Meet Maggie Lyon

This week I’m going to introduce you to someone who has become very special in my life. I’ve spent the last year finding out about this remarkable woman, learning what she thinks and giving up a considerable part of my brain as she invaded my thoughts and took shape. There’s no need to worry about her motives. She’s not taking advantage of me, robbing me blind or swindling me out of my life’s savings. She can’t because she only exists in my mind, but very soon she’ll come alive for you in my latest book: Murdered Justice.

Murdered Justice coming from W&B Publishers in March 2017

Meet Maggie Lyon. Maggie was a child during the Watergate hearings, and though she didn’t fully understand what was going on, she knew that two men called investigative journalists had broken a big story. From that moment on, she dreamed of nothing more than becoming one of those tenacious types who research, interview and raise questions in order to expose criminal activity.

After convincing her parents to let her enroll in high school journalism, Maggie eventually became the school newspaper’s editor-in-chief before graduating with honors and finding a place in one of our nation’s top ten journalism schools. Her life was set, and she believed she’d go from college commencement right into the trenches before uncovering scandals, winning Pulitzers and taking over for Katherine Graham at The Washington Post.

Unfortunately, she was a woman, and even though she came of age after Ms. Magazine, Maggie spent the first year or two out of college fetching coffee and putting up with an editor/boss who thwarted every attempt at advancement. She had the smarts to step away, but moving up the ladder moved her out of D.C. where scandals take place and the stories emerge. Exhausted and still frustrated with her career, Maggie took a vacation where she met the famous Michelin-starred chef Mark-Mario Van Heflin-Schröder.

In the past decade, if you’ve ever used a high-end kitchen utensil, enameled cast-iron cookware or a copper-bottomed saucepan, it’s probably had Mark-Mario’s face and autograph on it. He still doesn’t sound familiar? That’s because I made him up too, and like Maggie, he was nobody when they met. With her help as his ghostwriter and connections to a New York editor, he emerged as one of the world’s leading kitchen geniuses.

What did Maggie get out of building her husband’s career? An education in food, wine and lifestyle that did more for her soul and writing skills than languishing in a pool of hack journalists who had no appreciation for her talent and enthusiasm. However, a half-dozen cookbooks and years helping Mark-Mario open restaurants in 14 North American cities didn’t land her a job with the Post when she was finally ready to return to journalism. The best offer came from a Texas newspaper that took her away from her husband and settled her into the Lifestyles section to cover restaurant openings and high society weddings.

As a food writer, Maggie has been formidable, and every restaurant owner who’s seen her coming has quaked in his boots. She’s tough, and with Mark-Mario’s training, has held every establishment to her husband’s (and her) highest standards. She eventually got an agent—the fast-talking Rina Akin from New York. Rina managed to get Maggie’s food column into syndication, and she occasionally found a magazine that needed a great writer to cover an interesting story.

Such was the case one April when Maggie was hired by Landon & Barker: An Image Company to do a feature story on a rising chef from the U.K. He was to cook for an exclusive weekend gathering at a private mansion in one of L.A.’s gated communities, and Maggie would be allowed to stay while she researched her article. She was provided with very little information about the guest list, and was shocked to discover that one of the most polarizing figures in the United States was seated at the dinner table. You have to have heard about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Vittorio Scarpia. He was appointed in the 1970s, and ever since has been writing fiery dissents each time the rulings have gone against his opinions.

You can guess from the title of the book that Justice Scarpia doesn’t make it through the weekend, dying mysteriously in an upstairs bedroom. You’ll have to read to the end of the book to find out what happens, but it’s safe to say that Maggie’s investigative training hasn’t left her nor have her instincts as she follows every lead, catches suspects by surprise and finally solves the mystery. Even though she learns “whodunit,” will she live long enough to reveal the killer?

Murdered Justice is coming soon from W&B Publishers.

© 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

Elderberry End

When we said goodbye to the house in Los Angeles County, there were two things I knew I’d miss more than anything though they could never entice me to stay. One was a distinctive pink bougainvillea, which I’d planted eight years before. It was a little thing when I dug that hole, but it flourished in direct sunlight and spread across the back wall to soften and conceal the sharp brick edges. The other object was a Eureka lemon tree, which provided an enormous bounty once everyone kept their hands off it and left its care to me.

Jessica Mitford once recounted how she and her first husband never paid their electricity bill in London when they lived there before World War II. She felt electricity should be free. I rather agree, but with a well and fruit trees have added water, lemons, apples and nuts to the list of things we shouldn’t have to pay for.

