Communion Of Dreams


Reinvention in the time of Covid

So, about a year ago I made a fairly big change in my life, and posted the following to my professional website:

September 1, 2019 – Please note:  due to increasing difficulties with arthritis in my hands, I am curtailing how much conservation work I am doing.  Henceforth I am prioritizing established clients and works of notable historic value.

Yeah, this has been a developing problem for me the last few years, limiting just how much detailed work I could do. It’s gotten to the point where I can typically do only a few hours a week of the difficult, careful work required. Other kinds of hand work isn’t nearly as demanding, unless it involves shock to my hands, so for the most part I’ve been able to continue with the rest of my life with minimal difficulty.

So, after posting that, I started referring new queries about conservation work elsewhere, and focused on my established clients and institutional work.

Then Covid-19 showed up.

After we got a good handle on just what that meant, I stopped meeting with even established clients. Because while my health today is just about better than it ever has been, I am nonetheless at very high risk of having a very bad case of C-19, should I catch it. Frankly, I probably wouldn’t survive it. So I’ve been telling clients that things can wait until there’s a safe & effective vaccine, and I’ve gotten my dose(s) of it.

Which is fine, because there’s rarely a reason to “rush” conservation work. And besides, I had a backlog of work waiting for me in my safe, as I always have.

Well, had.

Last week one of my institutional clients popped by to collect the last couple of items I had to work on. Just a brief, masked, socially-distanced visit. Previous projects had been mailed off, or likewise returned to clients with minimal contact/interaction.

And now the cupboard is bare, so to speak. For the first time in literal decades.

I mentioned a couple of months ago that Covid had likewise changed something else for the first time in decades: my usual mild bipolar cycle. That’s still disrupted. Well, honestly, it’s almost nonexistent. I don’t really have any sense of change currently; I’m in just a new, vague limbo which is neither good nor bad. It’s an odd feeling. Like so much, these days.

Anyway, to ‘run out’ of conservation work isn’t really a problem for me. We’re fortunate enough to be financially stable at this point in our lives, and I had been accounting on much reduced income from conservation for a while.

And, in a way, it’s good. Just this last week I also got the ‘proof’ of the printed pages of St Cybi’s Well, so I can do the hand-bound editions of that book soon. Here’s the proof copy:

SCW proof

That’ll keep me busy for some time.

And beyond that? Well, reinvention is an American’s birthright. I have more artistic impulses to explore and revisit. I have more writing I want to do (no, I’m making no promises of anything). I have life I want to enjoy.

So, for the time being, I’m going to take reasonable precautions to make sure that I can enjoy it, and do those things. I’ll get back to meeting with clients, and doing book conservation, when it is safe (in my assessment) to do so.

Take care of yourself.

Jim Downey

 

 

 



The Covid Shift

I’ve been pretty open about my mild bipolar condition since I started this blog a dozen years ago. It’s real, and I have to pay attention to it, but I’ve understood it and been able to manage it safely for decades. My natural bipolar cycle (from trough-to-trough or peak-to-peak) is very long, about 18 months, plus or minus a few weeks, and has been remarkably stable since I was in my 30s.

Until now.

As expected, I hit the bottom of my trough sometime last December. I tend to be stuck in that condition (or in the manic peak, which is actually more dangerous) for a month or so. Then things will slowly start to rise, I’ll feel the depression clear, and energy will return for six or seven months until I get into a truly manic state. And early this year, going into the spring, that’s what happened. And that, in large part, is why I was able to finally finish St Cybi’s Well.

Of course, at the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Now, I’ll be honest: Covid-19 has had minimal impact on my life. I’m semi-retired from book conservation due to increasing problems with osteoarthritis in my hands, so I seldom meet with clients. I’m a strong introvert, so I rarely feel the need for much human company beyond time spent with my wife, and easily resist temptations for socializing. I have plenty of things to do at home, and our financial situation is stable. The lockdown and need to be socially distant were not a hardship.

