What Have You Done For Humanity Today?

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I am a true baby boomer, one of the millions of children born in the immediate aftermath of World War II. I grew up in a time when stories of that horrific conflict were less like history and more akin to the kind of vivid recollections that parents recount from their own lives. The people who taught me about what happened there had endured the hardships, but all of their memories paled in comparison to those of the Jews and outcasts who were caught up in the murderous horror of the Holocaust. From the very personal diary entries of Anne Frank to the images of the camps that I saw in grainy black and white detail, I grew up wondering how the moral degeneration that overtook so many Germans can overtake ordinary humans. I have been haunted by concerns of man’s inhumanity to those different from themselves that seems to be  repeated a common theme in the long story of mankind. Nonetheless I remain optimistically hopeful that quite slowly we humans are inching toward more and more acceptance and protection of the rights of each person.

Recently I came across the story of a quite interesting individual whose biography and philosophy give me great expectations. His name is Ben Ferencz, and he is the last living prosecutor of war crimes at Nuremberg. At ninety eight years old he is still quite outspoken in his belief that wars have the capacity to bring out some of the worst possible instincts in people, causing ordinary souls who might otherwise have offered goodness to the world to evolve into monsters. His solution to this problem is to work as hard as possible to prevent and perhaps one day eradicate war entirely.

Mr. Ferencz is an interesting character who has lately been featured on the CBS Sunday evening program Sixty Minutes and in a Netflix documentary, Prosecuting Evil. He is now ninety eight years old, born in what was once Hungary and now is Romania. His parents managed to immigrate to the United States in 1919, traveling to New York City on a steamer ship much like the ones that brought my own grandparents to Galveston, Texas in that same decade. He recounted the hardships of being a third class passenger sleeping on the deck in all kinds of weather. Once he and his family reached America things did little to improve. Their lives were difficult and they felt very alone, but much like my grandparents they always believed that as bad as things were here, they were infinitely better than the conditions that they had left.

Mr. Ferencz had a special teacher in high school who recognized his giftedness and encouraged him to attend college, something that neither he nor anyone in his family had ever thought to do. Eventually he earned a law degree at Harvard University where he duly noted how out of place he felt among his well dressed wealthier classmates. Nonetheless he forged an alliance with one of his professors who was engaged in research into war crimes and human rights. That connection ultimately led him to Nuremberg at the age of twenty seven.

Ben Ferencz is a small man who had to stand on a pile of books to be seen over the podium from which he would prosecute the war criminals. He had no experience inside a courtroom, and yet the images of Auschwitz that he had experienced from a visit propelled him to find justice for the millions who had been murdered. Thanks to the meticulous record keeping that the Nazis used to keep track of the slaughter, he had more than enough evidence to convict.

Mr. Ferencz described how he and the others who tried German citizens for their crimes had purposely selected people like doctors, lawyers, formerly respected businessmen as their defendants to emphasize the diabolical nature of what had taken place. He noted that each of the men had been highly educated and seemingly on the road to exemplary careers until the machinery of war and propaganda had warped their sense of right and wrong to the point of turning them into unthinking monsters. He was particularly surprised that none of them were ever willing to express sorrow for what they had done, instead insisting that they were attempting to prevent an even greater danger from overtaking the world. To this day it is difficult for Ferencz to speak of the horrors that he uncovered or the degradation of the character of people should have known better.

Mr. Ferencz continued to work for the rights of all people throughout his long career. He built a good life for himself in America along with his wife of many decades who is also ninety eight. His children say that they grew up with a question that their father asked them regularly, “What have you done for humanity today?” It has been his life’s compass, guiding him to the conclusion that our ultimate goal should be to one day find a way to eradicate wars forever. It’s a tall order but we might begin by doing something for mankind one day at a time, one person at a time. If enough of us begin that process perhaps a tidal wave of goodness may one day overtake the world. 

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You Are Where You Belong

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Everything you did brought you where you are now, where you belong.