Elderberries as they appear in late May.

Elderberries as they appear in late May.

It’s been a year since we first laid eyes on Elderberry End, the name selected by the previous owners. Not having an idea what an elderberry shrub looked like, I couldn’t answer the question when people asked me about the name. “Are there lots of elderberries there?” I didn’t know. So many of the areas were overgrown, and our August move-in days were filled with so much to do that I never got a good look around until Labor Day. I could only identify what I knew, and I realized there was much I didn’t know.

If there had ever been any clusters of berries dangling from these trees with their distinctive leaves, the birds had surely been the ones to explore the thickets and take advantage of the bounty.

We started clearing things out during the winter, and though we have years of work in store for clearing out more, I ran across the occasional odd tree. It rises from the ground with several branches, but there were no leaves in winter to know what it was. The bark looked similar to a fruitless mulberry, and the canes were easily cut to form arches in these clearings as I imagined people taking walks and stopping to admire this plant, which had me wondering if it were something tropical and invading this northwestern rain forest.

Ronald from Louisiana visited in May, and he is one of my friends who possess tremendous gardening knowledge, especially when it comes to edibles. He spotted the most prominently placed elderberry, and then I was able to show that they were everywhere. I finally understand why our place name was chosen, and I’m feeling no urgency to think of something new.

The bougainvillea in California, nine years after planting.

The bougainvillea in California, eight years after planting.

Ronald provided some tips on harvesting and using the elderberries if we can get them at the right time before the birds take them. I remembered I have a book by Nigel Slater called Ripe, which I highly recommend. It’s a companion book to his Tender, and both books provide culinary ideas for those who are planning orchards, vegetable gardens or just love reading and looking at photos of beautiful food. Ripe has several ideas for the fruit, including fritters of battered and fried elderberries dipped in sugar. I might consider lifting the frying ban to try them, but there are other ideas I can put to use.

One of the reasons I enjoy Nigel Slater’s books is his frankness (“No one should actually plant one of these trees.”) and his way of describing the simplest things: “The smell of the [elderberry] blossom is, like that of spreading lavender honey on hot toast, the essence of the English summer Miss Marple might have known.” I’m now anticipating these tart berries, and all the things I can do with them.

Leaves on the California Hazelnut (corylus cornuta var. californica)

Leaves on the California Hazelnut (corylus cornuta var. californica)

After Ronald, Bruce was among our next set of visitors, and having grown up in this region of the country, he reminisced about native plants, which he hadn’t seen for a long time. I asked him about a tree I couldn’t figure out, and he thought it might be some sort of nut. The leaves match the ones in my guide to native plants, and it seems we have a couple of hazelnuts, which had gone undiscovered until we removed some problematic trees in the vicinity.

Ripe has a few suggestions for the nuts “If you can manage to get them before the squirrels.” The apple tree, which produced only three mushy apples last year, received some special pampering, and the spring bloom was amazing. I can already see the apples for this tall specimen. Harvesting will require a long pole with a basket, but I’m looking forward to all the ways to enjoy the fruit. Like everything else, we’ll have to harvest before our friends in the forest take everything.

© 2016 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

Ad Costs of a Free Press

To be honest, I gave up on television news a long time ago. It started about the time that I read an article stating that Americans were going to see news programs designed more as entertainment than hard-hitting journalism. We had been seeing this in morning television, which has always had the reputation of being lighter. The stigma must be true as so many hosts have fled or have tried to flee from their friendly sofas to those coveted evening anchor chairs.

Cable news gets accused of abusing the term “breaking news,” and this wolf-crying technique has trickled down to local news stations. It’s difficult enough to watch local news at its designated times, especially in Los Angeles, without frequent interruptions throughout the day to announce that they’ve learned nothing more about the high-speed chaser, the shooter, the missing hiker, the armed standoff or the kidnapped kid.

Rather than bother us with nothing to report, how about returning to an earlier style of journalism where reporters find out who, what, how, where, when and why, write it up and report it at an agreed upon time, say at 6:00 and 11:00 each evening?

