Communion Of Dreams

Season of persuasion.

Over the last week or so, I’ve tried to write this piece about a dozen times, only to give up and delete what I had come up with. I’m not sure whether this one will work or not.

What’s the problem? Well, it’s easy for whatever I say to only be seen as bitterness. And while I am a bit bitter, that’s not the reason for my writing.

* * * * * * *

Timing is everything.

The best ice cream in the world won’t sell worth a damn in the middle of a blizzard.

And so it is with writing.

I’ve been very frustrated with our inability to sell Her Final Year. I don’t think we’ve broken 30 sales yet. It’s depressing enough that I don’t even bother to check the sales figures these days. And it seems that nothing we do makes the slightest difference.

I thought that the timing for the book would be perfect. There’s been a slew of studies and warnings about the impending crunch of an aging population, and how that will require more care-givers. Organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Association have been working hard to build awareness, create support mechanisms for care-providers and their charges.

But people don’t want to think about such things. The news of the day is depressing enough as it is, with little prospect for getting better anytime soon.

* * * * * * *

And it isn’t just that. I’ve noticed that increasingly, people are not in a mood for conversation. They’re in a mood for argument. Or just shouting at one another.

I was relieved a couple of years ago when Brent decided to shut down Unscrewing the Inscrutable. Because I had gotten tired of having the same old arguments time and again, frequently with the same people. No one was willing to change their mind, they just wanted to rehash the same words, endlessly.

The same was true of making a pro-2nd Amendment argument on the political blog Daily Kos. For years, I had been engaged, and it seemed to make a real difference – people would change their minds when presented with a cogent position, supported by facts and logic. But then earlier this year, the mood changed. And even trying to hold those conversations became pointless – no one would ever change their mind, no matter what.

I’ve seen the same thing happen in other venues, as well. My writing for is generally well received, but anything which is even the slightest challenge to the conventional wisdom or political alignment of the bulk of the readers tends to get less attention and support. If I write something which is ‘preaching to the choir’, people go nuts and love it.

* * * * * * *

And it isn’t just me, either. Others have noticed the same thing, though I’m not sure anyone has phrased it in quite the same terms.

I don’t think people want to be challenged at all. They want to hear familiar, soothing tones. They want to be told that they are right, and that the “other side” is wrong. They want to be certain that only they are being reasonable and open minded.

Now, this is usually the case to a greater or lesser extent. People always want to have their prejudices and biases affirmed. That is a human trait – one we all share, whether or not we like it or are willing to admit it.

But it has become even more strident of late. Politics in this country has been polarized for a while, and the rhetoric from all sides has been dire building to extreme. I get the sense that a kind of madness is developing, a mindless tribalism that shunts off all contrary data in favor of those things which serve the tribal identity.

Things change. I think the time to rend is coming.

Certainly, the season of persuasion is ending.

Jim Downey

Finding the essence.
January 17, 2011, 1:09 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Daily Kos, Politics, Science Fiction, Writing stuff

A long drive is good for thinking, sorting. This past weekend I drove north, to join friends who had decided to start on a new project: experimenting with home distillation.

* * * * * * *

Distillation. I’ve known the theory since at least grade school, and had read up a bit on the applications used in alchemy and then later to produce various alcoholic spirits. It can be very simple or exceedingly elaborate, from a basic alembic to industrial production. Here’s an image of the set up my friends used:

What you see there is an all copper still. On the left is the reaction vessel where all the stuff to be distilled goes. Vapor rises from this as it is heated, passes through the copper tube to the vessel on the right. That’s actually a coil of copper tubing inside a bucket, which you fill with cold water and ice. The light colored globby bits are a simple paste made from rye flour and water and used to seal the joints to minimize leakage. The still is resting on bricks over a woodfire in a friend’s kiln.

* * * * * * *

Years back, after I closed the gallery and started caring for Martha Sr at home, I started spending more time participating in political forums. It was an outlet for me as I tried to find some balance in life – a way to keep my mind active and alert, but without the same level of demands as trying to work on conservation projects or creative writing.

As the care-giving became more demanding, I found myself even more involved on one forum in particular – it gave me a kind of community, a form of support. Eventually I began sharing my blogging about being a care provider for someone with Alzheimer’s there, and that led to meeting GreyHawk and eventually to writing Her Final Year.

I spent a lot of time writing for the site – many of the items here tagged “Daily Kos” actually started as things I wrote for that site and then decided to cross post here. It helped me keep my sanity, and gave me a forum for exploring ideas which I knew would get a decent amount of feedback. A writer likes to have readers.

* * * * * * *

They started with two five-liter boxes of wine. The idea is that you have to make a conditioning run to clean off all the copper surfaces. It also gives you a chance to see how the whole thing operates, and to learn from a small batch.

