Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Archive for the ‘Remembrance’ Category

Remembering Barbara Bush

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Former First Lady Barbara Bush died a few days ago at age 92, and her life was so extraordinary, I had to gather my thoughts for a few days in order to write about her.

First, she was an outspoken First Lady in many respects. She could be tart, was opinionated and made no bones about it, was often amusing (in a wry way), refused to be what was considered “the perfect political spouse” — and the American public adored her for all of that.

Second, as both the wife of one President and the mother of another, she stands alone among First Ladies of the United States, and probably will for a long time (if not for all time).

Third, she was a pro-choice Republican. These are rarer than hen’s teeth on the ground these days in the U.S., but once upon a time, there were any number of women (and, probably, a few men also) in the GOP who believed that women had the right to deal with their own bodies that no one else could — or should — gainsay. (Pro-choice does not mean pro-abortion, counter to what right-wing pundits may say these days. What it does mean is closer to Hillary Clinton’s view of abortion: “Safe, legal, and rare.”)

Fourth, Mrs. Bush proved that you could both be for “female causes” and still be what is considered by most a “traditional woman” — i.e., her family was at the center of her life, and she fought like tooth and nails for them. This is what feminism can and should be: the right to choose your own life, in or outside of the home.

Fifth, Mrs. Bush was a lifelong advocate for literacy. She believed you should read. Educate yourself. Learn something. And keep on learning until the end of your life.

These five things seem to me to be the most important things no one is talking about in relation to Mrs. Bush. And yet, they were the underpinnings of what she was all about. Family. Literacy. Independence. The right to choose your own fate.

Oops, almost forgot one. She was a proud grandmother, too. She enjoyed “kissing their boo-boos” (their minor injuries) and giving her love and support to them, and showed them the power of unconditional love and support.

All in all, I think we need more women like Mrs. Bush. She wasn’t always easy to handle, could be stubborn as a mule when it came to her family (and, perhaps, her causes), certainly had her moments of anger and frustration and heartache and pain — but she rose above all of it, and had a life that many would envy: one filled with love, happiness, and public service.

Those six things are what comes to mind, when I think about the long and fruitful life of Barbara Bush. What do you think about, when you think of her? Let me know in the comments!

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Mourning Ursula LeGuin

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Earlier this week, well-known science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. LeGuin died at age 88. While this was a very long and well-honored life, most of the SF&F community is in some degree of mourning due to how influential LeGuin was on the entire field of SF&F.

Most people who have read any SF&F at all are aware of her best works, which include the Earthsea Trilogy, THE LATHE OF HEAVEN, THE DISPOSSESSED, and the gender-bending THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, that deals with a planet where traditional gender roles do not apply and people can become male or female as the situation arises due to a type of estrus. But LeGuin also wrote poetry, short stories (in and out of SF&F), and any number of other things…and in some ways, she was primed from birth to become a writer.

Now, why do I say that? Well, her mother was a writer. Her father was an anthropologist. And she came from a well-read, well-educated household, with three siblings; all of them were expected from a very early age to reason and explain their reasoning to their intelligent parents, along with reading widely and being able to research nearly any subject.

All of these things — reading widely, being able to research, and being able to reason and better yet, explain your own reasoning — are important to writing. If you don’t read widely, you’re only rarely going to be able to produce anything of worth; if you can’t research new things, you can’t possibly explain them; if you can’t explain your reasoning, you can’t tell a story, because the story would ramble, meander, and perhaps wander off on tangents as it would not be properly set up in the first place.

LeGuin could and did all of those things. But her style, even from the first, was unusual. She wrote in a way that was both moving but also passive; she let the words speak precisely because of how they were stated, and let the reader interpolate a lot as to how people felt about whatever was going on in whatever story.

For example, in my favorite of all her works, THE LATHE OF HEAVEN, George Orr has a gift: He can dream true, and thus change his world through his dreams. But he doesn’t know what to do with it, and is afraid of it, so he refuses to use it.

Enter a corrupt psychiatrist, William Haber, who believes he can control Orr’s gifts. (Orr has no choice to see the man, either, as Orr was abusing drugs to keep himself from dreaming true and thus altering the world.) And over time, Orr loses nearly everything — his world, his girlfriend, even his psyche — until he realizes he must stand up to Haber once and for all.

