Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

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Former President Jimmy Carter Turns 98 Today

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When I woke up, I realized it was Jimmy Carter’s birthday.

I’ve always admired the former president, as he is an exemplary human being. He’s kind, gracious, funny, wise, smart, prescient, and constant in his affections (as he’s been married for 75 years to the love of his life, Rosalynn). He’s also hard-working, honest, a philanthropist (he’s built many houses for Habitat for Humanity, which helps people in need with sustainable housing), taught Bible study at his local church for many years (only stopping due to his health woes of the last few years), and has done everything in his power to improve life on this Earth.

I was quite young when Jimmy Carter was elected. (I know, I know; some of you who read this blog were not even a glimmer in your parent’s eyes at that time. Bear with me.) I was with my grandma, and we’d stayed up to watch the election returns all night. It was a hard-fought contest, but Carter prevailed.

His presidency was fraught with difficulty and even peril. There was trouble in the Middle East, as hostages had been taken. (They only were released after Carter lost his bid for a second term.) There was stagflation — inflation combined with no increases in wages, so everything had stagnated. I even remember that my parents had to think ahead in order to get gas for their cars, as you could only fill up on even or odd numbered days depending on the last digit in your license plate.

(Things were that bleak.)

Jimmy Carter was mocked, at the time, for wearing a sweater and having a fireside chat. He discussed troubles the way a good man does: directly, honestly, with sympathy and with understanding. This was not a man who believed he was exalted above all others (as so many of our other previous presidents believed, most especially Richard Nixon). Instead, he believed he was one of us, and as such, he could lead by example.

While some don’t appreciate his presidency, most do appreciate him as a person. He’s been called “the most successful ex-president who’s ever lived” (at least, that’s what my grandma called him, and I think she was right), due to his belief in human dignity and kindness.

I admire Jimmy Carter. He has lived his faith, you see, and he has helped others. He has done everything he can, often with little fanfare, to make things better for those who have little to nothing. He has remembered the downtrodden (see his work, again, with Habitat for Humanity), and he has done everything he can to help raise them up.

This is why I urge you all to raise a glass to celebrate Jimmy Carter’s 98th birthday, and to wish him continued good health.

We need more men like him in this world, to remind us that people — even those in power — can still be good, kind, solid human beings.

Moving on, again (Plus: Answering the Q, “How Can You Still Edit?”)

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As my last blog said, I am no longer a member of the Racine Concert Band.

It’s been a couple of very strange weeks, I must say. Every time there’s a rehearsal, I keep thinking I need to go (until I correct myself); every time there’s a concert, I feel how wrong it is that I’m not there.

All I can do, though, is move on.

I’ve had many experiences lately where I’ve had to move on when I wasn’t ready to do it. It never gets easier. But I will keep working at it, because as I know well, much of life and life’s experiences remain out of my control.

Let’s move on to something else.

One of my friends asked me why I was so forthcoming in regard to admitting I had a pulmonary embolism in 2020 and haven’t been the same, health-wise, since. She was afraid I might mess up my editing prospects, as there are a lot of folks out there who don’t want to deal with anyone who admits to illness, much less chronic illness.

(To put this in perspective: my friend also deals with chronic illness and has for years.)

So, I figured I’d discuss the elephant in the room, which is this: “Barb, if you’re not able to play your instruments right now, how can you edit?”

Simply put, they are two different things.

Yes, both are creative pursuits. However, there are many ways to edit once you get past the grammatical aspect, and I tend to be as creative as possible while making my points to various clients.

As most of you no doubt know, music is usually performed with other people; even if you’re playing a recital with a pianist, you still must play with another person at a scheduled time and place. (Yes, sometimes there are late cancellations for different reasons, but then you have to find a makeup date.)

Editing is done by me and can be scheduled at any point in any given day. (I tend to edit at night, when there are fewer distractions, but I’ve proven I can edit at any time of any day if need be.)

I hope this answers the question as to how I can continue to edit despite all that’s gone on in my life since 2020.

In conclusion, I appreciate my clients. They are all great people, and many of them have become my friends, which is something that pleases me greatly. I enjoy their company, I enjoy their manuscripts, and I appreciate the work.