The biggest problem was with controlling the heat on the still. The initial plan had been to use a propane burner, but the one purchased to go with the still was European, and it was discovered that there weren’t the necessary adapters readily available to hook it up to American propane tanks. This was a shame, because it meant that it would be difficult to achieve the correct level of heat over a wood fire in an impromptu oven. But my friends have experience in doing such things, and pretty soon they sorted out the right combination of brick configuration, draw, and amount of firewood to get the necessary control.

The other downside was that the use of the kiln meant we needed to be outside. In January. In Iowa. For hours and hours. The woodfire did give off heat, of course, but it also gave off smoke, so you wanted to keep your distance a bit. And we were working with water and ice, as it was necessary to change the water in the condensation vessel regularly.

* * * * * * *

I mentioned getting back to work on the prequel to Communion of Dreams the other day. There’s still a ton of research I have to do, but in the process of the drive I was able to sort out some basic ideas – to narrow down the essential metaphor of the book, as it were. This establishes a framework for building the rest of the book, gives it form and definition.

* * * * * * *

After the conditioning run, it was time for the first real batch. After dumping out the previous residual mess (which stunk to high heaven) and a quick rinsing, the reaction vessel was filled with about 20 liters of red wine, placed back on the heat. The rest of the still apparatus was put in place, and sealed. Water was added to the condensation vessel.

It takes a while to get that much liquid up to temperature. But after a while you start to hear a low rumble, a sort of gurgling. The first vapors to be condensed are called the “heads” – these are volatiles that you don’t actually want to save, since it contains things like methyl alcohol (“wood alcohol”, the stuff that’ll make you blind). But you can tell that the distillate contains these impurities because of the color and cloudiness. Once the stream starts to run clear, you can save it. This is traditionally called the “hearts” of distillation. Towards the end, you get more bitter flavors and an almost oily taste – these are called the “tails” and once they start to show up you stop that batch. Altogether you get about 10% yield of alcohol – say about two liters.

* * * * * * *

In recent months, I’ve noticed that I’ve put less time into writing items for Daily Kos. Looking at the things which I have cross posted here, I see that increasingly I’ve written them for this site, and then decided to post them over there (only I would know this, it’s almost impossible to tell from reading the pieces).

This is neither good nor bad. I think partly it is a simple matter of my being more busy with my own actual work – getting CoD ready for publication, getting HFY ready for submission. And partly it has been because as I’ve continued the long recovery from being a care provider, I have found myself more outgoing, less reliant on the support that I found in that political forum.

And to a certain extent I think I have become . . . bored. So many of the discussions have become repetitive, almost redundant.

Now I have a new book brewing. Other projects I am considering. It’s time to concentrate interests a bit – to find what is essential.

* * * * * * *

Five batches, all told. Total of about 8 hours from start to finish. Went through about 120 liters of box wine, distilled down to about two gallons of alcohol.

That two gallons was poured into a small barrel, bunged close.

We tested the batches as they poured out of the still, but only in very small amounts – a few drops on a finger. The alcohol bite was there, sharp and raw. But there was also a taste of the grape, some of the flavor of the wine.

Now that product will age in the barrel, becoming mellower, interacting with the charred wood. Because of the relative surface area, a small barrel like that accelerates the aging process by a factor of ten – meaning that in six months it’ll be like the liquor tastes 5 years old. It’ll be interesting to see how it changes.

* * * * * * *

A long drive is good for thinking, sorting. This past weekend I drove north, to join friends who had decided to start on a new project: experimenting with home distillation.

And that gave me a metaphor I had been searching for, in more ways than one.

Jim Downey

(Thanks to Wendy for the image, and to all my friends for welcoming me into their project at a late date.)

Yes, it is art.
October 16, 2010, 1:44 pm
Filed under: Art, Daily Kos, Health, Politics

Perhaps it is because I am tired and in pain, thanks to the slowly worsening pleurisy I have been dealing with for the last two months. Perhaps it is because I am sick and tired of inane political commentary and commercials as we head into the mid-term elections. And perhaps it is because I fought the good fight in owning an art gallery for 8 years, and tried to promote sometimes non-traditional artwork.

For whatever reason, I found this comment to be *really* grating:

This is art??? I sure hope the Federal Government didn’t for this through the NEA budget, but it sure has the feel of Obama “stimulus” about it.

Fuck me to tears.

Yes, it is art.

And no, the Federal Government didn’t pay for this. Because the goddam installation was created by a Chinese artist, and is on display at the Tate Modern – you know, the one in London. Which isn’t in the US, you idiot.

Now, I realize that the NPR article about Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds where I came across this comment doesn’t give the location of the Tate Modern. But both of the links in the article are to UK newspapers, one of which says the exhibit is in London in the opening paragraph. And I would fully expect anyone reading the NPR site (or hearing the news on NPR this morning) concerning such an exhibition would know this, as the Tate Modern is famous world-wide.