—-Bran, Game of Thrones

Both the books and the HBO series of the epic Game of Thrones have been an international success making countless individuals famous and wealthy, not the least of which is the author, George R.R. Martin. Like The Lord of the Rings the story serves as a kind of fantastical history of mankind with a cast of characters with both godlike abilities and disappointing human frailties. GOT as it came to be known is made exciting with dragons, magic, battles and intrigue but at its heart is the story of people. It is one gigantic metaphor for all that each of us endures as we march steadfastly on our personal hero’s journey.

I once wrote an extensive paper about my paternal grandfather for an oral history/folklore class. I interviewed the patriarch of my family over a period of countless hours learning as much about the facts of his life as possible, as well as determining the overriding theme of his existence as revealed by his words and the things that he chose to remember. By the time that I made my recordings he was over one hundred years old and had experienced the most incredible events of the twentieth century which he often used as a comparison to the nineteenth century into which he was born. While his life was filled with hardship and abandonment much like Jon Snow in Game of Thrones he harbored little ill will toward those who had chosen to neglect him, instead patterning his life after those he most admired.

Grandpa often spoke of everyday heroes like the grandmother who raised him with a kind of reverence for nature and people. He was apt to recall a strong man from his childhood community who performed unbelievable feats. He borrowed his name and his greatest admiration from an uncle who had graduated from West Point. He regaled us with stories of people of honor and integrity as though they had been gallant knights of old. He almost pridefully boasted of his own prowess in being immune to the ravages of the smallpox epidemic that overtook his town as well as his determination to boldly walk away from what he believed to be his drunken ways. He journeyed alone from one place to another until he found his ultimate purpose in life which was to love and care for the fair maiden, Minnie Bell, his wife and my grandmother. He was loyal to her and to his children, and he overcame one challenge after another with the overriding belief that his journey was exactly as it had been meant to be.

I cut my teeth on stories from my grandfather and the fairytales that my father read to me. My own life was punctuated with tragedies that changed my course again and again. While I am at heart a person of routine I had to learn how to adapt to sudden and unexpected changes just as we all do. Life is never a straight open road, instead it is a series of twists and turns and rocky pathways. We have to not only be willing to endure the surprises that await us but also to deal with them. Like my grandfather I not only learned how to don my armor in difficult times, but also how to appreciate how each little alteration of the journey seemed to lead me to people and places that I was destined to encounter. Everything brought me to this very moment in time and I know that it is exactly where I belong.

Each of us is a character in our own epic story in which we meet villains, heroes, brave knights who protect us. We are sometimes betrayed, but more often we find comrades who stand beside us through the worst that nature or mankind throws in our paths. We ourselves falter and learn and grow. We are surprised by those who rise to occasions when we had underestimated their bravery. We are humbled by those who seem lost and then fight to redeem themselves. We find true love when we least expect it. We learn how to appreciate the best of our days because we understand that there will also be those that leave us exhausted and bereft. If we are wise we are flexible and willing to embrace change for it is as inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun.

The stories that we tell, that we read, that we cherish have only so many themes, so many literary devices. No matter how fantastical they may be, in the end they are based on our common human experiences and they center on people and how they adapt to the forces that enter their lives. Our history is in fact a personal tale that should remind us of our imperfections and the power of mercy and redemption in moving us forward.

We are living is strange time. All the progress of mankind should be making us happy but instead the world is tinged by discontent. We are walling ourselves off inside our castle keeps, when our knowledge should tell us that eventually the things that we most fear will find a way inside. We need to be open to alliances with those who differ from us and we must develop alternative ways of thinking. We need to search for the real heroes who are often the quiet ones rather than those who boast. Mostly we must remember that each of us has a grand purpose that is not nearly as ordinary as we may believe. Let us rejoice and be happy in the good that we have done and show mercy when we falter, never forgetting that we are just where we belong.

Ripper Street

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Mike and I just finished binge watching five seasons of Ripper Street on Netflix. It was one of the most well written and intriguing series that I have followed since Breaking Bad. The story begins in 1889, right after one of Jack the Ripper’s last victims was found, but it is not just a story of that killer’s crimes. In fact the title is more of a metaphor than an indication of the way the plots will unfold. More than anything it is a look into the gritty world of Victorian England in Whitechapel and the horrific conditions there that troubled otherwise hard working and hopeful people. It centers on four characters associated with the H Street Police Station, one of the roughest law enforcement assignments in all of London at the time. The lead investigator is Edmund Reid, an man tied to his job by memories of the horrific murder of a possible Jack the Ripper victim. He is nobly assisted by Detective Bennet Drake, a man filled with tragic demons whose heart yearns only for goodness and love. Captain Jackson is an American expatriate with a murky past who reluctantly serves as a medical examiner for the police. His wife “Long” Susan Hart is the madame of a Whitechapel brothel with a questionable story as intriguing as her husband’s.

