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

 

 

Mine Is a Cautionary Tale

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Innocent and dressed for church (center), I still knew all the popular catch-phrases on  NBC’s Laugh-In.

When you read the next few paragraphs, you’ll question my upbringing, but I promise that I wasn’t the least bit neglected. It’s just that I was the youngest child, and parents are more relaxed when they see that their earlier experiments turned out so well. In my case, there was more on TV than when my sister was the same age, and what the networks allowed in Prime Time was much different when I was in pre-school.

Without giving away our ages too quickly, my sister was probably watching Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Ed Sullivan and Beaver Cleaver. Television then got a little wilder for the next few years. Gone were the longer skirts of Mrs. Cleaver to be replaced by the mini of Marlo Thomas. It was recently brought to my attention that Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, while undoubtedly the most wholesome television show ever produced, premiered the same year as Laugh-In.

 In those days, the state of public television in my neck of the woods was sorely lacking, and I didn’t even know about Mr. Rogers until I had outgrown his target audience. No one that I knew ever talked about him, but I was such a regular viewer of the questionable comedy show airing on Monday nights that I knew all the catch-phrases: “Verrrry interesting,” “Here comes the judge,” “That’s the truth,” and “Sock it to me!”

I was intrigued by the joke wall and often wondered how I might empty out lower kitchen cupboards and hide behind doors so that I could pop out and be funny. This colorful world of miniskirts, go-go dancing, and short comedy bits held my attention even though for years I didn’t understand most of the jokes, and kids my age didn’t even understand what I was referencing in our play.

I lived for the moment when I could fill a bucket with water to toss on my cousin after convincing her to say “Sock it to me!” but she would never take my stage directions properly. She seemed to be avoiding my cue while suspecting that I was up to no good with that suspicious looking garden hose.

I’m still not all that familiar with Mr. Rogers. I know there were sweet songs, puppets that didn’t move their mouths, a message about acceptance and respect, and the changing of shoes and sweaters. The truth is that I spent my time thinking about Gary Owens with his hand over his ear, that Lily Tomlin was both a little girl in a rocking chair and a telephone operator, and I lived to watch Joanne Worley wearing feathers and beads during the latest “The Party” sketch. Her punch-lines were incomparable, and something to the effect of, “If you like downtown Burbank, you’re going to LOOOOVE Paris!”

Television was such an influence on my life, and I still retain so much of what I saw back then. We had a lot of westerns playing in our house, but I was always more attuned to the background than what was happening with the plot. One morning when my mother was working in the kitchen, I was about four and pulling bottles from one of the lower cabinets. I had aligned unopened bottles of catsup, Worcestershire sauce, a steak sauce and a couple of soda bottles. She was stirring something (it may have been the summer that she made peach jam) and glanced over: “What are you doing?” she asked. I can’t imagine what she thought I was doing with my imagination. Aligning rockets since it was the Space Age? Without looking up and very matter-of-factly, I replied, “Playing saloon.”

Even that response didn’t seem to affect my viewing habits, but I’m sure it raised her eyebrows. Even if my favorite shows had been suddenly banned, I would probably have tried finding a way to watch. I couldn’t un-see what I’d already seen, and even though I wouldn’t know the joke behind Tyrone Horneigh (pronounced “hor-NIGH”) for years and years, there seemed nothing wrong with watching Ruth Buzzi in a hairnet beating him over the head with her purse week after week. At age four I could understand that he was a masher even though I didn’t comprehend what being a masher meant. Nor could I have understood the complexities of the future #MeToo movement and why women needed to defend themselves in the first place.

Laugh-In is tame by today’s standards, but for some who watched it, they felt like they were getting away with something. Though I did not see Mr. Rogers during my formative years, I don’t think I turned out too depraved. I try to use good manners and remember the importance of every individual (even though I have to be honest that this notion is more difficult with certain individuals). However, PBS really should have me on during funding drives and testifying before Congress during budget talks on educational television for I am a cautionary tale.

