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.

Flim Flam

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One of my all time favorite movies is The Rainmaker. It’s one of those timeless pieces that focuses on family life and the meaning of love. Burt Lancaster stars as a film flam man who travels from town to town peddling dreams. In the movie’s story he promises to create rain for a place that is suffering from drought. During the course of his stay he manages to pull a troubled family back together and to help a woman gain confidence in herself. It eventually becomes clear that all he really did for everyone is help them to see the truth of what was always inside of them.

We have far too many hawkers of this and that idea doing everything possible to convince us that they somehow know all of the answers to providing a better life for everyone. Print, electronic and televised media are filled with people hoping to create the next buzzwords and soundbites. Once something catches on we all too often rather sheepishly begin quoting it as though it is truth and wisdom. We sometimes align ourselves with people and ideas without doing a great deal of thinking. The hucksters of old who banged their drums and spun a good story have become the gurus of advertising and political operations. We find ourselves enchanted with quips and pretty faces, audacious lines and promises.

Now we seem to enjoy quantifying and labeling virtually everything and everybody as though all the world is a commodity. A great deal of the modern ways of selling products and ideas began when I was just a child. That’s when television became both a source of entertainment and a way of hawking ideas, not the least of which was naming an entire generation of children as Baby Boomers and then labeling them with generic traits that somehow define them in many minds to this very day.

I suppose that somebody actually thought that it was a brilliant idea to attempt to generalize about millions of people within a certain age group and so they even went backward in time honoring the parents of the Baby Boomers with the title of The Greatest Generation. Next came the Generation X group followed by the Millennials. Somehow the negativity of the descriptions of each classification became more and more extreme until we were pointing fingers and blaming one set of people or another for the difficulties that we face today. In the meantime there are those who began to delight in shaming the post Millennials as uniformed, lazy “snowflakes.”

My entire life has been spent working with people from all of the aforementioned generations and while I see certain environmentally induced differences from one group to another, I find that in the long run people are far too individual to turn them into cardboard cutouts that are all alike. We are not a row of identically dressed Barbie dolls regardless of what the sellers of words may attempt to make us think. In fact, the key word here is “think” and when we step back just a bit we see the truth just as the folks in The Rainmaker eventually did.

I suppose that I got riled up a bit about the idea of stereotyping people based upon the decades in which they were born after having a conversation with a young man who had been told that many employers prefer hiring Gen Xers rather than Millennials because the thirty something set is lazy and inclined to complain.

I was shocked to hear such a thing but in my heart I do understand that there are many who allow misconceptions and ridiculous stereotypes to become their truths. It goes without saying that I have worked with some incredible Millennials who are dedicated to hard work and high standards. In fact, those who are not are the exception rather than the rule. The very idea of drawing conclusions about an individual based on age is abhorrent to me, and yet our society has become driven by the idea of making assumptions based on very unreliable indices.

Someone recently floored me by remarking that a person that we saw passing by us was probably a redneck who had guns in his house and voted for Donald Trump simply because he wore a gimme cap and drove a pickup truck. I wondered how it was possible to jump to such judgmental conclusions with rather skimpy evidence and yet such non sequiturs have become more and more common. We hear about people being identified as being of a certain type because of where they live or what they wear or which church they attend. It’s even gone so far that some advocate for getting rid of the color red for clothing as though it is some kind of secret sign of a person’s political leanings.

It’s long past time that we regain our senses and quit falling for the salesmanship of those would sell us lies. We can’t create rain by banging a drum and we can’t properly think by spewing canned responses. We should also steer clear of any situation that asks us to believe an idea that feels ludicrous or that leaves entire groups of individuals nameless and faceless. We have to have enough common sense to see that the purveyors of shady shell games are continually trying to captivate our thinking. Perhaps a bit of caution and disbelief is what we really need.

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.

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. 

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.