Communion Of Dreams


There always has to be one.

OK, as I play catch-up from vacation, I’m doing the “how is the book doing” check, and found this review:

I started this book wanting to like it. The idea of discovering a non-human made artifact intrigued me. But as I got further into the story it turned from a purely hard Sci Fi novel into one that smacked more of mysticism than scientific investigation. From mysterious dreams to everyone looking at the artifact and not seeing the same thing; it got harder and harder for me to enjoy it and I lost interest about halfway through. One positive thing I can say about it is that I did like the A.I. helpers (called “Experts”) from the story. They were entertaining and very believable.

Ouch. First one-star review it’s gotten. I do wonder whether the fellow just stopped reading, because I think that his complaint is answered with how the book comes together. Ah well.

Anyway, there were also two more excellent 5-star reviews to balance that, so…

Jim Downey

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“There’s no place like Rome…there’s no place like Rome…”

Just a brief post to let folks know I am back from my Roman holiday safe & sound. It was a hell of a trip, and I will be sharing stories, images, and insights from it over the coming weeks.

Got back late last night with more than the usual amount of travel-foo. Well, it has to happen sometimes, and in the end it wasn’t much worse than a minor annoyance. If only I had a pair of ruby slippers…

Anyway. Some small news to share: the trip did some really good things for my mental state, and helped to kick loose some things which I had been struggling with. And I have about a half-dozen ideas for stories & books I am going to explore — again, some more on that to come. I am happy to report, however, that I am now actually ready to start writing/rewriting St. Cybi’s Well again. Yesterday I had time to re-read about 2/3 of Communion of Dreams with a specific eye to that. And I am happy to note that I still enjoy the book.

So, change is in the wind. Stay tuned for details.

Jim Downey



Looking back: Weighty matters.

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on December 1, 2007.

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As I’ve mentioned previously, I try and catch NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday regularly. This morning’s show was hosted by John Ydstie, and had a very nice three minute meditation titled Reflecting on a Past Generation which dealt with the differences between his life and his father-in-law’s, as measured in physical weight and strength. You should listen to it, but the main thrust of the piece is how Ydstie’s FIL was a man of the mechanical age, used to dealing with tools and metal and machines, whereas Ydstie is used to working with computers and electronic equipment which is becoming increasingly light weight, almost immaterial.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Last weekend, as part of my preparations for tackling in earnest the big conservation job for the seminary, I got a large fireproof safe. I needed something much larger than my little cabinet to safely secure the many books I will have here at any given time. And about the most cost-effective solution to this need was a commercial gun safe, the sort of thing you see in sporting goods stores and gun shops all around the country.

So, since a local retailer was having a big Holiday sale, I went and bought a safe. It’s 60 inches tall, 30 inches wide, and 24 inches deep. And it weighs 600 pounds.

And the retailer doesn’t offer any kind of delivery and set-up.

“Liability issues,” explained the salesman when I asked. “But the guys out at the loading dock will help get it loaded into your truck or trailer.”

Gee, thanks.

So I went and rented a low-to the ground trailer sufficiently strong for hauling a 600 pound safe (I have a little trailer which wouldn’t be suitable). And an appliance dolly. And went and got the safe.

When I showed up at the loading dock and said I needed to pick up a safe, people scattered. The poor bastard I handed the paperwork to sighed, then disappeared into the warehouse. He returned a few minutes later with some help and my safe, mounted on its own little wooden pallet and boxed up. The four guys who loaded it into my trailer used a little cargo-loader, and were still grunting and cursing. I mostly stayed out of their way and let them do the job the way they wanted. Liability issues, you know.

I drove the couple miles home, and parked. And with a little (but critical) help from my good lady wife, it took just a half an hour and a bit of effort to get the safe in the house and settled where I wanted it. Yes, it was difficult, and I wouldn’t really want to tackle moving anything larger essentially on my own. But using some intelligence, an understanding of balance, and the right tool for the job I was able to move the 600 pound mass of metal with relative ease. And it made me feel damned good about my flabby own self.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

In contrast, the most difficult things I have ever done don’t really have a ‘weight’ to them. Communion of Dreams took me years of hard work to write and rewrite (multiple times), and yet is nothing more than phantasm, able to fly through the internet and be read by thousands. There are no physical copies to be bought, shared with a friend, lugged around and cherished or dropped disgustedly into a recycle bin. It is just electrons, little packets of yes and no.

And these past years of being a care provider, how do I weigh them (other than the additional fat I carry around from lack of proper exercise and too little sleep)? I suppose that I could count up all the times I have had to pick up my MIL, transfer her between chair and toilet, or lay her down gently on her bed. But even in this, things tend towards the immaterial, as she slowly loses weight along with her memories of this life. And soon, she will be no more than a body to be removed, carried one last time by others sent by the funeral home.

