Communion Of Dreams


Machado-Joseph Disease: Confession time.

I wasn’t going to say anything about this, because it’s largely a distinction without a substantial difference. But I’ve had several friends ask some questions because of things I posted to social media, and I decided to just clarify the matter.

Last August, when I said this:

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

I lied.

Oh, it’s a small, technical lie, mostly of the misdirection variety. But it’s a lie.

I don’t actually have MJD, or Spino-Cerebellar Ataxia type 3 (SCA3), which is a genetic disease caused by a trinucleotide repeat disorder in a specific gene sequence. Instead, I have SCAR8 (it doesn’t have another name), which is a genetic disease caused by a disorder in a different specific gene sequence, and has symptoms that are like a mild version of MJD, plus a couple of other things that I’d noticed/showed up on clinical exam. Everything else I said in the post from August is true.

If you poke around online, you’ll find that there’s not much on SCAR8, because it’s even more rare than MJD (by like a factor of 10), so there’s even less known about it. But it’s in the same family of ataxias for which there’s no cure and very little in the way of available therapies. You just deal with the symptoms as best you can.

I have always been a fairly pragmatic sort of person, so I figured that since there’s really not much difference between MJD and what I have, there wasn’t a need to confuse the issue with writing about it. But it seems that one of the differences is some mild lower G.I. issues (along with messed-up signals from my body about the urge to urinate), which I had mentioned online and caught the attention of friends.

So there’s that. It doesn’t change anything in what I am doing: treating symptomatically, altering behavior as necessary to account for the disease, and getting on with life as best I can. But having been raised Catholic, I’ve now confessed to the small lie, and gotten that off my chest. 😉

Jim Downey



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



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: 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



Take the long view.

Last fall, I embarked on a long-term project: doing exterior repairs and repainting our 140 year old Victorian Italianate home. As I’ve mentioned previously, this place has been in my wife’s family since the early 50s, and in all that time has basically been white with some color trim work. We’ve decided to change that, and here’s a little before & after from last fall to show you the difference:

I started back on this section of the house for two reasons: 1) it was fairly simple in terms of ‘gingergbread’, so it would give me a chance to work out the color scheme and get used to painting, and 2) the small, almost square window there in the corner actually needed a fair amount of carpentry work, to repair a stubborn leak that had caused some structural damage. I wanted to get that done before the damage got worse.

Anyway, I worked on it for a couple months last fall, until Winter settled in. And I got back to it in May, once the long and strange Spring turned reliably nice enough. I’m now finishing up work on the next major section, and as I’m inclined to do I’ve been posting progress pics on Facebook. And I’ve noticed a curious thing.

My friends have been posting encouraging comments as I go, which I expected (and hey, a little encouragement helps). But occasionally someone will post a comment to the effect that with all that I’ve accomplished, I must be getting close to being finished.

Say what?

Now, partly this is just due to the difficulty in getting a handle on just how big this place is. I mean, it’s no mansion, but it is a big ol’ 19th century farmhouse. It’s big enough that I can’t honestly take a decent pic to give a sense of the size. But take a look at the pics above. Note how there’s basically three different walls there. Got that? Yeah. Now, in total, this place has 20+ such walls (including the ones on the second story that are discrete from the ground floor walls. I also need to completely redo the 10′ wide front steps and railings, as well as the little side porch floor and railings. And about a third of the house has more gingerbread detailing that will take extra time.

Let’s put it this way: I’ll be very lucky if I can get it all done this year. Hell, I expect that it’ll take the better part of next year’s good weather to get it done.

And this seems to come as a surprise to many people.

But that’s not the curious thing.

To me, the curious thing is that a lot of people seem to think that working on something of this scale would be daunting. Intimidating. Scary. Whereas for me, it’s the most natural thing in the world, and not daunting or intimidating in the slightest.

Partly, I think that is just the perspective that comes with getting to my age (mid 60s): you tend to see larger arcs to life.

But it’s also because I’m a novelist. St Cybi’s Well took me the better part of a decade to write. Even discounting the long periods when I was just thinking through the novel, or was otherwise preoccupied, I still spent several years actually writing and rewriting it. I’m used to thinking in terms of taking the long view. Of working a little on a project when I can, slowly making progress, page by page, wall by wall. Here’s where I am currently:

For scale, that storm window is approx. 2′ x 8′.

I should get the repairs and priming done tomorrow, and the rest of the window frame painted on Monday. The storm window itself needs some repairs, then painting. Then there’s an identical one just out of the frame of the picture above.

One step at a time.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: I ain’t no wizard.

“Your love of the halflings’ leaf has slowed your mind.”

— Saruman, to Gandalf. The Lord of the Rings movie.

As I mentioned in my last post:

One of the problems that the industry has (at least in terms of medical use) is that the effects of cannabis are so varied, and standards so inconsistent, that pretty much the universal advice to new users is “just try a bunch of different things at small doses to figure out what works for you”.

