Communion Of Dreams


Machado-Joseph Disease: Who am I?

For about 30 years, I’ve been a conservator of rare books & documents.

That came to an end yesterday when I met with my last institutional client and explained that I need to retire officially as a practicing conservator. Since they follow my blog posts and social media presence, this did not come as a surprise.

As I was driving home from the meeting, I was working through a fairly predictable mix of emotions. Guilt, because I know that this means that important works in their collection won’t get the treatment they need anytime soon. Relief, because now I won’t worry about accidentally damaging some important/valuable book or document. Loss, because my career was now over. Pride, because I know that I have done good work over the years, and made a real difference. And disorientation, because for some 30 years a big part of my identity was being a Book Conservator in private practice — something almost as rare as many of the items I have worked on over the last four decades.

I think anyone who reaches retirement age probably has some mixed emotions about actually retiring. But for most people, they’re ready to retire — to live life on their own terms, to travel, to just get out of the office, to get away from annoying co-workers.

The problem is, I wasn’t ready to retire. And I had already arranged my life so that I lived it largely on my own terms. I’ve traveled. I didn’t have an office I had to go to. I don’t have co-workers who annoy me. I had honestly expected that I would continue to do conservation work until old age claimed me, since the work is typically not strenuous.

MJD had other ideas, as I’ve noted.

So, officially, I am no longer a Book Conservator.

Yes, I am still many other things. An artist. A writer. A cool, handsome guy who is just 64 and certain that he’s still a babe magnet.

OK, maybe not that last one.

But the point remains that there are still many facets of my identity that remain, even though I have of necessity set aside the title “Book Conservator”.

I suppose “Retired Book Conservator” still sounds pretty cool.

Jim Downey



A “best seller”? More or Less.

This past weekend a broadcast of the BBC show/podcast “More or Less” caught my ear, as it was discussing the economics of conventional trade publishing. I would encourage listening to the entire thing (about 9 minutes), but the basics are:

  • Of about 50,000 new titles published in a year, just 0.4% will sell more than 100,000 copies
  • To ‘break even’, a title needs to sell about 5,000 copies
  • Some 86% of all titles sell fewer than 5,000 copies
  • Something like 15% sell fewer than a dozen copies

Whoa.

I knew the numbers weren’t good, and that I had been relatively successful with self-publishing my own books (after years of trying to land a conventional publishing deal), but I had no idea that they were that dismal.

For perspective, all three of my books broke that 5,000 threshold the first year that they were available. And two went on to break it again the second year. Total downloads (ballpark numbers) for each of my books so far:

I’ve been mildly disappointed in the performance of St Cybi’s Well, but that is largely in comparison to Communion of Dreams, which was published a decade earlier (and which has continued to see strong sales/downloads each year). This kind of puts that into perspective.

One thing I want to mention: free downloads. Yeah, that skews the numbers a bit, but not as much as you might think for the two novels. For those, free downloads account for about 15% of SCW and about 20% of CoD totals. HFY saw a much larger percentage of free downloads, but that was because we saw the book more as a public service to other care-givers than a moneypot.

Oh, and “best seller”? Other info I’ve seen indicates that about 50,000 copies is typically considered a best seller in the trade publication industry. Now, that’s for one-year sales, not cumulative sales over a decade. But still, it makes me feel pretty good about how CoD has done.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: As one chapter closes, another is begun.

Recently I drove out to Las Vegas, for the first post-Covid national meeting of the Liberal Gun Club (I can be seen at several points in the video, wearing a red & white flannel shirt). It’s a drive I’ve made previously in two days (about 12 hours each day), but I decided that it would be wise for me to split it up into three days each way, to better reduce my stress and better accommodate the unpredictable episodes of MJD symptoms (since I didn’t want to take any of the painkillers or MMJ stuff that help me manage those episodes while I was driving).

It was a good decision. When I had an flair-up of symptoms, I knew that I could take a break without feeling a lot of time-pressure.

And it gave me more time to think.

To think about this past year, and where I’ve found myself. To think about the LGC event (particularly after it was over, and I could reflect upon what happened there). To think about the near-term future.

As I noted yesterday (and in this series of MJD-related blog posts generally), it’s been a challenging year. And there’s nothing like going naked (in the sense of not taking any meds) for a prolonged period of time to show you, honestly and clearly, what your real condition actually is.

