Here’s to You, Dr. Kirchfeld

As I’ve mentioned, my blog topics typically come from memories, which seem to trigger more memories. My last two pieces have led to remembering a most unforgettable professor whose class I enjoyed during graduate school. It wasn’t the subject I enjoyed most for we were to learn how to prepare theses and dissertations under the guidance of Dr. Hedwig Kirchfeld (not her real name).

After the stories I’d heard about Dr. Kirchfeld I was expecting to have the worst semester yet. I’d taken classes all summer when I should have taken a break, but because I’d listened to the negative voices around me insisting that I plow through the program, I gained a few extra credits along with mental and emotional exhaustion. When you find yourself having a panic attack in the middle of Bloomingdale’s because you can’t locate the exit that’s directly in front of you, it’s time for a vacation! When the fall semester began, I wish I’d been anywhere on the planet than on that campus.

Dr. Kirchfeld’s class met on the library’s top floor, and the initial assignment involved outlining the first chapter of our main textbook. I listened to Dr. K.’s explanation and believed I’d understood her expectations because they were so similar to Mrs. B.’s specifications in middle school, which I wrote about in my previous post. Sure of myself, I trotted out of the classroom and completed the assignment before my afternoon class.

I arrived early to the next session and was chatting with a classmate from New Jersey who is that type of person we’ve all met at some point unless we are that person. She’s the one who always raises a hand first. She thinks she knows everything, and can easily convince you that she does. Don’t confuse her with Hermione Granger because the person I’m describing doesn’t always know the correct answers. She’s sort of a hit-and-miss Hermione, but her boldness and a 53% success rate compels one to regard her opinions.

She was most eager to see my completed assignment. At that age, I was too inexperienced with her type to realize that she really wanted to compare papers because she was quaking with insecurity behind that façade of confidence. Another of our classmates arrived, and New Jersey was on that poor girl’s papers to see how she’d done the work since she’d ended up with a different result than mine. The two women’s assignments bore a striking resemblance, so Miss New Jersey proclaimed my doom.

“You know she has a reputation for calling out work that falls short of her expectations!” exclaimed Miss New Jersey. I was well aware of Dr. K.’s reputation, and had already eyed a path from the classroom to the elevators.

“If she humiliates me,” I said, “I’m going to walk out, head to the registrar, and withdraw from the university. I might even get a partial refund this early in the semester.” I was too tired to put up with anything else the university wanted to put me through.

Approximately 24 masters and doctoral students filed into the classroom the following week, and we found our places around the long table. A cluster of five white guys sat on the east end, five or six Asian women hastily pulled their chairs tightly around the west end, seven of us grabbed seats on the south side of the long conference table, and like musical chairs, the remaining students had taken the unfortunate leftovers on the first day. They flanked Dr. Kirchfeld whose seat in the center of the table was directly across from mine. She and I appeared to be the most important guests at some haphazardly arranged continental dinner.

We were expecting the return of our first assignments, and this was the day I was prepared to flee and never return. My palms were sweaty, and I tried to convince myself that the air-conditioning was responsible for my chill. Dr. K. removed her sunglasses, which I found interesting because she’d already walked the length of the library’s windowless main floor to reach the top floor via a windowless elevator car, and she had made it to her seat in the classroom before deciding that she no longer needed her shades. Dr. K. disappeared from the surface for a moment as she dug into her bag and pulled out papers. She breathed deeply and surveyed the table with a scowl before speaking.

“Class,” she spoke with heavily accented English in a way that not only emphasized her command of several languages, but that she thought so little of English speakers that she had no intention of adapting to any of the country’s various twangs and drawls. “I’m so disappointed with you all! But for one reason alone, I almost thought it was my fault that the results of your papers were so bad. Tell me, who is Patrick Brown?”

I almost vomited. The nausea triggered reddening, and my ears were instantly steaming. My hands shook as I reached for my things. Of course, Miss New Jersey, the hit-and-miss Hermione, was seated next to me. Hoping for extra credit, she pointed frantically as if Dr. K. couldn’t see quite plainly that her target was seated before her.

“Mmmmm,” she murmured. “Patrick Brown, do you mind if I use your paper as an example for the rest of the class?”

I nodded and shrugged. At the very least my humiliation would be delivered with a fabulous German accent that made me think of Madeline Khan in Blazing Saddles. I believed this moment would eventually become a final fabulous memory of graduate school, and I was eager to get it over with.