The problem is, by this time, Haber has figured out how Orr’s managing to do what Orr’s done. And Haber’s version of a utopia is far worse than anything Orr has dreamed up, all unwittingly…so almost all of the pulse is internal, dealing with how Orr feels (which I like quite a bit), rather than external, though there is some of the latter (in particular, what will this horrible guy Haber do with the power Orr refuses to use?)

THE LATHE OF HEAVEN is the most deeply romantic novel LeGuin ever wrote. The romance between Orr and Heather Lelache (later Andrews, as in different worlds she married, or didn’t, thus changing her last name) is halting but real. Orr is enriched by his love for her, and she is given an unusual type of dignity along with the ability to realize that being soft does not make you weak by her love for him. And thus, they become better, wiser, kinder people…that is, until Haber interferes with the relationship. (Which for those who have read this, and are going, “Barb, you are misstating this,” is exactly what Haber does. Haber doesn’t like Heather at all. And he’s just as happy once Heather’s out of the picture, because Haber realizes instinctively that Heather is the main reason Orr will oppose him, due to Orr’s innate passivity.)

See, what I think LeGuin was saying is that we all deserve to find love. Whether we’re more passive than not, whether we’ve made mistakes (as both Orr and Heather have definitely done more than a little of that), whether we’ve done everything right all the time is immaterial. What matters is that we do our best, and stand up for what’s right, even when it’s difficult — and even when the best solution seems to be passive, rather than active, everything will find a way to work itself out over time if you just keep making your best effort.

That’s why I enjoyed THE LATHE OF HEAVEN so very, very much. I could see myself in Heather, for sure. I even saw a little of myself in George Orr, even though I’ve never been considered a passive sort of person…still, having gifts that you don’t always feel comfortable in using is a theme most people recognize instinctively, as we all have talents we’re sometimes afraid to use for various reasons. (Granted, not everyone wants to admit this. But it is the verimost truth.)

So if LeGuin had only written that one, very fine novel, I’d have remembered her and have mourned her craftsmanship and humanity, both of which shone through as a writer.

But as I said, she wrote many other things. And in nearly everything she ever wrote, I found value and worth…which is all you can ask of any writer, really.

And for those who want entertainment and just that in their stories, well, LeGuin could do that, too. Witness the Earthsea trilogy, TEHANU — the fourth book of Earthsea, and THE OTHER WIND, the fifth book. These are all ripping good reads, with heart and pluck and adventures, and kids of all ages enjoy them to this day.

(To clarify, TEHANU is about an older woman as she finds love, all unlooked for, with the former Archmage, Ged from the first three books. But there’s still a great deal of stuff there that younger kids will like, and the romance is certainly not a graphic one.)

So, here’s to you, Ursula LeGuin. I’m glad you lived. I’m glad you left behind excellent novels and stories and essays and poetry. And I hope your family — which includes, effectively, the vast majority of the SF&F community — will find comfort in your memory.

My Teacher and Mentor, Tim Bell, dies at 75

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Folks, it is with profound sadness that I write this blog. Just yesterday, I wrote about how Tim Bell, my teacher and mentor for many years, was going to play very difficult and challenging parts for the Racine Concert Band on one rehearsal, and that I was sure he’d do well, after our normal first-chair clarinetist could not play due to an unexpected and unfortunate event.

And Tim did just that. He was brilliant on the Surinach. He was phenomenal on the Copland. And he sounded great on the other three pieces we played, too.

Then today, Tim died of a heart attack. He was seventy-five, and he lived the way he’d wanted to live, and he played music at a high level until the very end of his life. (All of that is good, and true, and real…but I wish I hadn’t had to write them just yet.)

Plus, Tim was the type of guy who’d do anything for anyone. (I’m so upset, I nearly wrote that the other way around. Tim would’ve laughed at that and told me not to worry about it, no doubt.)

