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My Thoughts, As A Widow, On Recent “This is Us” Episodes

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(What a pretentious title, huh? But it was the best I could do…moving on.)

My Mom and I have watched NBC’s TV show “This is Us” about the Pearson clan for several years. (I can’t recall if we watched it regularly until the third year, but we did watch.) I’ve had a great deal of empathy for various characters. I remember Randall (played by Sterling K. Brown), the Black man raised in a white family, meeting his biological father for the first time. That was both difficult and heartening, all by itself; when the Pearsons, en masse, decided to welcome William (Randall’s bio father), it became something more.

Anyway, the matriarch of the Pearsons is Rebecca, played by Mandy Moore. We see her when she’s young and heavily pregnant; we see her when she’s in her late twenties/early thirties, raising her kids; we see her in her fifties and sixties, after her first husband’s passed away and she’s married her second one; we see her, finally, with Alzheimer’s disease, dying with her kids and grandkids around her.

Rebecca’s story is the one that I took to the most, over time. (This is not surprising, I suppose.) She loved her first husband Jack with everything that she had, and when he died unexpectedly, still in his prime, her world collapsed.

I understand how that feels extremely well.

Rebecca, unlike me, had three children who were all teenagers. She still had to be there for them. She also had good friends, including Miguel (the man who later became her second husband), her husband’s best friend. The friends helped Rebecca and her kids accustom themselves to a life with a Jack-sized hole in it.

This was not easy for any of them. Jack was an interesting, kind, funny, hard-working, loving man who adored his wife and was so ecstatic to be a father. He had his faults, including battles with alcoholism, that he tried to hide from his wife (and mostly did hide, successfully, from his children). But his virtues far outweighed his flaws.

Obviously, Jack’s loss was hardest on Rebecca. She was still in her prime, in her late thirties/early forties. She hadn’t expected to be a widow, much less so soon. But she was one, and she had to adapt on the fly, just as her kids were starting to flee the nest.

As her kids married, divorced, remarried, had children, and lived their lives, one thing was clear: even if their spouses had been divorced, they were still part of the Pearson clan. They were still welcome at every family function. They were included, not excluded, because the Pearsons believed “the more the merrier,” which probably came from Rebecca being pregnant with triplets in the first place. (The third triplet died, which is why Rebecca and Jack adopted Randall, who was born on the same day and needed a family as his mother had died and his father — then — was completely unknown.)

Of course, there were oddities that happened to the Pearsons. (How else? Life itself is strange.)

One of them was when Randall’s father, William, made contact with Rebecca and Jack when Randall was quite young. William felt Randall was better off where he was, as William was battling a drug addiction along with poverty and much frustration; that was an extremely hard decision, but one that reaped major dividends late in life when Randall (in his thirties, roughly) found that William had known a) he was Randall’s bio father and b) where Randall was the entire time. Randall forgave William, in time, and as I said before, the Pearsons welcomed William until the day William died.

That said, for many fans, the oddest oddity of them all was the fact of Miguel marrying Rebecca. We knew Miguel was with Rebecca from the start (or nearly), because “This is Us” has always told its story in a non-linear fashion. We also knew that Miguel was Jack’s best friend, that he was appreciative of Rebecca from the start (he told Jack to make sure he married Rebecca, because “someone else” would; maybe even he didn’t know that someone else, someday, would be Miguel himself), and that while Jack lived Miguel made no moves (as a quality human being, of course he didn’t).

Because of the jumping back and forth in time effect, though, until the last few episodes it was impossible to tell when Miguel had married Rebecca. (That Rebecca had developed Alzheimer’s, and Miguel was caring for her until his own death, was something explored in great depth this past season.)

Why?

Well, Miguel didn’t get an episode revolving around him until a few weeks ago. That’s when I found out that Miguel had waited several years, had moved away to a different state, and made sure his feelings were real (and not something conjured out of pity and the deep, abiding friendship he’d always had with Rebecca while Jack was still alive) before he married Rebecca.

We still didn’t see his marriage, which was the second marriage for both of them. (Miguel’s first marriage ended in divorce.) But we saw how he took care of Rebecca. He was tender, kind, compassionate, loving, and altogether the right person for her after Jack died.

I was happy she found another good man to love.

This may sound odd, if you’ve read my blog for years. I thought for quite a few years that my heart was not big enough to admit another love — romantic love, anyway — after Michael’s way-too-early death.

While I found out that was wrong, the two men I’ve cared about in the past few years did not end up growing with me in the same way. They did not want the same things. (Or in one case, even if he had, he could not express that. He is neuro-divergent.)

The man who might’ve been “my Miguel” was Jeff Wilson, who died in 2011. Jeff didn’t know Michael, so that part wouldn’t be analogous. But Jeff knew I was the person I am because of Michael. Jeff also was my best friend of many years (seven, at the time of his death), and during his fatal health crisis said to me, with a weary yet humorous tone in his voice, “Can we please proceed to the dating phase now?”

I’ll never know what would’ve happened had Jeff lived. But I knew I was going to try, and I told him that.

Then he died, after he’d been improving; his death was unexpected, and he was only a year older than Michael had been when Michael died.

So, two men. Both interesting, intelligent, funny, hard-working, creative…both themselves, indelibly themselves, and I cared about them — loved them — both. (I did not yet have romantic love for Jeff, but I certainly was getting there at the time of his death. I definitely had agape love and philios also.)

Anyway, Rebecca’s death episode was this past Tuesday. She was pictured on a train. She saw William (acting as the conductor); she saw her obstetrician (acting as a bartender). She saw her kids, possibly including her deceased triplet (I wasn’t sure about that), at various ages. She heard the various well-wishes of the Pearson clan, including from her daughter’s ex-husband, her son Kevin’s wife (he’d only married twice, to the same woman, but many years apart), and her sons. But she was waiting “for something”…

As she’s waiting, she sees Miguel, a passenger on the train. He salutes her with his drink, and tells her she’s still his favorite person.

