Communion Of Dreams

As in so many things,
June 27, 2010, 11:31 am
Filed under: Humor, Mark Twain, Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir

Preparing to leave Salt Lake City this morning, drive over the mountains by the scenic route to Loveland, where we’ll spend the day tomorrow relaxing with friends and recovering for the long haul home.

It’s been a good trip – scenery gorgeous, the performances of the Choir excellent and well-received.

As for Salt Lake City, and the pervasive influence of the LDS church here, as in so many things I think Mark Twain said it best. I may have some more to comment on the topic later, once I am safely distant.

For now, time to schlep the bags down to the car and get on the road.

Jim Downey

On the road again . . .
June 24, 2010, 11:39 am
Filed under: Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, Travel

Well, I’m in Salt Lake City.

Yeah, for this thing my wife has going on.

It’s actually been an enjoyable trip, though not without mishaps. We drove over to Loveland CO on Monday (13 hours – thank gods for audio books). Spent the day with friends there on Tuesday, then headed off yesterday morning for the 8+ hour drive to SLC.

And the A/C died just outside of Cheyenne, WY.

I looked, saw the belt had broken. But it did so just as I had turned the A/C on. And we’d had problems with the A/C not being fully functional on Monday.

Made arrangements while on the road for an appointment to get the car looked at in SLC this morning, since we wanted to just get here. This morning I took the car over, while Martha went to rehearsal. After a few minutes, I got the verdict: dead compressor. Not too surprising, given what had happened.

So, I told the guys to fix it. They’ll have it done later today.

Then I walked back to the hotel – about 20 minutes. And I was in a good mood.

Why be in a good mood in reaction to car problems and a $1200 bill?

Well, why not? We’re where we need to be for the time being. The car will be ready for the drive home. I can hang out with the choir on a city tour this afternoon. And it was a pretty day for a walk – which felt good after a couple of days of driving.

All in all, things could be a hell of a lot worse.

Enjoy the day.

Jim Downey

Guess where?
June 20, 2010, 7:45 am
Filed under: Book Conservation, Guns, Humor

A long time back I wrote about getting my big safe, to keep the rare books secure, as well as my guns. Which has led to some interesting situations with clients, who somehow don’t expect a mild-mannered bookbinder to also own a decent selection of firearms.

Well, I keep the safe open during the day when I am home (which is usually). This helps to prevent humidity build up – a problem for both the books and the guns. Typically, closing the safe up is the last thing I do at night before going up to bed.

Just like last night. I shut off the computer, turned off the desk lamp, went over and pushed the big door closed and spun the lock. Upstairs to bed.

Wandered down this morning, and our old lady yellow cat was waiting for her breakfast. She’s always waiting when I come down. The younger grey wasn’t around – hadn’t been up on the bed last night, either. She does this sometimes, whether because of just mood or because she decided to stay outside overnight.

I fed the yellow cat, went to the back door and whistled for the other one. Yes, our cats come when called. Particularly when it is time for breakfast.

But there was no sign of her. Oh well, it happens – she must’ve been off adventuring somewhere in our very large yard.

So I went into my usual morning routine. Put away the dishes from the night before as water heated for coffee. Once the coffee was ready, and there was once again hope in the world, went in to my office and fired up the computer. As it booted up, I went over and opened the safe.

Guess who came darting out?

Yeah, the small grey cat. She evidently had decided to investigate the bottom shelf on one side of the safe, which is empty. This is unusual, since she has long since determined that the safe isn’t very interesting.

Anyway, no harm done. She went right to the litter box, then wanted breakfast.

But I bet she stays clear of the safe from now on.

Jim Downey

Back to it.
June 19, 2010, 10:29 am
Filed under: Emergency, George Orwell, Society, Violence

Well, I’m back to reading the Orwell Diaries, after just browsing them now and again for the last two years. Why now? Well, what was happening in the world 70 years ago?

Oh, yeah, that.

Specifically, the fall of France. Dunkirk.

Orwell’s diaries have gone from mundane reporting of how many eggs his chickens laid to a preoccupation with the war news, and observations on how few people in the British public seem to be engaged in it yet. It’s funny, from our perspective we think of WWII as “total war” which completely took over the countries involved. But of course that’s not how things actually unfolded – those who were experiencing it saw it within the other aspects and concerns of their lives. It took time for the full scope of the war to become clear, and as always some people understood what was actually happening sooner than others.