So, following this standard advice, when I went to the dispensary for the first time I got a variety of different products. Tincture, edibles, flower, and a couple of pre-rolled joints. The tincture and edibles both have proven promising in my testing, taking the edge off my pain and other symptoms and helping me to sleep better. Last evening before dinner for the first time I tried to smoke some of the stuff taken from a pre-roll, so I could measure it out and be a little more careful about dosage than just lighting up a joint.

I measured out a modest amount, and put it in a glass pipe I’d also picked up. Standard little spoon-style, with a ‘carb‘ (hole on the side that controls airflow). I lit the bowl, drew the smoke into the chamber, and released the carb — and took a deep hit.

The smoke filled my lungs. And immediately I about coughed my lungs out. Hacking, spitting, coughing, tears, the whole 9 yards. Pathetic. But hey, I haven’t actually tried to smoke anything in what … four decades? But clearly, I ain’t no wizard. And I was overly generous in how much to put in the bowl.

Anyway, I went back inside after I recovered sufficiently, and sat down before the effects slammed into me. Good thing, because I was just about useless for the next twenty or thirty minutes. It wasn’t just the high, which I expected. It was also the way it seemed to suddenly multiply all the MJD symptoms I usually experience: vertigo, shaking hands, deep tremors in legs, shooting pain in the arms and feet, difficulty in eye-hand coordination, everything. All at once. About ten times worse than the usual symptoms.

I texted Martha and told her that she needed to take over dinner, that I just needed to sit and ride out the effects for an hour or so. I wasn’t worried; taking psychedelics long ago taught me how to just let the trip unfold without fighting it. The effects backed off and in an hour or so I was functional enough to get up and get some dinner, go into the living room and watch some TV while we ate. The effects then dropped off fairly completely after about four hours.

The worst thing, though? It didn’t do a damn thing for my pain. Oh well.

One strain down, others to try. But only after I get a small vape to allow me to control dosage even better, and take some of the edge off the raw smoke. Live and learn.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: testing time

So, late Wednesday FedEx delivered this:

That’s the sample collection kit for the MJD genetic test.

The paperwork included indicated that I could just take it to a local Quest Diagnostics and they would do the blood draw and send the samples off. I made an appointment for the next morning, and did just that. That done, now we just wait for the results. Ideally, I’ll get a copy of the results (I’ve formally requested one, and they should comply, since that’s part of the HIPPA guidelines) and not even have to meet with the Neurologists at the local large-institution university hospital which shall remain nameless. About the very last thing I want to do is deal with those people again. Yes, that experience has continued to annoy me.

And on that point, on one of my recent morning walks (I walk ~3 miles most mornings), I found myself walking with a couple of neighbors for part of the time. They were chatting about healthcare for another neighbor who was recently injured, and the conversation turned to the local large-institution university hospital which shall remain nameless. I mentioned that I’d recently had to deal with the Neurology Clinic there, and they both exclaimed words to this effect: “Oh, Jim, why the hell did you do that to yourself?!?!”

Yeah, the local large-institution university hospital which shall remain nameless has a bit of an image/reputation problem with the locals.

* * *

Late last week I also received my state Medical Marijuana card. I decided to apply for it, as part of my decision to be more active in managing my symptoms, whether they’re due to MJD or something else. Approval was all but certain, since on the ‘chronic pain’ criteria alone I qualified, having been on mild opioids for 10+ years. As I mentioned in one of my early posts about MJD, I’d noticed a persistent uptick in my use of my Rx pain meds (rather than just the occasional up and down variation I see over the months), particularly to aid in sleeping. Symptoms like Restless Leg/Arm Syndrome tend to disrupt my sleep in the early morning hours, contributing to spiraling problems associated with lack of sleep.

So I wanted something to help me sleep, without increasing my use of opioids or getting into a cycle of taking additional Rx meds. Many of my friends who deal with chronic pain has found MMJ (Medical MariJuana) to be efficacious in dealing with sleep problems, so I figured it was worth a try.

Let me tell you, there’s nothing like going to a medical cannabis dispensary for the first time to make one feel *REALLY* old and out-of-touch. Seriously, I gave the budtender a nice tip not only for his assistance, but also for not calling me “Gramps”.

The whole experience was a little overwhelming, even though I had done my research and spent a fair amount of time exploring products on the dispensary’s website. It’s clear that this is still an immature industry, figuring out how to do branding/marketing, communicating with different clienteles, tapping into demographic groups who are not already savvy about cannabis use.

But I was able (with the help of the budtender) to select some different products to try. One of the problems that the industry has (at least in terms of medical use) is that the effects of cannabis are so varied, and standards so inconsistent, that pretty much the universal advice to new users is “just try a bunch of different things at small doses to figure out what works for you”.

So that’s what I’m doing at present. So far, it looks promising.

* * *

Not all the tests we face in life are big. Or obvious. Or dramatic.

Sometimes they’re just a simple challenge: how to deal with this small problem. How to help someone. How to get through the day, or night.

With luck, in another couple of weeks I’ll have more information about my MJD status, and know whether and to what degree I have the disease. I was always very good at taking tests in school, and those I’ve faced in my life since I like to think I’ve passed reasonably well.