Mine isn’t bad. But it is perhaps a lot worse than I had realized, in my day-to-day life. That’s because being able to take things that help manage it means that I can largely ignore the symptoms. Without those meds, though, the truth tends to be a little sharper edged (as is the pain). While teaching a black powder workshop I had hand spasms that were so bad I couldn’t hold onto the gun I was using at the time, let alone manage to load it. So much for the idea that being focused on a given task (which I was) would be enough to set aside that symptom. I verbally walked my students through the process, and we got on the other side of it fine. But it was a sobering moment.

A moment that drove home the idea that it was time for me to make some changes. Specifically, that it is time for me to pretty much completely retire from conservation work. As I noted in this blog post last May:

As a conservator, I can’t afford to celebrate my mistakes. There will of necessity come a time when I need to stop doing conservation work, out of respect for the items entrusted to my care. That time is rapidly approaching; indeed, it may already be here.

I think I crossed that line sometime this summer. So the time has come for me to (mostly) stop doing conservation work altogether, at least in terms of being hands-on.

That’s a big change for me. I’ve largely defined myself as being a book conservator for 30 years.

* * *

Western Utah is stunning. But also bleak. And more than a little alien to my Midwestern eye.

I think those vistas, and the mental space I was in on my drive home, helped me realize something else.

That I’m ready to start writing a sequel to Communion of Dreams.

I hesitate even mentioning this, since I had so many people after me about the long delays in writing St Cybi’s Well. But I decided to share it to help offset the seemingly ‘bad’ news that I need to retire as a conservator.

So here’s the deal: don’t ask how it is going, or when I expect it to be done. I’m at the very beginning of the whole process, and it is likely to take years. I may occasionally mention things about it. Or not. But asking me about it is not going to get any additional information beyond what I volunteer, and will just annoy me. You can wish me well with the writing, but leave it at that, OK?

Thanks.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: a bitter harvest.

Just harvested this year’s super-hot habanero crop, in advance of the first hard freeze of the season. Here it is:

Yup, that’s it. 29 peppers, and half of them not entirely ripe.

29.

Compare that to the 1,000+ of most years, and the 1,500+ of some years.

Now, partly this is due to a decision on my part to only plant about half the usual number of pepper plants. But still, 29? Really?

It’s been that kind of year.

We’ve had a prolonged, serious drought here. And I was busy with working on the house and managing other things, so I didn’t water or care for the garden nearly as much as I typically do. Sometime late summer I just kinda gave up on it.

Late summer. Hmm. What else was going on then?

Oh, yeah. That. I got my results back.

I didn’t think that I had that much of a response to the results of the MJD testing. But I’d be a fool to deny that this year has been a challenging one, and the confirmation of my expectations did have an impact on me. An impact that is still playing out, and that means more changes to come.

More on that soon. And don’t worry, not all of it is bad. It’s mostly just change.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: Home, sweet home.

Yesterday I spent the most I’ve ever spent on a glass of water. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

See, my wife had a business function at a conference center at the Lake of the Ozarks. She’s retired, but still somewhat active with the AIA in a volunteer/mentor capacity. We drove down, checked into the hotel, dropped off our bags, and changed to go to a reception we thought also included dinner, awards presentations, and a full evening. I had a glass of water to take my routine evening meds, and we went off in search of the reception.

All went fine, but it quickly became clear that our expectations for the evening were somewhat at odds with what was actually planned. This was the first time this particular event was being held post-Covid, and contrary to the pre-pandemic routine (we’ve attended a number of these events), there was just a reception and brief awards ceremony. It was good that we were there, since my wife is a previous recipient of the same big award, and she was happy to support the new recipients. It was also important for her to be recognized for her past work on behalf of the profession.

But it was all over by 7:00 PM.

Now, since it was just an informal reception, we’d all be standing around chatting (and then listening to the presentations) for a couple of hours. A couple of hours during which some of my MJD symptoms made it abundantly clear just how much had changed for me since the last time I’d attended such a function (pre-Covid). I wasn’t miserable, but I was painfully aware of just how fragile I was feeling (as noted recently). Just being around people was work — even moreso than my usual introvert reaction to such events.

So, as we walked back to the room from the reception, we talked about just checking out and heading home. In just 90 minutes we’d be back in our refuge, I could sleep in my own bed and get back to my usual routine. It meant forfeiting the room cost, though.

I decided it was worth it. One of the lessons I’ve learned in my life is that sometimes you just have to write off the sunk costs of a decision, and get on with things.

So we changed again in the room, gathered up our things, and left. Got home safe & sound, played with the cats, crashed. I slept well (which I never do at a hotel), and this morning was able to get in my usual sunrise walk and exercise routine.