Anyway, if you fell away from reading the Orwell Diaries, you might want to pick the habit back up. Interesting stuff.

Jim Downey

Looking back…
June 17, 2010, 9:39 am
Filed under: Bad Astronomy, NASA, Phil Plait, Science, Science Fiction, Space, tech

Just a quick note to point people to a delightful overview of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) done as a flash animation, via Bad Astronomy. The JWST is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), and will be able to look back further into the history of the universe.

Minor bit of trivia: the early information on the JWST which was available helped me to come up with the design idea for the ‘Advanced Survey Array’ in Communion of Dreams. I never really get into a description of the ASA, but I had to think through for myself how the thing worked to use it consistently in the book.

Jim Downey

“It’s absolutely amazing how many people have the same story.”
June 16, 2010, 3:54 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, NPR

I’ve written many times about Alzheimer’s, and our experiences in caring for Martha’s mom. In fact, there are 142 blog entries here tagged “Alzheimer’s”.

We’re hardly alone. This is, in fact, the main reason that myself and my co-author are working on the book we are, which offers a male care provider’s perspective and experience. But one story I have followed all along has been that of Tom DeBaggio, as it has been covered on NPR. Here’s the close of that story:

Joyce (Tom’s wife) visits Tom once a week. She used to go almost every day. It gets harder and harder, she says. She’ll sit in the parking lot for a long time to get her courage up.

It’s been a long road for Joyce. She says that Tom’s friends and fans ask about him, more and more — or they’ll ask her if he’s still alive, she says.

“What’s so wrenching, there’s so many that have Alzheimer’s in their family. Or they’ve just lost someone, or someone just been diagnosed. It just makes you cry, listening to all of their stories. It’s heartening, too, that they can talk about it. It’s absolutely amazing how many people have the same story.”

The whole series is worth listening to. Heartbreaking, but worth it. Just like care giving.

Jim Downey

This ‘n that.

Several things of interest, some personal, some news, some related to the book . . .

* * *

I am struck with how powerful just random chance is in determining the course of events. Whether you agree with the Administration’s handling of it or not, just consider how the BP oil leak in the Gulf has come to dominate the attention and course of politics. Who could have predicted that of all the things happening in the world, this would happen? It’s like getting in a car crash – it sort of shuts out every other factor in your life.

* * *

A couple of people have sent me a link to the NYT item “Merely Human? That’s so yesterday.” It’s a long piece, and worth reading.

I’ve written about Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity previously. Simply put, I find the idea interesting but unconvincing. Kurzweil and the others involved in this ‘Singularity University’ are smart people, and I like that they are pushing for research and the development of technology which will benefit all, but it strikes me as mostly as the technological equivalent of the ‘afterlife’ of most religions – more hope than reality. This quote from the article sums up my thoughts pretty well:

William S. Bainbridge, who has spent the last two decades evaluating grant proposals for the National Science Foundation, also sides with the skeptics.

“We are not seeing exponential results from the exponential gains in computing power,” he says. “I think we are at a time where progress will be increasingly difficult in many fields.

“We should not base ideas of the world on simplistic extrapolations of what has happened in the past,” he adds.

It’s called the Law of Diminishing Returns.

* * *

Which isn’t to say that there cannot be revolutionary breakthroughs which could radically change our lives. I’ve also written about how hydrogen sulfide (H2S) seems to be connected to hibernation, and now comes a fairly breathtaking bit of news that is related:

Mystery Explained: How Frozen Humans Are Brought Back

Yeast and worms can survive hypothermia if they are first subjected to extreme oxygen deprivation, a new study finds.

The results could explain a long-held mystery as to how humans can be brought back to life after “freezing to death,” the scientists say.

The study uncovered a previously unknown ability of organisms to survive lethal cold by temporarily slowing the biological processes that maintain life.

But the really interesting bit was this:

Documented cases of humans successfully revived after spending hours or days without a pulse in extremely cold conditions first inspired Roth to study the relationship between human hypothermia and his own research in forced hibernation.

In the winter of 2001, the body temperature of Canadian toddler Erica Norby plunged to 61 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius) as she lay for hours in below-freezing weather after wandering outside wearing only a diaper. Apparently dead, she recovered completely after being re-warmed and resuscitated.

The same curious fate befell Japanese mountain climber Mitsutaka Uchikoshi in 2006, who was discovered with a core body temperature of 71 degrees F (22 degrees C) after 23 days after falling asleep on a snowy mountain.