Waiting is hard. But it is just one more test to manage, piece by piece, day by day.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: Nervous

I honestly didn’t expect this.

Arrangements have now been made for the genetic test I’ve been wanting, and now I’m nervous about it.

Yeah, sure, it makes sense that I might be nervous about finding out I have MJD. That’s perfectly understandable. But I’m also weirdly nervous about finding out that I don’t have MJD.

WTF?

See, there’s a part of me that, well, as I said previously:

So there’s some small doubt in my mind sometimes as to whether I actually have the disease, or if I’m just concocting it from a variety of lesser symptoms of normal aging and my own rather rough & tumble life. And boy, wouldn’t that be embarrassing? I mean, I’ve told all my family and friends that I’ve got this happening, I’ve posted about it on Facebook, I’ve blogged about it. What if I’ve just imagined it all? What if I’ve got a case of hypochondria going on?

After all the fuss I’ve caused. After all my own worrying. After troubling friends and family. If it turns out that I don’t have it …

Well.

< deep breath >

If it turns out that I don’t have it, I’ll have dodged a bullet. It’ll just mean that I have been overly vigilant, perhaps over-reacted to some aspects of normal aging. Yeah, that might be a little embarrassing. But I think anyone who has had a health scare will understand.

And, as a friend said recently, it’s not like I’ve just invented this disease out of whole cloth. The fact that five close family members have had it in my lifetime means that it is a reasonable thing to check out, once I detected symptoms which could indicate onset.

Sometime in the next couple of days I’ll have the blood draw, and that will be sent off to Massachusetts. I should have the results back in about a month.

Keep your fingers crossed.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: wabi-sabi

“Jim Downey was a noted book artist, conservator, and author who, at the height of his skills, was betrayed by his body with the onset of Machado-Joseph Disease in his early 60s …”

That could be the opening line of my obituary some (hopefully many!) years hence. Or perhaps a change to my Wikipedia entry.

But the thing is, I don’t feel betrayed by my body. Not in the least.

Yes, I likely have MJD. And yes, it has started to cause me physical difficulties in accomplishing things, as well as additional pain, as I have been outlining here on the blog.

But we all live with limitations. Of strength. Of endurance. Of skill. Of intellect.

I can’t fly like a bird. Should I say that I am therefore ‘betrayed’ by my body? Of course not.

I can’t think as rapidly or as clearly as I could when I was, say, 40. Again, that’s not a betrayal. That’s just change that comes with being a normal human. Of living a normal life.

There’s a Japanese concept of wabi-sabi that informs a traditional aesthetic common in the culture. It has roots in Zen Buddhism, which I studied and tried to embrace as a young man. It can be a difficult concept to explain, but concerns an appreciation for that which is imperfect and/or impermanent in nature and beauty, as all life is imperfect and impermanent. A classic example of wabi-sabi is an elegant teacup which has a flaw (perhaps broken accidentally), but made more beautiful by the application of a gold filling to repair the cup and make it functional again. It is an understanding that all things can only be fully appreciated by respecting their limitations, and that experiencing the thing in the moment, as it is, with all the flaws it has.

As I noted a couple of months ago, I’ve been working to finish the leather-bound edition of St Cybi’s Well. Though this has been complicated by the onset of MJD, I’m almost finished with the edition of 14 books. As I was working to “turn in” (the process of folding the leather around the edges of the bookboard for the cover) the covering leather on one of the first of these books, I made a mistake. My hand slipped. And the tool I was using, my favorite thin bone folder, marred the cover.

Dammit.

I took a deep breath, finished what I was doing, and set the cover aside to think about it later. When these things happen, the >worst< thing you can do is panic and over-react. A lot of times if you just leave it be and revisit it later, you can usually mitigate the damage with a little careful pressure, or extra moisture, or one of several other techniques.

I turned my attention to the next cover.

And as I was finishing that one, almost the exact same thing happened. Not in the same place, but a similar, though worse, tool mark. Like this:

Gawddammit.

We all make mistakes. “It’s inherent in hand process”, as is commonly said by artisans. But making two very similar such errors?

That was likely thanks to MJD symptoms. Which I had been working through.

I quit for the day.

And as I thought about what it meant, I had to consider how I thought about myself, and my art. I am now an artist/artisan who has this additional limitation, this new part of who and what I am. Allowing that to be reflected in my art — indeed, embracing it — was the only honest thing I could do.

It was time for a little wabi-sabi.

So I did this:

A little gold leaf, to embrace the imperfection.

In fact, I added a wabi-sabi element to each of the 14 books. Because I made more mistakes as I finished the edition. Not all of them had tool marring, but many did (and, curiously, all along the top edge of the covers). I decided that for the edition to be complete, for it to reflect this particular moment in time, each needed to have a similar flaw/enhancement, though each one is unique.

Here they all are:

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’ll know more after my neurological assessment tomorrow.

As an artist, I’d be a fool deny my mistakes. Because denying them would be to deny myself, and what has brought me to this point in time. This particular, wonderful, moment.

Jim Downey