it would be more scared of me than I was of it.

I expected that the brambles and vines would trip me up, but to my surprise there was a recently mowed trail that descended along the property line at a steady incline. There were giant firs to my right, and alders under-planted with hazelnuts and elderberry to my left. I couldn’t begin to count the various types of ferns, and I had an immediate sense of satisfaction that many people would pay good money and wait years to enjoy a native landscape like this. Even though the summer dry season had finally arrived, it was cool beneath the canopy. Vine maples at eye level, yellow maples towering above me.

I paused intermittently to examine the wild blackberries prior to ripening. In the densest part of the woods there were the last of the bleeding hearts and some other pink and purple flowers whose names I didn’t know. I spotted a wild rose before coming upon an apple tree in a clearing that still produced fruit in spite of limited sunlight.

There was movement in the bushes to my left, and I immediately turned. At the edge of the clearing, there was a doe with her fawn. The infant’s vibrant white spots stood out on its coat. The pair studied me, and I stood still to see how long they’d linger. We heard a hawk, and that caused them to dash further into the thicket.

I was delighted to discover a seasonal creek running through our property. I was positive that when the rains returned it would be challenging to cross this tributary. I wasn’t sure where it led, but most likely to the Lewis River. Perhaps it had once fed into Hathaway Lake – the ghost lake. I planned to hike the stream one day to find out where it ended. In the meantime, I trekked further and finally reached another clearing under the canopy. My husband Mark-Mario had been telling me that Greg the handyman had been working very hard at reclaiming the property’s neglected areas, but I couldn’t see that the man had done anything more than maintain this one long trail.

I looked around for a place to sit and enjoy nature, but wasn’t keen to sit on the ground. I proceeded further down the slope, trying not to think about the challenging up-hill climb that faced me on my return. The trail narrowed as I came to what I thought was the bottom. Greg had obviously used the tractor’s brush hog for the widest swaths, but the narrowness of the path before me was no wider in my estimation than a riding lawnmower.

Why had Greg meticulously maintained this trail at the property’s edge while warning me like a little girl in a fairy tale to beware of the dangers lurking within the forest? It stood to reason that there was an invisible food chain living in the woods. The deer would draw wolves or wildcats; possibly both. Smaller predators would seek out smaller prey, and while this ecosystem was clearly functioning, I sensed no danger. Perhaps I was too ignorant and foolish.

In movie theaters, audiences scream at the person on the screen to turn back. “Don’t go in there!” I could almost hear an audience in another dimension telling me to go back home as I plodded forward. The trail tapered into a path of hacked out bramble, and in spite of the dry season, there was moist ground beneath my feet. The organic redolence of decayed fallen trees hung in the air, and I breathed pure oxygen. I would’ve turned back, but I wanted more time in nature before I had to return to the problems that required my attention.

My feet sunk into the earth, and I pushed on a branch to steady my balance. I lifted myself to a spot just ahead, and I realized there was an old gate not too far beyond. It was made of metal; wood would have rotted over the years. Of course, the metal wasn’t faring too well, so I guessed that the gate was at least 40 years old. It wasn’t closed so I passed through it.

I stood underneath a trestle. Behind me was the forest’s dense canopy, but opening before me was tall and wide as if I were stepping into a cathedral. I could hear an occasional car overhead, and there was a trickle of water coming from somewhere. I looked back to see where I’d come from. I might have stepped into another dimension, and I didn’t want my way back to fade into the rest of the foliage leaving me trapped.

At that point I should have turned around. I was no longer on my property, but I was curious. I moved into a thick section of tall grass. I stepped in mud, and everywhere I turned I seemed to bog down to my ankles. My boots were ruined, but I continued until I emerged into an open field. I was in the marshes. I was standing in Ghost Lake, and before me was the yellow police tape marking off the area where they’d found that poor girl.

© 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

 

 

 

Finding the Right Motivation to Read

A few years ago I wrote about my unsupervised television viewing as a kid. I watched quite a few PG programs where “the content is geared toward a mature audience and parental discretion is advised.” That disclaimer only made the presentation more enticing, and somehow I thought if I started talking loudly when the words came on the screen that no one could hear the announcer’s dire warning.

I doubt my feeble attempts at subterfuge had anything to do with my getting to watch whatever I wanted. Network censors heavily edited the adapted films, and all the bad words were bleeped out. By today’s standards, Prime Time was tame, but I was the only one in my class to see Maude, Soap, and other so-called scandalous programs airing at the time. Those two shows were considered especially racy, as were Cher’s outrageous, revealing costumes.

Produced by Norman Lear, Maude covered social topics that whipped the “Clean Up TV Campaign” people into a frenzy. All in the Family wasn’t as high on their hit list, but that show’s themes were just as controversial. I don’t know if the TV cleanup people were a real group, but someone had printed and handed out all those bumper stickers I’d been seeing on cars around town.

