Faking It

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Minnie Bell rose anxiously from her bed at the end of the trailer worrying that she had somehow overslept on the first day of school. A quick glance at the alarm clock on the shelf at the foot of her sleeping quarters reassured her. It was only five in the morning and she had plenty of time before she had to depart.

It would be a day of firsts, the first time at middle school, the first time that both of her parents would not accompany her to meet the new teachers, the first time that her home was a twenty one foot trailer instead of the beautiful house where she had once lived. Somehow she dreaded the whole experience but school had always brought her joy and she needed  joy more than ever.

The summer had been difficult for Minnie Bell. Her father had been driving home from work when it happened, a freak accident really, something that never should have happened but did. The deer jumped in front of his car from nowhere. There was no way to stop or swerve without hurting another driver.  The huge animal flew into the air like a missile when he was hit and then returned to earth with such force that it broke the windshield of the car and ramming its rack of antlers into her father’s heart. Death was inevitable and instant the officer told Minnie and her mom. Daddy probably didn’t feel a thing.

The funeral and all of the days after that had been a blur. Minnie Bell could not imagine life without her father, the man who had christened her with a moniker that literally made people laugh. Hers was a regal name he convinced her, one that had once belonged to his great great grandmother, a strong woman with toughness and gentleness rolled up into one very tiny package according to family lore. “Bear yourself proudly, Minnie Bell,” he had commanded her as though her silly name was both a great gift and a responsibility.

Minnie Bell thought of how she and Mama had ended up living in an RV park inside the tiny trailer as she stowed away her bed linens on the upper bunk and transformed the bed into a table with benches on both sides. Her mother had delivered the bad news of their situation after spending the day “taking care of business.” The family finances were strained for now and they would have to make some changes for a time. “Soon enough we will be in a better situation,” Mama promised, “but for now we need to sell the house. We’ll have a little adventure living in our travel trailer. It will be fun. We’ll rent a space in the RV park near your school. I’ll get a job and maybe even go back to school myself. It will be our little bit of excitement.”

During the summer things had been fun. It was like an eternal camping trip. Mama worked in the office of the RV park and Minnie Bell walked dogs and did odd jobs for the mostly elderly people who lived there. They were all so nice. They taught Mama how to keep the systems inside the trailer working efficiently. They showed her how to get good television reception and how to make the most of the free Wifi in the park. They often invited Minnie Bell and her mother to dinner and one lady even made some new clothes for Minnie Bell to wear to school.

Minnie Bell and her mother had slowly adjusted to life without her father but as she prepared for a new school year a sadness and sense of foreboding overwhelmed her. Everything was so different and she did not want to talk about it with anyone. She hoped that she might be able to just fake it, not mention that her father had died or she had moved or any of it. She just wanted to pretend that nothing had happened.

Minnie Bell filled a bowl with cereal and sat quietly at the table worrying as her mother stirred in the bed at the other end of the trailer. She sat up and smiled at Minnie Bell across the space. “Hey, sweetie, are you ready for a grand new school year?’ she smiled as though there was nothing strange about the two of them living in cramped quarters with a future so uncertain that both of them often had nightmares.

Minnie Bell returned a weak smile for her mother. She would pretend that she was happy because she didn’t want Mama to have anymore worries. “I’m excited!” she lied. “I can’t wait to see my friends and meet my new teachers.”

Her mother was beaming now. The two of them bumped into one another as they bustled about the trailer getting ready for the new reality. Minnie Bell donned the outfit that the neighbor in the trailer next door had sewn for her. She gathered the school supplies that the residents of the park had surprised her with inside a brand new backpack. Mama handed her money to buy her lunch just for that day and then as Minnie Bell walked down the metal stairs of the trailer she was greeted by a crowd of well wishing neighbors who had gathered to take first day school pictures and give her hugs for good luck.

Minnie Bell wanted to just stay with the wonderful people who had supported her and her mother all summer long but now it was time to face the moment that she had most dreaded. She thought of her father and could almost hear him urging her to hold her head high and be as tough as her namesake had been. She looked at Mama who was so genuinely and hopefully smiling and she knew that she had to set her selfish fears aside. Daddy would want her to be his amazing girl and Mama needed for her to be a help, not a problem.

