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 Sense of Happiness

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Does anybody remember Leon Hale? He was a writer for both The Houston Post and The Houston Chronicle who traveled around the city of Houston and the state of Texas writing about this and that. His columns revealed a man who was always on the lookout for a good story, and over the years he found hundreds that delighted readers like me. His best ones were often about rather ordinary people who came to life under the magic of the words he chose to use to describe them. His talent was so profound that he somehow made the mundane incredibly interesting. He had an eye for finding the beauty in a single moment or face or comment.

I know I would have enjoyed sitting down with Leon Hale to talk about his decades of adventures with folks. I would have liked to ask him how he developed his writing craft so well, but I suppose I already know many of the answers because he was masterful at noting even the tiniest details about his subjects and then finding words and phrases that painted pictures without so much as a single photograph. His was indeed a brilliant talent that brought me many years of joy. Even on days when I was too busy to peruse the other pages of the newspaper I found time to see what Mr. Hale had to say and I was never disappointed.

Leon Hale taught me as much about humor, love, acceptance and other such positive characteristics of the human heart as the sermons I heard in church. He got me to thinking about the best inclinations of humankind and his stories were as uplifting to my spirit as readings from a book of meditations. He also had a knack for describing people and situations with unique combinations of words that invariably brought out emotions that either made me laugh or cry. I literally felt as though I knew him and the people that he introduced in his tales.

The glory days of local newspapers are dimming. Houston was once a two newspaper town long before it was even close to being the forth largest city in the country. The Houston Post, which was always my personal favorite, went the way of dinosaurs long ago and The Houston Chronicle is just a shell of its once glorious self. A Sunday morning edition used to be so big that it came in two separate rolls from the paperboy. Now it is so slim that it’s hardly recognizable. It’s surface area is vastly diminished as is the quality of writing between its pages. Before long it won’t be too far different from the little suburban newsletters that come out once a month.

It was the printing press that wrought dramatic change in the world. As ordinary folk had more and more access to books and newspapers equality became more possible. The new revolution has been on the technology front with news and print entertainment on demand at any given moment. A morning or evening run of a hard copy is old news by the time it arrives and is less and less cherished by avid readers than it once was. Computers allow us to see the latest information whenever we wish. Blogs provide us with almost infinite numbers of writers that we might follow. The new Leon Hales can live and write in Texas and then publish for a worldwide audience within minutes.

I am definitely an electronic reader. I use my various devices to read wherever I go. I don’t have to cull through dogeared magazines about topics that have little interest for me when I wait to see my doctors because I have my trusty phone to keep me apprised of breaking news or to provide me with columns from writers that I enjoy. I even have a Kindle app that allows me to read from the latest best selling books. Still, there is something about the look and feel of paper and printed letters formed from ink that adds to the reading experience. Actually holding a physical copy of writing is as enticing to the senses as wearing fine perfume.

The glow of letters on a screen just ins’t as exciting as holding a printed version of a story or a book and I always have the sense that I may be missing something important whenever I read from an electronic device. I understand and learn best when I have a fully kinesthetic experience in which I can actually manipulate the words by circling or underlining them or making comments in the margins. I like to put paper tabs on certain pages or turn down the corners of the sections that contain my favorite passages. Not even mechanical highlighters on ebooks do the job as well for me. My photographic memory feels a bit lost in the world of computers, notepads and phones. I have to spend too much time remembering where all of my information is stored. With a paper copy I know exactly where to look.

Several years ago I rid myself of all of my long playing record albums and I had quite an extensive collection They took up a great deal of room in my house and I was more inclined to play CDs which were far easier to store and rarely had a scratchy sound from overuse. Eventually even my CDs became rather arcane and I was more likely to stream music to one of my devices. Low and behold LPs became a thing again, a kind of homage to authenticity in music.

One of my grandsons is slowly building a collection of records from artists of my generation. He finds them in thrift shops and half price stores. It pains me to know what a treasure trove of music I once had that I might have given to him as a gift. Instead I was a bit too quick to convert to the new ways. For some reason I have not been able to do the same when it comes to the written word. I still have books and magazines all over my house. Some are growing so old that the paper inside is yellowed and fragile which makes them even more precious in my mind.