As we have it now, with reporters who look like fashion models, it’s like having a glamorous friend who goes to the scene and Skypes with you while describing everything that’s not going on while getting the opinions of the people walking by. The passerby on last night’s news who arrived at the beach right after a sheet was draped over a dead body is probably a very nice person, but what does her opinion about the arrival of the coroner’s van have to do with the story? And we could’ve done without her speculation as to the cause of death when her statement began with “I don’t know, but…”

Then there are the anchors in the studio. I have serious doubts about the quality of news when it looks like one of the Real Housewives of Wherever has dropped by the station to take a seat behind the desk. Last night’s anchor was wearing a silk number with spaghetti straps and darts so pronounced that it appeared her bosom was reporting the low temperature of the studio. Could it be that she had just come from a very elegant pool party in Beverly Hills in time to present the news?

And on the subject of physical appearance, if you don’t live in Los Angeles, you should see our weather girls. There are a few meteorologists still checking the Southern California skies, but the majority have been replaced with former lingerie models whose only qualification for the jobs is having mastered the difficulty of working with a green screen. A recent visitor from out of state exclaimed that you would never see someone giving the weather report in a miniskirt and a Wonder Bra where she lives!

Los Angeles weather is very much the same, so constantly hearing about clear skies, ocean breezes and a high of 75 requires bare thighs and prominent cleavage to break up the monotony of our unchanging weather. I grew up in Tornado Alley where a girl doing the weather dressed in a tight outfit would’ve caused the demise of an entire county by not hearing her say to get in the cellar.

Looking at floats from the Pasadena Rose Parade on a beautifully clear day.

Looking at floats from the Pasadena Rose Parade on a beautifully clear day.

Of course, it must be said that Los Angeles has its share of bad weather. About four times each winter, the clouds roll in from the Pacific Ocean, and we feel the first sprinkles of a winter rain if we’re lucky. An overcast day is uncommon enough that you turn on the TV to see Stormwatch, Stormcenter, Mega Doppler or some other indicator that the Great Flood is coming and you didn’t build an ark. TV stations send vans of reporters all over the county to various points to check the weather conditions. The reporters for these non-stories are usually rookies or veterans who’ve upset management. One reporter who had an affair with an interview subject found herself donning rubber boots and a parka as she sat in a van in the mountains hoping to see a few snowflakes on a cold, damp night.

Before smartphones brought us the five-day weather forecast and traffic report at the push of a button, I relied on early morning local news. I gave up when it finally dawned on me that I would get more information if I took the anchors’ advice and visited their website. They weren’t lying. There were stories about things we’d never hear of on TV.

I returned to morning TV news just once more to compare what they had online to what they gave us during their 30-minute program. I turned on the news just after the top of the hour. I’d missed the headlines and was given the traffic report at 6:12 a.m. That was not particularly useful for me at that early hour, but I hung on for the weather. The girl whose vintage miniskirt indicated that she was honoring a Haigh-Ashbury love-in came on the screen to tell me that she would provide me with full weather details upon returning from commercial break. Why couldn’t she tell me right then?

More than five minutes of commercials, and the anchors came on to give a rundown of the morning’s headlines, which I’d missed. That was nice of them, and then we could get on with the weather. What? Another commercial break? Was I watching a show about TV commercials that was being interrupted by the news?

Another five minutes passed in which I learned the best places to buy new cars, mattresses, flooring and amusement park tickets (Disneyland is promoted by ABC and Universal Studios by NBC). The anchors appeared on the screen mid-banter as if I’d interrupted their best stories at a cocktail party. “Oh, you’re back again,” they had probably wanted to say. “We gave you the headlines already. You want weather? Fine.”

The weather girl came on the screen, turned to a flattering angle, and told me that I could expect a “change in the weather.” When might I find out the details? “When we come back!” If watching channel five, a commercial tells me to read the LA Times. Both are part of the same company, so this comes as no surprise. Following the next commercial break, the bantering anchors appeared to be focused on something. Could Breaking News preempt the actual news?

“I just posted pictures of me participating at the fun-run last weekend,” said the female anchor. “I’ve already got forty likes! Follow us on Twitter and Facebook!” I felt as though I’d interrupted a slumber party for teen girls, but before they forgot what they were there for, they yelled out “Time for that update on traffic!”

The traffic report at this hour of the morning always seems to start off with “We’ve got an overturned big-rig at the ten and Azusa…” I don’t know what it is about I-10 at Azusa or the 210 in Irwindale, but either the truck drivers lack the skills to make it safely through these treacherous stretches of highway, or else it’s the Devil’s Triangle of freeways. I’m so distracted by pondering what’s causing this near daily occurrence of flipped semis that I forget to hear the thirty-second, five-day forecast for all five Los Angeles regions.

Southern California during winter. No sign of a Pacific storm today.

Southern California during winter. No sign of a Pacific storm today.