But still, Covid had an impact on me. More than I realized. Because rather than continuing my bipolar climb, I started the downturn back towards depression sometime in May without ever entering into a manic state. It took some weeks before I could be certain that this shift was real (minor fluctuations up & down is normal within the overall bipolar cycle), but it’s been long enough that I am now certain.

When you’ve lived with something like this for literally decades, it’s disorienting and a little frightening to have it suddenly change like this.  I can’t predict my baseline psychological state a month from now, or six months from now, or a year from now. I don’t know if this is just a one-off truncation of my more manic period, or if the cycle is now shortened, or is gone altogether.

Kinda like what the pandemic has done to a lot of things we used to consider ‘normal’. We’re left off balance, uncertain of the future.

Now, there’s no reason to worry about me. Having lived with periodic depression for so long, I well understand how to deal with it. My coping skills are very good (writing like this is one example), and I know what to watch for, when to turn to help if I need it.

But take this as a cautionary note, and pay attention to your own mental health. This pandemic is more far-reaching than you might realize.

Jim Downey

 



The Waltz Dystopic

Why on Earth would you want to read a novel about a pandemic during a pandemic? Or why would you want to dive into a world where America is a dystopia of racial hatred and theocratic overreach when America is, well, trying to sort out racial hatred and theocratic overreach? There’d have to be something wrong with you to join in such a dance, wouldn’t there?

This was touched on in an interview on NPR I listened to this morning on my daily walk. In it, author Josh Malerman said that reading about a pandemic during a pandemic was somehow comforting; it was a way of saying “we know how to deal with this”.

In writing St Cybi’s Well I used an old literary technique to create some psychic space between the reader and my criticism of our American society, by not placing the story in America, but by having characters in the story reflect on and discuss what a dystopia American had become. This way the reader joins me in a dance, following my lead, but themselves moving through the story I’ve set out. The dystopia is there, but together we have defined it, perhaps tamed it enough that we can see it for what it is.

Of course, our reality is not the reality of St Cybi’s Well. Though it is still very early in the Covid-19 pandemic, I don’t think that it will be quite as devastating as the Fire-flu is in my book. And though we are perhaps at a turning point in the political history of our country, we’re not yet in a constitutional theocracy.

Take the lesson — or the warning — for what it is. That’s why you join the dance.

Jim Downey



“In the before time.”

Some variation of the phrase “in the before time(s)” has been a staple of post-apocalypse Science Fiction for so long that it’s a well-deserved cliche, mocked even by South Park. Usually invoked by some grungy child reciting a barely-understood mythos, or an aged ‘elder’ thinking back to their youth, it served as a mechanism to explain what happened to civilization.

Of course, in our post-modern, self-aware world “in the before time” came to be widely used in a joking manner, to refer to some not-so-serious turning point in recent history. Before YouTube. Before Google. Before the internet. Before Fonzie jumped the shark. Whatever. It was funny, see?

Except in the last couple of weeks, I’ve started hearing it used to refer to the pre-Covid pandemic times. And not in a humorous way. People are using it completely seriously. Here are just two examples, the first from NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday program on 6/12:

New York Eater’s Chief Critic Isn’t Ready To Eat Out. Here’s Why

* * *

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you worried about the future of the restaurant industry? I mean, do you think it will look anything like what it resembled before the pandemic?

SUTTON: I don’t think anyone knows what the restaurant industry is going to look like in the coming months, never mind the coming year or so. We can only agree – is dining out in the future won’t look anything like it did in the before times. We’re going to continue to see a lot more takeout, and we’re going to continue to see, I think, a lot of people continue to eat at home rather than treating restaurants like extensions of their dining rooms. It’s not going to be a nightly fare anymore. And that’s going to cost a lot of jobs, and that’s going to close a lot of restaurants. And that’s just a terrible thing for everyone.