I suppose that there is a good argument for conserving natural resources by using only electronic versions of writing. I think of all of the trees that were cut down just to satisfy the human search for knowledge. While the Amazon forest burns we might consider being more conscious of the cost to our world of eschewing more modern methods for reading. Perhaps it’s time for me to retrain my brain to be more appreciative of the evolution of the reading experience. It’s certainly more democratic and inclusive. Nevertheless, I still miss sitting with the latest copy of Leon Hale’s column and reading with enthusiasm as my fingers become smudged with newsprint and the paper makes a crinkling sound as I hold it on my lap. I can almost see it, hear it, and feel it now. It gives me such a visceral sense of happiness. I miss that.

A Most Extraordinary Life

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My cousin and I were having one of those silly conversations in which we asked each other what our favorites are in different categories. I realized as I answered each query that it is truly difficult to narrow down my preferences to just one or even two things. Let’s take the category of best book, for example. I’ve read so many from differing genres that choosing only one is literally impossible. I’ve always loved classics like Jane Eyre, but then more recent picks might be Things Fall Apart or The Kite Runner. I’m a huge fan of nonfiction as well. Isaac’s Storm kept me on the edge of my seat with anticipation, but reading about Czar Nicholas, Queen Victoria, or John Adams was as interesting as it gets. In other words, I so love to read that I’m often taken by whatever I have read most recently which would include The Nightingale and The Tenth Muse.

Choosing a favorite movie is just as impossible. There are some that I consider to be works of art like The Godfather ( both I and II), Apocalypse Now, The Lord of the Rings, and The Mission. Others are just fun and appealing. Those might include Titanic, Christmas Vacation, or Love Actually. I’m such a movie fan that it would literally take pages and pages to list all of the flicks that I have loved. To me there is nothing more satisfying that spending a rainy day watching old Alfred Hitchcock films and munching on junk food, even though these days I try to be good and stick to fruit and vegetables. Just tell me that someone is featuring a movie marathon of some sort and I am in!

The same is true of television shows. How is it even possible to list all of the programs to which I have been addicted over the years. Breaking Bad was epic, but Better Call Saul is pretty great as well. Unlike most people I was totally satisfied with the totality of Game of Thrones including the ending. In fact my recent trip to London with its study of the reigns of kings tells me that the violence and madness portrayed in the series was maybe a bit tame compared to real life. I’m a sucker for any kind of mystery or crime series, but I love to laugh as well and while it’s difficult to beat Seinfeld, there have been many contenders over the years. The glory days of Saturday Night Live with John Belushi and others was magnificent, but that venerable program has lost its magic over time.

I’ve traveled to many places both in the United States and abroad and there are some that I enjoyed so much that I have returned multiple times and never grown weary of seeing them. I’d go back to New York City any time, but it’s not a place that I would ever want to live. Chicago, on the other hand is a city that I not only like to visit, but I would be willing to set down roots there if I had to move for some reason. I love San Francisco and San Diego, but despise Los Angeles. Boston is a wonderful place that I never tire of seeing and also one where I would be willing to live. I visit New Orleans again and again. A piece of my heart lives there, but I would be afraid to settle down in that region because of the continual threat of hurricanes. I suppose that I truly feel the happiest in Colorado with so many cities and towns that I adore. If I were able to go there many times each year I would do so. I fell madly in love with London on my recent trip there, but I’m a die hard American, a Yank who loves my English speaking cousins but can’t imagine living outside of the USA.

It’s quite interesting to speak of favorites. I enjoy hearing what other people like and dislike. It demonstrates aspects of living that we share as well as those that make us unique. The world is filled with so much variety which makes it possible for there to be something for everyone, particularly in this day and age. So much has changed from the times when I was young and most people lived in a narrowly defined area with few opportunities for seeing the rest of the world. Back then books were the best source for expanding horizons and libraries were the places where we found the volumes that most intrigued us. Television was in its infancy featuring only three or four stations with rather predictable programing. Movies were often a treat that not everyone could afford, and travel was mostly by car.

I am thankful each and every day for the magnificent advances that allow me to be ever more part of the world. I have so much from which to choose that life is never a dull moment. I seriously thank the good Lord for my blessings at the beginning and end of each day. I have seen more of the world that almost all of my ancestors put together. I have more education than they even dreamed of having. Movies and television programs and books are literally at my fingertips. It’s difficult to even consider complaining when I think upon the advances in quality of life that I enjoy compared to either of my grandmothers. Neither of them were able to read or write and their daily activities were labor intensive. They rarely ventured too far beyond the confines of their homes and I’m not sure if they ever went to a movie theater. While they seemed happy enough, it boggles my mind to think of all that they were never able to experience that has so enriched my own life.