And yet we get this:

This is art??? I sure hope the Federal Government didn’t for this through the NEA budget, but it sure has the feel of Obama “stimulus” about it.

That’s not just ignorance. It’s proud ignorance. With a side dish of blind partisanship. It is the mindset that says that anything the writer doesn’t understand must obviously be not worth knowing, and besides, the fault of the damned liberals to boot.

Like the exhibit or not, that’s fine. Think that art is only pretty pictures on a wall, and that’s OK too. But pull your head out of your ass and be at least marginally informed about the matter before you decide to expound on it. Ignorance is nothing to be proud of.

Good lord.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to Daily Kos.)

Put yourself in his braces.
February 16, 2010, 12:46 pm
Filed under: BoingBoing, Civil Rights, Daily Kos, Government, Politics, Privacy, Society, Travel

Go ahead: what if this were you, or your four-year old kid?

Did you hear about the Camden cop whose disabled son wasn’t allowed to pass through airport security unless he took off his leg braces?

* * *

Mid-morning on March 19, his parents wheeled his stroller to the TSA security point, a couple of hours before their Southwest Airlines flight was to depart.

The boy’s father broke down the stroller and put it on the conveyor belt as Leona Thomas walked Ryan through the metal detector.

The alarm went off.

The screener told them to take off the boy’s braces.

The Thomases were dumbfounded. “I told them he can’t walk without them on his own,” Bob Thomas said.

“He said, ‘He’ll need to take them off.’ “

You know the rest of the story, no doubt. The screener insisted that the boy’s braces come off (in violation of the TSA’s own guidelines), and the kid walk through the metal detector. Debate ensues, and eventually the boy hobbles through the detector. Parents are ticked off, make a bit of a scene. A supervisor was called, who just walked away when told that the boy’s parents wanted to file a complaint. There’s a bit more of a scene. The local police (this was at the Philadelphia airport) show up, and here’s where things change from the usual story line in these cases. The local police find out the father was a cop, and things get smoothed over enough that the family was allowed to go on with their flight.

But put yourself in that picture, instead. What would have happened to you? What would have happened had things deteriorated to the point where the local cops were called?

Yeah, maybe you shouldn’t have gotten annoyed and insisted that the TSA screeners and then the supervisor treat your child with a little bit of consideration and in accord with their own regulations. And maybe you shouldn’t have threatened to file a complaint. But according to everything else that everyone saw, you did nothing more than this.

Again: what would have happened to you?

If you were *very* lucky, and if you were *very* chagrined when the local police showed up, you would only have been taken to a small room somewhere nearby and hassled, probably missing your flight. Unlucky, or stand your ground, and you likely would wind up being held in jail for at least a few hours to ‘teach you a lesson’, perhaps with some actual charges filed against you. It happens all the time.

Policeman Bob Thomas got cut a little slack. He’s a cop, and I don’t really begrudge him that. And he called a local columnist, who has done a couple of stories on the Philadelphia airport’s TSA nightmares. This prompted the local TSA spokesperson to confirm that the whole incident was poorly handled, TSA rules were not followed, and she said that Thomas had received an apology last week from TSA’s security director at the airport, Bob Ellis. She said that Ellis provided Thomas with the name of the agency’s customer service representative, should he have a problem in the future.

Good. I’m glad that this got the attention of the press.

But imagine if it were you.

Jim Downey

(Via BB. Cross posted to dKos.)

That’s nice.
February 11, 2010, 1:50 pm
Filed under: Daily Kos, Feedback

Feeling a bit down today – I think I am just getting a bit tired of all the ‘neighborhood’ stuff I have been doing lately. But did just get a nice note that I thought I would share:


Just finished your book, and I must say I really enjoyed it. As I typically do I devoured it in less than 2 days and will now go back and read it at a more leisurely pace.

I found your link to the book in a comment you left at DailyKos. Though I don’t necessarily agree with alot of what is written there, I enjoy reading all intelligent points of view, and you never know where you will find a gem such as your book.

Do try to get it published, and please continue to write. I look forward to your next book, as certainly I hope there is another one to come.


John O.

I wrote him back, thanking him. Now if only it was feedback from Trapdoor . . .

Jim Downey

RKBA – the education of a liberal
November 17, 2009, 10:27 am
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Daily Kos, Guns, Politics, RKBA

(Cross posted to dKos, but thought some here may find it interesting. JD)

One of the guiding principles of my life, and my politics, is that education makes a difference.  Not just to give people the tools they need to succeed in life, but to also help improve our society through the reduction of fear.  Because all too often, fear springs from ignorance.  It can be ignorance of science.  Or ignorance of other cultures.  Or ignorance of sexuality.  Or ignorance of firearms, which is my topic for today.