This made me cry.

Miguel got no more time in that episode, which upset me. I thought Rebecca should’ve gone to him, hugged him, and said “thank you.” Her mentation has been restored, on the train; she knows that Miguel helped her while she was so ill with Alzheimer’s. She also got a second wonderful husband in addition to her first, which is very rare…yet while she smiled at him, and seemed happy to see him, she didn’t go to him.

This made me even sadder.

The end of the episode came when her daughter, Kate, was able to get there (she’d been overseas). As she says goodbye, Rebecca clearly crosses over and enters “the caboose,” where her first husband, Jack, waits.

That’s where the episode ended.

I don’t know what’ll happen in the finale of “This is Us.” I do hope that Miguel’s contribution to Rebecca’s life, and to the entire life of the Pearson clan, will somehow be recognized. (Her children all told her to say “hey” to their father for them, but no one asked her to hug Miguel if they saw him. That, too, bugged me, but maybe the writers wrote it and they had no time to get it into the episode.) It’s obvious that without him in her later years (even before she got Alheimer’s), there wouldn’t have been as much acceptance and love from the Pearsons as a whole.

Anyway, my take as a widow is that I want there to be some recognition of how much good Miguel did for Rebecca, and that Jack had no problems with it as Miguel both made her happy and helped her as her mentation declined. (Miguel also still saw Rebecca as the same person, even with her mind going; her own children couldn’t always do that, as her daughter Kate pointed out in a recent episode.)

To be able to love again after such tragedy was wonderful. To not express thankfulness and gratitude for loving again…well, had it been me in that position, I hope I’d have done better.

(And yes, I know they’re all characters. Not real people. But they surely felt real, which is why I hope that Mandy Moore wins an Emmy for her portrayal of Rebecca and that Jon Huertas wins an Emmy as well for his excellent supporting work.)

Updates on Ukraine, the Empathy Gap Essay, and a Discussion of Muslims, Cigarettes, and Virtue-Signaling

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Folks, I wanted to write a blog today about Ukraine along with updating last week’s blog about the empathy gap. I also veer into a discussion of smoking that may surprise you. So do keep reading, OK?

Sometimes, a news commentator utterly surprises.

Why am I saying that? Well, Malcolm Nance, a longtime MSNBC analyst, has joined the international force doing their best to push Russia right back out of Ukraine. He is a Navy vet, and he said that he was “done talking.” Therefore, he went to Ukraine, where he’s been now for over a week, and has been doing whatever he can to aid the fighters there.

I’m glad Ukraine continues to resist Russia’s stupid and pointless invasion. (Well, not stupid and pointless to Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President. He wanted the Ukrainian bread basket, as the land is exceptionally fertile there. And rather than pay for the grain like anyone else, he thought he’d just take the country, so he would just get the grain as well.) But it saddens me to see the destruction of once-beautiful cities like Kyiv and Mariupol.

Not to mention the loss of human lives, which is utterly incalculable.

I hope that whatever Malcolm Nance continues to do over there works. He has always struck me as a highly intelligent man, though I didn’t always agree with him. (I don’t always agree with anyone. Even with my late husband Michael, we had an occasional disagreement. Spice for the mix, I always thought, especially as we made sure to “fight fair” and not drag up old and dead issues over and over.)

Anyway, the next piece of old business has to do with my essay on empathy a week-plus ago. Paul, a regular reader, asked why I didn’t bring up someone on the left who’s sparked my ire as much as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert have on the right. Another reader, Kamas, mentioned Maxine Waters — a very able legislator in her way, but also someone who seems to enjoy verbal conflict and hyperbole from time to time. And I’d brought up two other D legislators who seem to get into trouble on a regular basis, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

Rep. Omar is in the news right now for calling out a double standard on airplanes. Apparently, a church group that had just come back from working with Ukrainian refugees sang a Christian hymn on the plane. This upset her, as she believes Muslim groups would be shut down from singing on planes. (Maybe this has happened to her, but if so, she hasn’t said so specifically.)

My view of this is simple. The folks who went to Ukraine or the borders of Poland and Romania and elsewhere that border Ukraine, and did good work, deserve to celebrate any way they like. If their song wasn’t bothering anyone else on the plane, let them sing.

Mind, I’d also say the same thing for a Muslim hymn. There are many uplifting Muslim hymns, I believe, but we almost never hear of them — much less hear them — because Muslim in the US tends to equal “Shia or Sunni rebel” rather than pious person doing their best for God and country.

Still, why Rep. Omar waded into this one with both feet, I don’t know.

Centuries ago, the Muslim people were often literate, learned, urbane, and often had no trouble with other “People of the Book” (meaning Christians and Jewish people). The Muslims came up with algebra, created music and art and poetry and architecture, and did many wonderful things.

We tend to forget all that with the current crop of fundamentalists over in Iraq and elsewhere. Those rigid, ruthless sorts are not what being a Muslim is all about, any more than, say, the so-called Christians who helped burn down Minneapolis and Kenosha and other places in the last few years have anything to do with most actual Christians. (The Christians who protested are fine. The ones who burned for the sake of destruction are not. We forget about the former because we have had to dwell on the latter in order to rebuild.)

I have an online friend, a doctor, who’s a proud Muslim woman. She lives in India. I’ve known her now for several years, while she’s been at university, then started medical school in earnest (from what it sounds like), to studying for boards (which sounds harrowing) and being a medical resident (which, like the US and the UK, consists of many hours of work for not that great of pay, and is exhausting).

Tajwarr, my friend, loves makeup, loves to dress up, does not wear a hijab (not in the pictures I’ve seen of her), and writes poetry. She has many gifts, including that of putting people at ease. She is unfailingly polite, and does her best to be cheerful with patients, family, and friends without losing one ounce of authenticity.

I admire her.