23 DAYS? Holy shit, I hadn’t been aware of that.

* * *

And lastly, you probably heard about this:

KABUL, Afghanistan – U.S. geologists have discovered vast mineral wealth in Afghanistan, possibly amounting to $1 trillion, President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman said Monday.

Waheed Omar told reporters the findings were made by the U.S. Geological Survey under contract to the Afghan government.

* * *

Americans discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, including iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium, according to the report. The Times quoted a Pentagon memo as saying Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and cell phones.

Sounds like a brilliant bit of good news? Think about it again. As someone on MetaFilter commented:

Oh man, I wish I could feel optimistic about this… but a homeless guy with no hope and no prospects, who finds a gold watch, still has no hope and no prospects, but now he’s in for a beating too.

Did you ever read The Prize? Same thing. The ore sources for some of these minerals are very rare, they are critical for many high-tech products, and there is going to be a scramble to make sure who winds up in control of them.

* * *

Random chance rules our lives.

Jim Downey

…and not to yield.
June 10, 2010, 12:45 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Babylon 5, Failure, Gardening, J. Michael Straczynski, JMS

“Maybe I’ll always second-guess myself” said the commenter in a thread about care-giving.

* * * * * * *

I looked at the plants. Several were pounded over from storms. A couple looked to have been nibbled to death by a bunny that somehow got inside the deer netting & chicken wire.

Most of the rest looked pretty sad as well. All heirloom tomato plants, from a nursery back East I was used to working with.

“Going to replace them?” asked my wife. We were just coming back from our morning walk around the neighborhood with the dog. I had cut across the back yard to survey the garden, and my wife had joined me. The dog went over and laid down in the shade of one of our big trees.

“Some of them.” I hoped some would still make it, varietals that I still wanted to taste, to look at, to can their many colors and textures. “I’ll get five or six new plants when I run errands this morning.”

* * * * * * *

We watched “P.S. I Love You” last night.

To be honest, I just about gave up on it in the first few minutes. I’m not big on ‘chick-flick’ movies which just go for cheap emotional response with bad acting and dumb situations. And at first, it looked like it was headed that way.

But I stuck it out, enjoyed it. I am a romantic at heart, and I enjoy a movie that is both self-aware and unafraid to be emotional without being manipulative. That’s what it turned out to be, and it was worth the time. Honestly dealing with loss is fine by me – and it is too seldom realistically done in movies. After all, we all face the loss of loved ones, whether we want to admit that to ourselves or not.

* * * * * * *

At the end of one episode of Babylon 5, right as the climax of the story arc regarding the battle between Light and Dark, JMS hearkens back to another heroic figure and has his main character quote the following from “Ulysses”:

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

It’s a fine moment, though I’m not a big fan of Tennyson, and is perfect for the grand scope of the story that Straczynski is telling.

But I prefer a quieter story sometimes. One which is captured in small motions and simple tasks.

* * * * * * *

I selected which of the six tomato plants I would replace, and set one of the new plants next to each of the towers.

I lifted off the tower. With a tug I pulled the plant out of the ground and laid it aside.

Again using the large gardening knife I love so well, I loosened the rest of the dirt in the hole. The sharp smell of the organic fertilizer, now wet and alive, rose up with the heat of the landscape fabric around me. I reached in with my bare hands and scooped out the dirt.

The new plant, larger, healthier, greener than the ones I planted weeks ago, went into the ground. Dirt loosely packed around it. Tower replaced.

I picked up the dying plant. It wasn’t its fault. Sometimes these things just happen.

I moved on to the next one.

* * * * * * *

“I admire your willingness to write this book. My mom died in ’03 and my dad in ’06; I was a secondary caregiver to my mom and a primary caregiver to my dad. I’m still second-guessing myself on “did I do enough?” “did I do the right things?” Maybe I’ll always second-guess myself.”

I replied: “I think that everyone who does that second-guesses themselves, no matter how much they actually do. Writing this book is part of our process for coming to terms with that – our hope is that it will help make the path a little easier for others to walk.”

* * * * * * *

Jim Downey

Legend of a Mind*

Almost 30 years ago I took psilocybin for the first time. I repeated the experience several times over the next couple of years, and have largely spent the time since making sense of the whole thing. Some of this is reflected in Communion of Dreams: descriptions of synesthesia in the book were based largely on my own experiences while under the influence of ‘shrooms, and the use of ‘auggies’ (drugs designed to increase neural processing) were also inspired by those experiences.

