A Masterpiece

Game of Thrones

It’s been months since the finale of Game of Thrones. We’ve heard all of the opinions about the ending and how it should or should not have been written. The Emmys for the previous season have been presented with amazingly little publicity or fanfare and lo and behold Game of Thrones won a few here and there. The new season of televised programming has premiered and we are moving on to new horizons, new experiments in viewing pleasures. We are a fickle lot. One day a series is in and another day it’s out. It takes little for us to turn on favorites or to join the horde in praising something heretofore uninteresting to us simply because it feels woke to do so. So often like lemmings we hark to the general hue and cry.

With great respect to both those who have watched every episode of Game of Thrones and those who have yet to spend their hours attempting to keep up with the complicated plots and abundance of characters I forthwith offer my humble opinion about the ground breaking series. Be advised that I will not include spoilers lest some potential future viewer might heed my words and decide to risk spending a great deal of time unraveling the story.

I heard of the HBO series Game of Thrones before I had read any of the books by George RR Martin. I saw the previews while I was watching Boardwalk Empire and I felt more than a little curiosity. I tuned in to the first episode and by the end of the first season I was hooked by the grandeur and idea of this imaginary world ruled by grand families against a backdrop of coming doom. For this English major the tale was more than skin deep and I was soon scurrying to the local Barnes and Noble Bookseller to purchase a copies of the novel as well.

I was hooked from the beginning. In fact my interest became a kind of obsession. The story was fascinating and raw, a showcase for our complex human natures. Above all in both the book and on screen it told of power, traditions, family ties, spiritual beliefs, the birth and evolution of personality. It’s creative force was stunning even when it lead my favorite characters to places that were darker and more dangerous than I wished them to be.

Like a study of the English monarchy I almost needed family trees to follow the tangled threads of the tale but over time I felt a kind of familiar kinship with my favorite characters and a loathing of those who were their enemies. As with people in real life I was often surprised by heroes who exhibited weaknesses and stunned by seeming villains who found redemption. In terms of studying the human experience Game of Thrones was a masterpiece even when I disliked the turn of events.

Those of us who have read the books know that much was left out of the televised series. To consider every aspect of George RR Martin’s voluminous texts would take decades and the screenwriters wisely omitted some of the stories that were somewhat strange diversions from the main themes. Nonetheless in the final analysis it is as much a tale of family and adventure as The Odyssey and like that old Greek classic it focuses on the struggles of our very humanity. Sadly Martin has never found a way to actually end his saga, a problem that all writers face. Tying up the thousands of tangled threads in a satisfactory way is often the most difficult aspect of telling any story because if the ending is too harsh readers and viewers will be upset. If it is too maudlin they will believe that it is simply schmaltz.

I think of so many books and movies that I love but would have liked to see end differently. I wanted a happy ending for To Kill A Mockingbird not one that broke my heart. I wanted Duckie to get the girl in Pretty in Pink. I could go on for hours as most of us probably might. We each carry particular opinions and desires in our hearts and those feelings ultimately affect our thoughts about even such mundane topics as how best to end a television series. In defense of Martin and the screenwriters for Game of Thrones there is probably no finale that would have satisfied everyone and still rung true to the essence of the story and its focus on the contradictions of human interactions.

Instead I believe that our judgement of Game of Thrones should be based on the innovation and grandeur of the series. There has never before been anything as breathtaking on television. The scope of each episode was worthy of the big screen. Even the musical score soared to a level heretofore unknown in weekly programming. The acting was exceptional and no doubt has launched the careers of many members of the talented cast. The cinematography and special effects were stunning, and taken as a whole the writing was superb. Game of Thrones will stand for all time as one of the best series in televised history despite any disappointments in how the writers chose to end it.

A week or so ago I attended a concert of Game of Thrones music at the Cynthia Woods Pavilion in the Woodlands. Because the venue is rather far from where I live my husband and I decided to make a day of it in the area rather than fighting Friday night traffic just before the show. We ended up enjoying dinner at a local restaurant where we had a quite friendly waiter who asked us if we had any plans for the rest of our evening. He became more than animated when we told him where we were going and he launched into a discussion of Game of Thrones. We all spoke of our favorite moments and characters but agreed that at times we had felt almost lost in the torturous maze of the story.

