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

 

 

 

One More Thing I’ve Been Reading

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With enough books to choose from, you’d think I would have settled on something more interesting. 

I grew up in a family of readers, and it’s rare when I’m not in the middle of at least one book even though it’s more likely that I have three or four going at once. Some books are compelling, some I read for reference, and a few I savor for long periods of time, such as Jessica Kerwin Jenkins’s Encyclopedia of the Exquisite or the collected stories of Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Parker. Such books bring me back often without tiring of them.

When preparing to move to the woods four years ago, I parted with a number of books that I finally realized that I could live without. I’ve always found it difficult to part with any books, but at one point I was acquiring more than my available storage space allowed. I also decided that the library should become my first source for new reading material. Borrow the book, and if I found I couldn’t live without it, I’d buy it later. There are dozens of books that I own, which I wished I’d borrowed first. They’re good books, but I probably won’t re-read them for many years, if ever.

Among the books I’ve kept are three that I’ve never read in over 30 years of lugging them about. They were gifts that bear special inscriptions that remind me of the giver. The books are first editions, and I never like to part with a first edition of anything lest books become collectible again one day and the sale of one of these tomes provides the means of retiring to the French Riviera.

On three previous occasions I’ve pulled out the first book of this series. Chapter one begins on page seven, but I’ve never made it past page ten. It seems that the archdeacon’s meandering about the graveyard whilst reciting Robert Blair’s The Grave made me dead tired. I’m currently on the waiting list for approximately six books at the library, and I’ve finished with my summer reading list. My only choice was to peruse my shelves for something interesting. I came across this book once again. I sighed heavily and re-read the jacket. Perhaps I was finally mature enough to understand the subject matter even though I couldn’t imagine what I have now that I didn’t have seven years ago on my last attempt.

I’m a great fan of E. F. Benson’s Mapp & Lucia novels. Within those pages, there are dozens of village intrigues centered around two formidable women and their friends. I can also be amused for hours at a time with Agatha Christie’s murderers and the locals trying to figure out whodunit. Since the plot of this novel in question centers on English village life of a certain period, I decided to give it one more chance.

It was best to begin reading when I was fully alert rather than wait until bedtime when the novel had usually affected me like a dose of Midazolam. Adequately caffeinated, I opened to page seven and began reading. The next thing I knew, the book was on the floor and I was achy from having slumped over for a few minutes. Is the book’s page 11 coated in an opiate that my skin keeps absorbing? Why else would this novel induce sleep at the very same point?

I’m a determined person who will see a great number of things through to the end even when a book’s plot is nothing but an old maid darning a curate’s sock while his wife ponders whether to serve beetroot or potato for the cold Sunday supper. I kid you not, and this is coming from someone who has spent many hours delighted by chapters having little more going for them than whether or not some bridge novice inadvertently finessed an ace of out of a veteran opponent who bid no trumps, which eventually led to a grand slam and a war of words.

Three weeks of fortitude, and I’ve made it to page 128. The church organist’s wife is taking the curative waters somewhere on the continent while he remains behind rehearsing the choristers, and the harvest festival bring-and-buy was a success. One of the village’s yarn shops has stocked enough wool for all the single ladies to knit scarves for the clergy’s Christmas gifts, and the lead spinster’s new cook is working out nicely.

I’ve given some thought to this book. The prose is rather nice, but the chapters are less interesting than a fifth-grader’s journal. The characters don’t do much except quote literature and silently worry about what the other characters are silently worrying about.

As with all novels set within English villages, someone is eventually coming for tea. I don’t mind reading a page about how the scones were burned and the marmalade was disastrously runny, but something is going to have to amuse me, touch me, or frighten the hell out of me to prevent my hurling this book against the fireplace. By page 128, the mysterious new cook should’ve begun poisoning the spinster or the archdeacon should’ve run barefoot into the High Street on Sunday morning before Divine Service. As it stands, they’ll all die of boredom before Evensong, and I won’t be far behind.

The best thing about this book is that I’ve been falling asleep effortlessly for a change. Not once have I glanced at the clock to realize I should’ve been asleep two hours ago. You may ask why I continue to stick with this bleak book. Well, I’m number three in the queue for next available library book, and #95 for the new Margaret Atwood. That said, I have a feeling that even if a new library book shows up tomorrow, there is a part of me that wants to reach the end. How else will I find out that the shepherd’s pie was burnt to a crisp and they all had to eat cold pigeon sandwiches for New Year’s dinner?