After I started playing again in 2011, I reconnected with Tim. We played in the RCB together, though he almost always played clarinet and I almost always played the alto sax. (Note that I also play clarinet and oboe, and Tim played all the saxes plus clarinet and, I believe, a bit of flute. Though he didn’t necessarily feel confident with his flute playing.) And Tim knew what I was going through, as a too-young widow with health issues, and that I’d felt I’d wasted my time and wasted my talents.

Tim told me more than once that I hadn’t failed. No matter what it looked like, I hadn’t failed. I did what I could. I got my Master’s, against long odds. I found the right man and married him, again against long odds. And that so much had gone wrong, that so much had been difficult, that it was impossible for me to play for years after Michael died as I was too sad to even look at the instruments…well, Tim told me the important thing was to keep going, and keep doing. And that I still had the skills, and he was glad I was using them to my fullest.

Even last night, Tim told me I played well. As I was playing the second parts again, and most of the time no one cares when you play the second part, I was a little surprised. But if anyone could tell when I was playing and when I wasn’t, it would be Tim…he was my teacher for almost three years after I returned to get a Bachelor’s, and after I got it, for the rest of my life he was my admired mentor and friend.

(Yes, I told Tim he played well. He did, too. He sounded great, and he covered the parts he’d learned as if he’d been playing them all along. He was uncomfortable when I told him he played well, too, just saying a gruff “Thank you” and then turning the conversation aside. That was Tim’s way.)

Tim was a music educator, played jazz and classical music, and could do anything at all as a musician that was needed. He was smart, funny, sometimes acerbic, enjoyed going to have drinks after concerts with the band (whenever I went, I was always charmed by Tim and Tim’s stories, too; he had the best ones), and was a genuinely good and caring person.

Tim was full of life, and full of music. I thought the world of him, and enjoyed learning about music and life from him. He was a phenomenal teacher, who never forgot his students and always tried to encourage them, even years after he’d last seen them.

I don’t know of any better epitaph than that.

If you knew Tim, or want to talk about other admired mentors, teachers, or good friends who’ve passed on, go ahead and leave a comment. I’ll appreciate that. (And if anyone can come up with a good way to help Tim’s name and talents live on with the next generation of Southeastern Wisconsin’s musicians, I’d appreciate hearing that, too. Something has to be done.)

Written by Barb Caffrey

October 18, 2017 at 7:09 pm

Blogging and Life

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Some days, it’s easier to write than others. But lately, writing has been like pulling teeth.

Why am I starting out with this? Simple. I haven’t blogged much in a few weeks, and I’ve had questions as to why. Long-time readers probably know the answer, but I’m willing to give it again…it’s the time of year that’s getting me down.

Around this time thirteen years ago, my husband Michael was alive. Writing. Reading and editing my writing. Making me laugh. Letting me make him laugh. Cooking. Walking the neighborhood. Complaining about politics, and listening to my complaints about politics, too.

In short, living his life. And enjoying it, and our marriage, immensely.

Then came that awful day, the day that changed everything. The day he had four heart attacks without warning, which he couldn’t survive.

The day I became a (way too young) widow.

I can’t pretend that I like this time of year. And I won’t.

What I will say, as I said in last week’s blog about changing perspectives, is that I’m trying to look at it a different way. At long last, I am trying to see my husband’s life right now, rather than see the “period at the end of the sentence,” otherwise known as his death.

Yeah, at other times of the year, I see Michael’s life quite well. And it comforts me. It gives me hope, because I was fully understood and appreciated and admired, all for being myself. And boy, oh boy, was I loved…

(Embarrassed grin.)

Anyway. The fact of the matter is, I just hurt at this time of year. And because I hurt, my creativity is slowed. I find it hard to play my instruments, hard to write fiction, a little more difficult to edit (depending on the project), and just, in general, find life to be more of a drag.

That this year is going to be more like 2004 than not — in that it’ll be too hot, and too humid, for late September — is not helping.

Still, if I think about my husband’s life, and about how much he loved me, it helps. A lot.

I know Michael would like it if I could find more joy, more happiness, or at least more peace. And God/dess, am I trying.

As to why I’m blogging about something so personal?

Well, there may be some widow out there hurting just as much as I am. Maybe she’s wondering what the point is. Or wondering how on Earth she can keep going, keep striving, keep working toward a future she can no longer see, when the love of her life is dead.