The waiter admitted that he needed more understanding after the final episode aired and so he began the process of watching the series once again from beginning to end. He excitedly suggested that it was a more than worthy undertaking because once he no longer worried about what was going to happen next he began to see the deeper meanings of every aspect of the story. It was almost like doing a literary analysis and as he progressed he realized the extraordinary genius and beauty of the show.

I thought about our restaurant conversation as I listened to the score from Game of Thrones that evening and watched clips from the beginning to the end of the series. I understood how fond we fans had all grown of watching those very human characters live out their lives in a make believe world that explained so much about our own. I saw how the totality of the story had enchanted us and I realized why we will miss it. By any measure this is the mark of a classic, even with its flaws and disappointments. Game of Thrones was indeed a masterpiece and worth taking the time to watch again.

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A Walking Timeline Through History

Trafalgar Square

When the best laid plans go awry, pathways to new adventures often show themselves. We were to have spent our morning watching the changing of the guards and our afternoon at Westminster Abbey. The cancellation of the tradition of pomp and circumstance at the palace had sent us scurrying to the Gothic church far earlier than intended, so once we were finished with our tour we became untethered and aimless wanderers around London.

The roads almost inevitably lead us past the halls of Parliament where protests centering on the Brexit issue were a constant feature during our time in the capitol city. We glanced disappointedly at Big Ben which was shrouded by the apparatus of reconstruction save for the face which never changed because it was not working. We wondered as we longed to hear the famous chimes if somehow all of our planning was doomed to go up in flames, but we soldiered on, walking past a highly secured area that housed the home of the outgoing Prime Minister.

There was much stirring behind the gates. We saw official looking men wearing formal  jackets filled with medals leaving the premises with grim expressions. It told us that Theresa May was no closer to creating a plan for transitioning Britain from the European Union to a  more nationalist entity. There was a noticeable tension in the air that hovered over the halls of government and the silence of Big Ben added a metaphorical touch to the chaos.

After walking for what had seemed like many miles Trafalgar Square was in view and husband Mike became quite animated by the thought of seeing the iconic tribute to those who had fought so valiantly in World War I. First, however we would pause for lunch in a nearby pub where I admittedly struggled to find something that appealed to me on the menu. I generally eat a very light midday meal and there was very little of that sort to be found among the traditional English food being offered, so I essentially skipped eating and instead enjoyed a lemonade and a much needed rest for my feet. I used the time to find and purchase the tickets that we would use later that night to see the choral concert at Westminster Abbey.

Once everyone was refueled we headed to Trafalgar Square which was quite joyfully bursting with life, mostly from tourists and street artists. The atmosphere reminded me of the area around St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, Louisiana. There were accomplished musicians and singers entertaining the crowd with performances worthy of Albert Hall. Using only chalk and their imaginations many individuals drew masterpieces on the grand sidewalks of the square. A gigantic fountain surrounded by enormous lion sculptures served as a photo opportunity for everyone who passed by, and of course there was the famous obleisk honoring the courage of those who defended the nation in World War I.

This was indeed a happy area where the tension surrounding the government buildings was replaced with a kind of serendipitous celebration of art and humanity. It felt good to be there and somehow made up for the botched intentions of our morning. We all realized that while we had not achieved what we had planned, we had stumbled upon something that was nonetheless glorious.

Just beyond all of the revelry lay the National Gallery which like so many sights in London was open to the public at no cost, so we decided to partake of its vast collection of paintings and sculpture in the time remaining before our evening engagement. This would prove to be a wonderful decision because some the the most famous artists the world has ever known were featured in the multi-story galleries.

I enjoyed so many of my favorite painters and was filled with appreciation for some about whom I had known nothing. Without a doubt, however, the experience of wandering without warning into a room containing the work of Leonardo da Vinci was the highlight of the visit for me. The funny thing is that I had spied his drawings from out of the corner of my eye and had noted that I felt drawn to to them before I realized that the great master had created them. There was a kind of lively charisma to even the preliminary sketches that elevated the pieces to a level unmatched by any of the other artists.

I might have stood transfixed in that room for hours were it not for the fact that we had agreed upon a meeting time in the coffee shop, and that hour was drawing near. It was with great reluctance that I took one final glance at the glorious paintings and headed down to meet with the rest of our party.

We enjoyed a bit of respite and a great deal of animated conversation over steaming cups of Earl Grey tea as we spoke of our favorite works of art. We all agreed that we had somehow been led to a most enjoyable afternoon by the “gods of travel” and we promised that if we had some additional time later in our trip we would gladly return to this wondrous place to be certain that we had not missed anything.

