Barb Caffrey's Blog

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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.

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

In Romance, See What’s There, Not Just What You Think Is There

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I’ve been thinking a lot about two things. One is about romance, and the second is about the nature of observation.

See, we as human beings want to see what we desire most. This can delude us into staying in bad relationships far longer than their sell-by date (certainly, I did, in my first marriage; thank goodness I found Michael in the end). Because we see every single small gesture as full of meaning…which it is, if the feelings are true.

But what if they aren’t? What if your significant other is lying to you? What then?

We have to observe what the truth is before we can grasp that truth.

In my case, with my first marriage, it took me several long years to realize two things. (Yes, I’m big on two things today for some reason.) The first was that the way I saw my then-husband was not who he truly was. The second was that he was not the person I needed.

When I met him, I was quite young. So was he. Maybe he wanted to be the man I needed. But he just couldn’t be that person, no matter how much I wanted him to be.

There were good things, even then, that I missed after I divorced him. He liked the same music I did. He read many of the same books.

But then, there were the drawbacks, which I decidedly did not miss. He had wit, but not a lot of depth. And at the time, he was incapable of being faithful.

(I hope his second wife has found him to be much more faithful than I. But that’s up to them, of course. And as always, I digress.)

So, persistence of vision led me into a trap. The trap was that I saw only the best iteration of my ex-husband. Not the entirety of him. (Not even close.) I saw that because when we met, he was on his best behavior. And I hoped that was all he was…or that he would deepen and broaden and become more and more interesting over time.

That did not happen.

The person it did happen with, eventually, was Michael. He was funny, smart as a whip, shared many interests with me, but not all. We had amazing, long, in-depth, interesting conversations. He was more fascinating the longer I knew him. I loved him, I loved being with him, and I very much enjoyed being his wife, because he was exactly who he said he was.

(Not to mention, he was as faithful as the day is long. And honorable. And so many things that I could go on for days and still not tap the entirety of him. But I’d better finish this blog instead.)

Michael was not the first person I’d entered into a relationship with after my first marriage failed. But he was the only one who mattered.

I could tell, by observation, that Michael cared about me and wanted only what was best. I knew by what he did — how often we talked (as our relationship started as a long-distance one and proceeded that way for about six or seven months), what we talked about, how much he remembered of what I’d said, even what he sent me in the mail — that he was an honorable, loving man.

Someone worthy of me. Someone worthy of love.

Michael was ever-changing, but always at the bedrock level was the same. Honest. He’d tell you the truth, even if he would’ve rather not, because he knew nothing real could proceed without it. And the depth of feeling he had for me was incredible.

Ultimately, even though we didn’t get a lot of Earthly time together, Michael’s love and influence changed my life. It’s made me a better person.

Again, I know this by observation. I know this by re-reading our letters to each other. (Mostly e-mail, but a few are dead-tree versions.) I know this by the stories he wrote. I know this by every action he ever performed.

There’s a big difference between someone who truly loves you and someone who only says they do. That difference is as clear as night and day, but you have to first perceive it before you can see it. And you have to admit to yourself, when you’re in the wrong relationship, that it’s time to go.

I fought that realization before I divorced my ex. In a way, he forced my hand, because he started the next relationship before he was done with me. But his action in doing that somehow got through to me that he was not about to change; he could not be the person I needed, and he’d already left, emotionally and spiritually. He’d made that choice to go.

So, you may be wondering why I’m talking about this. (No, it’s not just because of rewatching the new Matrix movie, Resurrections, again. Though I enjoyed it even more the second time around, I will say.)

We see, often, what we expect to see. So if we are in love, we expect to see that our significant other loves us in return. We look for reasons to believe what we think is right, rather than observe how they’re behaving, or listening to what they actually say, or watching their body language, or a thousand other little details that tell a quite intricate story if we just paid attention.

In this New Year of 2022, I urge you to pay attention to what is real. Observe. Listen. Pay attention.