I chastise myself when I grow sad or dissatisfied with my lot in life. I have read so many books, seen so many movies and traveled to so many places that I cannot choose a favorite. The only thing that I should be doing more of is counting my good fortune and expressing my gratitude for a most extraordinary life.

The Yanks Come Home

The Yanks Come Home

Each of us is unique and yet through a combination of nature and nurture we also share common traits and histories from our ancestors and our relationships. Our characteristics and our personalities come together to make us who we are and how we react in the world around us. I am a mixture of European DNA and a lifetime of experiences in the United States of America. I have always been curious about the long strand of genes and stories that brought me to my personal place and time. I have been surrounded by books and tales and inherited traits for all of my life, and I have sought answers to questions that swirl in my mind.

In a sense I have been slowly moving in search of the source of so much of who I am from the time that I listened to my father reading fairytales to me and the days when my English teacher, Father Shane, enthralled me with literature and poetry from the greatest authors of Britain. I am a “Yank” who desperately needed to see the place from whence I came, and so I embarked on a journey meant to enlighten me and answer the questions for which I longed to find answers.

Thus I planned a trip to England with my husband, and my siblings and their wives that was to commence in the middle of May and end on the anniversary of my father’s death which seemed a fitting tribute to him and the people who had made him. It would prove to be more than a casual adventure, and instead provide me with the a kind of spiritual appreciation of the intricate dreams and journeys of the people who came before me. I have witnessed my own humanity in the eyes of strangers in a foreign land who nonetheless seemed so much like me.

Our trip began with the irritations and vagaries of rainy weather that left my brother and his wife stranded in Houston and threatened to prevent the rest of our party from making a connection in Dallas. Luckily we had a determined pilot who got us where we needed to be just in the nick of time. Our economy seats were hopelessly uncomfortable and so we spent the night fully awake and thinking that perhaps we might never again want to board a plane to fly home unless we upgraded our accommodations.

I had to admit that one night of torture in cramped conditions was nothing to fuss about when compared with the dangers and discomfort that our long ago ancestors must have endured as they traveled on ships to a world of unknowns. I wondered what hardships had driven them to leave kith and kin behind, and thought of how awed they would be to see me watching movies while a bird like machine flew me across the Atlantic in only a few hours. Somehow my complaints seemed overblown when viewed through the lens of their realities.

It was around noon London time when we arrived. Thanks to the help of Gerald Warren, a friend and work colleague who travels frequently to that glorious city, we knew exactly how to navigate from the airport to our hotel in Bloomsbury. We took the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station and then secured a taxi for a ride to the Holiday Inn where we would stay for the next fifteen days.

Since it was a Sunday we quickly left our rooms in search of the traditional English Sunday roast, and found a nice pub just across the street that was serving the food we sought in a warm environment filled with locals who chattered happily with one another. My husband Mike had grown up eating his grandmother’s roast and Yorkshire pudding. She had immigrated to Texas from Newcastle just before World War I when she was only eight years old. While she grew to love her new country she often recalled hearing the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” when her ship departed and she could never again enjoy that tune without feeling a bit of wistfulness. All that she had known seemed to have been left at that dock, but she never forgot the traditions of her native land which included having afternoon tea and preparing Yorkshire pudding with roast beef on Sundays.

The roast, potatoes and carrots at the pub were quite good, but the Yorkshire pudding was rather disappointing. Mike had eaten the muffin like delicacy that his grandmother made and he was searching for some that might come close to hers. Ours was not even close to his granny’s. Nonetheless we felt quite satisfied and ended our first day in London with a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. We were tired from staying awake all night and eager to begin our tour in earnest on the following day, so we went to the Russel Square underground station that was just around the corner from our hotel and purchased Oyster cards to cover the cost of rides on the Tube in the coming days.

I was already enchanted by what little I had already seen of London and I felt somewhat like a young and eager child as I tried to quell my anticipation of the wonders that lay ahead. Thanks to the common language, the friendliness of the people,  and the advice from Gerald and others who had already visited England I felt certain that we were in for a glorious time. My brother Pat and his wife Allison were finally on their way to meet up with us, and I had rain gear at the ready for London’s notoriously wet weather. I was ready and so I fell soundly asleep feeling as though in some spiritual way I was back home visiting relatives. I felt that we Yanks had finally come home.

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.