When we emerged into the late afternoon air we saw that the festivities taking place in Trafalgar Square had not abated. It seemed to be an oasis of cheer and goodwill which was perhaps the intent when it had been designated as a memorial to all that is good about Britain. After the horrors of World War I the citizens needed to remember, appreciate, and celebrate the many sacrifices made. I thought it fitting that the joy of peace time was still very much in the air.

We walked away with an even greater sense of the spirit of London and its people. In a single day we had looked far back into their history and gazed at the gravity of their present. It had been like walking a human timeline during which we witnessed the resilience of the people. We realized that they had made mistakes before, and perhaps were enduring them even now, but always they seemed capable of adjusting their course and moving on the right side of history.

Wonders of the World

British MuseumThe Bloomsbury area of London is the home of the university of London, Kings Cross Station, and the British Museum. A short stroll in almost any direction leads to lovely sights. In May the gardens and window boxes are filled with lovely flowers of every hue. Tiny markets offer fresh fruit and sweet bouquets. It’s a pedestrian world in which the sidewalks are filled with walkers strolling more leisurely than in the heart of the city. It is a place where lingering just a bit longer is in fashion.

On the first full day of our trip we chose to eschew hurry, and instead enjoyed a scrumptious English breakfast buffet in our hotel. We feasted on fried, scrambled and poached eggs with little English sausages, baked tomatoes and sautéed mushrooms. We enjoyed steaming pots of Earl Gray tea or tasted the brew from the latte machine. Crusty loaves of bread beckoned us and a bounty of pastries were ours for the taking. We had our choice of cereal and fresh fruit, cheese and pancakes. It was a good way to start our adventures for we would walk ten of thousands of steps, many miles in a single day.

Our quest was to visit the British Museum about which we had long heard. The building in which great treasures are housed is an imposing structure which would be worth a look even without ever going inside. Once we had entered we were in awe of the great halls and sensed that we were about to see magical things that we had only before read about in books. After gathering and studying a map we decided to go first to the Egyptian section where we were immediately taken aback by the presence of the Rosetta Stone, an imposing treasure that would have been worth the trip all by itself. 

From that first moment we were in awe of the treasures that were displayed for what seemed like miles. It was difficult to know where to first look or what direction to follow. The trove of artifacts was so expansive that it gave me the feeling of being an adventurous archeologist who had suddenly stumbled upon a great find. I felt humbled as I gazed at items so exquisite and so old that I had difficulty processing an image of the creative and skilled people who had made such things in a time when tools were simple and scarce. I found my mind going far back into the history of mankind, and I marveled at the human connections that I felt with the people who had left such incredible marks on the world. I also thought of those who were simply nameless persons attempting to deal with the challenges of living, often under great duress.

I was brought back to present day reality only when I saw a group of young school boys careful taking notes about what they were seeing. They were so cute in their jackets with crests on the breast pockets and their earnestness in deciphering the mysteries of the many artifacts that they passed. I suppose that I will always love children and feel proud of the tiny contribution that I have made in the long range history of a generation. I think that we humans create because we have always desired to find some kind of purpose to our existence,

I was so caught up in seeing Roman statues, Greek urns, and Chinese porcelain that I hardly noticed that six hours had passed and it was time to enjoy a traditional afternoon tea gathering. Our group ate little sandwiches filled with chicken, salmon and eggs. There were scones and cakes and tiny cookies. We relaxed and chatted about what we had seen and how we felt. We worried just a bit about how so many things had been brought to Britain from the places where they were found. We wondered if they had simply been confiscated or if there had been permission, agreements, and payments for taking such things. I suppose that there are many different points of view as to the ethics of having such museums, particularly when the items include actual mummies. Is it wrong to raid a sacred tomb, or should we honor the purpose of such rituals by leaving them intact?

After refueling ourselves and debating the pros and cons of how and whether or not we were somehow complicit in the rightness or wrongness of such a museum we continued our study of the many different rooms. We saw Mayan carvings, and intricate woodworking from Abysinnia. We walked past glorious creations from India and Japan. Our heads were swirling from trying to read the descriptions of what we saw and achieve some kind of understanding of the magnitude of the glories of each culture represented in space after space.