I think there is a reason, but I don’t have a way to articulate it very well.

The best I can say is that because I was loved so well, I want to do right. I want to help others, in whatever way I can, and I want to keep going. Because that’s what my husband would want.

And I’m trying, so hard, to find a way to want it, too. Despite the time of year.

Because if I can keep trying, maybe I might eventually find love again. (Hey, it could happen. That I even want it to happen, after thirteen years, is miraculous enough. And no, you may not say “it’s about time.”)

I kind of think Michael would like that.

Written by Barb Caffrey

September 19, 2017 at 7:33 pm

Anniversary Musings: Value for Value Received

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Folks, I wracked my brains today to try to figure out something new to say about my beloved late husband Michael B. Caffrey.

Why?

Because today is my wedding anniversary, that’s why. Fifteen years ago today, Michael and I married. It was the right decision, and it was perhaps the most important one of my entire life.

I’ve told you many things about Michael, but I’m not sure I have discussed some very important things that Michael stood for. Therefore, I’m going to rectify that now, and hope that wherever Michael is in the cosmos, he’ll smile at the recollection.

Anyway, Michael was ethical, principled, fair-minded, and believed firmly in the phrase I put in the title: value for value received. He believed people should be rewarded for good work, whether they were a ditch digger or a countess; he believed that too many people forgot that we were all alike, deep down, and that no one person, no matter how highly born he or she might be, was above anyone else. Or should be.

Michael and I often talked about politics, and perhaps I should share a bit about that, too. He often lamented that politicians forgot about “value for value received,” and started getting above themselves. Started thinking they were better than everyone else, because they had powerful positions, and powerful friends, and could amass great wealth while in office.

As a non-materialist Zen Buddhist, Michael abhorred the belief that only the powerful, well-connected socialites were worthy. He believed very strongly that if we were to believe in individualism, we had to give the resources (including health care, education, and in some cases job training) so people who weren’t born wealthy could make their ways in the world, find their passions, and work on the pursuit of happiness as they saw fit.

See, the whole idea of value for value received permeates everything. If you believe in bettering yourself, you should want to find a way toward a better education, learn new skills, or at minimum read as much as you can, as widely as you can.

In other words, you have to invest in yourself. You can’t give yourself the value you deserve if you don’t.

Another thing Michael was very concerned about was what he considered a dearth of compassion. Too many people, he felt, were not willing to look outside of themselves — while politicians were perhaps the easiest to poke fun at (and definitely to criticize), he was far more worried about the average person.

Why?

Well, Michael felt too many people refused to use their heads except for hat-racks. And because they abrogated their responsibilities to think and reason for themselves, they perhaps forgot about “value for value received,” and plodded along in life rather than make any strides in learning, creativity, or in their chosen profession.

Granted, there are many people who run into difficulty while trying to make strides. (I am one of them.) Life is often unfair, which is why Michael believed in the social safety net.

Michael was compassionate, fair-minded, smart as a whip and believed that if life was to be worth living, we had to struggle with all our might, soul, and skill. Only by doing that could we attain “value for value received.”

While Michael hasn’t walked this Earth now for nearly thirteen years, I still think he was onto something.

Written by Barb Caffrey

June 24, 2017 at 5:28 pm

Missed Connections

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Folks, earlier tonight I heard from a friend that another of our circle had died. I felt terrible about this for many reasons, and I still do — but much of why I feel so awful may surprise you.

See, I think in some ways I dropped the ball with this individual. She was a bright, funny, caring woman, and I liked talking to her when I saw her online, but for a long time, I wasn’t completely able to reach out or let anyone else reach in.

After my husband Michael died, it took years to get to the point where I could again have reasonably normal friendships where grief didn’t completely overwhelm me (and my friend). And while I knew this woman a little bit before Michael died, I actually got to know her better afterward…when I wasn’t exactly at my best.

Now, I feel like I missed a connection somewhere with regards to this woman.

See, she tried — and several times, if my memory is not mistaken — to reach out to me after Michael died. This wasn’t an easy thing to do considering the depths of my grief, but I was in no shape to be able to appreciate her efforts.