The series features beautiful phrasings and word pictures from the characters who use language to communicate the intricacies of their minds and hearts. As the five seasons unfold we learn of the tragedies that have haunted each of the very real people who inhabit the stories. It is a kind of Shakespearean tribute to the difficulties of living during that era told through the eyes of sympathetic but imperfect people. It grips the viewer with both compassion and revulsion. Much like Breaking Bad almost everyone is neither all good nor all bad, but simply doing whatever it takes to survive. The stories challenge us to think out of the box with regard to human nature and individual worth. It is a fascinating look at both history and the complexities of the people who live it.

There is a kind of gritty realism to the stories, but in the end it is in the relationships and their complicated intertwining that the best of the writing takes place. Each role is so beautifully acted that by the series end there is a sense that we have known and loved such people. The writer is realistic in his portrayals of the times and the characters, so much so that even the most outlandish storylines seem plausible. Everything in Ripper Street is a metaphor for life and death and the challenges that people faced in a time that is almost unimaginable to those of us who live in the modern days of plenty.

The series originally aired on BBC but was canceled after only two seasons. Netflix picked up the option to continue it for three more seasons and it has proven to be one of the most popular offerings ever. It actually ended in 2016, but has garnered such a faithful following that it continues to rank high on both Rotten Tomatoes and Netflix viewership. It is the kind of series that bores an ear worm in the brain, causing one to think about the times and the people long after watching one of the episodes.

Mike and I discovered the series after we had enjoyed a number of BBC and Netflix detective shows. We joked that the title was perfect for me because I have always had a morbid fascination with the Jack the Ripper cases. We soon enough found that the title was somewhat misleading, but we had almost immediately fallen in love with the story and the amazing characters. Soon we were sitting down in the evenings watching one or two episodes each night. Sometimes we spoke of the plots and the people during the day wondering what would happen next as though we were following the adventures of dear friends.

If you enjoy a good detective story, tightly described characters, the allure of Victorian England, and a brilliant use of the English language Ripper Street will most certainly delight you. It has elements of all the best and most popular series of our times. There is a bit of Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, and Breaking Bad in the evolution of the stories and characters. As with those brilliant classics, saver perhaps House of Cards, the writing stays amazing until the very end.

So many writers begin to lose their mojo as the years on the air take their toll on originality and believability. The plots jump the shark and the players become caricatures rather than believable individuals. Ripper Street sometimes flirts with such disappointments but always finds a way to redeem itself. It is well worth a watch, especially for those who are fans of good old fashioned sleuthing with a touch of the exotic.

I’ve been chasing after mysteries from the time I was a girl poring over my Nancy Drew mysteries. I devoured Sherlock Holmes and graduated to Agatha Christi, eventually moving on to the more modern authors of brilliant detective work. Ripper Street has won a top spot in my list of favorites. I only wish that somehow the stories of Reid, Drake, Jackson and Hart might somehow be resurrected for a prequel perhaps. I still long to know more about them and dream of the kind of reincarnation that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pulled off when the demands of fans urged him to bring Sherlock back to life after his seeming demise. I guess I’ll have to find solace in Better Call Saul until something  akin to Ripper Street come along.

Escaping From Reality

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I’ve been watching the Academy Awards since the program was hosted by Bob Hope and it played out in black on white on my family’s tiny television screen. I suppose that I’ve always been a bit star struck. Viewing movies is a favorite past time. I’ve seen the industry evolve to the point that I am now able to catch my favorite flicks in the comfort of my home while vegging in my pajamas. I have the big screen, the blockbuster sound, and the popcorn at my finger tips. Still, I enjoy catching a picture at a movie theater now and then, although it has become a far more expensive habit than it was when I was able to go to the Reveille theater for a grand total of twenty five cents when I was still a child. If I managed to bring along another quarter or so I was able to set myself up with some snacks as well. Now even with the senior discount and a small box of popcorn I’ve killed a ten dollar bill. The increasing cost gives me incentive to be patient until the DVDs and streaming come out for any major picture. I religiously check On Demand each Tuesday to see what is new, and now see most movies months after they premiere.