How do you weigh a life?

Jim Downey



Looking back: Being prepared.

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on December 29, 2007.

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As I have mentioned previously, I enjoy shooting. And I carry a concealed weapon (legally – by permit and where allowed by law) pretty much all the time. This isn’t paranoia, just a simple recognition that we live in an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous world. That same mindset applies to preparations for any kind of small-scale disaster, whether natural or man-made. If you live in the Midwest, you understand that power outages occur due to weather (tornadoes in Spring, Summer, and Fall, ice-storms in Winter), and that you may need to be self-reliant for days or even a couple of weeks. I’ve long abided by the Scout motto of “Be Prepared”, and while you wouldn’t find a years worth of supplies and a generator cached here, we could manage pretty easily for a period of a couple of months. That’s not too far off what is recommended by both the government and independent health agencies. As I’ve discussed, the onset of a pandemic flu may well cause a disruption of normal economic activity for a prolonged period, and I cite such a disaster as the background for Communion of Dreams.

Anyway, in an accident during one shooting trip this fall I managed to slice open my right thumb pretty well. I had ridden out to the family farm where I usually shoot with one of my buddies, so didn’t have my car, which contains a fairly complete first-aid kit. And, as it turned out, my buddy didn’t have any kind of first aid supplies in his car. We improvised a bandage from stuff in my gun cleaning kit, and things were OK. When I got home, I added a real first aid kit to my ‘range bag’, and didn’t think much more about it.

Then, a couple of weeks later I was back out at the farm with my BIL. We were walking the border of the property adjacent to a state park and marking it as private, since a lot of people don’t bother to keep track of where they are and we’ve had a lot of tresspassing. At one point down in a secluded valley my BIL and I paused for a breather, and just out of curiosity I checked to see if I had a signal for my cell phone. Nope. Hmm.

Now, it was nice weather, just a tad cool and damp when we set out. But it was November, and the leaves were slick in places where a fall could easily result in a twisted knee or a broken bone. I got to thinking – if I were on my own, what did I have with me that I could use in the event of an emergency? Oh, I had plenty of stuff in my car – but that was the better part of a mile away. What did I have on my person?

In truth, I was in better shape than most people would likely be in such a situation. I always have a Leatherman multi-tool on my belt, a small LED flashlight on my keychain, and a pistol and ammo. But still, since I don’t smoke I’m not in the habit of carrying matches or a lighter, I once again didn’t have any first-aid items, et cetera. I had stuck a small bottle of water in my jacket pocket, but that would hardly last long. I could probably cobble together some kind of splint or impromptu crutch, but it would be a challenge to get out of such a situation on my own.

When I got home I got to doing a bit of research about emergency survival kits. Google that, and you’ll come up with about 30,000 hits to sites offering everything from bomb shelters to equipment for first responders. Not particularly helpful. I decided to take a different tack, and started to think about what I wanted to have in a kit small enough that I would *always* have it with me. I set my goal for constructing a kit which would fit into an Altoids tin, since that is small enough to easily slip into any pocket.

This problem has been tackled by others, and there are actually some such small kits for sale that’ll run you upwards of $50. I looked over the commercially available kits, saw what others have done to solve the problems inherent in such a project, and came up with the following:

kit02a.jpg

What you see there is:

  • Surgical Mask (can also be used as a bandage)
  • Fresnell lens for magnification or starting fires
  • 20mm bubble compass
  • Single-edged razor blade
  • Suture pack (curved needle mounted with suture thread)
  • Band-aids & steri-strips
  • Antibiotic packet
  • Emergency whistle
  • Superglue (repairs, fabrication, wound sealant)
  • Mini-lighter
  • Cotton tinder tabs
  • Water purification tablets (can also be used as antiseptic)
  • 30′ of Spiderwire (15 lbs test)
  • Safety pins
  • Small ziplock bag for water
  • Cash
  • Painkillers
  • Benadryl (anti-histamine, sedative)
  • Anti-diarrheal tablets

Yes, it all fits in the Altoids tin. Just. It is not entirely satisfactory, as I would have liked to have a large piece (say 18″x24″) of heavy-duty aluminum foil, a couple of garbage bags, some lightweight steel wire, maybe some duct tape or heavier cord. But it is a pretty good start – any small kit like this is by necessity an exercise in trade-offs. (Edited to add 06/01/08: I wrapped about 15′ of 24ga steel wire around the mini-lighter in a single layer, tightly wrapped.  Takes up almost no additional room, and will be easy to unwrap for use.)