© 2018 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

 

Stiletto Prints in the Sand

IMG_4225I was going to attempt a clever article about the holidays, perhaps reminiscing about Christmases past, but then I remembered I’ve already shared anecdotes about my childhood at Christmas, which you can read here.

I have touched on my role as a singing Martian, fictionalized in A Final Folly, and my crushing disappointment upon learning of the nonexistent special effects budget when called upon to vanish during a live stage production.

I have a few other stories yet to be told about smoke alarms as gifts, a church Christmas pageant that was overtaken by an evil soprano who should’ve been cast in The Exorcist, and the year a towering drag queen lip-synching Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree stole the show (she exceeded seven feet while wearing a red and green double feather boa that arched from the crown of her head). I also get a smile on my face when remembering the year when five cousins returned from a ride around the lake in a 1965 Mustang unusually famished less than two hours after a big lunch.

Before you get too excited, I’m saving those stories until you’re a little older. Until then, just picture me as one of the beatific child shepherds outfitted with one of my mother’s plush Royal Velvet guest towels tied on my head. Someone tied it so tightly that I developed an unbearable headache before they killed the spotlight on that year’s production.

When all those moments were taking place, I didn’t find them as funny as I do now. Holidays are hard on so many people, and I’m one of those who doesn’t spend Labor Day weekend diagraming my lighted yard display. Even before my years in church music and a few spent in retail, I have been a person who steels myself for the holiday season as if December is a big wave heading for shore. I sympathize with those who feel the pressure to consume, whether it’s commercialism or what we stuff into our bodies. I’m one of those who strives for cheerfulness even when I don’t know where it’s going to come from, and I understand the feelings that this Christmas isn’t going to be nearly as great as the one way back when.

Disappointment affects each of us to varying degrees. People experience loss, and devastating events don’t schedule themselves with our personal calendars in mind. Add layers of advertisements, nostalgic shows, and sentimental music to bring home the fact that this holiday season isn’t going to be as good as that year when we thought everything finally fell into place. It’s no wonder we set ourselves up for disappointment.

A large part of my holiday expectation problem has been perspective. Much like photographs that I hated at the moment they were taken, I realize twenty years later that I didn’t look as bad as I thought. And so it is with Christmas. At the time, I might have been sad that a favorite family member or best friend couldn’t make it. Perhaps we couldn’t be together one year or maybe we never were again. There have been years when I’ve worried there wasn’t enough money to pay for presents, special meals, or parties, or there was the time a significant other decided to break up the day after the gifts went under the tree. All of those terrible moments seemed to occur while Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas played over and over.

All of our worst holiday experiences affix themselves to our psyches. I’ve had some terrible years, and I’ve heard stories of even worse experiences. As I dug deep into my memory to find a heart-warming story to share this December, I quickly passed over the more difficult years, which seemed to remind me why I am not always immediately filled with hope. After pondering the holidays I consider to be some of my best, I realized that those really terrible Christmases had mellowed with age. At the time, I was very unhappy, but each year contained at least a morsel of joy that continues to make me smile.

You might say that when I looked back to see one set of footprints and thought I’d faced a particularly sad Christmas on my own, I’d never been truly alone for an extremely tall drag queen wearing a double feather boa had been carrying me all along.

© 2017 by Patrick Brown

IMG_7899To 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

We Gather Together

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Who doesn’t love a nice autumnal display to put them in the mood for Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is typically the great American feast day, and I much prefer pulling out all the stops for a big celebration than just getting by. However, I’m not in the mood this year to prepare a month’s worth of food for a single sitting that will end up leaving leftovers. I’ll probably wake up on Thanksgiving morning,  wishing I’d made a greater effort, but at this moment I’m not feeling inspired.