Soon it was nearing five in the afternoon, and we realized that we had literally spent an entire day mesmerized by what we had viewed. Nonetheless there was still more to see, but that would have to be for another day, perhaps on another trip. The doors were closing and we were explorers forced to reluctantly set our adventures aside.

Russell Square near the museum was by that time filled with tourists and locals enjoying the coolness of the afternoon under enormous trees. They lolled in the grass and sat smiling on benches. There was an unspoken collegiality between all of us as we exchanged smiles and greetings. We felt as though we welcome in this place and it felt so good.

We finished our day in Callahan’s pub in our hotel. We feasted on a variety of food. I chose bangers and mash which were as tasty as I had hoped they would be. I enjoyed a nice glass of wine while my travel companions chose ciders and beers. We played a game on a large table and watched soccer on the television above our heads. We got to know some of the locals who came to the pub of an evening just to have a swig and a bit of conversation. It was a fun closing of a perfect day in Bloomsbury in London town.

And Still I Try

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I don’t just like to write. I also love to read. I am in awe of great writers, and they are many in number. Some of them are friends of mine while others are strangers who become like friends through their words. There are those who have a knack for choosing just the right words, the most stunning imagery, the clearest poetic phrasing. I am often moved by their ability to convey a universe of ideas in the space of a sentence or paragraph. These are the true masters among us whose canvases are blank sheets of paper and whose art is created from combinations of letters, words, and punctuation. It’s a simple enough exercise, and yet some of us still draw stick figures when we attempt to write, while others join the infinite with their masterpieces. I am transformed by their work, even while I am a bit jealous of it. I want to reach their level of of excellence knowing that my own efforts are mostly feeble, and still I try.

I was listening to a program on National Public Radio that spoke of the emotions elicited by great art both visual and audible. Music by far is the most likely to stir something in our souls that brings us to tears. Studies show that paintings are often the most vivid representations of life, but we humans rarely gaze at them long enough to become as emotionally involved as we do when we hear songs or symphonies. When we read we often skim so quickly over the words that we absorb only a minimal appreciation for what they are conveying, but when those same words are acted by great players we may find ourselves sobbing. Music and acting are so fluid, while canvases and manuscripts may appear static, leaving us with little more than a passing idea of what they actually represent. When we actually take the time to allow our minds to feel the content of a great work of visual or written art we are transformed.

My father had an appreciation for all forms of art. He played music while he read, a daily routine that included hours of perusing newspaper columns, books of poetry, novels, and nonfiction. He returned to stanzas and passages again and again. Repeating the rhythms and phrases that most appealed to him. He memorized the best of them, ready to quote them in appropriate moments. Bookstores were his galleries, places where he found hidden jewels that appealed to his senses. He held books and printed papers as though they were treasures to be treated with the highest regard. He transferred his love for the written word to me. He showed me how to be discerning in my search for the artistry of a great poet or author, My high school English teacher, Father Shane, transformed my sensibilities into an art form of itself by insuring me that being a studied appreciator of great writing is a kind of accomplishment in its own right.

The best writers among us invert the world as we see it, turn it upside down and inside out making even the hideous beautiful. They appear to have a gift, a natural genius that makes it easy and inevitable that they will leave us breathless with their creations. Still we know from stories and examples that they have to work hard to hone their craft. They don’t simply peck out five hundred words in an hour to reveal thoughts and ideas so memorable that they will last through the decades and centuries. We hear of F. Scott Fitzgerald driving himself almost insane in his attempts to reproduce the beauty of The Great Gatsby. Shakespeare’s works were both brilliant and ordinary depending on which of his plays is being considered. The demon of perfection haunts writers and sends them into fits of desperation. There is no feeling as dreaded as having a block that creates an almost impenetrable wall between ideas and final copy.

I wonder how a J.K. Rowling is able to fashion and sustain a story and characters so perfectly that her books become beloved treasures, keepsakes to visit again and again. How does a Tolkien create entire worlds with a make believe history that seems so real, while others are one trick ponies or abject failures in spite of Herculian efforts? Is it possible to push ourselves to find our own inner genius and then demonstrate it to the world, or is the mark of greatness limited to only a select few?

I read, and read and read, learning new ways of saying old things. I practice and practice, but find myself falling short of the goals that I set for myself. My time is growing short. I am not a Grandma Moses who will suddenly stun the world with my talent, and yet I would like to be. I would so enjoy finding that sweet spot that might touch a place in a reader’s heart that makes them cry for joy. I want to transcend the ordinary and find my personal best, which I sense is buried somewhere inside of me. I suspect that I will know when I have managed to get closer to my ultimate goal, but I worry that there is some calculus that will keep me forever making only closer and closer approximations of what I want to achieve.