This year I had an engagement on Oscar night so I recorded the event instead of watching it live. It turned out to be the best idea ever. With my remote ever at the ready I buzzed past long winded introductions and interminable acceptance speeches. I avoided political ovations and commercials. It was smooth sailing from one award to another and I have to say it was definitely the best Academy Awards night of my life. I didn’t miss having a host to bore me with weak jokes and aborted efforts to entertain. I really do not watch the ceremonies for anything other than seeing the stars and hearing the results. Most of the time I’m perfectly satisfied with the results, but I don’t like it when the winners use their moment as a platform to beat a political drum, a common occurrence in the past few years that has been draining the joy out of the occasion.

I’m a fan of fashion, so I truly find great pleasure in seeing all of the lovely creations from the designers. This year’s offerings were classically beautiful and flattering which I prefer over outrageous outfits like the camouflage suit with walking shorts that John Legend chose to sport. Perhaps it was the white socks that ruined the effect, but it just left me wondering what he was thinking. He’s such a talented and handsome man that he doesn’t need gimmicks to catch people’s attention. If his pants had been normal length he might have looked dashing rather than like someone auditioning for a children’s show. Other than that, everyone was absolutely gorgeous.

I was particularly happy that Regina King won a Best Supporting Actress award. I think that she is one of the best actors on the planet. She brings something quite special to every role that she plays and I hope that we see much more of her. The musical performance with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga was my favorite moment of the evening. The chemistry between the two of them was palatable, and it was a real life moment of a true star being revealed to the world. Lady Gaga’s talent is almost immeasurable and I suspect that before she is finished she will have become a Hollywood legend in the likeness of the true greats.

I wasn’t sure which movie would be chosen as the Best Picture. There were a number of good and likely candidates, some that were fun, some thought provoking, and one that was a work of art in the tradition of a Fellini movie. I suppose that I would have been happy with any choice but I was rooting for Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, or Roma. I personally believe that Roma will be studied by film students for years to come. It was a mesmerizing glance into a time and place that was so personal that I thought about the story and the characters for days after I viewed the film. I found myself wanting to rewind and unravel the images and I needed to know more about the history of the era. The fact that the actors were unknown to me made the story even more moving. Nonetheless, I understand that the average moviegoer might find the pacing too slow and the need to glance back and forth between the images and the captions a bit too demanding. Still, taking the time to just sit back and let the beauty of Roma flow into the heart and mind is worth it.

I plan to eventually catch all of the nominated and winning movies that I have not yet seen. Some Tuesday in the near future they will no doubt show up for rent. I might even discover some new favorites as I decide which actors, directors and pictures I really like. I never cease to be taken by the profound talent of Glen Close. I would be willing to watch her in a commercial. The fact that she is such an advocate for those who endure mental illnesses only strengthens my admiration for her. She is a winner in my mind even when she doesn’t take the golden boy home.

I plan to tune in to the awards ceremony again next year, but with my secret method of catching the festivities an hour or so after real time. Never again will I endure the babbling and the bad attempts at humor. I’ve found the key to sheer enjoyment and I won’t let it go. I hope that the producers of the program now realize that they don’t need a host and continue that trend. I hope they hear us clamoring for less talk and more viewing of the actual performances that landed nominations. I pray that they understand just how much we all enjoyed the amazing opening of this year’s ceremony with Queen and Adam Lambert that was breathtaking and way more entertaining than any of the skits in previous years. I hope the stars understand that we love them but recoil when they start to preach.

The relationship between the audience and the movie industry is symbiotic. They need us to watch and support their craft and we need them to bring us moments of relaxation and joy. If we want political commentary we can tune in to CNN or Fox News. On a Sunday night just before the start of a long week we look to the celebration of movies as a break from the demands of reality. We want to see the beauty and the pageantry of a world that we know is not real because we need to believe in dreams. The world is hard enough and ugly enough in real time. At the Oscars it’s nice to set all furor aside for a few hours just to escape. I think I’ve finally discovered a way to make the experience perfect.