“Yours is the example of a perfect paper! I’m going to pass this around so that everyone can see it. You were the only one to grasp my intentions, and I thank you. You helped me to understand that I was not the source of the confusion. So everyone, please look at Patrick Brown’s paper and understand that when you redo the assignment, THIS is what I’m looking for!”

My relief was visible. I sat taller without looking smugly at Miss New Jersey. One of the next assignments was making an oral presentation on the topic of our respective professional journals (i.e. magazine), which we properly called periodicals. This is where the class really got entertaining.

Miss New Jersey and Miss Arkansas showed up with the same periodical. Regardless of who presented, Dr. K. was totally uninterested in their magazine, which implied that she was completely disappointed with their chosen field of study. She interrupted Miss Arkansas in her second sentence and asked the class, “Tell me, does anyone have anything that is NOT…boring?” Miss Arkansas looked like she might faint, and I got to watch Miss New Jersey fret once more about the possibility of getting an incomplete on her work.

Dr. K. liked the men gathered on the east end of the table. Neatness counted, and she singled out the Ph.D. candidate with an emphasis in Moravian music. “Tell me, do you have a little wifey at home who types all your papers?” He reddened and said that while he had a wife, she didn’t type for him. “Oh, well, it looks so professional. I can see you are a man that knows how to handle multiple details.”

I felt terribly sorry for the Korean women seated at the opposite end. No matter what they did, Dr. K.’s response was, “You’ll all need to stay after class and see me.” Miss Arkansas and I usually dashed for the elevator to get away, but one day we found ourselves riding down with Dr. K. already donning her sunglasses. We held back when the doors opened, and my classmate muttered that she didn’t appreciate being repeatedly poked in the back with the professor’s prominent bosom. Keep in mind that my classmate didn’t phrase her displeasure quite so genteelly.

I happen to love the tedium of research and following trails from one topic to another. A class devoted to learning how to do it efficiently turned out to be more enjoyable than I expected. The class was easy for me, and the lectures were like a nightclub act directed by Bob Fosse where the mesmerizing emcee interacted with the audience between topics, compliments, and effortlessly delivered insults.

Dr. K. was a woman possessed of biases, but for once I was on the right side of the bias. My old car broke down one day, and after I got a ride to campus three hours late, she allowed me to turn in an assignment and review her lecture notes. We had a delightful conversation in the process, and I was smitten.

When I got my term paper back before finals, it was full of tiny circles. I’d committed a number of grammatical infractions involving commas. There were also a few misspellings, but she gave me an A++ with complimentary comments because I had chosen a subject that she’d not run across for several years. She indicated that my approach was something she’d never read, but she was actually swayed by my using the only reputable contemporary source to support my thesis. Her former classmate had written that book, and when handing my paper back to me, she announced to the class that I’d provoked so many fond memories.

I remain very proud of the A I received in Dr. K.’s course, which helped me to realize what I wanted to be when I grew up: an idiosyncratic intellectual who isn’t the least bit hesitant to express ennui when the topic fails to stimulate. Some would say I’ve achieved my goal, but perfection eludes me.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

Some recommendations for summer reading!

To learn more about my books, especially the latest two suspense novels that feature 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

 

 

 

 

Thousand-Word Themes and Other Middle School Horrors

Regular readers know that I use this space from time to time for youthful reminiscences, which is cheaper than seeing a therapist for my unresolved issues. Apparently I have quite a bit to say about my formative years, and with age comes the courage to finally tell the tales I was reluctant to tell before. The rush of such airings comes from sharing that first anecdote. When the ceiling didn’t fall in, I got brave enough to write another. Five years later, and followers of this blog have learned a great deal, but there are likely more tales to be told. It all has to do with thoughts and memories as they occur. Memories don’t return in chronological order, which accounts for my skipping around in print.

Some recommendations for summer reading!

My previous post came from remembering my earliest experience with arts education, and in that piece having to do with first grade I mentioned in passing that I was a very quiet child in class even though I could have out-talked every other kid in school. Away from home, very few people were aware of my verbosity. Before sixth grade I was never turned around in my seat talking to my neighbor. At least I never got caught. I barely spoke during piano lessons though there was commentary running through my head. People who met me for the first time described me as very quiet, but when they saw me thereafter they wondered if I was the same person as before.

While editing the previous post, I noticed that the piece had surpassed a thousand words. I hadn’t realized that I’d gone on that long about a first-grade art class. The term “thousand-word theme” came to mind as I uploaded the article, and with that thought Mrs. B. from middle school appeared in my head.