And the second from a FaceBook post a friend shared, about whether schools would/could open in the fall:

A high school teacher in this state has a maximum class size of 32-35 students, which gives the teacher around 200 students across 4-6 classes in beforetimes schooling. To mitigate coronavirus would then require 3 kindergarten teacher now to do the job of one kindergarten teacher a year ago. High school would require 24 high teachers to do one beforetimes high school teacher’s work and that is if we overlook the very awkward point that having half the class meet half the time might limit the children’s risk but only extends the hours of exposure to the virus that is faced by the teacher.

In doing a bit of quick research for this post, I also find that lexicographer Ben Zimmer (brother of excellent science writer Carl Zimmer) has noticed this change as well:

‘The Before Time’: A Sci-Fi Idea That Has Made Its Way to Real Life

(I haven’t actually read that, since I don’t have a Wall Street Journal subscription. But it’s obvious that he’s noted the same shift in usage.)

Just an interesting observation about how our language changes, and another example of how science fiction has had an effect on the ‘real’ world.

Jim Downey



“Did we actually go there, or … ?”

One of the early reviews of St Cybi’s Well added this note under “TRIVIA”:

Most of the chapters start with information that looks like it came from Internet websites. I typed in some of the URLs, and they are exactly what they seem to be, lending credence to the book.

And several people have commented both on Amazon and on Facebook that the book could function as something of a travelog.

That’s very much by design. The chapter header URLs & info I used in the book are straight from real sites online, though I intentionally used versions which date back to ~ 2012 (the date in the novel) whenever possible. And likewise, each location specified in the book is real. As well as every bit of Welsh history or myth I used.

I did this to lend the book verisimilitude. I really want readers to wonder just how possible the story is, to feel that ‘thinness’ I describe between one reality and another in the book.  I want them to visit the sites mentioned, to feel what I have felt there.

I didn’t start writing the book with this in mind. I figured that I would simply use my own experience in traveling in Wales to ground the book in reality, and use what little I knew of Welsh history & mythology to help add color. But as I wrote, I found myself digging deeper and deeper, spending more time visiting sites virtually, until they became very well known to me.

After a while, I started to lose track of whether I had actually visited some of the sites in person, or had only visited them online. This led to the very surreal experience during a trip we took in 2017 where in going to Craig Rhosyfelin I was absolutely certain that we had visited the site previously … but also absolutely certain that we never had (the latter which was confirmed by my wife). I had spent so much time exploring the site virtually, working through the descriptions and history of it, writing the interaction of characters there, that it really did feel like I had my own personal memories of the place. Bizarre.

The same is true of several other locations in the book, to the point where my wife and I now joke about it. “Did we actually go there, or … ?” has become a standard in our travels.

And of course now, with the limitations imposed by our own real pandemic, such virtual travel is all we have at present. So if you need a vacation, maybe spend a little time in my novel. The links included on the website will help.

Jim Downey

 



Easy to predict.

In Communion of Dreams, I have “experts” who are A.I. assistants. As I describe them in that book when I introduce one as the character ‘Seth’:

His expert was one of the best, one of only a few hundred based on the new semifluid CPU technology that surpassed the best thin-film computers made by the Israelis. But it was a quirky technology, just a few years old, subject to problems that conventional computers didn’t have, and still not entirely understood. Even less settled was whether experts based on this technology could finally be considered to be true AI. The superconducting gel that was the basis of the semifluid CPU was more alive than not, and the computer was largely self-determining once the projected energy matrix surrounding the gel was initiated by another computer. Building on the initial subsistence program, the computer would learn how to refine and control the matrix to improve its own ‘thinking’. The thin-film computers had long since passed the Turing test, and these semifluid systems seemed to be almost human. But did that constitute sentience? Jon considered it to be a moot point, of interest only to philosophers and ethicists.

In the world of 2052, when Communion is set, these “experts” are ubiquitous and extremely helpful. Seth is an “S-series”, the latest tech, and all S-series models have names which start with S. I figured that naming convention would be a nice way to track the development of such expert-systems technology, and in the course of the book you see earlier models which have appropriate names.

So when the time came to write St Cybi’s Well, I figured that I would introduce the first such model, named Andi. Here’s the first bit of dialog with Andi:

“Hi, I’m Andi, your assistant application. How can I help you?”

