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.

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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.

El Meson

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He sat by the window sipping on his beer, slowly and methodically eating the Palomilla that he ordered each week. He was a regular at El Meson, a Cuban restaurant in Rice Village. He came at precisely four thirty on Thursday afternoons and chose the same table every time. Invariably the other patrons who came and went while he leisurely enjoyed his fare were somewhat startled to see him because at first glance he appeared to be the image of Ernest Hemingway come back to life. His white hair curled down the back of his neck and met his trimmed white beard at his chin. He always wore a straw hat and casual clothing that was stylish, but a bit rumpled as though he was on permanent vacation on some Caribbean Island. He fit right in to the quirkiness of the area and the restaurant itself.

She had her own table set at a ninety degree angle several feet away from his. She too came to El Meson each Thursday, usually arriving just before he did. She tried different things on the menu, one day eating tapas and drinking wine, another enjoying only flan and coffee. She was elegantly prim and proper and confident. Her white hair was smooth and carefully coiffed as if she had just come from a comb out with her hairdresser. She was dressed in a pair of black slacks with a sharp crease and a soft pink blouse that accentuated her slender build. She too looked like somebody, but not in the same sense as the man. She had the appearance of someone important, someone who wielded power in the city. She might have known the Bush family when they were still alive. She undoubtedly traveled in the same circles as the rich and powerful.

He always left first in a slow kind of hurry, making a bit of a scene about the cost of valet parking. His ritual complete he went home to his books of which there were hundreds crammed into the townhouse that had been his refuge for years. He had once been a distinguished professor of history at Rice University, but now he was mostly retired. Sometimes he offered a course at the Glasscock School of Continuing Education and enjoyed the same kind of admiration from the adults that his graduate students had once showered on him. He had lost interest in his career when his wife was diagnosed with stage four cancer. For months his days and nights had been dedicated to her recovery, only the miracle for which he had prayed never came. She left him bereft and unanchored, filled with a longing for his world to just stop. His life became a series of routines that gave him just enough purpose to stay alive. Going to El Meson each Thursday was part of his therapy. Sitting at the same table and eating the same thing provided him with a small touch of meaning.

The woman who sat across from him always tarried at her table, taking tiny bites and sips so small that her food and drink seemed without end. She was in no hurry to leave. Going home meant being in that grand home that she and her husband had built together. He had been a doctor and she was a lawyer. They had worked hard and realized a dream to have a fine home in West University Place, one of the premier neighborhoods of Houston. They had beautiful children who succeeded at everything that they tried, including careers that took them to locales far away. Their’s had once been a gathering place of great minds. Now she was lonely in her little mansion, in no mood for empty conversations and grand parties. Without the laughter of her children and the presence of her husband she felt empty in her house. She coped by finding excuses to stay away as late as possible. There was nothing there for her anymore, at least not since her husband and died suddenly from a heart attack. El Meson was reassuring and warm for her. There she took comfort in the comical boar’s head that hung above the bar and the sameness of the place.

The seasons came and went and both of them arrived without fail at their self appointed times each Thursday. The waiters came to know them without speaking to them because they made it clear that they did not wish to talk. They were Thursday afternoon fixtures, expected guests with unofficially reserved tables, two lonely people sitting near one another never exchanging glances or greetings. They performed their rituals as though they had been carefully choreographed and rehearsed, and then went their individual ways until Thursday came again.

She arrived that Thursday like clockwork and the waiter dutifully showed her to the table that had become hers by right of routine. She ordered a glass of iced tea and said that she needed more time to decide what to eat. She sat patiently sipping on her drink showing no emotion as four thirty came and went. He had not arrived and the clock kept ticking away. A slight touch of worry showed on her face, but she said nothing other than letting the waiter know that she was still not ready to order her dinner. As the hands of the clock neared five she did her best to hide the panic that was rising in her chest. “Where was he?” she wondered.

A commotion at the door caused her to turn in her chair. There he was groomed and looking dapper in a suit. The hat that he always wore was missing and his hair was trimmed and groomed. She saw that he was quite handsome, an observation that had not escaped her notice even when he was in a somewhat disheveled state. She was relieved that he had finally arrived but also a bit uncharacteristically nervous. She turned back in her chair and did her best to resume her usual state of composure. She laughed inside at how ridiculous it had been for her to worry about him for he was, after all, a complete stranger.