© 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

Humanizing Our Character

Which of you has a guilty conscience? Please private message me and give me all the details! Did you nick something from the drugstore like the homeroom mom I mentioned in a previous blog post? Did you write an anonymous letter to someone in your supper club telling her that the group was appalled by her liberal use of canned Parmesan? Did you hurt her feelings by restating the club’s purpose to elevate the food and not appease adolescent palates?

I’m dying to find out why you’re feeling guilty, and I promise not to make you feel bad. There’s enough guilt going around already.

One of my concerns these days is the guilt we have over the time spent enjoying art, music, books, or anything that we humans take the time to create. There is peer pressure in contemporary society, which is directly connected to the attitudes of commerce. On the job, we must crank out an increasing number of widgets per hour, we must drive up profits, we must streamline. We have to be more informed, we have to standardize, we have to become proficient in the shortest amount of time.

We’re supposed to get an overview of art, listen to snippets of music, watch 30-second videos, speed read books, and scan articles. I am also guilty of having recorded classic films that every American should be familiar with only to fast-forward through what I have determined are less important scenes. I’m sure a film’s director would passionately disagree with my editorial choices, and the director might even become violent by hearing me say, “Okay, got it! Moving on!” as I press the button on the remote.

I’m ashamed to admit that I once watched a certain revered sci-fi film in 25 minutes, but when I savored the entirety of Lawrence of Arabia after having not seen it in decades, I felt terribly guilty for not doing a single thing while it played. I sat and watched with deep appreciation, but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I could have at least made dinner or ironed a few shirts as the film ran. I was so pleased to have seen that beautiful film again, but it took me a few days to stop wondering how I could have made better use of my time while sitting there.

I recently saw a video clip of a college friend performing The Lord’s Prayer by Alfred Malotte. This is the arrangement familiar to most on the Barbra Streisand Christmas Album. There’s an introduction, a vocal passage, and the piece continues for a few minutes with instrumental interludes, and it all builds to a bold climax until the a-men. My friend is still amazing, and I shared the video with someone I thought would appreciate it.

“Seems like it could go faster,” he said. What?!? What about my friend’s vocal range? The accompanist’s skill? That artful crescendo contrasting the hush of the last few notes? Was he mad?

I didn’t overreact. At least I don’t think I did because I immediately knew what was bothering him about the performance. The music was composed in 1935 when radio was the medium. The country was in the midst of The Great Depression, print news dominated, and talkies were relatively young. There wasn’t as much media to fill the waking hours, and there certainly weren’t a dozen cable stations with 24-hour news cycles. Monthly and bi-weekly magazines didn’t post special articles online every few days with the caption to indicate how many minutes a piece takes to read. Listeners and readers in those days were not pressured into rushing.

For anyone who hasn’t read “Moral Ambiguity” and would like to indulge in some guilty pleasure reading, it’s available at Amazon. Follow the link to my author page at the bottom of this post.

Speaking of captions that indicate how long a printed article will take to read, content providers are obviously aware that we feel guilty for taking more than two minutes to read something that might actually be very important information. Networks with political axes to grind operate in sound bytes because they know the average American isn’t going to actually read a well-sourced investigative piece that took days or weeks to write. Probably not weeks because editors have felt the pressure to get the story out first and earn the biggest profit, so they don’t give their writers the time it takes to really get to the bottom of things.

When I thought about the reaction to my friend’s vocal performance, I realized that my realization of guilt is not unique, and it certainly isn’t new. I’ve been aware of guilt feelings for quite a while, and I’ve scanned dozens of online articles that probably explain our guilt for taking the time to seek answers, discover new information, closely listen to, view with greater understanding, and savor the words that writers have slaved over. I should make a note of all those articles and actually read them when I have the time.

For me to suggest that we resolve to do better and commit more time to the intelligence and beauty within the world will seem like a lecture or sermon that will soon be forgotten. Personally, I know that I’m going to continue scanning dozens of memes each day that make me smile or put that political foe in his or her place because someone attached two sentences to a stock photo in order to say what we’ve all been thinking.

