Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Archive for the ‘Prescient observations’ Category

That Irreplaceable Someone…

leave a comment »

As it’s Sunday, I wanted to talk about something vaguely inspirational. Enjoy!

We are told, as we grow up, that we need to be that irreplaceable person. Be the best. Be the brightest. Be the only one who can do everything that’s required.

What we aren’t told is that not everyone can be the best. Or the brightest. Or be the only one that can do everything, either.

However, what we’re told isn’t wrong, exactly. Because we can only be ourselves. And if we are our best self — well, then, that is something no one else on the face of this Earth can be.

And that is, indeed, attainable.

I write this as I’m about to play a concert this evening with the Racine Concert Band. Tonight, I’m playing alto saxophone. Next week, I’ll be playing clarinet. (And, possibly also, alto saxophone.) And when I play a part on one instrument, someone else has to cover the part I’d usually play. And while they can and will cover the part, they can’t and won’t do it the same way I can.

(This sounds obvious, but hear me out, OK?)

The other person will get things right I won’t. The other person will miss things I would’ve gotten right. Or, maybe, we’d both play it note-perfect all night long, but have different nuances to add — or not — to the equation.

But what’s important is, that other person is playing the part the best way he can. Doing his best, making his best effort, trying his hardest, all that.

While of course I’m doing the same wherever I am, as nothing less will do.

Tonight in the band concert, we’re playing a piece called “Jubilation Overture” by Robert Ward. This is one of our conductor Mark Eichner’s favorite pieces (it should be, too; it’s really a fun piece), and so that means I’ve played it before. The last time I played it, in fact, I played the solo clarinet part — which means tonight on alto, I have to remember other people are playing that, and I have to concentrate on my own part instead, thank you. (Otherwise, my fingering and embouchure will be off, to say the least.)

And, this week, my section leader and stand-partner, Vivian, is off on vacation. While I’m covering her parts for her, I can’t do anything the same way she would — just as she can’t do anything the same way I would.

But do I miss her playing? You bet I do. And do I miss her being there, steady as a rock, on nights I quite frankly don’t feel well? Absolutely.

She is irreplaceable, you see. (And yes, so am I. But that’s not the point.)

We as human beings need to concentrate on what we can. Not worry so much about what other people can do. Just what we can do. And do it to the level best of our abilities, and keep doing it, as long as we possibly can.

That’s what our parents and teachers and others meant, when they told us to be our best selves. And it’s something we can continue to work on, all the days of our lives.

Dealing with the Internet Age

with 6 comments

Folks, I have been thinking hard about a story I’m trying to write — and am stalled at doing, of course — so all sorts of other things have come into my mind.

For example, in the 1930s during the Great Depression, comedies — the wilder, the better — were all in vogue. Yet now, in 2019, after what some call the Great Recession of 2008 (that hasn’t fully recovered in some areas, at least not to pre-Recession levels), what’s in vogue? Depressing stories — such as The Walking Dead. Or George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” epic (AKA HBO’s Game of Thrones).

That doesn’t mean comedies can’t still find their way, mind you. But the comedies that have succeeded, such as Bridesmaids or the various instances of The Hangover (last I knew, it was up to part three), all have a darker edge to them than the ones did in the 1930s.

I hate to think that the 1930s were a simpler time, because that can’t be true. They’d endured what was then called the Great War — what we call World War I — and so many men died there, at least half a generation of men were wiped out. (Note that I say “men” because very few women fought in those days, and even those serving in hospitals and as ambulance drivers tended to be as far away from the fighting as humanly possible. Not that this was all that much all the time, of course — but it was the principle of the thing.)

But the 1930s didn’t have today’s instantaneous communication, either. While they certainly had telephones, and they had telegraphs as well (kids, think about text messaging, and then think about it going over telephone-type wires…while this is imprecise, that’s more or less what telegraphy was meant to be), they lacked 24/7 news coverage. Or the ability to wake up and know what was going on, say, in Bangladesh, even if you were asking from your living room in San Francisco, California.