In searching out the items I wanted (difficult to find items linked to my sources), it became clear that in some cases I would spend more on shipping for some of the components than I would for the actual items. So I made one such kit for myself, and another half dozen to give to friends. That got the cost down to under $10 each (not including the cash, obviously).

Your best survival tool in any situation is your brain. But it doesn’t hurt to have a few advantages in the form of useful items close at hand. With this small kit, and what I usually have with me anyway, I am reasonably well prepared to deal with most situations that I can envision. And I thought that since I went to the trouble to construct it, I would put the information about it here for anyone else who might have some use for it.

Jim Downey



Looking back: “…an awful waste of space.”

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on June 26, 2007.

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A friend passed along this entry from today’s Quote of the Day:

If it’s true that our species is alone in the universe, then I’d have to say that the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little.
George Carlin

Communion of Dreams is, essentially, about what happens when we are unexpectedly confronted with the reality of the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. In this I am echoing countless other science fiction stories/novels/films, some more consciously than others. Most directly, I am paying homage to two authors:Sir Arthur C. Clarke, and Carl Sagan. For anyone interested in doing so, references can be found in my novel to both men, directly and indirectly.

And whenever you tackle this problem (whether or not there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe), you are also basically dealing with issues similar to religious faith. At least for the time being, we have no evidence, no scientific proof, of either E.T. or God. Friends who know me as a strong atheist have commented how surprised they were with how I deal with the issue of religion in Communion. Yet this is in keeping with how science fiction writers, and Carl Sagan specifically in his novel Contact, tend to approach this issue: leaving open the possibility and understanding the revolution in thought which it will demand when there is proof of E.T. (or God, for that matter). I don’t recall it being in the book, but there’s a line in the movie version of Contact which has always made sense to me, when the protagonist’s father says regarding the possibility of life on other planets: “I don’t know, Sparks. But I guess I’d say if it is just us… seems like an awful waste of space.”

Which brings me to another favorite quote, one I’ve appended to my emails for the last several years:

“Sometimes I think we’re alone. Sometimes I think we’re not.
In either case, the thought is staggering.”
R. Buckminster Fuller

And I think that sums it all up for me, on both the question of God and whether there is other intelligence out there. For Communion, I come down on the side of proving the existence of one, and figure that is enough for one book to tackle.

Jim Downey



Looking back: Privacy? You don’t need no steenkin’ provacy!

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on November 12, 2007.

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Over the weekend, news came out of yet another “Trust us, we’re the government” debacle, this time in the form of the principal deputy director of national intelligence saying that Americans have to give up on the idea that they have any expectation of privacy. Rather, he said, we should simply trust the government to properly safeguard the communications and financial information that they gather about us. No, I am not making this up. From the NYT:

“Our job now is to engage in a productive debate, which focuses on privacy as a component of appropriate levels of security and public safety,” Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence, told attendees of the Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s symposium in Dallas.

* * *

“Too often, privacy has been equated with anonymity,” he said, according to a transcript [pdf]. “But in our interconnected and wireless world, anonymity – or the appearance of anonymity – is quickly becoming a thing of the past.”

The future, Mr. Kerr says, is seen in MySpace and other online troves of volunteered information, and also in the the millions of commercial transactions made on the web or on the phone every day. If online merchants can be trusted, he asks, then why not federal employees, who face five years in jail and a $100,000 fine for misusing data from surveillance?

Or, from the Washington Post:

“Our job now is to engage in a productive debate, which focuses on privacy as a component of appropriate levels of security and public safety,” Kerr said. “I think all of us have to really take stock of what we already are willing to give up, in terms of anonymity, but (also) what safeguards we want in place to be sure that giving that doesn’t empty our bank account or do something equally bad elsewhere.”

This mindset, that allowing the government to just vacuum up all of our personal information, to monitor our email and phone communications, or whatever else they are doing but don’t want to tell is, is somehow equivalent to my posting information on this blog or giving some company my credit card number when I want to buy something, is fucking absurd. First off, there is a fundamental difference between what I willingly reveal to someone in either a personal or commercial exchange, and having my information taken without my knowledge or agreement. To say otherwise is to say that just because my phone number is listed in the phone directory, everyone who has the ability to do so is free to listen in on my phone conversations.

Even worse, it shows how we are viewed by this individual, and our government: as their subjects, without rights or expectations of being in control of our lives.