“Andi, check local restaurant reviews for Conwy and find the best ranked Fish & Chips place.”

“You’re not in Conwy. You’re in Holywell. Would you rather that I check restaurants where you are?”

“No, I’m not hungry yet. But I will be when I get to Conwy.”

“Very good. Shall I read off the names?”

“Not now. It can wait until I am closer.”

“Very good. Shall I track your movement and alert you?”

“No.”

“Very good. May I help you with something else?”

“Not right now.” Darnell shut off the app, then the phone, and dropped it back into his pocket. The walk back to his car was uneventful.

Now, I wrote this bit almost eight years ago, long before “Siri” or “Alexa” were announced. But it was predictable that such technology would soon be introduced, and I was amused as all get-out when Amazon decided to name their first assistant as “Alexa”.

Anyway, I also figured that since the technology would be new, and unsophisticated, that Andi would be slightly annoying to use. Because it would default to repetitions of scripts, be easy to confuse, et cetera, similar to encountering a ‘bot on a phone call. And you can judge for yourself, but I think I succeeded in the book — the readers of early chapters thought so, and commented on it.

So this article in the morning Washington Post made me chuckle:

Alexa, just shut up: We’ve been isolated for months, and now we hate our home assistants

“I’m not a bad person,” Angela Hatem said. “I’m so nice to people.” But Alexa, the voice of Amazon’s home devices, isn’t a person, despite how hard “she” tries to emulate one. And coronavirus/self-quarantine/2020 has Hatem feeling a bit stressed out.

“I say things to Alexa that I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy, if I had one. And I don’t know why. She makes me crazy. … I curse at her. I call her names. I’m very, very mean to her,” said Hatem, who lives in Indianapolis with her 1-year-old son. “There’s really few things I can vent at or vent to, and I’m making Alexa my virtual punching bag.”

 

Heh. Nailed another prediction.

* * *

It’s the first of the month. That means that both novels and our care-giving memoir are available for free download, as they are the first of each month. If you haven’t already, please help yourself and tell your friends.

Jim Downey

 

 



With apologies to Ursula K. Le Guin

So, since I haven’t been blogging here much in the last couple of years, I haven’t said anything about just how surreal it was working to finish my novel about a global pandemic … while an actual global pandemic was unfolding around us.

Yeah. Seriously. Real Lathe of Heaven stuff, making me wonder about just how much my envisioning a given reality was bleeding into this reality.

To a certain extent this had been an ongoing problem with writing St Cybi’s Well, as I had mentioned previously. I had to keep going back and making the ‘dystopia’ of SCW worse as our own world took a turn for the worse with the election of Trump, elements of Christian fascism seemed to be in ascendancy, et cetera.

But this year, after I had gotten a solid re-start on finishing St Cybi’s Well, watching the Covid-19 virus start to spread, was just … bizarre. And as you’ll see when you read the book, how the virus spread and the efforts that various governments tried to curtail it was pretty much exactly as what happened in real life. Fortunately, of course, C-19 hasn’t proven to be nearly as deadly as the Fire-Flu.

Well, at least not yet.

< shiver >

Jim Downey



Hawking’s Conundrum

From Chapter 3 (page 50 of the paperback edition) of Communion of Dreams:

Apparent Gravity was the third major application of the theories set forth in Hawking’s Conundrum, the great opus of Stephen Hawking which was not published until after his death in the earlier part of the century. He hadn’t released the work because evidently even he couldn’t really believe that it made any sense. It was, essentially, both too simple and too complex. And since he had died just shortly before the Fire-Flu, with all the chaos that brought, there had been a lag in his theory being fully understood and starting to be applied.

But it did account for all the established data, including much of the stuff that seemed valid but didn’t fit inside the previous paradigms. Using his theories, scientists and engineers learned that the structure of space itself could be manipulated.