I’ve read a few stories recently that make me wonder if the world at large knowing so many things at such a shallow level is actually good. Many people, just run-of-the-mill folks, feel either isolated or inundated, and don’t know what to do with themselves.

Moderation is meaningless unless it’s taught. And no one’s taught anyone online how to be moderate whatsoever.

Thus Tweetstorms. Thus random comments from 2013 (or whatever) coming back to bite people…

And that’s why some folks think it’s OK to gang up on others online, because there’s this ideal out there that you’re supposed to be perfect 24/7. And if you can’t be the pattern card of propriety (as the Regency Era would put it), you aren’t worth anything at all.

This era of ours, the Internet Age, sometimes lacks humanity. It also lacks soul. And the reason for both of these problems is very simple: there are too many people who seem to have forgotten to show compassion, or maybe to even feel it.

I don’t know what the answers are to fix these dilemmas. But I do know what you can do to try to moderate yourself as best you can amidst the screaming and the shouting and the horrors often seen.

(Make no mistake, there are plenty of horrors out there. And they should be dealt with. But dwelling on them all the time does not do any good. Back to the post.)

My simple, five-point strategy is this:

  1. Read widely, but take breaks. This means you should question yourself and your assumptions, but you also should take a day off here and there from all of this questioning and assume the world is going to keep spinning.
  2. Practice compassion toward others, even when it’s hard. Try to find someone else’s point of view if at all possible, and if you can’t, ask the other person — the one you don’t understand — to explain himself/herself/themself.
  3. Remember that every day is a new day. And that you do not have to carry yesterday’s mistakes with you forever.
  4. Do what you can to help, or at least not hinder.
  5. And finally, try to find fun amidst all the meaning in your life. Because life is very short, and sometimes the end sneaks up on you in a big hurry.

If you can do all these things, you will be able to shut out some of the yelling, the screaming, the argumentation for the sake of argumentation…and thus be able to live a better and more fulfilling life.

What do you do to find balance in your life during the Internet Age? Tell me about it in the comments!

Book Recommendation: Leo Champion’s “Warlord of NYC”

with 12 comments

Folks, I’ve been meaning to write this blog for several weeks. I knew about Leo Champion’s book WARLORD OF NEW YORK CITY for quite some time, mostly because I was one of his beta-readers and proofread the final version. But the time never seemed right to talk about Leo’s book.

Now, the time is right. The word is given. (Abandon all hope, ye who enter here? /snark)

Leo's WarlordFirst, let me show you the book’s blurb:

In the twenty-second century, global civilization has moved into networks of arcology-skyscrapers that tower hundreds of stories above streets abandoned to anarchy. Inside the arkscrapers, a neo-Puritan cult of social justice rules absolutely; on the streets, feral gangs raid between feuding industrial tenements.

Diana Angela is a hereditary executive in the bureaucracy that runs the world, with a secret life as an assassin on the streets. A burned-out idealist, she’s long ago given up on trying to change the world – the best intentions of the past have only led to greater misery.

And she has no reason to think precinct boss Jeff Hammer’s intentions are even good. A former mercenary who may be a military genius, Hammer’s narrowly taken control of a small tenement. Now he’s facing vengeful exiles, aggressive neighbors, and uncertain internal politics.

Which might be the least of his problems now that he’s drawn the attention of one of the city’s most dangerous women…

And now, my comments.

Diana Angela, also known as DA, is a badass. There’s no question about it. She is tough, smart, strong, somewhat of a chameleon as her society requires it (she lives in the arkscrapers, and is a part of the Intendancy, an extremely corrupt yet also extremely politically correct society). She hates what she’s forced to do in her day job, and has worked all her life to do some good on the streets of New York City as an assassin.

(Yes, an assassin. And she’s damned good at it, too. But I’m digressing, and I shouldn’t.)

DA is a fully actualized woman. She cares about people and has compassion, but it comes out in very unusual ways. She also loves sex — why not? — and her society, with its beliefs that you have to do this (and “this” changes weekly, it seems) and you can’t do that (with “that” also changing weekly), makes it hard to enjoy it. (That you have to get permission for every sex act from the worst of the toadies she deals with — “Can I touch you here? Can I touch you here?” — drives her crazy. And it should.)