As she lifted her glass of tea to take another sip he stopped at her table and pointed to the chair that sat across from her. “May I?” he cautiously inquired as he began to slowly lower himself into the seat. “Of course!” she smiled and her face lit up the room.

(Indulge me in this bit of fiction. I heard about a local author who just published a book of short stories featuring different areas of Houston. I thought of how much I would enjoy doing something similar and then I encountered two incredibly interesting looking individuals as I ate dinner at El Meson in the Rice Village. I was not able to get them out of my mind and had to create a little story for them before returning to my usual style of writing. I hope you enjoyed this little journey into my imagination as much as I did.)

A Rough Draft

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I have a brilliant and inspiring friend who has begun 2019 by writing a blog about her personal journey with a life changing illness that almost killed her on three separate occasions. She is a phenomenal educator and was devoted to helping to change the lives of young men and women through guidance and learning. She was a ball of energy, a whirlwind of ideas that she set forth as the founder of a remarkable high school in northeast Houston. She often left me breathless with her wisdom and her dedication, but I did my best to contribute an exceedingly tiny bit to her cause. I suppose that I felt a kind of mystic kinship with her goals and my admiration for her told me that I should support her because what she was doing was so important.

Without warning she was struck down with one medical emergency after another that left her unable to continue her important work or even to live alone. She returned to the loving arms of her family and slowly began the rehabilitation of her life. She is a new kind of person as a result of the changes that her body has wrought on her. She still dreams of being the dynamic woman with seemingly endless energy that she once was but reluctantly admits that this is unlikely. Now she simply wants to find her new purpose and role within the limitations that have been placed on her. She is a woman in process, or as she so brilliantly noted her efforts are just one more rough draft toward becoming.

I am enchanted with that thought. I suppose that we are all in a chronic state of becoming. Life deals us both blessings and blows that challenge us mentally and physically. We are forced to come to grips with the challenges that force changes that feel uncomfortable. We look at our rough drafts and want to tear them into tiny pieces because the genius that we know is in our souls is somehow not showing forth in what we are being asked to endure.

We may lose an important loved one and wonder how we might possibly continue. We may find ourselves betrayed by someone in whom we placed our total trust. We may learn of a frightening medical diagnosis for ourselves or someone who is very close. Our homes may be damaged, our cars wrecked. We may attempt to improve our lives only to hopelessly fail. It can sometimes seem as though we are wandering aimlessly in a nightmare from which we cannot awake ourselves. We may pray to God and wonder why we can’t seem to hear an answer.

The truth is that our humanness makes us both fragile and strong. We forget that changes are inevitable and that sometimes they are glorious and other times they are devastating. The most wondrous aspect of living is that each of us has the power to reinvent ourselves time and time again. Becoming is a never ending marathon that will stress and strain us and make us very tired. The important thing to remember is that each iteration of who we are is still a rough draft which we can correct and change and make better. Our personal stories are adventures in which we encounter many struggles, but we get to be the masters of how we choose to react to them. If we don’t do so well at first, there will be copious opportunities to try and try again.

Life is so much about redemption. Nobody’s biography is set in stone. We each go from day to day with our imperfections of body and mind. One of the most important skills that we should learn is how to forgive ourselves when we have been less than we wanted to be in a particular situation. It may be difficult to face our weaknesses but once we stare them in the face and then scratch them off of the page of our biographical manuscripts we are free to create new versions of our stories that may indeed be more beautiful than the ones that we had thought to be the end product.

I recently took my niece to see the new Mary Poppins movie. It was a delightful film that I viewed from a very adult point of view. It’s message was one of hopefulness. Mary Poppins demonstrated to her charges that they had the power to overcome whatever adversities they encountered. It was all a matter of how they chose to see the world around them.

I thought of my daughter’s recently deceased father-in-law who always maintained the optimism and joy of a child. He loved stories like Peter Pan and Mary Poppins and the Swiss Family Robinson. He understood that life is about survival but even dealing with great problems can be fun. Like Mary Poppins he saw healing in the act of flying a kite or enjoying a bit of ice cream. The important thing was to love and live and start over again each day.