Then, as I got more accustomed to widowhood, I was still withdrawn in many ways. Because of that, I never told her that I did appreciate her efforts. That they did mean something to me, and that partially because of her, I did keep trying and did eventually find a way out of my grief long enough to realize that I still had something worthwhile left to share with others.

This particular lady was someone that I think I could’ve really had a solid and strong friendship with, rather than be on the fringes of each other’s lives, had I been less withdrawn due to grief.

But it didn’t happen, partly because of circumstances…and partly because when she made her overtures of friendship, I wasn’t ready to receive them.

When I was ready, time got away from me. I never circled around and told her I appreciated that she’d tried to reach me, and that she did her best to support me emotionally at a difficult time.

Worse yet, when she needed help (she’d started a GoFundMe appeal recently), I wasn’t aware of it so I couldn’t help. She’d made it public, but I hadn’t gone to look at her Facebook page in a while, and the algorithms Facebook employs didn’t put her posts front and center on my feed…so I flat missed it.

Granted, I didn’t miss it out of malice aforethought. But I did miss it, and the help I could’ve provided wasn’t forthcoming.

All because of missed connections.

Because I’m now mourning her loss, I would like to tell you all something.

Do your best to tell those who help you that you appreciate what they’re doing. Even if it’s hard; even if you’re afraid it’ll sound wrong; even if you don’t really know how to tell them. Do your best, and let them know that you care.

Don’t assume that you’ll have tomorrow to do it, either. Because time has a funny way of getting away from you. And then, you’ll think, “Oh, that was years ago, she won’t care, and anyway, she’s got different people to talk with now…what difference would it make if I told her I appreciated things back then, anyway?”

Maybe it wouldn’t have. But maybe it would. And if it would’ve, who knows what sort of deep friendship might’ve occurred?

Now, all I can do is ask that you tell those you care about that you care about them today. Don’t wait.

And if you want to thank someone for something they did years ago that meant something to you, do it. Even if they don’t remember, or if it wasn’t a big deal to them, do it anyway — because it matters, and it’s good that you know it.

As for my friend, I hope she is being feted in the afterlife by all her friends and loved ones who passed before her. She was a lively, well-read woman with talent and wit and integrity, so I’m sure there are many on the Other Side waiting to greet her. (Probably including my husband, for all I know. It’s the type of thing Michael would’ve enjoyed doing, so I’d like to picture him there.)

Still, as I mourn her loss, I also mourn the loss of possibility. And wish very much that I could go back, just a few days, even, and tell her that I really did appreciate her.

But now, it’s too late.

And I hate that.

Written by Barb Caffrey

June 15, 2017 at 1:44 am

Singer Chris Cornell Dies at 52

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Folks, yesterday I read the stunning news that singer Chris Cornell, frontman for Soundgarden and Audioslave and Temple of the Dog, had died at age 52. Cause of death: suicide by hanging.

I’ve read a great deal about Mr. Cornell’s passing since then. It appears that he was taking Ativan (generic name: Lorazepam), an anti-anxiety medication, and he admitted to his wife by phone shortly before his death that he may have taken a few too many.

I am familiar with Lorazepam. It is a central nervous system depressant. It works to calm an anxiety attack, and is a very good medicine…but taking too many can lead to despair and suicidal thoughts precisely because it depresses the central nervous system. (That is its function.)

I’m also familiar with playing concerts; I’ve been a musician since age 10 or so, and while I never did much singing, I am familiar with some of the things that tend to happen after concerts. So please, bear with me, as I try to discuss some of them.

(Note before I do, I do not know the circumstances beyond Mr. Cornell’s death any more than anyone else does via various published reports. All of this is speculation, and I can’t be certain I’m right. I say this as a disclaimer; everyone here should know I’m not a medical professional.)

First, when you don’t play well, it eats you up inside if you’re conscientious and care about music.

This does seem to apply to Mr. Cornell, because audience members at his last concert said he wasn’t at his best. And his wife said he was slurring his words (this according to a published report at Huffington Post) in their final conversation…all of this tells me, as a musician, that Mr. Cornell was anxious before his concert, so he took some Ativan as prescribed.

