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Michael Browning, The Best of Us All

Michael Browning, the most elegant writer in American journalism, died this weekend. He was 58 and he was the best of us all.

If you've read the Post in recent years and enjoyed the writing of David Von Drehle, Joel Achenbach, or Gene Weingarten--or any of a hundred or so other Washington Post writers who came here from the Miami Herald--or if you're a fan of the novels, columns or reporting of Dave Barry, Carl Hiaasen, Madeline Blais, Barry Bearak or Michael Winerip, you've nonetheless missed out on the work of the guy who was by general acclamation the best writer of all of us who worked in the creative caldron of the Miami Herald in the 1980s.

Michael Browning was a gentle bear of a man, a classicist who saw the events of today as a vehicle for sharing the lessons and language of the past. The news found him as much as he reported it: He was stabbed while eating lunch in his car in downtown Miami. He was swept up in the revolt of Tiananmen Square in China and wrote this extraordinary piece. He wrote about the lives of Chairman Mao and the guy who bagged groceries at Publix, whom Browning dubbed the Senior Bagger. He wrote about his old mother just before she died.

He was witty, wise, worldly. And I loved it when he got angry, as he did here, in a delightful trashing of the Dan Brown novel, The DaVinci Code, "a book so relentlessly stupid that it makes owl dung seem wise,...a den of skulch."

Last year, after the death of Gene Miller, the editor who had hired and inspired most all of us at the Herald, Michael wrote this of Miller, though, like all great eulogists, he could well have been speaking of himself:

His example inspired scores of young journalists, myself included. He had an almost heroic lucidity about him, tempered with great kindness and human warmth. I have never known a clearer, more diamond-like intellect. He was like a human burning-glass, focusing everything into "bright shafts of daylight," as Lucretius says. Yet he could use wonderful phrases like "scared the bejabbers out of him."

He wore his natural talent lightly. You never felt jealous of him. You just wanted to be more like him.

Michael's newspaper work can be found in bits and corners all over the web; I was somehow cheered to find a collection of the reviews he posted on amazon.com--here's work that he did without pay, without the expectation of accolades from his peers. These were simply books, movies and music recordings that he felt compelled to comment on, because he genuinely did know more than the rest of us.

But if you read only one piece of Browning's work, please make it this one, which The Washington Post's Arts Editor, John Pancake, another Herald refugee, found. Michael wrote it in 1995 for the Miami Herald:

I need a pane of slow glass, 14-year thickness.

Slow glass appears in a haunting science-fiction story I read years ago.

Slow glass, in this story, was an invention of the near future. In normal glass, light passes through in a multimillionth of a second. In slow glass, light had to travel through an intricate molecular labyrinth of crystal spirals so thick and complex that it took hours, days, months or years to shine through the other side of the pane.

Cheap slow glass was only 12 hours off, and people who worked at night would have it installed in their homes, so the sun would shine to suit them. They would sleep all day in starry darkness.

Medium slow glass could be a season or two off. You would look through it on the sultriest days of summer and see the snowdrifts and icicles of last winter. It was marvelously refreshing.

The rarest, costliest slow glass was up to 15 or 20 years thick, or more. Events of years past would find their way through the tiny, mazey, translucent spirals of the glass and glow brightly at last, on the other side, relaying images that struck the opposite face of the pane decades earlier.

In the story, a man travels to the countryside with his wife, shopping for slow glass. They reach a glass farm, where panes are exposed, catching the skies and clouds - everything that happens in front of the surface of the glass - for resale later, years later. This lonely farm produces some of the best slow glass in the entire region.

The owner of the glass farm is distracted. He keeps looking in the picture window of his house, where his wife and child are playing. He waves off the would-be buyers, telling them to look, make up their minds, choose, decide on a price when they're through. He goes back to sit on the porch and stare at the picture window.

Pause. I will tell you what happens in the end presently.

I wish I had some slow glass. My children, 9 and 14, are speeding up, growing faster than I can index them in my memory. They went away for several weeks this summer, on a vacation with their mom and grandparents. And when they returned, I saw the difference. It was as if I had closed my eyes and slept and missed something irretrievable.

They are irretrievable. Every breath, every minute, every joke and jump, every shout and kick of a pajama-clad leg in front of the TV, every Christmas smile - all these flash past, all these singular, startling things happen and are squandered practically the moment they appear, like tiny fireworks.

I read in a National Geographic article on time that our idea of "the present" is, at most, about six minutes long. We dwell in this little moving bubble, whose diameter is 360 seconds or so. It is all we can take in, all we can grasp, and the far end of it is always being lost, vaporing away into an irrecoverable past.

Snapshots are one thing. Videotapes are another. I suppose we have more means of saving baby pictures than any human beings in history. Yet they are all inferior to memory, memory that recalls how the wind blew, how the sea smelled, how the trees rustled, how innocent and infinitely appealing our children were, as children. And memory itself is so frail.