The holiday lacks something if I haven’t spent the day in the kitchen, but I also have wonderful memories when someone else did all the work such as six years ago in Vancouver, B.C. (“Market” by Jean-Georges Vongerichten in the Shangri-la Hotel) and eight years ago in Santa Fe (the restaurant at the El Dorado). Those are the two best Thanksgiving dinners I’ve ever eaten, and the trips came about after our experience nine years ago in Las Vegas where I shut down emotionally after experiencing one hotel’s version of Thanksgiving dinner. When I came to, I called upon the forces of the universe to raze that establishment, and I’m happy to report that it no longer exists.

I don’t know when Thanksgiving became my favorite holiday. It could have been in elementary school when I learned that we were getting a four-day weekend a month before Christmas break. Combine the excitement of some much-needed time off with tracing one’s hand to make a turkey or reams of construction paper to make pilgrim hats before we departed, and I was in the mood to celebrate. We learned all of the sanitized tales of colonial living, and the bulletin boards were decked out in fall colors with Norman Rockwell images. Who couldn’t love that?

Thanksgiving morning in the central time zone meant leisurely watching the Macy’s parade while getting ready to spend the day at one or the other of my grandparents’ (we alternated each year), but the morning wasn’t as relaxed and joyful for my mother as she was confined to her least favorite room in the house.

I never knew when she’d been told what to cook, but I can only imagine the assignment had been made at knifepoint. Sometimes on Wednesday night, but usually Thursday morning, I’d hear the sounds of bowls rattling, utensils being flung, cans being opened, and a general groan of discontent coming from the kitchen. I didn’t understand then, but now I can sympathize, knowing I’d feel the same way if I were told to change the tires on a monster truck the night before a rally.

Hot food was eventually loaded in the car, driven for thirty minutes or forty-five depending on which grandparents, and then the cooling food rested somewhere until it was served unless it belonged in the refrigerator. If the fridge was too crowded, items that wouldn’t collapse without chilling sat near the hot food. I survived childhood without any foodborne illnesses from a holiday dinner, but I never had hot turkey and dressing unless it was at school.

Neither of my grandmothers possessed a sense of presentation. There was an abundance of food, but one side of the family put every dish on the table and passed it around while the other side set up a buffet. There were no candles or centerpieces at either house. Turkeys were never plated on a bed of greens and carved at the table, which was best in the case of my maternal grandmother’s bird. She roasted it hot and very early. When I took a peek in the kitchen, there was always something resting under foil that appeared to have smoked in the sun for 40 years. The next time I saw it, it had been artlessly shredded and piled on a plate.

Both sides of the family ate at noon, unless my maternal grandfather pushed for 11:45. That’s probably why no one thought we needed candles. My dad’s family all sat down together, including children, while the men on my mother’s side got their food first, the children second, and once we were all situated, the women had their turn. They women didn’t get to sit more than a second or two because the men, who ate like pie-eating contestants, were already searching for dessert.

On both sides, the whole show was over in less than forty-five minutes, as there was probably a football game someone couldn’t miss. I always thought we should take things slower, but I was one of the youngest and didn’t have a say. As the dishes were being washed, the high doses of carbohydrates and tryptophan brought on a powerful drowsiness in the men, and those whose wives had awakened them before dawn with all that banging around the kitchen were completely conked out with the sound of a ball game barely covering their snores. I came to believe that every living room in the country was filled with unconscious bodies, which looked like the scene of a cult after the Kool-Aid.

Eventually, I’d have opportunities to host Thanksgiving dinners the way I thought they should look, but I’ve never forgotten the joys of my childhood holidays even if those meals at unembellished tables had been rushed. I’ve had Thanksgivings that were magazine layout perfect, and I’ve had Thanksgivings that are best forgotten. In the end, the food and the atmosphere aren’t as important as those who gather together.

© 2017 by Patrick BrownTo 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

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

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“Tossed Off the Edge” is the ghost-written tell-all of self-indulgent daytime diva Sheila Wozniak.

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Available online at http://www.amazon.com