In India, where she lives, Muslims are being persecuted. Hindus, by far, have the upper hand there. And like anywhere else, the folks with the most seem to lord it over those with less. So the populous Hindus have made it harder for Muslims — an ethnic minority in India, I think — to enjoy being themselves and to enjoy their own culture, religion, music, etc.

I say all this to point out one, simple thing: You can’t put all people in a box. Not all Muslims. Not all Christians. Not all Neo-pagans. You just can’t stereotype people like that.

One of the folks I know, who I worked with on Hillary Clinton’s campaigns in 2008 and 2016, worked on behalf of Joe Biden in 2020. She is a Black woman. Very smart, able, all that. She knew Biden would not be perfect, but she worked for him anyway. Part of the reason for this might have been that Donald Trump signed a bill that raised the minimum age to smoke from eighteen to twenty-one. She felt that was no one else’s business, and that if you’re old enough to go to war, you’re old enough to smoke.

(Even though I don’t smoke, I agree with her.)

My friend has always smoked menthol cigarettes, such as Newports. But Biden’s FDA banned menthol cigarettes citing their “adverse affects on Black Americans.” (This was often the phrase used by journalists and TV analysts when this happened last year.) Menthol, you see, masks some of the harshness of the tobacco, and it apparently opens up additional nicotine receptors. (I have never smoked, so all I can say is apparently.)

At any rate, my friend was absolutely furious about this. She felt it’s her body, her choice. Alcohol is allowed in many flavors, and alcohol kills many more people than cigarettes.

She also was deeply unhappy, and remains deeply unhappy to this day, about how people who smoke get treated like second-class citizens. Being a smoker is now worse than being a drinker, and that’s just wrong.

I’m not saying any vice is good. But I have two vices of my own: lottery tickets, and diet soda. (Well, three if you add in Snickers bars.)

Most of us have at least one vice, and for most of the time, this vice is harmless or reasonably harmless. (Some folks, knowing that I am a plus-sized woman, probably would tell me that a Snickers bar is not harmless in my case. Too bad. I definitely agree with my friend regarding “my body, my choice.”) Those who drink in moderation are not shamed in the same way as those who smoke in moderation.

My late husband, and my late grandmother, and most of my grandmother’s family before her, were all smokers. My grandma lived to be 89 years old. My husband’s heart attacks were almost assuredly not caused by smoking (this from the ME at the time), though it probably didn’t help. Most of grandma’s family lived to be 75 and up…they drank, smoked, gambled, some of the men probably wenched, and they enjoyed life to the fullest until the day they died.

Look. I am asthmatic. Smoke and smoking can cause trouble for me. Michael, my husband, knew it, and did his best to smoke outside. The smell on his clothes was minor that way. He used breath mints and did his best to keep the nicotine taste out of his mouth so when we kissed, we had a better experience.

In short, he did his best to minimize the effects of smoking. Plus, he was trying hard to quit — he tried at least six times during our marriage (we only got two-plus years together as a married couple, remember, so this is actually rather impressive), and was down to only four cigarettes a day from a pack-and-a-half habit. (He could not use the patch because of his skin issues. He didn’t do well with the gum because of his dentures. And the only other option for him, nicotine water, was so foul that he could not stand it. I didn’t blame him.)

Therefore, I cannot and will not censure any smokers. And, quite frankly, I do not understand anyone who does unless they’re “virtue-signaling.” (Yes, me, a left-of-center more-or-less liberal person, is using that term.)

We all have faults. We all have vices. We all have “Achilles heels.”

Lording it over anyone because you do not like their legal vice is not just stupid, pointless and wrong. It’s also cruel. So if you’re someone who’s told yourself, a non-smoker, that smoking is evil and have forgotten all about how the cigarette companies did everything they could to keep people hooked by altering the levels of nicotine, etc. (look up the old “60 Minutes” episode if you don’t believe me), and have decided to blame the smoker rather than the cigarette company, you need to stop doing that.

Right now.

Sunday Musings: The Empathy Gap

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Recently, I’ve thought a great deal about one thing. Empathy.

Why? Well, the United States, as a country, don’t seem to be showing a lot of it lately.

Whether it’s because of how individuals have handled Covid-19, or because of the ascension of politicians with more mouth than brain (including current US Reps Marjorie Taylor Greene and Nicole Boebert), it seems trendy now to behave badly and blame it on someone else.

I read a lengthy article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently about this very thing. (I am not linking to it because it was for “subscribers only,” meaning unless you have a subscription, they won’t let you see it.) It talked about the differences between what good, empathetic behavior is and bad behavior, and discussed how two decades — the 1970s, or “Me Decade,” and the 1980s, or the “Greed is Good” Decade — have changed public discourse for the worse.

I’m not sure it was just because of those two decades, mind you. But it is possible that folks who were born in those decades changed their parenting style, and their kids grew up with fewer “guard rails” against bad behavior along with perhaps lesser consequences for said bad behavior.

I think most of us have seen someone treated badly because of Covid-19. Whether it’s a customer cussing out a store employee for wearing a mask (as they mostly have had to do due to local or state regulations), someone being happy that another person who’s died because they didn’t get the vaccine and felt they wouldn’t get sick (schadenfreude, in other words), or a store employee (in a state/county that does not require masks) ask someone to remove their mask because said store employee didn’t like it, there seems to be very little tolerance for any behavior besides one’s own.

I have a very good friend who went to the post office recently where she lives. The clerk there is an anti-masker and possibly also an anti-vaxxer and complained when my friend (who is immunocompromised) did not remove her mask after she was asked. She explained this, but the clerk did not care. It was all she could do to stay in the post office until her business was done due to being so upset.

I have another friend who lives in Florida. He is also immunocompromised, but his doctors believe he should not be vaccinated. (I’m not sure why.) He has kept himself from just about everyone now for almost three years. It’s been a tough life, as he is gregarious and loves to talk with people about just about anything. But he’s risking his life with or without a mask, and as he lives in Florida — where people have disdained wearing masks even at the worst of the Covid-19 breakout stages — he sees no other way but to stay home, live quietly, and hope Covid goes away.

