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

 

 

 

 

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 Need a Woman Like Dorothy Parker Again

Ever since that morning in high school English class during my sophomore year when I was first exposed to Dorothy Parker, I have been in love with her words. “Ah, what an easy, peaceful time was mine, until I fell in with Swifty, here. I didn’t know what trouble was, before I got drawn into this danse macabre.”

Stories by and about Dorothy Parker.

Stories by and about Dorothy Parker.

I didn’t even know what danse macabre meant at that point, but thank goodness for footnotes in textbooks to explain, making the jokes in Parker’s The Waltz (first published in The New Yorker in 1933) even funnier and causing me to laugh out loud while my classmates looked around wondering what was going on.

I’ve been writing since fourth grade when we were hustled up the steps into the gymnasium and sequestered in a back classroom where a tall woman with very dark hair entered and explained that we were now taking a course called Creative Writing. I wasn’t particularly good at poetry, but I liked the technicality of haiku. What I loved best, however, was writing the story prompts the teacher provided.

“You’re a tomato about to be sliced,” she said, or “A flower about to be picked.” I was so thankful to have this class for three years, and aside from a few snippets here and there, my grammar school classroom memories center around Creative Writing classes with Mrs. Hampton.

Aside from term and academic papers, I didn’t have time to write much else until I was a grownup, but I never forgot Mrs. Parker’s wit and withering commentary. I’d find other writers with similar bite such as Florence King and Molly Ivins, but Dorothy Parker remains my favorite.

“What fresh hell is this?” “This wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.” “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.” She was known for all of these and more, and I can only aspire to come up with such laughter-inducing statements, which have lived for decades beyond Mrs. Parker’s death.

I recently read Ellen Meister’s Farewell, Dorothy Parker, a novel about a New York film critic named Violet Epps who communicates better in writing than in person. She encounters Parker’s ghost after visiting the Algonquin Hotel where the writer drank with other notables in her day, and Mrs. Parker is just as robust and scathing in spirit form in current day New York as she was in life.

Mrs. Parker was one of the famous wits of the Algonquin Round Table in an era before television, Internet, endless news cycles and printed material for every imaginable subject pushed clear thinking from our heads. She was one of the few, the clever, the truly intelligent, though I wonder how she would manage in our world where we’re subjected to the competition of constant prattling opinions, inaccuracy and outright mendacity delivered without flair by too many people whose cleverness is all in their heads. There seems to be a lack of word choice missing from today’s general punditry and critiquing whether or not the reports are accurate or far-fetched. Lie to me if you must, insult an anticipated book or film, or make some comment about a movie star’s dress at the Emmys, but do so with intelligence and dexterity I’ll remember for many years.

I was once told of a young relative who’d been caught lying to her grandmother about who was at fault for cutting to shreds a few yards of new material. “I don’t know what happened. Those scissors just flew into my hand!” The kid may have been a liar, but her explanation made me laugh. She was punished, and I would have punished her, too, but I maintain to this day that her sentence would have been lighter because she’d entertained me.

If you’re feeling nostalgic for clever writing and sharp delivery, I recommend getting reacquainted with Dorothy Parker.

© 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