The fact that sex, itself, has become so far away from what it can be in taking you out of yourself for a moment and losing yourself in someone else is a huge symptom of what is wrong with the Intendancy.

Simply put, the Intendancy has got to go. But they have enormous power, and DA can only do so much topside in the arks.

She can do a great deal more on the streets, and she does. I do warn you, some of what she does is bloody and there’s a whole lot of violence. She kills people who “need killing,” and for the most part you’ll agree with her once you realize what these people have done — though in the moment, you may think, “Why be so happy about killing them?”

Diana is not a sociopath, though. She’s more of a frustrated idealist with a set of skills — judo, aikido, various other martial arts, swordsmanship, archery, guns — that allows her to live with the terrible things she has to put up with in the arks by balancing it with her vigilantism below.

But then, she realizes there’s a new player on the streets of NYC. A guy named Jeff Hammer (from Leo’s first book in the series, STREETS OF NEW YORK CITY) has overthrown the corrupt regime in his own tenement, and has started a new one. He’s an ex-flyboy (and flying, in his world, means using something akin to a bike with wings; I am not doing this concept any justice, and I apologize for that), he’s smart as a whip, and he knows things have been off for a very long time. And he’s going to do something about it…

DA goes to look in on Hammer, and can’t decide if he’s a criminal, a madman, or worse. That the last time someone like Hammer arose caused a bloodbath that DA, herself, was a part of, makes it even tougher for her.

So, will she decide to help Hammer? Or won’t she? And if she does, will NYC ever be the same?

Thus ends my plot summary, hoping I didn’t spoil it too much for you.

I still have one more comment, though: Leo’s book is damned good. Really, really good. It reminds me in some ways of Lois McMaster Bujold, even, though it’s far bloodier and DA’s overt sexuality is not something LMB would ever cotton to. I think the reason it does remind me of LMB, though, is because of the assuredness of the writing on the one hand and the capability of the female protagonist on the other. DA knows who she is, what she wants, and knows exactly how to get it…so don’t get in her way, as the only person she needs to fear is herself. (In that way, she reminds me a little of Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, or better yet of Elli Quinn or even Sergeant Taura. And if you don’t know who I’m talking about, go read every book LMB has ever put out, then come back, will you?)

In other words, you need to read this book, even if you’re normally squeamish regarding violence (as I am). It is funny. It skewers with manic glee many stereotypes regarding how “wonderful” a politically correct civilization would be if given its head. It has some interesting things to say about sex, power, and money. And the way DA is, herself, matters greatly…as does the way Jeff Hammer tries to change things for the better.

WARLORD OF NYC will make you think. And will make you root for DA, even when she’s at her most obnoxious…and wonder how on Earth she’s going to deal with Jeff Hammer when she can’t always see the forest for the trees.

It is, by far, the best thing Leo Champion has written yet. And he needs to be encouraged to write more in this vein. (Who knows what’ll happen next? I want to find out!)

Again, the Amazon link is here for WARLORD OF NEW YORK CITY. It is available on Kindle Unlimited. (Unfortunately, at this time, it’s not available at Barnes and Noble or anywhere else.) Or you can buy it outright for $3.99 (again, only at Amazon).

The Transformative Power of Writing

leave a comment »

Writing is one of those activities that can transform you, if you let it.

How? Well, it’s simple. You have to throw enough of yourself into your writing to inform each character, at least enough so they’ll feel real. And in so doing, you can make more of your memories, or your abilities, or your hopes/dreams/fears, by working them out to their natural conclusions.

(Or, as I write a lot of fantasy and we all know it, their unnatural conclusions. But I digress.)

Giving yourself the permission to explore sides of yourself you’d rather not — such as when you write villains — helps you to harmlessly bleed off your worst impulses, and transforms that into something more. Something better.

Or at least something different.

Writing, as a transformative ability, is something writers almost take for granted. I can almost hear some of you going, “But Barb, really! Here we are, writing our stories, doing what we need to make our stories sing…why do we need to think about it as a transformative ability, anyway? What’s the point of that?”