Other than the nurse who comes in to give him treatments, he sees no one. He hears many, mind, as there are people roundly cursing each other out at his apartment complex at all hours. (That we’re all under much more stress due to Covid is a given, granted.) But he sees no one.

There hasn’t been anyone to bring him food, or talk to him outside (making sure there’s no one around at the time so it’ll be safe for him, with a mask if he wants one, to do that), or do any of the small, kind human gestures that show empathy for someone who’s suffering, much less through no fault of his own.

(He lives too far away for me to help, or I’d have already visited. But I digress.)

I could give more examples, but I’ll stop there because I think my point’s been made.

You, as an individual person, should be free to lead your life any way you see fit. But you also should not be rude to someone who needs a mask even if mask mandates have been relaxed; you should not be rude to someone because her autistic son cannot wear a mask; you should not be rude to someone, like me, who has asthma and has great difficulty and distress wearing a mask but tries anyway because of two parents “of a certain age.” You also should not be so rude as to say, “I’m glad he’s dead” when you hear of a prominent anti-vaxxer dying due to Covid.

Why has it become so controversial to say these things, anyway? (To say what I just said, mind. Not to be outright rude, which seems perfectly fine to many for reasons I just don’t understand.) Why must empathy now be politicized, as if it’s something bad to actually care about others?

What I want this Sunday — not to mention every single day of my life — is for everyone to take a moment and step back. Realize that we are all human. We are all deserving of care, empathy, trust, and love. And we should start to show the best of ourselves to others, quietly, not as an Instragrammable moment but because our shared humanity deserves that.

If we can do that, the world will become a much better place.

Moving Along…and Discussion about the Esquire “Best Fantasy” List

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Folks, the last few weeks at Chez Caffrey have been unusual, to say the least.

Somehow, I came down with a middle-ear infection. This has caused me a great deal of trouble with regards to moving around or doing much of anything, unless it’s of a mental nature. (Fortunately, as a writer and editor, most of the work I do is exactly that.)

I had two pressing edits along with several more that are urgent, and I didn’t want to say anything until those two most-pressing edits were done and “in the can.” (An aside: if our work on the computer is made up solely of electrical particles, can we actually say something is in the can anymore?)

Why?

Mostly, because I didn’t want my clients to think I was going to bail on them. But partly, I was conserving my strength and stamina to finish up the work I had to do, and to prepare for the next urgent edits. (There are three more on the table, and only one will be knocked out by the end of the weekend. The other two are longer and larger projects that I’ve devoted a good deal of time to in the past, but still require more from me before I can send them on to their authors.)

Anyway, the middle-ear infection has left me feeling weak, shaky, off-balance, and more than a bit nervous. I’ve never had this happen before, as usually I will get sinus infections or have asthma attacks or some sort of weird allergic reaction/response.

Fortunately, I have been able to think and work. And I am on the mend, finally, which is why I’m even talking about it today.

Otherwise, I wanted to mention the Esquire “50 Best Fantasy Books of All Time” list. (If you haven’t seen this yet, take a look after I’ve written the next part, and see if you agree with me.)

That half of them are books that don’t appeal to me or frankly aren’t SF&F at all (including the wonderful book CIRCE; it’s a great book, and I recommend that you read it, but it truly is not SF&F) is part of the problem. That many of these authors are not all-time greats is the rest of the problem.

Anne McCaffrey’s not on this list. Stephen R. Donaldson’s not on this list. David and Leigh Eddings aren’t on this list. Mercedes Lackey isn’t represented, either. Neither is Andre Norton. Nor is Marion Zimmer Bradley, Patricia A. McKillip, Ray Bradbury, Terry Pratchett, or Poul Anderson. (Edited to add: Where are Philip K. Dick, Philip Jose Farmer, and Roger Zelazny? Shouldn’t they all be there?)

And what about Margaret Atwood? Or Connie Willis?

The worst and most egregious contemporary writer missing from this list is Lois McMaster Bujold, who is a grand master of SF&F. (Hint: There are at least five more grand masters above on this list that were not represented at all.)

And if you’re going to mention contemporary SF&F authors, where’s Katherine Addison? Where’s Jacqueline Carey? Or the even heavier hitter, J.K. Rowling?

As for other authors I know and read regularly, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller aren’t on this list. (Arguably, the Liaden Universe books could probably be called fantasy by some, and I’d rather have something much closer to fantasy than Circe.) Rosemary Edghill isn’t on this list. Neither is Katharine Eliska Kimbriel.

So, you may be wondering which books I felt should be on there. Because I believe books should be able to stand the test of time, I have excluded anyone who hasn’t had a twenty- to twenty-five year career in SF&F. (If I went with writers who’ve been active, say, for ten years or thereabouts, I’d have some editorial clients to put on the list. And that isn’t exactly unbiased…)

At any rate, here are the books I’d put in my personal top fifty from the Esquire list linked to above (or at least the author):

Ursula K. LeGuin — their pick is A Wizard of Earthsea; mine is The Lathe of Heaven

Octavia E. Butler — Kindred

C.S. Lewis — their pick is The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; mine is The Screwtape Letters

George R.R. Martin — A Game of Thrones

Susanna Clarke — Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

J.R.R. Tolkien — The Fellowship of the Ring

L. Frank Baum — Ozma of Oz (it’s hard to pick just one Oz book)

Robert Jordan — The Shadow Rising

Neil Gaiman — Stardust (I’d put his and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens on this list instead)

Friends of mine would agree with Brandon Sanderson’s selection on this list, and Gene Wolfe’s, and probably a few others. (Kelly Link is another fine choice.) I don’t disagree with these authors and their books as they’re interesting and worthy, but those are not the books I turn to most of the time. That’s why I didn’t add them into the mix.