Oh, one final, thing (I know I sound like Lt. Columbo from TV, years back): My Elfyverse “holiday” story was accepted into the Fantastic Schools: Holidays anthology. Thank you all who asked me privately about this and reminded me to come say something about it.

What’s going on in your life, writing or otherwise? Tell me about it in the comments!

Where Can We Be Safe? #Updated

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Update #1: There was a mass shooting this afternoon — no deaths yet reported — at Graceland Cemetery in Racine, WI (where I live). No reason given yet, though the man who was being buried (Da’Shontay “Day Day” King) had apparently fled the police and been shot due to the pursuit.

Why anyone would want to shoot these mourners is beyond me.

In addition, as the names of the victims of the Tulsa Shooting have been released, I wanted to give a link about that. Four people died, including a pioneering Black orthopedic surgeon, Preston J. Phillips; Amanda Glenn, a devoted mother, wife, and also a receptionist; Stephanie Husen, another doctor known in the community as kind and caring; and a retired Army First Sergeant, William Love.

I have to mention two things. Dr. Husen had a devoted canine companion that is not going to understand what’s happened to his loving owner. I hope the dog finds a new forever home in honor of his brave owner. The second is this: William Love was 73. He was with his wife of fifty-five years (they married in 1967) when the gunman rushed in. He first held the door closed so his wife could get out safely, then confronted the gunman.

This meant until the end of his life, he remembered what he’d been taught in the Army.

All honor to him. All blessings to his widow.

Now to the original post, already in progress:

#

Folks, once again in the United States, we’ve had another mass shooting. This time, it was in a medical clinic, because (apparently) the shooter was upset that he still had pain from a surgery in mid-May of this year. The doctor (again, apparently) hadn’t been responsive to the shooter’s pain issues, so the solution for the shooter was this: Shoot the doctor. Shoot another doctor. Shoot the receptionist. Wound a whole bunch of other people. And then shoot himself stone cold dead.

So, let me get this straight. We’ve had shootings in the following places in the last decade: Temples of worship, churches, mosques, supermarkets, concerts (the Las Vegas country music festival comes to mind), outside basketball games (the shooting of 21 people in Milwaukee a few weeks ago comes to mind), movie theatres. People have been shot in their cars and in their homes. People have been shot in assisted living situations and in senior housing, too. There have even been shootings on buses and a few on subway platforms in the past few years. And, of course, there have been the senseless deaths at colleges, universities, and other schools, including the recent shooting in Uvalde, Texas, at an elementary school.

With all of that, I ask this question: Where can we feel safe?

Recently, I played a concert with the Racine Concert Band in a church. (Beautiful church, too.) It’s our 100th anniversary, and we’ve played free concerts in the Racine Zoo or elsewhere during all of that time. It’s certainly a setting where you’d never expect a gunman with a pistol and some sort of rifle (as this shooter at the medical clinic had today).

But as much as I enjoyed playing my saxophone with the band, I still was wary as I got out of my car and went into the building. I kept scanning the audience to make sure there wasn’t anyone suspicious or out to make trouble. (I’ve never done this before while playing a concert. Occasionally, I’ve done it in other places.) And I was glad to get through the concert, not just because we as a group played well (and I didn’t muff an extended solo as I’d feared), but because we hadn’t had our activity marred by senseless violence.

Why must we feel this way in the United States of America? Why is it that I feel as if we got lucky because there wasn’t any senseless violence where we were?

Are we as a band supposed to have armed guards around us to protect us as we play?

(If so, we won’t be playing any free concerts again anytime soon. Armed guards are expensive.)

Before anyone says this, I will: I realize that all life is risk. Every time you step outside, you are risking something. (Brushing against poison ivy or poison oak, for example. Or getting stung by a bee, which would be very bad in my case as I am deathly allergic.) Every time you get into a vehicle, you are risking your life to a degree because you can’t fully predict what other drivers will do.

Those, however, are manageable risks. They are known risks. You can, to a large degree, compensate for them.