The ride to the school was only five minutes away. As Mama eased the truck into the school parking lot her face lit up with a happiness that she had not exhibited since that terrible day when Daddy died. “I have a feeling that this is going to be your best year ever, Minnie Bell,” she gushed, seeming to really mean it.

Minnie Bell forced a smile as she shook her head in agreement. Somehow she was going to make it even if she had to fake it.

Note: I often use a book of writing prompts for topic ideas. Today’s prompt asked me to write the first pages of a book for young readers. This is my idea. What do you think?   

When Heaven and Earth Collide

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Our society places a high value on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the STEM subjects. We no doubt need the knowledge and advances in those fields and I tend to believe that the very future of the world will unfold through the ingenuity of the people who are skillful in unlocking the mysteries of the universe. We live far more comfortably than our ancestors because of the innate curiosity and genius of our left brained brethren. Nonetheless, we all too often underestimate the value of individuals with an artistic bent. We urge our talented painters, dancers and musicians to follow a “more practical and useful” pathway as though there is something less than about the ability to create more abstract inventions of art. I would argue that humankind is often at the apex of intellect whenever we move beyond the concrete of time and space and into the incredible universe of artistic imagination. The truth is that we need both our STEM leaders and the individuals who bring us so much pleasure with the arts.

Humans are quite breathtaking in abilities and it is often through our artistic expressions that we leap toward the heavens. Leonardo da Vinci was a mathematician and scientist but his paintings are the works that remind us of how truly awesome he was. The paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo timelessly evoke our other worldly longings. The music of Andrew Lloyd Weber takes us to places that we might otherwise never have imagined and tugs on our emotions to leave us in tears of joy and pleasure. Watching Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in White Nights is sheer bliss that reminds us of how beautiful our very bodies can be.

I have always been awed by the ways in which we humans transcend our most basic needs to become creators of stunning works of art. I have often wondered what in our natures caused us to scratch out pictures on the walls of a cave. How is it that we realized that our very vocal chords were musical instruments? Why do we take such joy in using and twisting words to convey new meanings? What is it about us that prompts us to experiment with color and sights and sounds?

What truly separates us from the animals is the way that we use our minds and we don’t seem to be satisfied with merely building structures to protect us from the harshness of the elements. We want to decorate our abodes with artifacts that add a sense of individuality. We fill our lives with music, sculptures, paintings, dance, books, plays that strive to explain just who we humans are. We share an essential need to express ourselves. It is in our very DNA, and yet of late we tend to dismiss the artists and artistic contributions to society as being a notch below the work of our talented STEM citizens.

Try to imagine a world without art of any kind. Think of a totally utilitarian existence devoid of music, singing, visual arts, make believe. Only the colors of nature would surround us. Our minds would be focused on being ever practical. How dreary life would be. How frustrated many among us would become. Without artistic expression so much beauty would suddenly disappear. It is almost unbearable to consider.

There was a time when geniuses of all varieties were treasured. The era of the Renaissance enshrined all forms of human inventiveness. It almost seems as though the coming of the Industrial Revolution was a turning point in the way we view human talents. In the present day we tend to place more of a premium on STEM than on the arts. We scoff at a young man who majors in Creative Writing but admire one who follows a pathway to science. We are in awe of the mathematics teacher but believe that dance teachers are expendable in times of tight budgets. We constantly undervalue those with artistic talent and attempt to force our young to pursue the occupations that we deem more useful.

The miracle of humanity is that we are a species of great variety with brains that are capable of incredible thought. Some of us excel in STEM and others delight in the arts. If we are truly honest we will encourage our young to find themselves wherever that might lead. We will applaud not just the stars of the artistic world but anyone who is willing to make our lives more beautiful through art.

I was asked to describe my favorite work of art and I found that task to be impossible. How can I possibly narrow down my choice to a single artifact when there are so many incredible creations that fill my mind with profound appreciation? My home is filled with art in the form of music, books, movies, sculpture, paintings. I dance with joy in the sheer beauty of each day that is made better with the countless creations of the human mind. I am in awe of those who rise to the level of genius whether it be to build a driverless car or create a play that touches our souls. Art is the expression of our souls, the incarnation of heaven on earth.

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.

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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Photo by Caio Resende on Pexels.com

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.