As I write this, Matthew's and Noah's school vacation ends a few hours from now, and they are in the middle of that one-last-fling, let-the-heavens-fall joyous madness that sparks the last few glorious hours of summer. They want to do everything at once, wallow in pleasure, watch this, play that, run around all over creation.

I remember what an infinity a summer vacation used to be, what a wealth of time a hundred days was. Their vacation, they tell me excitedly, was thrilling, magnificent, "awesome!" It was a whole little lifetime of excitement.

This same summer, to my own dull senses, seemed to last about 3 1/2 weeks. It was pleasant, but it did not possess that special, second-after-second brilliance that makes youth so diamond-precious.

Time is a currency that is constantly being debased, inflated, cheapened. I have heard that it has to do with the heart rate. Older people's hearts beat more slowly, and so time shrinks and telescopes inward for us the older we get. Children, with their lively hearts doing rapid, rat-a-tat drum rolls, have longer days and summers. A single afternoon can be an epic.

I attended a trial once in which an old man was asked to testify about what month certain events happened.

"I'm not sure. It seems like there's a new moon every week now," he said. The judge himself laughed.

Slow glass: At the end of the story, the young buyer discovers why the glass farmer has been staring at the picture window so intently.

It was because his wife and child were dead, he said, killed in an accident years earlier. The pane of slow glass had been installed in his house before then, and the images it contained were from the years when he still had a family. Now all he possessed of them was that pane of slow glass, and its images would be exhausted soon. They had only a little time to run before the room would be empty forever.

That was why he stared so fixedly at the slow glass, why he treasured every fleeting image that shone in its remembering surface.

How can my thimble of memory contain everything my two boys have been, and are becoming? If only I could see it all again, and pay more attention the second time! That is why I need a pane of slow glass, 14-year thickness.


By Marc Fisher |  January 2, 2007; 7:21 AM ET
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Comments

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Shouldn't that be 'den of sculch'?

http://www.bartleby.com/61/74/C0797400.html

Posted by: Oysterman | January 2, 2007 10:35 AM

That was beautiful, Marc.

For those that have not read it, here's Bob Shaw's "Light of Other Days".

http://www.scifi.com/scifiction/classics/classics_archive/shaw/shaw1.html

My condolences to all of you who knew Mr. Browning.

bc

Posted by: bc | January 2, 2007 12:21 PM

Thank you.

Posted by: mary ann | January 2, 2007 2:40 PM

Michael Browning once wrote a Miami Herald article about DNA which contained a minor factual error. I immediately fired off a "gotcha" letter to the editor in full knowledge that such lapses were rare to non-existant. A couple days later I was stunned to receive a response from Mr. Browning in which he acknowledged the error and went on to describe his quite thorough knowledge of the subject. It was a most gracious and unexpected response and I was mightily impressed that he had taken the time to acknowledge a truly minor glitch. He was as good as they get.


Posted by: Richard Troutner | January 2, 2007 6:48 PM

Thanks much for the links to some of Browning's articles. Great writing. Wish I had known of him earlier. 58 is so young.
I note that his brother also died of liver failure.

Posted by: Mister Methane | January 2, 2007 8:19 PM

Thank you so much for this introduction to the work of Mr. Browning. This is writing of astonishing beauty.

Posted by: Bonnie | January 3, 2007 1:10 AM

Mr. Browning spent the last eight years of his career as a writer for The Palm Beach Post.

Posted by: Tom | January 3, 2007 11:37 AM

Thanks for introducing me to Michael Browning -- I've spent the past hour reading his writings on the internet (instead of working!). The piece about becoming his mother's caregiver struck very close to home for me. I'll bookmark the rest for reading later.

I note that two of my favorite wiseacres -- Dave Barry and Gene Weingarten -- have left messages in the website's guest book. If you can judge a man by his friends, he must have been a lot of fun.

Posted by: Lady Wesley | January 4, 2007 2:49 PM

As another reader noted, I see that both Michael and his brother both died of liver failure. Is there anyone who knew Michael who might be able to share what their "disease" was? Two of my brothers have something called hemachromotosis and it's a liver malfunction. I'm just curious to know if the Browning brothers had this.

I too was mesmerized reading some of Michael's articles. It's very sad that the world has lost such a tremendous man.

Posted by: Dorothy | January 4, 2007 3:41 PM

Thank you Mr. Fisher for yet again another tribute to our friend, Michael Browning. Once in a lifetime someone like Michael comes along and we are all blessed for being in his.

Posted by: Leah Schad | January 6, 2007 10:33 AM

Thank you Mr. Fisher for yet again another tribute to our friend, Michael Browning. Once in a lifetime someone like Michael comes along and we are all blessed for being in his.

Posted by: Leah Schad | January 6, 2007 10:33 AM

I was stunned to hear of Michael's passing. I was lucky enough to know him for a short time while we both worked at The Herald. "One of a kind" is a cliche that Michael never would use, but, cliche or not, it applied to him.

Posted by: Hank Selinger | January 9, 2007 4:00 PM

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