So, I agree with nine of the authors and six of the choices they made for the self-same authors. I have no trouble with another three of the authors, and agree they should be represented somehow in the “best of” fantasy list.

But I’d personally add these:

Anne McCaffrey — The White Dragon (included in the omnibus The Dragonriders of Pern) and/or the Harper Hall YA trilogy (first book is Dragonsong)

Stephen R. Donaldson — A Man Rides Through (I’d not quibble with any of the novels about Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, either)

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel — Night Calls

Lois McMaster Bujold — Paladin of Souls, The Curse of Chalion, many more

Rosemary Edghill– Paying the Piper at the Gates of Dawn (a short story collection that’s currently out of print, but used copies are available), or anything else she’s ever written. (She has a wonderful new novella available in Dreaming the Goddess that I’m quite keen on.)

Mercedes Lackey– By the Sword, the Vanyel Trilogy, Oathbreakers, or the original Heralds of Valdemar trilogy featuring Talia (or better yet, all of them)

J.K. Rowling — Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (my personal favorite of the HP books)

Patricia C. Wrede — The Enchanted Forest Chronicles and/or Sorcery and Cecilia with Caroline Stevermer

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller — I Dare, Mouse and Dragon, or anything they’ve ever written

Edited to add:

Diana Wynne Jones — The Chronicles of Chrestomanci series (Volume 1 is here), and/or Hexwood (How did I forget her?)

Roger Zelazny — This Immortal

Philip K. Dick — The Man in the High Castle

Philip Jose Farmer — To Your Scattered Bodies Go (available in the omnibus Riverworld)

Andre Norton — Ice Crown (available in the omnibus Ice and Shadow), Forerunner Foray (available in the omnibus Warlock)

Poul Anderson — Brain Wave, Boat of a Million Years

Margaret Atwood — The Handmaid’s Tale

Ray Bradbury — Fahrenheit 451

Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth — The Space Merchants (not currently available in Kindle)

Connie Willis, Doomsday Book

All of the above authors are excellent. You can’t go wrong if you pick up their books. If you’re like me, you’ll read them again and again, too.

What are your favorite fantasy and/or SF&F novels? Did you agree with the Esquire list? Disagree with it? Partially agree but mostly are disgusted? Let me know in the comments!

Sunday Thoughts: Creativity and the New Matrix Movie, Resurrections

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I found no way to write this without spoilers. If you have not seen Matrix Resurrections yet, proceed at your own risk.

As a writer, I am often inspired by unusual things.

I take note of all sorts of things, you see. I observe them. I think about them, sometimes only subconsciously, but I ponder them. And I wonder, often, what would have happened if I’d have chosen a much smaller life.

(I do not think that would’ve been a good idea, mind you. But let’s stay with the concept.)

This all matters to me, as a person, especially due to the fact that I’ve been creative my entire life. And as I’ve grown into midlife, there are so many different messages that have been thrown at me. “Grow up,” says one. “Stop fantasizing that your career will ever matter,” says another. “What you do as a writer…what’s the point of it? No one reads what you say, so who cares?”

And then, there are the bills. The obligations. The chores. The never-ending minutiae of life.

All of this can weigh me down. Add in health problems, as anyone who’s read this blog for a while has to have figured out, and the weight of sorrow as my life-partner has been dead now for over seventeen years, and it sometimes seems overwhelming.

“But Barb,” you say. “What about the new Matrix movie, Resurrections? You put that into your title, right? You are going to talk about it, aren’t you?”

Yes, I am. Because I think much of the commentary regarding Matrix Resurrections is flat-out wrong. They are missing the point, which is this: Just because you’re older, your love shouldn’t be trivialized. And fighting for love matters more than anything in this world.

Anything.

Very few of the critics have even touched on this, and that annoys me. Even those critics who’ve enjoyed the movie have discussed more obvious themes and have pointed out that Resurrections builds heavily on what has gone before in the previous Matrix trilogy. (How it was supposed to do anything else is beyond me. But let’s not go there.)

Mind you, some of the commentary is quite interesting, as it discusses trans rights and “deadnames” — that is, the name you were given at birth is not the name you go by (such as the fate of the late Leelah Alcorn) — and some of it quite rightly points out the romance between Trinity and Neo carries the film.

But they still are missing a huge point, and I can’t help but point out the elephant in the room.

Look. It’s easy, when you get into midlife, to let those messages I delineated above overwhelm you. It’s really easy to let the weight of words, and life itself, stop you from being who you truly are.

Neo, in Matrix Resurrections, is again going by his original name, Thomas Anderson. Trinity is now a character, only, in a game Thomas supposedly created. (That the Matrix was diabolical enough to do this is another problem entirely, mind you, but often when we get to midlife, people completely misunderstand what the Hell we’re doing as creative sorts. I tend to take that as allegory, personally.) The person who’s alive and should be Trinity is now named Tiffany (going by Tiff), and she has children and a husband. And only Neo knows that “Tiffany” is really Trinity.

But how can he convince anyone of that, when he can’t convince anyone that he’s Neo, not simply Thomas Anderson? Especially when other people only see an older and broken man, someone who’s survived a suicide attempt, and who lives alone and mostly unnoticed.

Hell, he doesn’t even have a pet to take care of. He’s that isolated.

Those around him completely misunderstand what he’s about, and he’s been led to believe that the one person he’s ever loved was someone he made up himself.

I understand all of this very well.

For Neo to reclaim himself, to reclaim his life, and to free Trinity so the two of them could go on and live the lives they were born to lead is the most important part of this film. (How they get there is not relevant to this discussion, but I will say that as an editor of SF&F, it worked well for me.) That they have a true partnership, a true meeting of the minds, and a truly good relationship where both are more together than they are separately (even though they’re both interesting, separately) is extremely important, to me as a widow.

(Yes, I like vicarious wish-fulfillment, sometimes. Sue me.)