Is it going to rain? Will the Santa Anas blow? Should I prepare to house my friends who might be threatened by mudslides or fire? I’ll be able to find out for sure if I forget about watching TV and go on Facebook to see the meteorologist’s latest posts. The report is right there between the post on finding the best café latte on the west side and how to find the best Pilates coach in the Valley. If you scroll slowly enough you will see it: “IDK when rain will come, but x-pct a mess! #traffic #forecast #405 #carmageddon #buildanark Follow me!”

And for anyone who thinks the evening news broadcasts on the major networks are going to provide you with fresh information, think again. Cable news runs 24/7 and gives the headlines though they, too, have very little real news to report. It’s mostly opinion from people whose opinions don’t matter. Still, they blather on round the clock.

The thirty-minute broadcasts on the networks are actually far less than that, and in case you weren’t aware, those news broadcasts are  now sponsored. They’ve always had commercials, but now they have sponsors who run incredibly long commercials in between segments. Why so long? Do the anchors need to make costume changes between stories on school shootings and rescued kittens?

As I say, I don’t watch TV news very much, but I thought I should if I were going to write about it. I really wanted to know who was sponsoring the news. It appears that pharmaceutical companies have gotten a firm foothold, and the target audience is senior citizens who are probably the only ones still loyal to this medium.

Right after a report on the Supreme Court, a commercial came on for a medication for post-menopausal vaginal pain. Several nicely dressed mature women with beautifully styled hair came on the screen to describe how they feel. Obviously these women are actors because I can’t think of anyone their age who would shed all dignity to provide such intimate details. Then it occurred to me: if there are enough sufferers for “Big Pharma” to research and develop a drug, PMVP, as it surely must be called, must have reached epidemic proportions.

After the complaints, the announcer promises that all of this discomfort can be gotten rid of if you see your doctor and he or she agrees to prescribe their medication. Then he rapidly listed all the side effects, which was quite literally aegrescit medendo (the remedy is worse than the disease). Prevention would be far better than taking the medication, but what could be causing this outbreak of pain when we’ve gone so many years without hearing a single complaint from little old ladies who used to dwell on their arthritis?

At the next commercial break, an older couple was walking along the beach. Again, it was clear that the drug companies know their audience. The ad’s subject was vague at first, and then I heard “For erections lasting more than four hours, seek medical attention.”

Years ago, scientists were quick to find solutions for erectile dysfunction. Some questioned the swiftness of FDA approval. Could it be that there is another side effect that has not been mentioned within the confines of the commercial? It’s obvious to me that there is a connection between PMVP and ED.

These poor women who had once thought they’d be left alone after a certain age are now being bothered by their husbands long after they thought possible. Is cutting off the Viagra supply the best cure for PMVP? If you’re waiting to hear the latest findings on the news, you’re out of luck.

© 2014 by Patrick Brown

In Survival Mode

The recent Los Angeles earthquakes have been in the news, and the latest ones have been strong enough for me to rethink emergency preparedness, including our earthquake kits. I’m no stranger to the earth moving, but as the experts have pointed out, Southern California has been in an earthquake drought for about twenty years.

I was asleep and over two hours away from the epicenter during the Northridge quake, and in 2008, I was downtown the day the one took place east of the city. When quakes feel like they’re barely happening, it’s easy to consider yourself a brave veteran of notable tremors. Perhaps you can imagine what I was feeling when I had finally settled down to watch a movie on TV one recent Friday night when the lights flickered and it felt like someone was playing tug-of-war with the house.

We had no significant damage other than a curtain rod falling down, but for a moment I thought every book was going to come flying off the shelves, the windows would rattle until they shattered and the ceiling might cave in. You are never prepared for a sudden interruption in life, so I scrambled to find shoes before running through the house and out the back. Experts tell you not to run outside during a quake because of the possibility of falling debris, but how else are you going to get to see the water splashing out of the pool?

For a few moments, I’m sure I looked like those TV anchors on the morning news who were caught on camera during the March 17th quake. You go through all the various stages beginning with denial. Once you’ve accepted that what you’re feeling is actually an earthquake, you then worry about the next one coming.

When we grew tired of the water sloshing about, we came inside to check the news. Coverage had already begun, and if any news commentators had dived under their desks, they were back in their seats to tell us what they knew so far. The epicenter for the 5.1 had been 15 miles away. It was preceded by a lesser quake and for the next day or so, it was followed up by aftershocks. Fortunately, I was miles away during the biggest aftershock so didn’t feel anything after the 5.1.