And to my mind, this makes sense. I have taken anti-anxiety meds before a big concert where I’ve had solos I’ve worried about. And I’m not a multi-million dollar artist, known for at least twenty-five years as a big-name act.

See, we all want to play or sing well, and do our level best.

In my case, I took the lowest possible dose, and refused to take any more despite still feeling nervous. I had a reason for this; my grandmother used to take this medicine, and I knew how it affected her. So I didn’t take any additional meds; I just waited it out, played my concert, and did my best.

I think taking the medicine at the very low dose prescribed was useful.

But if you don’t have someone in your background who’s taken that medicine, maybe you might think differently than I did. Maybe you might take an extra one. Or two.

And if you don’t realize that it’s a central nervous system depressant, or you don’t realize exactly how much it’s going to affect you after you hit one of these “performance lows” you can sometimes get…well, my best guess is that these two things combined to cause Mr. Cornell’s passing.

From published reports, it sounds like his family wants a toxicology test done to see exactly how much Lorazepam Mr. Cornell had in his system. That makes sense to me; I’d want to know it myself, in their place.

I hope they also are aware of the whole idea of performance highs and lows. Most musicians are, whether they talk about it much or not.

I’ve known about it since at least my mid-teens; sometimes after concerts, where I feel I’ve exceeded expectations (and my own are pretty high), I’ll feel extremely happy, and it takes hours to “come down” from that feeling. But the reverse is also true; if I finish a concert and think I’ve played much worse than expected, I’ll feel extremely awful. And it takes hours to regain my equilibrium.

That leads to a story…

Last year, in the summer concert season with the Racine Concert Band, I felt awful. It was hot, it was humid, my hands were aching and sore, and I felt ten steps behind the rest of the band. I nearly had an asthma attack on stage if I remember right, and I did not play well at all.

Hours later, I was still ruminating over this concert. I was wondering if I just shouldn’t play my saxophone any more. (Was this an overreaction? Sure. But I’m trying to explain how badly I felt in that moment.) I thought, for a brief time, that maybe I was just getting older, and there was nothing I could do to improve my performance.

It took a few hours of a friend talking to me to realize I was overreacting. (I’d usually call it “being silly,” but in this context, I don’t quite want to do that, because I don’t want any fans of Chris Cornell to think I’m saying he was being that way. He wasn’t.)

And I did reach out. I did say to my friend, “Hey, I had a bad concert and I’m feeling terrible.” And my friend patiently talked me through it…staying up until two a.m., even, to make sure I was going to be OK, before he and I stopped talking.

Not everyone can admit to that. Not everyone wants to…they think of it as a personal failing they need to hide. Or maybe they just don’t realize that this feeling of playing or singing badly is going to go away. There will be other, better concerts; there will be other, better days.

But when you are in the downward spiral, it’s really hard to get out of that. You start to think that your whole life has been a waste, that your musical talent and training is a waste, that you don’t have any reason for being, etc.

I am not saying that I know what happened to Mr. Cornell that night, mind you. I can’t say that.

I’m just saying what happened to me that night.

And I’ll tell you what; if I had had some anti-anxiety meds that night, I might’ve been tempted to take too many. I was in a terrible state. I didn’t want anyone to see me like that, or hear me, or realize I was in that rough of shape.

But I was. And for some reason, I was able to reach out.

My friend, whether he knows or not, may have saved my life that night. (Or at least my sanity.)

As for Chris Cornell…all I can tell you is that I wish he were still alive, still singing, and could still tell his family that he loves them.

I will miss Chris Cornell. I never knew him personally, but his songs, his musicianship, and the emotion that came through every time he sang spoke to me.

I hope wherever his soul is now, he is at peace and feels the outpouring of love and sympathy for himself and his family that has occurred since his tragic death.

And I hope his family will also feel that comfort. It isn’t enough — it will never make up for Mr. Cornell’s absence — but it may help them realize that they don’t grieve alone. (Though they will grieve harder, and longer…as a widow, I know that full well.)

Written by Barb Caffrey

May 19, 2017 at 2:41 pm