Reading and writing have become my routines. I push myself to exercise my mind the way some work on their bodies. I find peace in my experiments with words, and inspiration in the genius of those who have already accomplished what I hope to one day achieve. Writing is my Holy Grail, my Mt. Everest, my nemesis and my consolation, and still I try.

Seeing the Unseen

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The Netflix movie Roma is the quiet story of a young housekeeper and nanny living in nineteen seventies Mexico City. In an artistic masterpiece we watch her devoting every day to the service of the wealthy people for whom she works in a world in which she seems almost invisible and voiceless, unable to exert any control over the trajectory of her life. Nonetheless her beauty and strength illuminates the dreariness and uncertainty of the lives of the family that she serves even as she is all too often taken for granted. Roma is a triumph in its ability to portray the harshness of life for those who toil under the yoke of barriers created by the often immutable restrictions of class, but it also demonstrates the immutable importance of seemingly invisible individuals who work on the periphery of society.

The movie touched my heart and my mind in deeply moving ways and caused me to think of how many souls have journeyed through life almost without notice due to their status in the socio-economic pecking order. Their desperation is quiet and even misunderstood, while their dedication is under appreciated, and yet they sometimes demonstrate more character than those for whom they toil. Like all humans they have dreams that all too often go unfulfilled leaving them faceless in a crowd that wrongly defines them. They lose their distinct complexities in favor of generalizations, if they are even noticed at all.

My paternal grandfather somehow escaped even the notice of a census taker until he was well into his forties. The story of his early life is a blank slate making it seem as though he simply appeared from nowhere one day, a kind of cipher left to his own resources due to circumstances beyond his control. My maternal grandfather spent over thirty years traveling to a thankless job of cleaning the blood and entrails from the floor of a meat packing plant. I wonder if anyone ever realized that he was a very bright man who spent a portion of his weekly salary purchasing books that he read each evening after a day of work that left his legs and back aching, or was he simply the guy who picked up the messes that others left behind?

I think of the mother of one of my students who dropped him off at the school each morning wearing her McDonald’s uniform, a detail that embarrassed the son enough that he tried to deny that he was related to her. Then there was the yard man who drove through the carpool line pulling the trailer holding the tools of his trade and the source of income for his family. His son proudly boasted that his father was more than just someone who cut grass. According to the boy his father was an artist and a brilliant businessman. I wonder how many of us teachers with our college educations somehow felt a bit of superiority over these industrious souls. Were we guilty of chiding our students with threats that they might one day be reduced to menial jobs if they did not study? I heard such taunts quite often, comments meant to spur determination that may have unwittingly insulted the efforts of our students’ parents.

I recall the stories from my pupils of mothers and fathers who worked as many as three jobs within a single day. These souls existed on less than six hours of sleep and tortured their bodies with physical labors that left them scarred and broken. They set their pain aside for the sake of their families only to all too often be viewed by society as lazy folk who had done nothing with their lives. I wonder how many of them were thought to be little more than faceless bodies in an uneducated and unworthy mob. Were people suspicious of them, unwilling to see them as the hard workers that they were?

All too often we fail to really see the people who do not seem to be like ourselves. It does not occur to us that something as simple as where one is born may have incredible consequences in determining the course of life. We unwittingly stereotype people without truly knowing who they are. Like the family employing the young servant in Roma we see them in a kind of caricature when the truth is so much deeper. We create invisible, but powerful, barriers between ourselves. The man who mows our lawn or the woman who cleans our home is a provider of a service, not someone to be thought of as an equal, and yet the reality is that we are far more like our caretakers than we choose to accept. We are dependent on each other, and yet we rarely acknowledge the bonds that we share.  Our humanity should unite us, but the artificial structures upon which we build our societies often drive us apart.

Every single person is a unique gift to our world. Perhaps if we were to have a better understanding of that idea many of the problems that we face might be resolved. It is difficult to unravel the complexities of living, but we might begin with one person at a time. If we consciously strive to appreciate and acknowledge everyone with whom we interact we might begin to create more unity and understanding. Who knows where such a process might ultimately lead when we attempt to see the unseen?