Bring Back the Joy

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The best football game that I saw all year was the Texas 6A high school championship game that was a nail biter until the very end when Galena Park North Shore won with a Hail Mary pass in the final minutes. In fact, most of the high school games are a great deal more fun than even the college efforts these days. Sadly the whole football experience is about  money, and in today’s world that boils down to a few usual suspects with everyone else left behind. The fun and the possibility of surprises is mostly not there anymore. as coaches get lured by incredible salaries and players use universities to launch careers sometimes before they even graduate. Somehow the joy and the luster has worn off just a bit for me and nothing was a more obvious example of what I’m feeling than last Sunday’s Super Bowl game.

There was a time when that gridiron rivalry had something for everyone. Even if the game itself wasn’t particularly inspiring the food at the parities, the halftime show, and the commercials were enough to keep the excitement going for days. This year not one of those things seemed to spark the kind of enthusiasm that was so often generated in the past, which makes me wonder if the Super Bowl experience needs an overhaul, something to make it a bit more worthwhile. I find myself thinking that we may have just grown weary of the tried and true formulas or maybe we have just become so picky and even political that we can no longer be as easily pleased as we once were. We tend to shroud almost every aspect of our society in controversy these days and the game of football is feeling the blows of our discontent.

We grumble about the fairness of selecting the teams who will play. We scream about who should sing the national anthem and whether or not there should even be a performance of it. We preach to the fans about choosing healthy snacks rather than chowing down on chicken wings, pizza and beer. We watch the advertisements searching for reasons to become angry about them if they do not appear to represent America the way we think that they ought to do. We grumble about the performers in every manner from their choice of music and wardrobe to whether or not they honor the demographic realities of the country. We pick the whole event apart as if it is a presidential contest, or something that really matters.

There was a time when a kid from nowhere had a shot at glory in a particular sport, and that is generally still true, but virtually every kind of athletic endeavor is now driven by big money. The wealthy programs dominate and the fairytale of Cinderella teams becomes less and less believable. I wonder how many young souls are eaten alive in the competition to reach the top. When politics are added to the mix things get really messed up. Sport becomes distorted and used to satisfy the unrelated desires of businessmen, advertisers, and politicians. The Super Bowl becomes a circus of craziness that leaves us less and less satisfied over time.

It feels as though almost all aspects of life have become mega competitions to get bigger and better with each passing year. It’s not enough for our schools to produce students with the knowledge and skills to find success in college or work, we want to constantly improve the numbers. If everyone passes a test we push for all of the scores to increase. We exert more and more pressure on virtually every phase of our existence and when it’s not enough to satisfy us we grumble. Little wonder that we seem to have an epidemic of discontent. We have become like the poor rich kid who expects more and more for Christmas each year and pitches a fit of rage when his desires are not fulfilled.

I suspect that I am not alone in wishing for a return to a simpler way of doing things, a time when we focused on the games themselves and not the celebrity or distractions. Perhaps if we kept things simple and didn’t debate about every tiny little detail surrounding the actual performances on the field our enthusiasm might be energized. As of now we’ve gone off the rails.

I suppose that our reactions to the Super Bowl game are just another bit of evidence that we’ve lost our way in the present social and political climate. In general we are tense and irritable about almost everything. We’ve turned our nation into an anxious nail biting caricature of itself and that spills over into everything from football to who will host or not host the Academy Awards. In our efforts to become infinitely fair we have actually become a bit unfair. Our expectations for perfection are so high that we are stressing out our kids and driving good people from their jobs. The tendencies are everywhere and they are infecting our relationships with one another. Voicing an opinion is akin to hurling a live grenade.

Perhaps we need to scale back on almost everything, including the way we deliver the news and how much time we spend doing so. Maybe we were better off before we had a twenty four hour cycle of real time videos and discussions of the world around us. Maybe we don’t need so many pyrotechnics and analyses, but rather just a few lights, an enthusiastic crowd and two teams playing their hearts out. That may be enough to bring back the joy.