At any rate, I was deeply moved by Matrix Resurrections. I loved the new characters (Bugs in particular, a blue-haired and fierce female warrior/captain), I enjoyed the main plot, but the subtext and the emotion was what got to me.

I believe in love. I believe it matters more than anything in this world. And I believe in soul bonds that endure between one creative soul and another, that call to us despite all the noise this ultra-connected world throws at us.

I also believe that memories matter. And that no one can frame your memories except yourself.

So I urge you to check your assumptions at the door before you see Matrix Resurrections. But do see it, and then if you are in midlife — as I am — ask yourself these questions:

Does what I do matter? (Hell, yes.)

Even if no one ever reads what I write, should I continue? (Absolutely.)

Can you reclaim your life against nearly impossible odds? (I would like to think so!)

What do you think of this blog? Have you seen Matrix Resurrections, or are you going to see it? Tell me about it in the comments!

What Makes a Good Story?

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Recently, I wrote about Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher John Axford, and I said that the way his story ended was not the way his story was supposed to go.

This begs the question: What makes for a good story, anyway?

By contemporary standards, what would’ve made Axford’s story much better would’ve been him coming into the game, striking out the side (or at least getting three outs), getting the save, and having the stadium rain cheers upon his head. (The crowd did cheer him when he came in — I think he may have even received a standing ovation — and cheered him on the way out, too, which is not usual when a pitcher is unable to get out of the inning. This last happened because we Brewers fans knew Axford well from his previous service with us, and knew he was deserving of such approbation due to how well he’d done before.)

In previous eras, though, they had stories such as MADAME BOVARY that sold a ton. Those stories would have characters put through the wringer and they’d never be able to come up for air; instead, even their children would be put through the wringer for no purpose, and would never be able to get ahead.

Why audiences appreciated such stories is beyond me, but that was the fashion at that time. The would-be heroine (or hero) had a tragic flaw (or two, or five), and because of that flaw would taint herself and everyone around her beyond any hope of redemption.

The fashion now tends more to happy endings, but well-deserved happy endings. Characters still get put through the wringer (see Lois McMaster Bujold’s MIRROR DANCE, or Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s NIGHT CALLS, or any of Robert Jordan’s novels in the Wheel of Time series, among others), but they live to fight another day. They learn from their mistakes, too. And they continue on, having learned much more about themselves in the process.

Of course, the Harry Potter novels also exemplify this sort of story. Harry grows up to be a powerful magician, but he’s put through the wringer and must fight the big, bad, nasty, evil, and disgusting Lord Voldemort (and yes, I meant all those descriptions, as Voldemort is just that bad) in order to become the magician he needs to be. He and his friends Hermione and Ron are put through all sorts of awful things, but they eventually prevail.

My friend Chris Nuttall’s novels about Emily, starting with SCHOOLED IN MAGIC and continuing through to FACE OF THE ENEMY (with CHILD OF DESTINY coming soon), also have a plot that shows Emily being thrown into awful situation after awful situation, but she finds a way to prevail every time through hard work, effort, and a talent to get along with people even if they’ve crossed her (or she’s crossed them). Emily scans as a real person, and we care about her because she faces things most of us face even though we’re not magicians.

What are those things, you ask? Well, she has to learn from her own mistakes. She has to realize that she can’t fix everything and everyone. She has to find out that her snap judgments are not always correct. And she has to reevaluate people and situations, even when she doesn’t want to.

Of course, my own stories about Bruno and Sarah (AN ELFY ON THE LOOSE and A LITTLE ELFY IN BIG TROUBLE) have many of the same lessons. There are things Bruno can do, and does, once he realizes he’s been lied to about nearly everything. Sarah is in much the same boat, except she has different talents — complementary ones, in most cases — and the two of them have to find that they’re stronger together than they could ever be alone. But there are still things they can’t do, and they must make their peace with that (as every adult does), while continuing to work on the things they can.

In other words, they can control what is in their power to control. But they can’t control other people. (It would be wrong to do so, anyway. They have to make their own lives meaningful in whatever way they can, too. And make their own mistakes, as we all do…but I digress.)

Anyway, the stories I love best are those with happy endings. People sometimes start out with situations they don’t deserve (such as my friend Kayelle Allen’s character Izzorah, who went through a childhood illness that damaged his heart and nearly blinded him), but they get into better positions and find the people who can help them — maybe even love them the way they deserve. (Izzorah, for example, finds a treatment for his heart — it’s not a standard one, by any means, but it works in the context of the story — and finds love along the way in SURRENDER LOVE.)

So, to go back to the beginning of this blog, as we love happy endings and we want to see deserving people find good luck and happiness, the true ending we wanted for John Axford was to get the outs, get the cheers, bask in the glow of achieving his dreams once again at the baseball-advanced age of thirty-eight, and stay with the Brewers the rest of the season as they continue to make their run at postseason play.

That Axford was unable to achieve this happy ending was distressing. But all the hard work and effort he put into his return to the big leagues should still be celebrated. And my hope, overall, is that he will still be with the Brewers in one way or another after this season ends.

What makes for a good story? Do you agree or disagree with me, and if so, why? Tell me about it in the comments!

2021 Baseball Oddities, or, The Baseball Curmudgeon’s Rant

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Folks, it’s no secret that I am a huge baseball fan.

I have followed the Brewers almost since their inception in 1970. (I was quite young, but I remember Hank Aaron’s final games as a Brewer in 1976.) They have never won the World Series, but they have played in one (in 1982); they have come close, since switching to the National League, to getting to the World Series again, but have not actually gotten there. I say all this to explain why I am so irritated with 2021’s version of Major League Baseball (MLB).

First, there are the rules changes that happened last year during the height of the Covid-19 crisis. These are meant to shorten games, which made sense then — but doesn’t, now, considering there is a vaccine — and they are profoundly vexing.

What are they, and why do they frustrate me so much? Simple.