The scientists have been busy with television appearances lately, and they were already speaking from a press conference that Friday night to warn about the possibility of larger quakes taking place within the next few hours. The Big One might not be coming, but a larger quake than we’d just had was a possibility. It’s moments like these when you rethink what you hang on the wall over your bed or just how stable is that glass sculpture on its rickety stand.

“We really should go get some water to store,” I said. “Just in case.”

The truth of the matter is that there is no “if” about the Big One, but “when.” Part of me thinks getting it over with would be the best thing. Don’t leave us in suspense; get the damage done, rebuild and relax for another hundred years. Then I think how there is never a convenient time to be inconvenienced. I have things that need doing, and that requires getting out of the house and around the area. None of us can afford to have the freeways collapsing or have anyone lose their homes or businesses. Nor can any of us afford to lose our lives or those of the people we love!

In the apartment, the quakes always had a “rolling effect” as you hear people say. One of the scientists on TV said that they all feel like rolling quakes unless you’re on top of them. Then it’s altogether different. Though I never felt a jolt in the apartment, I never lost sight of the fact that the patched cracks in my plaster were the results of Northridge, an earthquake that collapsed freeways and apartment buildings. Each small quake would prompt me to move until I finally did, and I can only say that had I been jolted out of bed on March 17, I’d have started packing that afternoon.

I’d been worried about The Big One for a few years. With Japan and Chile experiencing major quakes in spring, it only stood to reason that California’s position on The Ring of Fire would put it in line for something in the next year or two. I’m not a scientist, and I based my theory on the ricochet effect like when a racquetball bounces off various surfaces when it’s in play.

On the Sunday evening following our Friday 5.1, I read an online article about the San Andreas Fault. “If The Big One happens there, scientists have now realized that the damage would be far more devastating than previously thought. The I-10 corridor from Palm Springs to the Pacific Coast would be rocked, and the damage even more catastrophic than stated earlier.” Isn’t that just perfect? The Big One is going to affect my neighborhood with such a ripple that we’ll look like a sheet blowing in the wind.

On Monday morning, I was concerned enough to research earthquake kits online. One contained a bucket in the same yellow used to indicate toxicity or radioactivity. It has a seat so that it becomes your toilet. This was off-putting, and I suspended further research until the evening. One expert said that all the previous experts had been wrong by indicating one gallon of water per person per day. The new standard is to have two gallons of water per person per day, and my standard is to have more than that. Throw in some windup phone chargers and radios, a substantial first aid kit along with some camping gear, and we’ll be good to go.

Thankfully, I go through lots of phases, and I acquired a great deal of quality camping gear during my outdoorsy phase of the 1990s. If the walls collapse, we’ll have a giant tent with comfortable bedding. With propane tanks, we can have hot food. Warm showers if we remember to put the bag in the sun early in the day, and there is every indication that we’ll eat well as long as the pantry shelves don’t collapse with a summer’s worth of harvest in all those mason jars.

Unless the shelves give way, we should have food until help arrives.

Unless the shelves give way, we should have food until help arrives.

On Tuesday afternoon, an 8.1 quake hit Chile. My theory was off. We were not to get the big quake today, but I’m sure it will be soon. As I was finishing up my work for the day, Gary looked in and said he was going out to get water for storing.

“If you wait until tomorrow, I’ll go with you,” I said.

“You say that every day,” came his reply.

“Well, now that they’ve had that quake in Chile, I really will.”

“Why wait?”

A while later, I heard the car drive up and then the sounds of something being stored securely in the garage. Gary came in a few minutes later and had an oversized bag full of ramen noodles.

“These will be good in case of emergency,” he assured me.

“Why? Are we planning to eat sodium-laced processed food to elevate our blood pressure? Are we to compound our survival issues by having strokes or do you just hope that we’ll die instantly if disaster turns into an all-out apocalypse?”

“There you go again, making fun of stuff when this could keep us alive.”

“I understand what you’re saying, but we have so much good food on hand. We can make risotto and soup and a number of tasty things. We may find ourselves destitute and living outdoors until help arrives, but I’d like to think we’re going to maintain a few standards.”

“Just put it with all the other stuff. We’ll be glad later that we kept it.”

I was shoving them into place when it occurred to me that my friend Carolyn once gave me a great salad recipe that called for dried ramen noodles. Note to self: remember to make sure there is an abundance of sesame oil and a source for greens in the earthquake kit.

©2014 by Patrick Brown