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

 

 

 

 

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