It used to be, in extra innings, that no one started on base to start the inning. This made sense. An extra inning was just like every other inning, and of course no one should be on base when they haven’t gotten a hit or taken a walk or gotten hit by a pitch, or any number of other legal baseball plays that would put them on base in a normal fashion.

But now, there’s a rule that starting in the tenth inning in normal games that the last person who made an out in the ninth inning gets to stand on second base. If that person scores. it’s an unearned run against the pitcher.

That rule reminds me of Little League.

Remember, these are MLB players. They are used to the grind of a 162-game season. They do not need to start on second base to shave off time from a game now that there is a vaccine.

But that’s not the worst rule.

The worst rule is that if a doubleheader is now played, the game will only be seven innings long.

Yep. You saw that right. Only seven innings.

That means that the eighth inning is when that stupid rule about putting someone on second base who doesn’t belong there and shouldn’t be there happens in a doubleheader. It also means that someone can pitch a complete game (which up until now was defined as a full, nine-inning game unless shortened by weather or other problems) and only go seven innings.

This reminds me of preschool ball, before the kids even get to Little League.

Again, these are pro players we’re talking about, used to the grind of a full season of baseball. They don’t need games to be shortened to only seven innings, and they definitely don’t need to start putting people on second base if they’re going to insist on that stupid rule until the tenth inning.

As a fan, these things irritate me quite a bit, as I’m sure you’ve figured out. But I have one, final piece of news to impart that’s even more infuriating than that.

I walk with a cane. I say this because I am considered to be a disabled person.

How does this relate, you ask? Well, in 2020, major league baseball decided to change the name of the list of players who can’t play from the disabled list (DL) to the injured list (IL).

Did they really think I can’t tell the difference between me, a truly disabled person, and someone who went on the DL?

To my mind, changing it was the height of political correctness. And it did not need to be done, at all.

So, to reiterate: we now have three different changes in MLB since last year. None of them make any sense in 2021. I definitely do not like any of them. And I wish they’d change them back.

P.S. The other night, I was frustrated when the Brewers lost, 6-1, in 11 innings to the St. Louis Cardinals. My mother and I had watched the game in its entirety together. The announcers, who were fill-ins from the usual pair of Brian Anderson and Bill Schroeder, didn’t seem to understand that we and other fans had actually watched the whole game, and reiterated that the Cards had scored five runs in the top of the 11th several times before we even got to the bottom of the 11th.

I actually wrote in to the Brewers Facebook page to say how upsetting this was to both me and my mother.

I mean, I can count to five. Can’t everyone?

Sunday Musings: Do You Recognize the Person in the Mirror?

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Folks, it’s Sunday. That means it’s time for me to write something with a bit more depth, perhaps…or at least something more elliptical, as suits my mood.

Enjoy!


After my husband Michael died, for a few years I did not recognize myself in the mirror. That’s just a fact.

“But Barb,” you ask. “Why are you talking about this now?”

I wonder how many of us have had times where we didn’t recognize ourselves, as I can’t be the first (and probably won’t be the last, alas) to have had this phenomenon happen. And I wonder, too, if that fuels my need for stories. Because every story I’ve told has dealt with a realization, or a transformation, or sometimes both…and the person who starts the book has had to realize his or her inner truths by the end, or else.**

See, the thing about humans is, we often don’t confront problems until we absolutely have to. This is especially dicey when the problem is something you couldn’t have ever foreseen, such as the coronavirus (COVID-19), or the way-too-early death of your spouse. The latter hits you like a ton of bricks, and you literally aren’t exactly the same as you were before due to your grief and rage and hopelessness, though the essentials of you are still there and can be dug out again in time

But there’s the former group of people out there — I have occasionally been among them, too — where we know there are problems in our lives, but we don’t have a clue how to fix them. Maybe we’re trying to fix them. Maybe we aren’t. But we procrastinate, hoping that circumstances or perhaps a miracle from the Deity high above will bring clarity…and our problems don’t get solved.

Sometimes the consequences of refusing to solve problems — mostly because we don’t like the solutions we come up with — are worse than just dealing with the problem to begin with.

The easiest example I have of this phenomenon is with a non-working toaster. If you try to keep using that toaster, when you know it’s sparking from the elements being exposed (the wiring, perhaps, has gone bad), you’re going to blow up your house. It’s a lot easier to just go buy a new toaster than to keep using the old one, no matter how much you liked that old one because it always toasted the bread perfectly every time…at least, until the wires got messed up and started sparking energy off all over the place.

Of course, human relationships are much more difficult most of the time than this above problem. Still, as Mark Manson has put it — and many others before him — there’s something called a “sunk-cost fallacy.” The quickest way to explain this is, “I’ve been with my husband for seven years. Yeah, things are bad. But I love him, and I think he can change…”

(This example is drawn from my life. My first husband, later my first ex-husband, was a good man in many ways but utterly wrong for me. Just as I was utterly wrong for him. We eventually both figured that out and got out of the marriage, which was just as well. I found Michael later, and he was the right man for me. And my ex found the right person for him, so it all, eventually, worked out for the best.)

Now, I did go to counseling the whole time. I tried to learn more about myself, and why I had picked my ex in the first place. I also figured out, due to counseling, that while people can change, it’s up to them to do it. You can’t make them do it. You can’t even assist them in doing it. They will either do it, or don’t, on their own.

I’ve had friends married to alcoholics who’ve learned the same thing, mind. They know it’s not up to them to stop their spouse from drinking. They can’t. All they can do is control their own behavior.

So, what I learned there is, no matter what good points your spouse may have, it’s up to him to use them. Or not.

And sometimes, we love people who aren’t good for us. Or who once were, but stopped being so, and now have no intention whatsoever to grow with you in a long-term relationship or marriage, mostly because they can’t help being themselves.