As intense as my first grade art teacher, Mrs. B. also used to scare the hell out of me. Several years ago I wrote a piece about her late colleague down the hall, and she surprised me by posting a comment. I had no idea she remembered me or that she had ever read anything I’d written. Her words brought a smile to my face, and if she’s reading this, she should know that in spite of the anxiety she caused me, I learned a great deal from her during our time together. Life in the present-day United States requires a strong civics background, and I think how much better off we’d all be if she’d been able to teach millions of us.

While there were incidents that occasionally elicited her outrage, my class never received either of her two favorite forms of punishment: thousand-word themes on a subject of her choice or outlining the current chapter of our textbook.

Because I rode the bus with kids from other classes and glanced at their punitive assignments, I was constantly worried that I’d be required to rearrange some future evening in order to think up a thousand words for a yet-to-be-named topic.

Even now I can recall the apprehension that in a single night I might have to come up with something meaningful to say about the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Term papers were about 2,000 words and, as the name implies, require time to research, organize thoughts, and complete several drafts before handing in the final. Finishing a thousand-word composition in a single night was impossible!

Decades later, I’ve become extremely comfortable with a blank page, and a thousand words in an evening is one of the easier things I can do. I do not procrastinate with writing unless it’s an act of delayed gratification. In a recent interview I was asked if I ever get writer’s block. It happens to all writers, but I explained that my block is usually a sign that I need to take a break. At other times, I have a difficult time keeping my work concise. I aspire to Hemingway’s economy, but if there are no restraints, grocery lists and birthday cards are about the only things I write that stay under a thousand words. I can do it if I must, but I’m already at this piece’s 700th word and still haven’t reached the end!

Perhaps I require more focus or a heavier editorial hand, but I love words too much to wrap things up in a hurry. I read at a slower pace in order to savor a writer’s style. Writing novels provides me with occasions to take readers on longer journeys, and speaking opportunities provide forums for telling stories faster than I can type. Nevertheless, even with the luxury of space, I’m constantly concerned with word count and timing as though I’m flying a kite in a strong wind. I have to remember that what gets unwound must be rewound at some point lest the line snap and the kite blows away forever.

It was this week’s intention to include a story about a professor from graduate school who shared Mrs. B.’s affinity for outlining chapters, but it would take hundreds more words for her backstory alone. It’s best to conclude with 863 words and fly that kite another day.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the two mysteries 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

 

 

Being Good at Art is Not Required for Appreciating It

While Maggie Lyon’s upcoming adventure is with the publisher, I’ve taken some time to work on other projects, finish a play, improve my French language skills, and explore new creative avenues while keeping up with all the chores associated with a life in the woods. One of those new paths is endeavoring to create art.

Recent proof that my artistic ability wasn’t permanently squelched in first grade.

Until recently, the only proof of my artistic ability had been lost for decades. Art classes were still part of the curriculum when I was in first grade, but the teacher, who described herself as a “full-blooded Irish woman with a temper to prove it,” scared the bejesus out me. My usual response to teachers’ tirades was to keep my head down and do my best to become invisible. This method apparently worked as borne out by all the times that I was presumed innocent when the class was caught out misbehaving. The teacher would burst into the room and find the most extroverted kids out of their seats making a lot of noise. She would start yelling about all the yelling, and I would hunker down. No teacher would believe that that sweet boy sitting quietly in his seat could outtalk every kid in the room. As you can imagine, I avoided writing a lot of “I will not talk in class” sentences.

Miss Smith didn’t assign sentences. She merely kept a large paddle hanging in full view. I can’t imagine what recalcitrance she anticipated in an art class, but maintaining a tight grip on a subject that succeeds with less restraint didn’t occur to her. The added touch of heavy tape wrapped several times around the short-handled boat oar insinuated that at least once she had angrily hit her target with enough strength to structurally crack the weapon. Needless to say, art class did not get out of hand.

My little elementary school was well funded during my first year. The taxes that supported us didn’t have to be spread across a larger district like the one to which we were soon annexed. Sure, we had old textbooks, but we learned to read and do basic math without any trouble. We had fantastic lunches, new desks, and a nice piano, and there was no scrimping on art supplies. We had all types of paints, tools for any project, and we were able to attempt any manner of media our teacher dreamt of.