But the use of psychedelics was largely from another time. Not the first instance of my having been out-of-phase with the rest of society.

So it’s somewhat surprising to see new research being conducted using these drugs. Research which really should have been conducted decades ago, were it not for the paranoia of the “Just Say No!” years. This weekend’s edition of To The Best Of Our Knowledge provides a nice insight into this:

It’s taken decades for study of mind-altering drugs to be taken seriously. Now a handful of scientists are at the forefront of new research. One of them is Roland Griffiths is a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins. He’s just turned his attention to psilocybin, a classic hallucinogen commonly known as magic mushrooms. He tells Steve Paulson about his findings.


We hear a clip from Annie Levy who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In the late stages she took part in an experimental study designed to see if taking psilocybin could help with the fear and panic about dying. In her case, taking a single dose was a life-changing experience in her final months.

It’s a shame, really, that the therapeutic use of hallucinogens has been stymied for so long. There is such a long tradition of using these drugs to access deeper insight and spirituality in many cultures that one is almost tempted to say that humankind’s evolution has been influenced by psychedelics as much as learning to use fire. That we have cut ourselves off from these natural psychotropics is a shame – and again is reflected in Communion of Dreams in how we have artificially lost part of our natural birthright.

Jim Downey

*From the Moody Blues, of course.

The loss that is forever.
June 4, 2010, 2:23 pm
Filed under: General Musings, Health, Society, Survival

I haven’t written much about it, though it is mentioned in my bio and most of my close friends know: I lost both parents when I was just entering adolescence.

Well, no, I didn’t “lose” them. They died. My dad was a cop, killed on the job, and my mom died in a car accident about a year and a half later (no link here – believe it or not, relevant newspaper archives online don’t yet cover the 1960s and 70s). I’m not being pedantic – it was crucial for me to face the hard reality of my parent’s deaths in order to come to terms with them being gone. Why? Well, because everyone just wanted to dance around the fact that they were dead, relying instead on the usual euphemisms about death in our society.

And that’s why I mention it here, and now. Because there is a new survey out showing that we as a society do not deal well with children who have lost a parent. Here’s a bit from a Wall Street Journal article sent to me by a friend:

Their responses, part of a wide-ranging new survey, indicate that bereavement rooted in childhood often leaves emotional scars for decades, and that our society doesn’t fully understand the ramifications—or offer appropriate resources. The complete survey of more than 1,000 respondents, set for release later this month, was funded by the New York Life Foundation on behalf of Comfort Zone Camp, a nonprofit provider of childhood bereavement camps.

Among the findings: 73% believe their lives would be “much better” if their parents hadn’t died young; 66% said that after their loss “they felt they weren’t a kid anymore.”

Childhood grief is “one of society’s most chronically painful yet most underestimated phenomena,” says Comfort Zone founder Lynne Hughes, who lost both her parents before she was 13. She says she is worried that educators, doctors, and the clergy get little or no training to help them recognize signs of loneliness, isolation and depression in grieving children—and in adults who lost parents in childhood.

Yet 1 in 9 Americans lost a parent before they turned 20.

I have sometimes surprised people by saying that my experience of losing my parents isn’t unusual – not in the span of human history. Given normal lifespans and mortality rates, a lot of people through the ages grew up without having one or both parents. But our culture is really in denial about death, and so we don’t have the same traditions and rituals that may have been in place to help in other times.

Now, I came to terms with the deaths of my parents many years ago. Not all at once, but over time, and in my own ways. That’s what grieving is, and we each do so on our own schedule. But there are things which could have helped – and even to this day, occasionally I come across an insight that helps to explain some of my own emotional landscape.

A decade or so ago I read a book that helped to explain a *lot*: The Loss That Is Forever: The Lifelong Impact of the Early Death of a Mother or Father. It showed me that many of the things I just assumed were my own personality quirks were in fact common reactions to the death of a parent. What I wouldn’t have given to have that information decades previously.

And that is why I mention this today. I told my friend who sent the WSJ link that I was not surprised by the results of the survey, but that it would probably be very much a surprise to anyone who hadn’t had this experience. And that should change. Because there are things that we could do to help make the lives easier of those who lose a parent while still a child. And it would help our society at the same time.

Jim Downey