With all of these shootings in all of these various places, they were not manageable risks. The Las Vegas shooter used a sniper rifle to kill people from a hotel room high above the festival. The recent shooting at the Buffalo supermarket was made by someone who was a racist and who wanted to kill Black people, and had scoped the area out with pre-planning. (That guy may have been evil, but he was not stupid. He didn’t even live in Buffalo, so how could anyone have predicted he’d do this?) The shootings in El Paso, Texas, a few years back, were also done by a racist who wanted to kill Latinos, and he, too, like the Buffalo gunman, didn’t live in the area and had driven from hours away to murder people for no good reason.

These gunmen were not on anyone’s radar, either, even though coworkers had mentioned that the killer of children and teachers in Uvalde recently had the nickname of “serial killer” at work. He was said to be a scary person, someone you didn’t want to cross. He also had discussed his plans with several young women online, but they didn’t tell anyone because they thought “this is just how guys are, always bragging themselves up.” (That last is a paraphrase of several comments I’ve read, and is not an exact quote.)

There is an argument in all of these shootings that they come from a culture known as “toxic masculinity.” That is, these are men (or in some cases, teenage men) who firmly believe they are right, everyone else is wrong, and because they are the “man,” they get to make the rules even if they’re against society’s covenant.

(Yes, I know this isn’t the way “toxic masculinity” is usually described, but it’s the way I think of it. I defined it this way because most men do not think this way. Thank goodness. Moving on…)

Personally, I think this is happening for three reasons. The first is because so many other shooters have gotten away with their violence in the moment that it’s emboldened other domestic terrorists to do the same. (This is one reason why I refuse to name any gunman at my blog.) The second is because local, state, and federal governments have refused to do anything — or in some cases have been blocked from doing anything — to protect people from deranged shooters. This includes prevention and identifying suspects and realizing that at least half of the domestic terrorists in the above cases were men below the age of twenty-five. (Somehow, the local, state, and federal officials need to figure out who these bad apples are and stop them before they do anything remotely like the horrid acts I’ve listed above.) The third is because people are apathetic and believe nothing can or will be done, because our politicians have made it so.

As I said, I don’t have the answers. I just have the questions.

Now, folks, you have the floor: What do you think? What can be done other than perhaps beefing up budgets to deal with people who are obviously deranged and having some sort of awareness campaign so young people will understand that a guy with the nickname of “serial killer” is not normal?

P.S. Before I end this blog, I also want to point out that most police officers, sheriff’s deputies, federal and state law enforcement, and other personnel are good people. They do the best they can with the limited resources they have. Usually, these folks are maligned when something awful happens (sometimes rightfully — at least, so it seems — as in Uvalde), but they’re the first line of defense. They should be appreciated as much as possible rather than denigrated or besmirched. They stop many bad things from happening that most of us never hear about. Which means things might be even worse without their help…awful as that seems, considering how bad it is already.

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.

Time to Vote…and Some Thoughts on the Milwaukee Mayor’s Race

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Today, we vote primarily for school board members and judges in Wisconsin.

Yes, we vote for judges here, even though few of us — myself included — know much about any of them. While I do my research, I mostly try to see if the judge’s written responses in their decisions make sense and follow what I know of the law. If they do, they get my vote regardless of party. If they don’t — or if they behave in a markedly inflammatory manner (as a few of the past judges on the Wisconsin state Supreme Court have done) — they don’t.

Milwaukee’s mayoral race is probably the biggest thing up for grabs in the entire state of Wisconsin. I have no dog in this fight, and of course as I don’t live in Milwaukee I also don’t have a vote. But I do have a few things to say about it.

The race features acting mayor and alderman Cavalier Johnson against longtime retired alderman Bob Donovan. Donovan is a very “by the book” law-and-order candidate, while Johnson is more worried about how well (or poorly) Milwaukee is doing economically. This is not at all to say that Donovan doesn’t care about Milwaukee’s economy or that Johnson doesn’t care about how many crimes there are in Milwaukee. But their focus is different.

In the past few days, Johnson’s family has come into the spotlight, particularly one brother who’s had lifelong problems with the law. Johnson’s brother has been arrested again for allegedly shooting someone this past January. Johnson has said from the get-go (from when he ran for alderman several years ago) that he has one brother who works within the justice system, and one that is almost always in the justice system (meaning he’s behind bars more often than he’s out on the street). He has not tried in any way to hide anything.