We filled old milk cartons with a liquid that hardened so that we could eventually chip away at the synthetic stone as though it were Carrera marble. We layered soggy newspaper strips, dripping with paste, over balloons for papier-mâché. I thought Miss Smith had lost her mind with that project, and remained unconvinced by the time my hollowed monstrosity required painting. I was good at nothing, and I never paid attention when I was told that I must use certain colors for whatever was assigned. I wasn’t intentionally disobedient. It’s just that I have an innate ability for tuning out others’ attempts to restrain me when I have a specific vision.

My greatest art class success, however, was purely accidental. Miss Smith entered the art room one morning and passed out sketch paper. She told us that we’d be drawing “free hand.” Upon reflection, I’m certain she’d not prepared a real lesson, but I took a crayon and let my hand wander. I made a series of arcs that smoothly connected, and then I started filling in. The older boy to my right looked over and declared me a genius. Apparently I’d outlined a toucan that could have passed for the one on the Fruit Loops commercial. He was right!

Confusing toucans with parrots, I decided to add color, but the end result was a beautiful bird. Miss Smith had not noticed. I’m sure she’d assessed my abilities earlier in the year, and since I was mute whenever she drew near, there was no reason for us to interact. I displayed nothing that required cultivation. At the end of the session, we were told to pass everything to the right and the work was taken up.

I never saw my toucan until the last week of school when Miss Smith made her rounds to all of the regular classes. She informed us that she was handing back all of our work because an art exhibition would be held during the eight-graders’ graduation reception. She wanted each student to select his or her best example of the year for the show. She pulled out my beautiful bird and held it up as the quality she hoped the students would select. She wanted the very best and looked in my direction to say that she’d saved me the trouble of going through the rest of my awkward oeuvre.

She slipped my toucan into her folder and left. Since my family didn’t know any of the eight-graders well enough to attend the graduation, and I probably lost any note that was sent home announcing the exhibition (more likely there was no one at home who thought that I might ever have a featured piece in an art show), we didn’t attend the exhibition. I never saw my bird again. Nor did I ever see Miss Smith to collect my art. She didn’t come back, and my bird either ended up in her personal collection or the city dump.

Miss Smith resigned because she was getting married. Several decades ago, most of us assumed that she was quitting because her only life choices were marriage or a career. She couldn’t possibly have both. I’m sure the truth is that she moved away and found another classroom with another nail in the wall on which to hang her menacing oar. I wonder how she reacted after being informed that she could no longer hit students. She must have displayed her famous Irish temper over that!

As some of us rejoiced over corporal punishment leaving the classroom, we mourned when the arts followed. I wonder how Miss Smith reacted when her budget was cut? Had she mellowed with age and experience, or did she shout once more to explain why the arts are a necessary part of education? I’m proof that the purpose of arts education is not to make someone an artist, but that exposure to the arts gives one a sense of appreciation for the world’s evocative pieces. May we find our way and renew our cultural appreciation.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, including the two suspense novels 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

 

 

Headline Overload

I had a post in mind for this week, but with so much going on in the news I decided that I would save the article for another time. Like many people, the continuous news cycle has drained me, and I find myself stopping short of a complete self-imposed media blackout. I know enough to stay informed and involved, but I will not give parts of myself away as the networks chip at my soul in an attempt to leave me shouting at the television like a curmudgeonly shut-in.

I’m not advocating for a media blackout, as I got an up-close look at such an approach when two of our summer visitors were unaware of a single current event, as if cultural ignorance is a good thing. I doubt that either will ever read this so I can write without worrying I’ve offended them, but if they do, then I’m thrilled they’re finally poking their heads out. Becoming aware of federal investigations, hurricanes and all the other recent tragedies will make them seem less like they’ve just emerged from a bunker.

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Murdered Justice by Patrick Brown is available from W&B Publishers, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

In Murdered Justice, Maggie writes about her frustration with the media, and in her next adventure due in early 2018, she’ll say even more about the news in Pennington’s Hoax.

I’m not sure that Maggie can help us, but what we need from the press is accurate information while we apply our critical thinking skills to the facts. That would be our own critical thinking skills, not some pundit’s idea after being processed by pollsters and propagandists. Figure out what’s going on and return to civil discourse. Many of us will never agree, and it’s a myth to think that Americans ever have. In spite of our differences, we once had respect, but I see very little evidence of it today. Our best bet is to turn off the TV and give the networks no incentive to shout at each other while the same footage plays repeatedly in the background.

Once I stop reeling from the headlines, I’ll be back with something more entertaining for you to read.

© 2017 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