This wasn’t entirely due to MJD, of course. Partially it was due to the weird almost-over-but-not-really pandemic reality we’re still adjusting to. My ‘extrovert batteries’ aren’t what they once were, due to lack of use. And there was a breakdown in communications as to what was happening, so our expectations were at odds with what actually happened. Had we known that the event was going to be over so quickly, we would just have planned all along to return home after it was over.

But I do have to say that the changes I have experienced due to MJD were a major factor. None of my symptoms were noticeable to anyone else, and we didn’t discuss it with anyone. Yet I felt it, and it took a toll.

Lesson learned, and adjustments made.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: oops.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m in a long-term project to repair and repaint our 1883 historic home. Most days I put in several hours of work on it, according to what my symptoms allow.

The pic above was from yesterday, just as I was getting to work on painting the ceiling of our large carport. The six-foot stepladder is sufficient for this chore, though not ideal — I need to hold onto the roller pan or paint bucket while I work above my head. Well, just as I was getting started, I went up the ladder … and promptly dropped the roller pan. It just slipped out of my hand.

Now, like everyone, I’m occasionally clumsy. Always have been. And I’ve made bigger messes than that shown.

But in the past, my clumsiness has always been related to some other factor. I was distracted. Or I was doing something I knew was marginally safe/balanced. I’d drank too much. I had a migraine. I hadn’t slept. Et cetera.

Not this time. I felt fine. I’d had a good morning, getting in my walk and exercises. I’d had breakfast, and was sufficiently caffeinated. I’d set up everything properly to paint, and the ladder was stable. There were no unusual or unpredictable factors at play.

Except MJD.

And that was enough. My hand … just let go.

As I picked up the roller and tray, and cleaned up the mess, I was pissed off. And feeling very, very fragile. It was a rude reminder that I have a disease I can’t control. All I can do is manage the symptoms to the best of my ability.

In the end, it was just an hour or so delay before I got to painting. And a lesson in not taking things for granted I have always taken for granted.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: Management trainee.

This morning I picked up my monthly meds. Basically, the same set I have been taking for almost a decade.

And as I was going through and organizing things, I realized something interesting: I’m taking *way* less of my opioids (Tramadol and Tylenol #3) now, thanks to my Medical Marijuana.

The growing MJD symptoms had started cutting into my small reserve of the opioids which had been more or less stable for years. I mentioned this in one of my first posts about MJD:

But of course, being aware of — even moreso paying attention to — more pain is, well, painful. Distracting. Annoying. So in terms of my perception, my ambient pain levels have gone up significantly in the last few weeks. I noticed recently that my use of my prescription pain meds (Tramadol, Tylenol 3 with codeine) that I’ve been on for about a decade for an intercostal tear has ticked up recently. Now, that happens, particularly when I am doing some strenuous exercise/project. There’s a sort-of natural ebb & flow to it through the year, with some months being a little higher usage, some being a little lower usage. But since we finished installing a new stamped copper ceiling in the kitchen, I haven’t been engaged in anything very physically demanding. That was six weeks ago, and I should have reverted to something closer to baseline. I haven’t.

By the time I got my MMJ card two months ago, I had pretty much used up the small reserve I had. That was a little nervous-making, since I really didn’t want to increase either the power or amount of opioids I took.

Well, in just two months of having access to MMJ, and about a month of understanding how I can best use it for my needs, things have changed. A lot. Like, I’m now taking half the amount of opioids I was (same for alcohol intake). In this short time I have already replenished my reserve. I could probably cut that further, but I’m still just using the MMJ products in the evening (very mild dosages) and overnight (mild dosages).

This disease, and the version I have, is progressive. With luck, however, I should be able to manage the symptoms, and particularly the annoying pain issues, without increasing my intake of opioids for a while. We’ll see — it’s all about learning how to manage things.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: Not Dead Yet*.

So, I got the genetic test results today: I have a mild version of MJD.

That’s not an official diagnosis. I probably won’t have that until sometime next year, after I have different insurance (Medicare) and can find a local Neurologist to work with. Because I won’t go back in to the Neurology Clinic at the local large-institution university hospital which shall remain nameless, for reasons outlined previously. And because they didn’t bother to send me the results — which they have had for over a month — until I called them up. And they’re supposed to post all such results to the ‘patient portal’ within two days of getting them. Grrr.

But the results are clear. And since there is little or nothing that modern medicine can do for me that I’m not already doing, I’m happy to just wait.