Donovan, however, decided to go after Johnson because it took the police a while to arrest Johnson’s brother for this latest crime. Donovan says it shows that Johnson leaned on the police department heavily.

I, personally, do not believe this.

Why?

Well, here’s my logic. I know, going back to that horrible scene in Waukesha last year where that idiotic driver hit a whole bunch of people and killed six of them, that it took at least two weeks for this man (who I still won’t name) to be arraigned. (They did get him into custody within a day.) This is a guy who wouldn’t have even been out on the street except for a glitch in the system and an incredibly low bail amount, which mostly seemed to be blamed on the Covid pandemic causing hearings to be virtual and many things to be missed.

So, if it took a few weeks for the Waukesha police department and the justice system to get their ducks in a row with a heinous (alleged) crime like that one, and I know also how Milwaukee has had issues with their justice system in that more people than not seemed to fall straight through the cracks as I said above, it doesn’t surprise me whatsoever that it would take a couple of months for Johnson’s brother to be arrested for this latest alleged infraction.

Now, can the Mayor’s office lean on the police? As a practical matter, I’m guessing yes.

But would Johnson, who’s just the acting mayor (as the previous mayor, Tom Barrett, was named to be the Ambassador to Luxembourg), want to run the risk all of this would come out at the most inopportune time? Of course not.

I believe Donovan is grasping at straws. It won’t help him. The people who were going to vote for him probably will no matter what, but a late push for something like that when the polling shows you way down (as apparently the polling does with Donovan) usually does not help.

Yes, polling can be wrong. We saw that in 2016 in the Presidential election.

Still. Local polling tends to be more accurate than national races, as there are fewer factors to weigh and far fewer people to sample to get any sort of idea as to how people are leaning toward voting at any given time.

I will be keeping an eye on the Milwaukee mayor’s race, as I believe it will be interesting. But my own votes today will be for county supervisor, judges, and school board members.

One final thought: The Waukesha Republican Party has put out an entire slate of school board members. They are proud of this. They believe this will help them in statewide races later this year (as both Governor and one US Senator’s race will be up for grabs).

I don’t like this at all.

School board members should concentrate on one thing: how well does the school system educate their kids. They should not worry about whether their votes align with Donald Trump or any other candidate, Republican or Democrat.

Truth is truth, after all.

My view is very simple here. If these school board members the Republicans put up get in there, I will hope they use their common sense and vote for sane, sensible public policy. I hope they will worry about how well — or poorly — the kids in their district are educated.

That’s what matters in a school board race.

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!

Figure Skating’s Black Eye, 2022 Edition

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Folks, I’ve written about figure skating before. I love the sport. At it’s best, it can be both artistic and athletic; it also can transport in the same way as music, dance, or literature.

So I don’t enjoy writing posts like this. But it must be said.

Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, who’s all of fifteen, failed a recent drug test before the Olympics started. However, this only came out in the past week.

After several days of dithering, the various places that debate such things — as a fifteen-year-old has less responsibility by rule, apparently, than an older person — have decided that she should still be allowed to continue to skate at the Olympics despite her failed drug test.

Now, Ms. Valieva is the best female skater in the world at the present time. She has a few quadruple jumps — four revolutions in the air after takeoff — and is also excellent artistically. She’s someone who doesn’t need to cheat, in other words, and when the word came out about her positive drug test, most people were shocked.

The drug she tested positive for is a heart medication. She’s fifteen and does not need this medication. Supposedly, taking it will give her greater endurance than someone who isn’t.

Have I mentioned yet that she doesn’t need to cheat?

Anyway, her coach, who I will not name as I am disgusted with her, is known for pushing her young athletes too hard. The young Russian skaters basically are used up in four or five years. They have multiple injuries and skate anyway. Some, including Julia Lipnitskaya, end up retiring in their teens with numerous bone breaks. Lipnitskaya herself, along with the bone breaks, also has apparently had depression and a serious eating disorder. (The heavier you are, the more difficult it is to jump. That’s the excuse given to force these young skaters to eat almost nothing; that it is true at base, but wrong as we all need to eat, just makes me even angrier.)

Quite a number of athletes, including former US figure skaters (and Olympians) Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski (herself a former Olympic gold medalist), have come out and said this decision is flat-out wrong.