Well, you don’t have to think of it as transformative, if you don’t like. But that doesn’t make it any less the case.

Every single thing we do as writers is intended to create something. Or transform something. Or inform something. Or maybe educate you, along with your enjoyment of same…no matter what book or story you might be reading (and no matter how awful it may be in the moment), there’s something you can take out of nearly every piece of writing. (Yes, even the dullest Puritanical “erotica” out there, that was Bowdlerized before Bowdler even came onto the scene.) Even if it’s just what you know you definitely don’t want to do, you learn something from everything you read — whether you realize it or not.

Some folks refuse to throw out anything they’ve ever read, no matter how boring or mundane or stupid or pointless. I’m not necessarily saying you need to go that far, because I think it’s more important you learn whatever it is from stuff you can’t stand as quickly as possible (thus keeping you from having to go back and read it ever again). But whether it’s mores, culture, language, description, dialogue, or all of the above, there’s something in just about everything to appreciate — even if you decidedly don’t like it.

ALTERNATIES, by Michael P. Kube-McDowell, is one such book. It’s well-drawn, the different alternate realities stark and compelling, and the characterization is professional. But the protagonists are, to a person, unlikable. There are some things done in this book, such as torturing of sex slaves, that turned my stomach so much that I would never read the book again even though it is very good.

What I took from reading this book at the time was, “Sex sells. And dysfunctional, sadistic sex sells even more.”  But now, with the perspective of an author with three novels and any number of shorter works under my belt, I look at it a little differently. I think what Kube-McDowell was doing was masterful, in its way — but I don’t have to like it, and I don’t.

So, appreciate the craftsmanship, yes. Appreciate the time and effort and hard work, yes. (Respect the hustle, as Jason Cordova would say.) But don’t get lost in the depravity of it all, or the enervating sense of despair…because while that is in its way transformative, that isn’t at all what most people would like to be transformed into, if you get my drift.

And in your own work, look for ways to find hope, if you can. Even the worst situation may have one hint of hope; for example, all those French resistance folks trying hard during the occupation of France (Vichy France) in World War II had to deal with many stark and terrible realities. But they had hope nevertheless; they could believe their hard work would make a difference, no matter what it looked like, and no matter how long it took.

Ultimately, they were right.

So when you write a book with a lot of stuff that’s depressing or enervating or hopeless, try to find at least a few moments of comedy or light to balance it out. When you’re able to do that, that’s when a book really sings.

And if you’re writing something lighter (as I tend to do), finding moments of darkness to set off the light also works. (It’s all in the contrast, ultimately.)

So, how do you feel about the transformative power of writing? Tell me about it in the comments!

 

 

Sunday Thoughts: Be a Better Person (Starting Today)

with 9 comments

Former President Jimmy Carter is the inspiration for this blog post. Enjoy!

Have you ever felt like wishing that you could just start over? That you messed up something so bad, so vital to your well-being, and you have no way in the world to fix it?

We all have done things we’re not proud of, as there are very few saints walking the face of this Earth. (At least, saints the quality of Mother Teresa, or Father Damien the Leper-Priest.) So I’m guessing that at least a few of you know what I mean.

You’ve had a bad day. Or a bad succession of days. And you wonder what you can possibly do to redeem yourself. Or at least do better than you’ve been doing.

Jimmy Carter has the answer, and it’s surprisingly simple. Decide to be a better person. Starting today.

See, the first thing you have to do, if you feel like you’ve messed up in an irredeemable way, is to tell yourself, “No more. I will do better. I will be better.”

Then, of course, you have to do the work. You have to figure out what type of person you want to be. And do everything in your power to work toward what you see as your best self — a more generous person, perhaps. Or a wiser one. Or maybe even one that’s more self-forgiving…ahem.

But you first have to make up your mind that you are going to change for the better. And that you’ve had enough of the status quo, whatever it is that’s plaguing you; that, too, you have to decide to get past, because otherwise, you’re going to fall into the same old traps.