A little over a decade ago, the organization I worked for was preparing to honor Norman Lear at an event I was organizing. As I assisted in writing event speeches and prepared to meet Mr. Lear, I decided to binge-watch the first two seasons of Maude. There were rarely any reruns of the show at the time, and I was curious as to why the lead character had been so demonized during its first run. Within five minutes I had the answer. Maude was an unabashed liberal who expressed herself loudly. Archie Bunker was an arch-conservative who was also loud, but the skirt-gathering brigade who clutched their faux pearls and derided feminism roared at the punch-lines when the longsuffering Edith Bunker occasionally bested her husband’s provincial attitudes. Lear often made the same point on two separate shows, but in different ways. It has been noted that many of Archie’s fans never realized that he was the butt of the joke, but it seems clear to me that a bigoted blowhard from Queens was more acceptable to certain viewers than a “loud-mouthed broad” from Westchester County.

I was allowed to watch all of these episodes because no one thought I could possibly understand the topics at my age. I was an expert at feigning naïveté, so was never asked to leave the room. I kept hearing sermons about all the smut on television, but I never saw any. I had an old TV in my room at age nine. It had no remote control and only picked up three channels. I wore down the cogs on the dial by constantly searching for some of this illusive smut, but a tobacco commercial from that era was the only thing we’d find scandalous today.

I realize now that I was fortunate to have grown up when we only had three channels and Pong by Atari to encroach upon adolescence. My brain wasn’t completely compromised, and the family had hope when they discovered I liked to read. My sister was an English teacher by then, and she recommended a few appropriate books. I enjoyed most of them, but I was soon more interested in what my peers were reading.

My First Edition paperback of “Interview With the Vampire.”

A transfer student named Darlene had a lightly worn, first edition paperback copy of something called Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice. On the penultimate day before spring break, our first period teacher didn’t show up, and the counselor came to announce a study hall. I had nothing to do, and Darlene was seated next to me completing some assignment. The book sat between us, and the cover captivated me. On the backside, there were two gaunt looking gentlemen with a child in a Victorian dress. I asked if I could take a look; Darlene nodded her assent. I was tempted to thumb through, but started reading from the beginning. The following morning our teacher didn’t show up again, and with another study hall, Darlene worked while I read more of this captivating novel. When the bell rang, she told me to go ahead and take the book over spring break. She’d be traveling with no time to read, and she noticed that I rather liked it. I had a study hall for fifth period where I read even further. I don’t think I’d ever read a book so quickly. I’d certainly never read a book over spring break! I finished the book by Monday, but it turns out that I could’ve taken more time because Darlene never returned. Her name is still written in cursive on the inside cover, but after more than 40 years, she’s never found me to claim it.

The following spring break I borrowed The Amityville Horror from a girl I had lunch with every day. My mother soon began to notice my questionable taste in books, which had spread to Stephen King. She might not have given three hoots about what I watched on TV, but she was quick to voice her opinions on my choice of supernatural thrillers containing cursed characters headed for damnation. “You’re going to ruin your mind if you don’t stop reading all that crap!”

I suggested that she should be happy that I liked to read, but inwardly feared she might be right. What if I started having seditious thoughts because Lestat was a hedonist? What if I insisted that we have our house blessed against demonic possession by a priest even though we were Baptist? As far as I could tell, The Amityville Horror’s greatest impact on me was an aversion to Dutch Colonial architecture. I still can’t look at half-moon windows without thinking that glowing eyes are going to stare back at me.

I decided to seek out some weightier literature. I headed to the school library where I was drawn to a copy of The Scarlet Letter. We’d discussed it in eighth grade, and I got it into my head that a novel about adultery would present a nice change from those sexy vampires who never got beyond a few good necking sessions. The student library assistant had already stamped my card when Mrs. Sharp jerked the book away, shook her bouffant furiously, and snapped “You’re too young for this!” If she’d only seen that ruby embedded in Cher’s navel the previous week, she would’ve realized the futility in fussing over a big red A.

Now that the censorious librarian was keeping an eye on me, I’d never get the Hawthorne even if it made it back to the shelf. As I sat on the bus wondering why the school had purchased the book in the first place, I noticed that my friend Robert was reading Louis Lamour. I’d satisfied my curiosity after two westerns even though my friend swore by Louis. I wanted more vampires and hauntings, but spaceships and slimy creatures grunting unearthly languages didn’t interest me.

A girl in my English class, who had never been known as much of a reader, had lately started keeping one paperback after another on her desk. With Interview With the Vampire, I’d had great beginning gambler’s luck with snatching my neighbors’ books off their desks to see if they were any good. I’d been disappointed a few times, but S.B. had somehow latched onto a genre that old Mrs. Sharp would never have stocked. Where had S.B. gotten this wonderful book that seemed relatively harmless (and void of any meaningful plot) until you reached the last two pages of every third chapter?

The prudes were spending all their time on television censorship when they would’ve snapped their garters to have a good old-fashioned book burning had they only known about the books S.B. was bringing to school. It seems the girl pilfered R-rated romance novels from her aunt without the woman finding out. “Don’t tell on me,” she pleaded. “They sent a note home about my grades. I’ve been challenged to get the certificate for reading twenty-five or more books this school year. I’ve only got seven to go!”

© 2020 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, including 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