I appreciate that my friend is sharing both the darkness and light of her story. She will always be an educator in whatever her body allows her to be. I’m thankful that she mentioned that each iteration of our lives is just one more rough draft. We are never truly finished, which is actually quite grand. It means that each day brings us an opportunity to make ourselves even better than we have ever been before.

What’s In A Word?

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I get a big kick out of looking at all of the cute t-shirts in tourist spots like Estes Park, Colorado. Some of them are quite hilarious. On my most recent visit there I saw a shirt that made me roar with laughter. It featured two bears gazing down at a human camper who was unknowingly the subject of the bears’ conversation. One remark was, “Let’s eat. Bob.” The other was “Let’s eat Bob.” Thus noting the importance of punctuation.

Of course I chuckled over that one and would have instantly purchased the shirt but for the fact that it came in a putrid green color that made me look as though I had some kind of serious disease. Nonetheless, it made me think about how easily our words can be misinterpreted, especially in these days in which misunderstandings are so commonplace. One unfortunate word choice or misplaced comma can make a world of difference in how people view remarks. When dealing with the written word from times past it can become even more unsettling. We have a tendency to view commentaries from our own perspectives rather than taking the time to consider that there have been different ways of expressing ideas in different places and eras. What may seem just fine in a certain place or time, my appear to be rude or out of style in today’s world.

I’ve been reading all sorts of ridiculous claims from people who are finding offense in the strangest places. In one instance a national news and editorial outlet noted what they saw as blatant racism in the old Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special. The source of the angst was that Franklin, the little Black child, was sitting all by himself on one side of the table. I suppose that one might draw some conclusions about that, but the fact is that the character was introduced into the Peanuts family by Charles Shultz in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The intent of the cartoonist was to demonstrate that we are all one big family, not to discriminate. I feel relatively certain that Mr. Shultz would be appalled to think that his always loving cartoon might have offended someone.

I’ve also heard of people becoming upset with some of the classic Christmas stories and songs. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer has come under particular fire for featuring bullies and because Rudolph’s father was ashamed of him. Those who complain about it miss the point that Rudolph eventually became a hero, demonstrating that differences are powerful, not something of which to be embarrassed. Even a small child seems to understand the moral of the story, but some adults are fretting over ideas that I don’t think there are really there. What I would suggest is that those who don’t like the story or the song simply choose not to watch.

I saw a number of comments on Facebook about how virtually every well known Christmas carol might be misinterpreted depending on one’s point of view. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town might actually show Santa to be a peeping and a stalker according to one way of viewing the song. I even read a story about someone who thought that White Christmas is a homage to far right extremists. Maybe those who think such things should watch the movie with Bing Crosby and Danny Kay to set the record straight. And so it goes,,,Deck the Halls insults gays, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus is too suggestive for children, Santa Baby is about gold diggers. It’s enough to make one run screaming from the room.

It all makes me wonder how often I have unwittingly insulted someone. I write lots of word all the time. It seems certain that I have probably made people angry when my intent has never been to do so. We live in very sensitive times.

I appreciate the classes that I took as part of my college studies. Most of my professors in English, History and Psychology classes emphasized the necessity of learning more about the lives of the people in particular places and times. Without that important background information we have no context for their actions and remarks. The world has definitely changed from one decade to another and with those evolutions have come different ways of understanding the exact same words and ideas. Grass used to refer on to the green stuff that grows on lawns. By the twentieth century it was commonly used to speak of marijuana as well was the term “pot.” The word gay once only meant a form of happiness, now it is used to refer to a group of people and their sexual orientation. We add words and meanings to our dictionaries constantly, but we too often ignore the original ways that people spoke. We forget history and react as though we are the first and only generation to inhabit the earth.

I suggest that people take a chill pill unless utterances are egregiously vile and meant to be that way. When I don’t like something I simply choose to eliminate it from my world, abut I also attempt to be understanding. It doesn’t bother me that some people do not believe in the same meaning of Christmas that is mine. I’m all for wishing people Happy Holidays, Happy Kwanza, Happy Hanukkah or whatever works best for them. Diversity is a beautiful thing, but so is a “live and let live” attitude. Let’s just spread love during this holiday and everything will be so much better.