That said, every day is a new day. If you screwed up badly yesterday, today is a clean slate. You can still make it a worthwhile day full of laughter and love, or creativity and inspiration (or better yet, all of the above). You, too, can make a better life for yourself, brick by brick, resolution by resolution.

You do not have to be held back by your fears, or by your past mistakes. Not if you don’t wish to be.

No, you can’t change the past. But you can learn from it. And you can grow, and change, and deepen, and make yourself more interesting and empathetic and kinder if you truly wish.

So, what do you want to do? Stay in the same ever-changing rut? Or learn from your failures, and make a clean, fresh start?

Yes. You can be a better person. Believe in yourself, give yourself a chance, and go forward rather than reliving the past.

You can still change the future, if you act today. But ultimately, it is all up to you.

Written by Barb Caffrey

May 26, 2019 at 4:43 am

The Transformative Power of Music

with 4 comments

Folks, this is the first in a three-part series. All will start with “The Transformative Power of…”, so you have been warned if this isn’t your thing. (Though why it wouldn’t be, I haven’t any idea whatsoever.)

Music can transform your life, if you let it.

What do I mean by this? (I can practically hear a few of you thinking, “Barb, you have gone off your rocker with this one. What gives?”) It’s simple: music can actually heal you. Or at least improve your mood while giving shape to your feelings, which is nearly as good.

Who hasn’t felt better after singing in the shower? Who hasn’t felt better after singing along to their favorite songs in the car?

For me, playing music takes that feeling and amps it up to eleven. (H/t if you got the Spinal Tap reference, there.) And being able to play music in a group, whether it’s a concert band, a jazz band, a small group, or just by myself, is one of the best feelings there is when it’s going right.

But as this post is titled “the transformative power of music,” I suppose I should get down to brass tacks.

After my husband Michael died in 2004, I didn’t want to do anything. My grief was so profound, it took me at least five years to process, and another few after that to realize I still had a life to live — and what was I going to do about it? All that time, my health worsened, my hands especially, and when I decided I wanted to play my instruments again (sax, clarinet, and oboe), I was barely able to do it due to my hands aching so much.

And it wasn’t just trying to play my instruments that made me frustrated. I was to the point with my hands that driving in the car was painful. I could only use one hand a few minutes at a time, and then switch off to the other. It was just that bad.

Fortunately, I went through a few rounds of occupational therapy, which helped a great deal. The pain lessened, I gained range of motion again, and I learned how to properly stretch the areas. And ever since, when my hands have started approaching that state again, I’ve asked for — and received — another date with the occupational therapist, and gone through more therapy as required.

Mind, I’d have never gone through with any of that if I hadn’t wanted to play my instruments again. But I did. And that allowed me to make a positive decision in the depths of my grief to do something positive, meaningful, and healthy.

Anyway, in September of 2011, I asked to play in the UW-Parkside Community Band again. (I’d been a member before I left the area for graduate school, back in the day.) One of my professors from Parkside, Mark Eichner, was still conducting it, and he told me when rehearsals were for the December concert. So I rejoined it in late October, played the next concert, and voila! I was a performing musician again.

(For the record, my first concert back was on alto sax, and I played a lengthy solo on a piece called “Roma.”)

Soon after, I rejoined the Racine Concert Band in 2012, again on alto sax. (I’d been a member of this in high school and again in college, and only stopped when I moved away to attend graduate school in Nebraska.) Ever since, I’ve played many concerts with them. Most have been on alto, but a few have been on clarinet.

And last week, on Saturday, I played clarinet — first chair, de facto concert master/mistress — with the UW-Parkside 50th anniversary alumni band. That was an exceptionally challenging concert, as we had only one rehearsal beforehand and the parts were very tough. But I was there early, practiced my parts, and was as prepared as I could be.

It paid off. The concert went well. And I had a few folks come up to me afterward, praising what I did (nice, when you can get it), along with asking why I wear a neckstrap to play the clarinet as few clarinetists do. (It helps keep the weight off my hands, and allows me to play for a longer period of time with a whole lot less pain.)