See, Russia, in general, has had doping scandals before. That’s why Russia, the country, is not allowed to compete. Instead, it’s the “Russian Olympic Committee” that’s competing.

Same coaches. Same skaters. Different name.

And, unfortunately, the same old outcome, which is this: Ms. Valieva gets to skate, will almost certainly win the gold medal, and her other Russian compatriots — also very young, with quadruple jumps in their skating “arsenal” — will probably be second and third.

That is not right. That is not just. And it should not be allowed to stand.

It cheapens the sport of figure skating. It cheapens the entire Olympics.

And it does look, as track athlete Sha’Carri Richardson said today on CBS TV, as if there is a different standard for Caucasian athletes than Black ones. (She was held out of the Olympics for testing positive for marijuana. That’s not a performance enhancer in any way. She had extenuating circumstances in that her mother died, and she was grieving, and she smoked around that time. It didn’t matter; she was out of the Olympics.)

So, where is the justice here? I, for one, don’t see it.

I have sympathy for Ms. Valieva. She is young. And I’m sure that she didn’t cheat on purpose.

That said, she still cheated, and she should still be out of the Olympics.

Anything else is flat-out wrong.

Sympathy and Empathy — Which Is Better?

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A few days ago, I was chatting with a male friend. When I told him I sympathized with something he’d said, he did the online equivalent of looking at me as if I suddenly had two heads. To him, “sympathy” means only its first definition, that of feeling pity for someone. It doesn’t mean the second, far less well-used definition of understanding what people go through as a commonality. (Such as, “The sisters shared a special sympathy for one another.”)

The second definition is far closer to that of empathy than not.

Empathy is defined, more or less, as the understanding and ability to share someone else’s feelings. No pity could ever be involved with empathy, as the word understanding is key.

So, say, you have two sisters. They have typical growing pains, don’t always agree with each other, have difficulties…but because they both were raised by the same people (or the same sorts of people, anyway), they can be both sympathetic and empathetic.

Clear as mud, right?

So, let’s try this again. I, personally, do not think sympathy should always have to evoke pity.

If I sympathize with someone, it’s because I’m human and share a commonality with the person hurting. Maybe I’ve been hurt the same way. Maybe not. But if I can put myself in this other person’s shoes, at least for a bit, perhaps I can help them in some small way to realize that they’re not alone.

Empathy, and being empathetic, also is quite important, whether I use sympathy’s first definition or its second.

Why?

Well, in some cases I have no idea why people do what they do. Maybe they’ve done something so foolish, so wrong, so stupid, or so terrible that they have had awful consequences in their life (such as going to prison) because of their own behavior and actions. I can’t feel sympathy because there’s no commonality of shared experiences there.

But I can feel empathy, because I’m a human being and so are they. And I’d like to think that none of us — none — are a complete waste of space and effort.

And it’s not just me.

Empathy is probably the reason Sister Helen Prejean continues her work to abolish the death penalty. (Though I think she also sympathizes with the prisoners she’s met in a “there, but for the grace of God go I” sense.) Empathy is probably what late Archbishop Desmond Tutu felt that kept him working hard to abolish apartheid in South Africa. Empathy is probably why most people who work at nonprofits try so hard to do good things with their lives (as they surely aren’t getting much in the way of remuneration most of the time).

I think most people understand the importance of empathy. (At least, I’d like to hope so.) But that second meaning of sympathy is just as important, and I wish was discussed far more often than the first meaning (of condolences and pity).

So, which is better?

Both are good. Both are meaningful.

My personal belief, however, is that empathy is almost certainly closer to the Higher Power than sympathy. Empathy leads closer to other people, as well as closer to the Higher Power.

Still, that second meaning for sympathy should not be discounted.

The hope here, from me, is that you’ll think about these two words — sympathy and empathy — and how they’re at work in your life (as well as your writing and/or other creative pursuits). They certainly are worth more than a bit of study.

What do you think? Are you more on Team Sympathy? Or on Team Empathy? (Or is it silly to assign teams to them at all?) Tell me about it in the comments!

Written by Barb Caffrey

January 12, 2022 at 4:45 pm