The good news is, if you are in a situation where you don’t recognize yourself in the mirror because of your own choices, or because life hit you like a ton of bricks, you can feel better about yourself. Over time, if you keep working on yourself, and read books, and educate yourself, and learn more about who you are and what you truly want (rather than what you think you want), you should find people who will want to grow with you. And who will appreciate your uniqueness, just because they know they, themselves, are appreciated by you for their uniqueness in turn.

It does take a while. It’s not a quick fix by any means. But living your life, and continuing to be your best self, and remembering what it was about yourself that you liked before life hit you like a ton of bricks — or before you stayed in your marriage too long after it had clearly died (and everyone knew it but you) — that’s the best way to go about it.

If you can do that, you can find some inner peace. You will know you’ve done your best in whatever situation you find yourself. And you can pick up the pieces again, and start over (or at least afresh), because you have learned over time that you, too, matter.

Not just your significant other.

_________

**(Before you start on my gender-fluid heroine Elaine from CHANGING FACES, Elaine liked the pronoun “she” even when she was feeling male. There are people who like pronouns that don’t seemingly go with their outward selves, too, in this world, including a growing number who prefer “they” as they prefer not to be categorized for various reasons. Non-binary people, mostly, are in this category; gender-fluid people also can easily be in this category, though Elaine herself is not.)

Who Edits the Editor?

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As I wanted to talk about editing today — especially since I’ve been doing a great deal of it over the past few weeks (thus almost no blogs) — I figured a catchy title might lure you in. (Did it work?)

Anyway, the question of “who edits for you, Barb?” has come up among my devoted readership. And as the answer is complicated**, I thought I could maybe make a blog out of this, remind you all I’m still alive and kicking, and help give you some idea of what I go through when I talk with my editor(s).

I am fortunate to have two very good mentors. Both are excellent editors in their own right. They are so good, that when I feel overloaded, I tell people to please check with them. (As they are both in high demand themselves, I am not going to name them. But trust me: they exist, and they’re damned good.)

Now, because I haven’t had anything ready to go for over a year, I mostly have just talked with my mentors over this when they have been able to come up for air. I trust them, I trust their judgment, and I believe them when they say something needs to be cut, something needs to be added, and/or something needs to be changed.

Because I can speak frankly with them, I try to offer the same level of frankness to my editorial clients. I want those who deal with me to know they can trust me, and my judgment, and be able to bounce ideas off me if they’re in distress…or even if they aren’t, and just want to chat about stories with someone they know who “gets it.”

But frankness does not necessarily equal bluntness. (Trust me, though; I can be quite blunt, when need be.) It does mean I try to give praise as well as criticism, and I hope my critiques are constructive rather than destructive. And it also means that I do my best to let my clients know I understand their stories, and what they’re going for; if I didn’t, how could I possibly do any good for them?

My view, as an editor, is to help my clients refine and improve their own work. I want them to sound like the very best versions of their writing style, in order to bring out all the specialness and sense of wonder they have in their own creation, while polishing up the various rough edges as much as I can without taking the freshness/uniqueness of their viewpoints out.

And what I look for in an editor, and have been privileged to find it with two wonderful editors who happen to be my friends, boils down to this:

  1. How well do they communicate?
  2. How well do they understand what I’m doing?
  3. How can they best help me help myself?

Ultimately, it all comes down to trust. Without trust, there is no communication; without trust, there is no understanding; without trust, there is no willingness to work together to find better solutions.

So I urge you, when looking for an editor, to find someone you can trust who has the skills you need in order to help you polish your work to its utmost.

And if you, like me, manage to find a good friend in your editor(s), so much the better.

———

**As I said, the answer is a bit complicated. I, myself, can look at something if I’ve had some time in between me writing it and me going to edit it and get the ball rolling. But unless time is pressing and my editor-friends are unavailable, I am going to ask one or both of them to help me every single time. Because I’m not stupid; I know I tend to see what I think is there, rather than what actually is.

And I do this for the same reason everyone else does. I have it set in my head that I wrote X, which means I’ll only see X. But I might actually have Y, Z, AA, BB, CC, DD, or something totally incomprehensible…which is why I, too, need editing. (You expected me to say anything else?)

Written by Barb Caffrey

December 4, 2020 at 5:39 am

The More Things Change…

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…the more they stay the same. (Yes, I’m borrowing from the famous French saying.)

It’s September. It may be 2020, but it’s still September. And September is the month I lost my beloved husband, Michael.

I’ll never forget that day. It is seared into my memory in so many ways, and has shaped who I’ve become. It is a part of me, and I am a part of it…that I tell myself, daily, that Michael would not want me to dwell on the nature of his passing matters not. Because I was there.

I wake up, even now, and reach for him. I wonder what he’d think of this, that, and the other. And I’m glad he’s not lived to see the deep, divisive partisan divide in the United States that’s gotten so bad, we can no longer agree on what the facts are if we’re in different parts of the country. Or in different political parties. (Or worst of all, both.)

Michael believed that you needed to make your argument logically. Factually. With care. With concern. And that if you couldn’t do all those things, it wasn’t much of an argument. (That he’d hold someone like that in contempt is a given.)

That the current President of the United States is a man who can’t do any of those things, or worse, doesn’t even see the point to wanting to make a logical argument about anything (why use logic, when appeals to emotion and unreason will do instead?), would vex Michael as greatly as it’s vexed me.

It’s almost as if we live in Bizarro World. Everything we thought we knew about people, that they could use reason and logic along with compassion and empathy, has turned upside-down.

(Mind, in many ways, I’ve lived in my own, personal Bizarro World since the day Michael died. But that’s just me. Now, back to the blog, already in progress…)

Instead, these days, it’s seemingly all about who can scare everyone else the most.

I don’t understand it. I will never understand it. But I will continue to work against it, for as long as I possibly can.

Michael would expect no less. (And I certainly expect no less out of myself anyway, Michael or no Michael.)

Written by Barb Caffrey

September 10, 2020 at 12:56 pm