Whether in romance, in life, in work, or in play — or in all of them — paying attention matters. And you should not ever stay with someone who doesn’t respect you as much as he respects himself.

Written by Barb Caffrey

January 1, 2022 at 6:54 am

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!

The Waukesha Parade Tragedy, Ten Days Later

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Folks, on November 21, 2021, a man who I shall not name drove his SUV into a parade route and injured over sixty people, killing six. The youngest of the six was eight; the oldest of the six was eighty-one.

There are any number of GoFundMes set up for various people who got hurt during the Waukesha Parade, but the best place to go to see a good number of them is here. I do urge you to donate, if you can.

Anyway, I’ve found the Waukesha Parade tragedy an extremely difficult thing to talk about, because some of those hit by the driver (I’ve called him a lunatic/maniac/criminal on Facebook, and that does seem to fit) were musicians who played in the Waukesha South Marching Band.

I can easily picture myself doing what those young musicians were — just playing their music, minding their own business, trying to make people happy during the holidays — and get so upset, so frustrated, and so deeply angry that anyone would want to interfere with those kids just playing their horns that it’s been all I can do not to break into tears at odd moments.

My best friend played in the Lighthouse Brigade Band (in Racine). So did my sister. So did quite a few of my high school bandmates. (I didn’t, because my first instrument was the oboe. There is no such thing as a marching oboist. I didn’t take up the sax until fifteen, and the clarinet until seventeen.) So I can easily put the people I know into that context, and think, “There but for the grace of God…”

Yet, why should we have to think this, when all we want to do is spread a little holiday cheer?

There’s another reason this all hit home, too. That’s in the nature of what happened with the Dancing Grannies, a beloved Milwaukee-area institution. You have to be a grandmother to dance with the Dancing Grannies. And one member, just fifty-two, was performing for the very first (and last) time. While another member, seventy-nine, filled in at the last minute by holding the banner (as someone had to do it).

Four people affiliated with the Dancing Grannies died. (One was one of the Dancing Grannies’ husbands.)

I know how it feels to go from wife to widow in the blink of an eye. (At least, it feels like it, at the time.) And I also know how awful it is to have to go see your spouse, in the hospital, hooked up to multitudinous machines, just praying to God/dess that you will somehow, some way, be able to hug your husband again. Hear his voice again. Hell, even hear him complain again about something…just so long as he’s there to do it, you see.

Too many people lost their spouses, suddenly, for no damned good reason.

And too many kids, just playing in the band and doing their best to uplift people’s spirits, were injured as well.

The child who died was only eight, and he played baseball. His twelve-year-old brother was apparently thrown out of the way (best I could tell from grainy video evidence), as he had road rash (which he’d most likely not have had if he’d been hit) and much lesser injuries than his younger brother.

So, I keep thinking of the last acts of the Dancing Grannies. Some of them were trying to get others out of the way, knowing full well they were going to be hurt, or killed. But doing what they could in a time of crisis to save lives was an admirable act of selflessness that I wish was being celebrated in the news.

I have a category here on my blog called “Truly Horrible Behavior.” The actions of that SUV driver qualify.

I truly wish that SUV driver had never gone onto the Waukesha parade route at all, much less hit all those people. But as my wishes don’t count for much after the fact — and before the fact, who could’ve possibly thought of something so vile? — I don’t know what to say other than this:

Keep the spirit of the holidays in your heart, despite it all.

Care for others, even if it doesn’t seem worth it.

Let those you love know it, even if it sounds silly or contrived. (The action of saying it isn’t, no matter how it sounds.)

Find a cause you care about, and donate time, or money, or whatever else you can think of to it, because life is short, and meaningful acts sometimes seem shorter still.

Remember those who lost their lives.

Remember those who were injured.

And, finally, do what you can to drive back the darkness. It’s tough. I know that. (I am fighting as hard as I can, myself.) But we must live through all this, as witnesses, and do what we can to shape a better world, one act of grace at a time.