In the news today:

Stephen Hawking’s ‘breathtaking’ final multiverse theory completed two weeks before he died

A final theory explaining how mankind might detect parallel universes was completed by Stephen Hawking shortly before he died, it has emerged.

Colleagues have revealed the renowned theoretical physicist’s final academic work was to set out the groundbreaking mathematics needed for a spacecraft to find traces of multiple big bangs.

Currently being reviewed by a leading scientific journal, the paper, named A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation, may turn out to be Hawking’s most important scientific legacy.

I frighten myself sometimes.

 

Farewell, Professor Hawking. Challenged in body, you challenged us with your mind.

 

Jim Downey



Because what is built, endures.*

About 13 months ago I wrote the following:

But redoing a 300’+ length of brick walkway is no small task. To do it correctly would require a lot of work and a fair amount of expense for proper landscape edging, landscape fabric, gravel/chat, and sand. And if we were going to go to the trouble of redoing it, we wanted to do it correctly and expand it a bit.

As noted in that post, we (my wife and I) didn’t expect to finish the entire length of the walkway last year before winter set in. But we did get about 180′ of it done.

And this summer, after our various trips and other obligations were completed, we got back to the project. A few days ago I was able to post these pics to my Facebook page:

As you might guess, that’s where the walkway ends, some 320′ from where it began. If you look carefully, you can see our house hiding behind some trees at the top of the second image.

It was a *lot* of work. No surprise there. But I found it interesting to estimate (with reasonable accuracy) some of the numbers involved to get a scale of the project. We used about 25,000 pounds of crushed limestone. Some 2,500 bricks (most first dug up from the old walkway, supplemented by some salvaged brick from another neighborhood building tear-down). And about 1,600 pounds of sand. I have no idea how much old, too-damaged brick and dirt I dug out of the old walkway, but it was substantial enough for a good start to a landscape berm we’re going to put in along one edge of the walkway, as seen on the side of this image:

* * *

When I wrote the blog post linked above, I noted that I was probably at about the bottom of my mild bipolar cycle. It runs about 18 month from trough-to-trough, or peak-to-peak, so that would mean I’m currently somewhere between a manic high and a depressive low, but heading down. That feels about right, and fits with the onset of cool weather hinting at the winter to come.

I don’t look forward to that. Wrestling with the black dog is never easy.

But I now have a new path to walk, when I need somewhere for my feet to take me. A path which was constructed with much sweat, some blood, and a whole lot of love. A path which respects the past, but builds on it, extends it, and makes it more durable, whatever comes. That helps.

 

Jim Downey

*Of course.



Happy (re)Birthday to me …

A year ago yesterday, I met my cardiologist for the first time. After looking over the results of my stress echo-cardiogram and discussing what it possibly meant with me, he said that I needed to have a cardiac cath procedure sooner rather than later. Since he’s one of the premier heart surgeons in the mid-west, and always in demand, I expected that this meant I’d get put on a waiting list and have it done sometime in the next month or so when there was an opening in his schedule.

I nodded. “OK, when?”

He looked down at my chart, then back at me.  “What are you doing tomorrow?”

Good thing I don’t panic easily.

* * *

Well, as I recounted a few days later, the procedure went smoothly, though longer than usual, with the end result that I had a couple of stents placed to correct a congenital heart defect. It took a while for all the ramifications of what I had lived with, and what it meant to have it corrected, to really sink in. Part of that was coming to full understanding of just how close to death I had come, because even the slightest amount of atherosclerosis, even the tiniest little blood clot, would have triggered a massive heart attack.

But now it’s been a year. I saw the cardiologist several times over that year, most recently a few weeks ago. And, basically, I’m now past it all. I’m no longer taking any blood thinners, I don’t need to take any real precautions, I only need to check in with the cardiologist once a year or if I notice a problem. If I’m smart, I’ll continue to get regular exercise (I now walk three miles each morning, and get in plenty of additional exercise doing yard work and such) and be a little careful about my diet, but those are things which any man my age should probably do.

So, basically, today’s the first anniversary of my rebirth.

And it feels good.

 

Jim Downey