Why am I going into all this detail? Mostly to explain what playing music has done for me. It has given me my confidence back. It has reminded me I can still do something, something positive, something very few other people can do.  It has rewarded my perseverance and search for excellence…it has allowed me to give the gift of music to others in performance, also.

All in all, music has transformed my life.

You don’t have to be a musician to allow music to transform yours, though. Just listen to whatever you want. If you are hurting, let the pain out. If you are healing, allow yourself to feel safe and comforted. And if you just want to hear music for the sake of music, good for you: that’s the best listening experience of all.

What do you think of this blog? Tell me about it in the comments!

Computer Woes: Stuff I Learned While The Computer Was Down

with 10 comments

As the title says…here we go.

  1. I am very impatient. Waiting to get my computer fixed seemed like forever, rather than nearly eight days.
  2. I was more stuck in ruts than I’d previously thought.
  3. Trying to type on a phone — even on a smartphone — is much harder than I’d thought, and it’s not just because of my quasi-carpal tunnel syndrome.
  4. Following from #3, I figured out I owed a friend an apology from a while back. He and I got into it because I was being very chatty, and on a good day — and with a good computer, complete with a proper keyboard and my hands cooperating, I can type nearly 80 words per minute. He could not follow me on his phone, and said so. (He later admitted he wasn’t particularly nice about it and did apologize.) At the time, I didn’t understand this…but boy, do I ever, now.
  5. Following from #4…yes, I did apologize. Because it’s better to apologize late than never. And it’s a lot better to know, in and of yourself, that you tried to do the right thing, albeit late, and albeit when the other person may not even care anymore…because it was important once, and I muffed it. It’s a statement that I won’t do it wrong–at least not intentionally, anyway–again. (Of course, that leaves all the other stuff that I haven’t run across yet as potential things to do wrong. But I could do ’em right, too…moving on.)
  6. Tablets are damned hard to use.
  7. I don’t enjoy texting. Not on a flip phone, not on a smart phone, not at all. (“I do not like this, Sam I am.” — Dr. Seuss.)
  8. That said, texting my best friends when the computer is down beats staying out of contact all to Hell.
  9. And using a tablet is better than using a phone of any sort to stay in contact.
  10. Sometimes, life doesn’t go as planned, at all. And while I’ve known that for a damned long time, it bears repeating. (Like a clue-by-four upside the head.)
  11. I have a hard time reframing a bad situation, something I truly can’t stand, into anything remotely resembling a good one. I did try. I told myself over and over that I had more time to read. (I read all sorts of stuff, too. Found a couple of good new authors — new to me, anyway. One of ’em is Kate Stradling. Really am enjoying her work.) I told myself, over and over again, that I was still thinking about my stories — which I was — and that there have been times I’ve not been able to write for seven or eight days before, and I didn’t panic, so what’s the big deal?
  12. Enter panic. (Ding, ding, ding!)
  13. Getting my computer back was useful. I’m still not back up to speed. But I have friends to help. And I’m grateful for that.
  14. I have to believe, despite it all, that there are better days ahead. We all have trials and tribulations. That this affected my livelihood for a week-plus in addition to my communication and my mode of living wasn’t good. (To put it mildly, but I digress.) But several of my friends made a point of calling or texting daily. They were concerned. And they made absolutely sure I knew they were concerned. (Bless them forever for this.)
  15. My family was also very good through this crisis. (It wasn’t just this I was dealing with. This is just what I’m willing to talk about. Further writer sayeth not.)
  16. “Sufficient unto the day are the needs thereof.” (Intentional Biblical misquote by my husband, Michael.) I have to meditate more on this one, I guess.
  17. Buddhists point out that you don’t have to enjoy your circumstances. You just have to accept them.
  18. But yes, when you get an ounce of joy, wring it out to the fullest! (I intend to do so, just as soon as I get some sleep. I’m going to write, and edit, and write some more…)

What do you think of this stream-of-consciousness blog? And what have you, yourself, learned when you have not been able to be online for a significant amount of time due to a computer failure, power outage, or any other reason? Tell me about it in the comments!

Written by Barb Caffrey

April 25, 2019 at 12:53 am