I first encountered the work of Michael Browning in the pages of Tropic, the Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine. It was a piece about what a handful his 2-year-old was, normally a subject a young, unmarried, fearful-of-parenthood female reader would avoid like gum surgery. Intrigued by the headline — “The Life and Crimes of Matthew No” — I started reading. Within a minute, I was giggling. In a few more, guffawing. It was an early lesson that in the hands of a gifted writer, any topic can be entertaining. Even toddlers. Even gum surgery.
I don’t know if Browning ever wrote about that, but I learned to look for his byline on the KRT wire. For years, he reported from Beijing, then came back to Florida and found good stories everywhere. In 1999, seeing the inevitable in Miami, he moved to the Palm Beach Post, where my friend Carolyn works. She forwarded my fan letter to him, and he let me know that Matthew No turned out just fine:
Good old Matthew. We all give hostages to Fortune and Fate when we have children. They could end up drunkards, drug addicts, smushed by oncoming trucks, Knockers-Uppers of 14-year-olds. But to my amazement, he grew up to be a very decent sweet young fellow with a good work ethic and a gift for drawing and a love of art. I’m proud and relieved.
So am I. The picture he painted of the kid at 2 was truly terrifying. In a funny-terrifying way.
You know where this is going, however, don’t you? Michael Browning died this week, too young. The obit has links to several of his best pieces. A former colleague at the WashPost has rounded up a few more. I recommend every one.
MarkH said on January 3, 2007 at 12:57 pm
Thanks for sharing this, Nance. Normally, I spend two or three minutes every few hours surfing NN.C. I happened to start with Browning’s dismantling of The DaVinci Code for what became my mega-coffee break and was not sorry. This could have made me a total sloth at work today, but, looking forward to reading his other stuff tonight. What a find for the rest of us, albeit, a little too late. RIP.
Lex said on January 3, 2007 at 2:57 pm
Aw, what a shame.
He got the best title, too. I guess if I ever write my parenting memoir, it’ll be called something like, “The Insatiable Urges of Hooper Dammit.”
LA mary said on January 3, 2007 at 3:25 pm
The DaVinci Code article got me too. My ex, who reads about one book every two years LOVED that book. Went on and on about it. Anything I can find that reinforces the crappiness of that book is tops with me.
Dorothy said on January 3, 2007 at 3:32 pm
I’ve been mesmerized reading his articles, and then some of the condolences written on line. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. I’m sorry I never heard of him before, but I’m certainly a fan now. Did you know he was stabbed on his lunch hour once, about 20 years ago when he worked at the Herald? One of the people who wrote a condolence mentioned it. Said he used to go out and read in his car, driving a few blocks from the office. Someone tried to rob him and he was stabbed in the process!! Instead of driving to the hospital, he returned to the newspaper office instead, collapsing in the front hallway.
Mary O said on January 3, 2007 at 3:48 pm
Every time I think I want to become a serious writer (not just a daily reporter like I am now) I see something like this. Sigh. I’m not up to it when there are people like this. The writer Marjorie Williams did it for me too. What a loss.
MarkH said on January 3, 2007 at 4:19 pm
Mary O, my sentiments exactly.
LA mary said on January 3, 2007 at 4:50 pm
The corporation I work for has just gone through a couple of software changeovers. We hired consultants to help. I’ve seen the worst writing in the world coming from these consultants. If nothing else, they’ve shown me how important clear writing is.
Carolyn said on January 3, 2007 at 10:05 pm
I had forgotten about that exchange. I am so glad you saved it.
Michael was famous for his emails and we ran some of them in The PB Post today. If I can find a link, I will send it along, but here is a sample:
“I spent Sunday writing a complaint letter in Latin to the Monks of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky over their crumbly fruitcake, which they charge an arm and a leg for, and which has been getting worse every year for the past five years. It comes in a pastry ring, and I compared it to the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome, formerly so splendid, now collapsed in fragments. I wonder if they’ve got anybody on the payroll up there who can still read Latin and who might even reply in Latin? …I know it sounds Mondo Lame-o, but writing that letter in Latin took me a couple of hours and brought back the most delicious memories. I got out my Allen & Greenough Latin Grammar and my leather-bound White’s English-Latin dictionary and had a grand old time. It turns out the Latin for cake is “placenta,” which has been medicalized into a gory mass of flesh by the doctors, so I chose the chaster, Vergilian “libum” and since there is no Latin for fruitcake I coined the term “libum ex fructibus,” a cake from fruits. It was a lot of fun … Happy hols, as the Brits say! Allbest, MCB
I did not know Michael well – mainly through his writing; the stories his editors told about him; and his annual offer to work for us in metro on Christmas Day. A highlight of the holidays was finding the right assignment for him. Chinese restaurant? Veterans’ hospital? He never disappointed.