Knowing the results makes a difference. And while it’s not good news, it could certainly be worse. I know what is going on, and what to expect. Thanks to my sister’s experience, and the experience of my other family members, I know most of the best strategies to manage the disease. Because of my age of onset (about 4 years ago, I think, so about 60 years old), and the type I have, I should experience a normal lifespan and slowly progressing symptoms. I can plan and work with this information.

I intend to continue to write about this, but those posts will probably be just occasional updates when I feel like I have something interesting to say.

Thank you for your good thoughts and support — it’s helped me these past months while I have navigated this experience.

Jim Downey

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jdf5EXo6I68



Machado-Joseph Disease: all things being equine …

My feet hurt. My hands hurt.

Actually, let me be a little more specific: the backs of my hands and wrists hurt. The tops of my feet and the fronts of my ankles hurt. If I were on all fours, you could see the symmetry of the places that hurt. It feels like all four joints were hyper-extended, and now hurt from it.

I put it into these terms because there’s value in understanding something about MJD: it affects the cerebellum, that part of the brain that controls movement and coordination, as well as having a role in pain awareness and some emotional/intellectual controls. This is an ‘old’ part of the brain that we share (in evolutionary terms) with most vertebrates.

Like horses.

Why do I mention horses, specifically?

Because of this:

Episode 51: Shivers Horses and Its Association to the Cerebellum

In this episode, Dr. Audrey DeClue focuses specifically on the association of the cerebellum to shivers horses. She shines a light on the existing, published research on shivers and the trouble with conclusions based on a small sample size. She also includes an interview with longtime friend, Celeste, to provide a powerful story of what it is like to live with a degenerative cerebellar lesion.

The ‘Celeste’ there is my sister. Who first experienced the onset of MJD symptoms about 20 years ago, and has been living with the disease since.

The whole podcast is well worth listening to, but the discussion with my sister starts at about the 28 minute mark, and lasts for about 20 minutes. In the interview Celeste is forthright about the challenges and pain associated with the disease, and how her symptoms have evolved over the last two decades. In listening to it, I was struck not only by her astute awareness of her body and how it has changed over the years (she is very smart and observant, no surprise) but also in just how much her early experiences echo what I have been experiencing the last couple of years (though my symptoms are mild compared to hers). That includes not only symptoms, but the frustrations of trying to get doctors to actually listen to her describe her subtle symptoms early on.

It’s an excellent interview, and Dr DeClue is a sensitive and talented interviewer. I encourage you to give it a listen if you are interested in this rare disease, and what it is like to live with it.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: ∞

Eight weeks.

8

Which, on its side, helpfully looks like the infinity symbol: ∞.

Because while it’s been eight weeks since my blood sample was drawn for the genetic testing for MJD, it feels like I’ve been waiting an eternity for the results.

Of course, it took a full month for the Neurology Clinic at the local large-institution university hospital which shall remain nameless to order the test.

And I waited two months before that to get in to see those neurologists, because I thought I needed a referral.

And I waited three months before that in order to get in to see my GP in order to explain why I wanted the referral.

Yeah, count back, and that means I have been waiting all this year in order to get a diagnosis for the disease I’m reasonably certain I have. Little wonder that NORD (the National Organization of Rare Diseases) says that typically, a correct diagnosis for someone with a rare disease (such as MJD) will take upwards of five years. I’m already most of a year in, and I even KNOW the disease actually runs in my family. Imagine what it would be like if it was just a random mystery disease, and we had to start from scratch to determine what was going on.

>sigh<

Yes, it’s frustrating. Friends and family keep asking (just being supportive, not annoying), and I keep telling them the same thing: no results yet.

Meanwhile, I continue to just deal with the symptoms as best I can. And things do continue to evolve. Balance issues are now fairly routine. Hand & feet pain and Restless Leg/Arm Syndrome less so, but seem to be happening more often. And I’ve started to experience occasional vision difficulties (focus/double vision problems) that I can usually ‘reset’ by changing my point of focus to something far away, then shift back to a closer item. It’s not an actual double image, but rather the sort of thing you experience when trying to look through the wrong part of progressive lenses, then shift your vision so things slide back into focus.

The good news is that the MMJ does help most of these symptoms quickly, and I have cut my mild opioid intake by about 50% since I figured out what worked for me.

Meanwhile, I wait. I check to see whether the results have been posted to my account on the diagnostics site or my patient portal for the local large-institution university hospital which shall remain nameless. And I get on with life.

While waiting.

Jim Downey