And the notion that we can just trust governmental employees with our private information is patently ridiculous. First off, saying that we should because we already trust commercial businesses with our private information is completely specious – how many times in the last year have you heard of this or that company’s database having been hacked and credit card, personal, and financial information having been stolen? This alone is a good reason to not allow further concentration of our private data to be gathered in one place. Secondly, think of the many instances when hard drives with delicate information have been lost by government employees in the State Department, at the Department of Veterans Affairs, or even at Los Alamos National Laboratory – and those are just the things which have actually made it into the news. Third, and last (for now), anyone who has had any experience with any government agency can attest to just how screwed up such a large bureaucracy can be, in dealing with even the simplest information.

I recently went round and round with the IRS over some forms which they thought I had to file. I didn’t, and established that to the satisfaction of the office which contacted me. Yet for six months I was still being contacted by another office in charge with collecting the necessary fees and fines – three times I had to send a copy of the letter from the initial office which cleared me of the matter, before they finally, and almost grudgingly, admitted that I owed them no money (for not filing the documents I didn’t need to file). These are not the same people I want to trust to handle even *more* information about me.

Allowing the government to take this position – that the default should be that they can just take whatever information about us they want, so long as they promise not to misuse it – is to abandon any illusions that we are in any way, shape, or form a free people. It would turn the entire equation of the Constitution on its head, saying that the government is sovereign and we its subjects. That such a thing is even proposed by a government employee is extremely revealing, and should cause no little amount of concern.

Jim Downey



Looking back: “Yes.”

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on November 24, 2007.

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I have a special place in my heart for Scott Simon, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday program. Oh, I’ve long enjoyed his reporting and work at NPR, but in particular it was the experience of being interviewed by him in 2001 for my “Paint the Moon” art project which endeared him to me. As it was just at the beginning of the media coverage of that project, and most people as yet didn’t understand what I was trying to do with the project, it would have been easy to mock the idea and portray me as something of a fool – but Simon was kind and considerate in his interview with me (which took almost an hour to do from my local NPR station facilities), and the end result was an interesting and insightful segment for his show.

Anyway, I go out of my way to try and catch the broadcast of Weekend Edition Saturday each week, and today was no different. One of the segments this morning was an interview with Pat Duggins, who has covered over 80 shuttle launches for NPR and now has a new book out titled Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program. In the course of the interview, Simon asked the following question (paraphrased; I may correct when the transcript of the show is posted later): “Are Americans unrealistic in the expectation of safety from our space program?”

Duggins paused a moment, and then gave an unequivocal “Yes.”

I had already answered the question in my own mind, and was pleased to hear him say the same thing. Because as I have mentioned before, I think that a realistic assessment of the risks involved with the space program is necessary. Further, everyone involved in the space program, from the politicians who fund it to the NASA administers to aerospace engineers to astronauts to the journalists who cover the program, should all – all – be very clear that there are real risks involved but that those risks are worth taking. Certainly, foolish risks should be avoided. But trying to establish and promote space exploration as being “safe” is foolish and counter-productive.

I am often cynical and somewhat disparaging of the intelligence of my fellow humans. But I actually believe that if you give people honest answers, honest information, and explain both the risks and benefits of something as important as the space program, they will be able to digest and think intelligently about it. We have gotten into trouble because we don’t demand that our populace be informed and responsible – we’ve fallen very much into the habit of feeding people a bunch of bullshit, of letting them off the hook for being responsible citizens, and treating them as children rather than participating adults. By and large, people will react the way you treat them – and if you just treat people as irresponsible children, they will act the same way.

So it was good to hear Duggins say that one simple word: “Yes.”

What we have accomplished in space, from the earliest days right through to the present, has always been risky. But for crying out loud, just going to the grocery store is risky. None of us will get out of this life alive, and you can be sure that for even the most pampered and protected there will be pain and suffering at times. To think otherwise is to live in a fantasy, and to collapse at the first experience of hardship.

I think that we are better than that. Just look at all humankind has accomplished, in spite of the risks. To say that Americans are unwilling to accept a realistic view of death and injury associated with the exploration of space is to sell us short, and to artificially limit the progress we make. I think it *has* artificially limited the progress we have made.

One of the most common complaints I get about the world I envision in Communion of Dreams is that the exploration of space is too far along to be “realistic”. Nonsense. Look at what was accomplished in the fifty years that lead up to the first Moon landing. In a world filled with trauma, war, and grief, some risks are more easily accepted. In the world of Communion, post-pandemic and having suffered regional nuclear wars, there would be little fixation on making sure that spaceflight was “safe”, and more on pushing to rapidly develop it.

We can go to the planets, and then on to the stars. It is just a matter of having the will to do so, and of accepting the risks of trying.

Jim Downey