I know myself, and I know that I’m not going to change my ways, but I was shocked to hear someone describe a piece of music that is well under five minutes as “way too long and goes pretty slow.” When researching for this article, I discovered a quote attributed to Ovid: “Note too that a faithful study of the liberal arts humanizes character and permits it not to be cruel.” I’m using this quote as a reminder to once again take my time to go back and look closer at a particular Matisse, re-read a classic novel, and linger over dinner and good conversation with friends.

I might not have realized the depths of my guilt had it not been for Alfred Malotte and my friend’s rendition of his The Lord’s Prayer. You might be interested to know that Malotte was a sports organist in Chicago and wrote musical scores for Disney. He composed the music for Ferdinand the Bull, and he did a bunch of other stuff. I didn’t have the time to read the entire Wikipedia article.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, 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 Tragedy of Kleptomania and Other Incidents I Wish to Bring to Your Attention

When it comes to telling stories, I’m more than happy to talk about anyone and everyone, but I’m not as keen on telling tales about myself. I have a memory bank that contains an equal share of both, but it’s much more fun (for me, at least) to shine the spotlight on others.

I was able to polish my storytelling skills decades ago while living in cities. Anonymity comes with large populations, and I could fearlessly talk about the crazy old neighbor who used to round up his cattle in a Cadillac Deville. There was a tale about a quartet of men of a certain age who got pulled over on the interstate while dressed in drag, and several other tales come to mind but too many of the guilty are still living for me to go any further.

I quickly learned the risks of telling stories in small towns after leaving city life. For years I’d grown comfortable carelessly tossing out details because truth is stranger than fiction and often much funnier if the anecdote is delivered with the perfect timing. The hazards of the truth didn’t occur to me until it was too late. When telling tales, I was at least aware enough of the need to assign aliases to my featured characters, but failed to consider the proximity of my small town to the location of the initial incidents. Over 25 years had passed, so imagine my surprise when a listener turned out to be distantly related to my main character. I’d just gotten to the good part when she caught me out for seeing the humorous side while she still held very ominous views on the matter.

Becoming somber and sympathetic takes all the fun out of a really funny story. When you’re vividly describing the time Joanna Jennings was called down to the funeral home to style the hair of one her late customers only to burst into the wrong embalming room and barge in on her old high school principal’s naked corpse, you do not want to be interrupted by an unsmiling listener who pouts and states, “Poor old Aunt Jo was never the same after that awful day. She’s been on nerve pills ever since!”

Zut alors! One has to tread very carefully through the stories of the eccentrics that populate our lives or one will constantly step on toes. As you can imagine, there’s a big downside for me where social media is concerned. The whole setup is like a small town where if the person you’re discussing isn’t related to the people reading the story, the people reading the story will know someone who is related. It takes less than a second to share a post with the guilty.

Because social media has brought every segment of our lives into the same room, it’s extremely difficult to convey the sordid tales of hastily organized backyard weddings where a less-than-sober groom was unaware he was getting married; funerals where the prodigal daughter returned after decades to hyperventilate over the open casket to the point that the mourners were too busy rolling their eyes to cry; and a rich old landlady who pilfered through her tenants’ trash in order to repurpose salvageable items for her grandchildren’s Christmas gifts.

Sadly, I cannot tell you about the homeroom mother with a compulsive shoplifting problem even though it happened over 40 years before we clucked our tongues and expressed our concern over her “most unfortunate behavior.” The fact that she assuaged her kleptomania with the combination of red vine licorice and corn pads is overlooked because someone will douse the mirth and offer a sobering excuse. “Poor old Margaret never got the help she needed.” Kleptomania is indeed tragic, but my compulsion is focusing on the offbeat details of pinching corn pads and licorice.

I’m not unsympathetic to tragedy, but after a decent amount of time I find the humor in a lot of situations. I get much more enjoyment from being with people who are breathless from laughter than hearing Debbie Downer scold me for a lack of understanding. In the first place, it’s not a lack of understanding but complete cognizance of a given situation. It is said that comedy = (tragedy + time). Perhaps I get to the humor too quickly. For some, there will never be enough time.

Some recommendations for summer reading!

© 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