For years I have tried to tell other gun owners and 2nd Amendment supporters that the single most effective thing they could do to insure continued support for the 2nd Amendment is to take new people shooting.  And preferably, to take someone who is liberal/progressive.  Don’t talk politics.  Don’t argue over this or that candidate.  Just take people out to the range, and give them a safe and relaxed introduction to shooting.

It’s easier for me, because my liberal and progressive friends know that I am on their side.  I don’t have a macho attitude, I’m intelligent and well educated, I understand quite well that things are complex and simple solutions are suspect.  In other words, I’m about like every Kossack who isn’t a troll.

When introducing someone new to shooting, I will first go over the safety issues.  Explain the four rules of firearm handling (this without even opening the gun cases yet.) Take out and hand around eye protection (unless they are already wearing glasses with safety lenses.  Take out and hand around hearing protection (I prefer the newer electronic type which allows for full normal hearing, but shuts off with loud noises.  I keep a couple extra pairs of these in my range bag so they can always hear me talking to them.)  Then we will discuss the particular range where we’re shooting, and any additional safety issues which pertain to it (actually, I’m lucky in that I have private land where I can go which has an ideal set-up for short-range shooting).

Only then will I take out the first gun, carefully explain how the “four rules” apply specifically to it.  Then I will set it aside, locked open, no ammo in sight.  I will do the same thing with each of the usually 6-8 guns I bring along, explaining what they are and how they function, how the “rules” apply specifically to handling them.

Then we’ll start.  I always prefer to start with just a .22 rifle.  If someone has done shooting at camp or in school, chances are that they were using a .22 rifle of some sort.  I go over once again how the “four rules” apply.  How the gun operates.  How to hold it.  How to aim (though accuracy isn’t important at this stage – just gaining a safe familiarity with guns is all I want to accomplish.)  Only after we’ve been over all of this do I break out the ammunition – and then just one round.  I’ll go over how to load the gun, once again how to operate it, and how to hold it.  After answering any questions, and checking that everyone has their eye and hearing protection in place, then I will fire the gun, demonstrating the recoil and report from it.  With a .22, neither is really noticeable, and it provides a good introduction to the whole idea of shooting.

If anyone has any questions at this point, I’ll answer them.  Then I’ll make safe the rifle, hand it to the first student (I prefer to only teach one or two people a trip – three max.)  Make sure they understand how to hold it, how it operates.  Then I will get out one more round of ammunition, and either help them load the gun, or load it for them.  When they are ready, and comfortable, I walk them through the process of aiming and firing the gun, just gently squeezing the trigger.  When it goes off, there is almost invariably a bit of a squeal of joy or laughter from the shooter.  And that is one of the best sounds in the whole world.

Sounds tedious?  It isn’t really.  I just do it in a very thorough and slow manner, taking my time.  Because to the person who has never handled or shot a gun before, it can be very scary.  Showing that guns can be safely handled, and even fun, is worth a bit of time.

We’ll shoot the .22 rifle a few more times.  I’ll let the student gain some level of comfort in loading and shooting the gun on their own, even allowing them to load two or three rounds into the magazine, so that they can shoot it multiple times without stopping to reload.

Then we’ll move on.  We’ll go from the .22 rifle to a .22 revolver, then a .22 semi-automatic, each time going over all the steps outlined above, always ALWAYS stressing the four rules of gun safety and how they apply to each firearm.  It depends on how much time we have (I usually like to allot about three hours – that’s long enough to tire out most people new to shooting), and what guns I’ve brought, but we’ll progress from smaller caliber guns to larger ones, as the student wants.  I usually have up to a .44 magnum – a large frame gun that is actually quite comfortable to shoot with “special” loads in it.  But it hasn’t always been so – you can go with whatever you have.  After we’ve gone through all the guns once, I give my friend a chance to go back and shoot anything that they want, once again going over the handling of that specific gun for safety.

When we’re done, I will pack up everything securely, as I answer questions.  It isn’t often that anyone “gets hooked” on shooting sports – it does happen, and I always tell them that if they want to go shooting again, I will be happy to provide everything.  But that wasn’t my goal.  My goal was to show that guns, while potentially dangerous, can be handled safely and sanely.  To de-mystify them, turn them from an object to be feared to a tool which is understood.  Once that happens, my liberal friends may or may not change their mind about the 2nd Amendment – but at least they will now be more informed of the issues involved.  And over time, I have found that most of the people I have taught have become much more willing to see the matter from my perspective.

Jim Downey

“You think about those famous truths…”
October 16, 2009, 8:28 am
Filed under: Daily Kos, General Musings, movies, Society, Survival, Violence

It’s always dangerous to quote yourself. But I think this is worthwhile:

“You think about those famous truths in our culture-about a son’s coming to adulthood and seeking to avenge his father’s death. It’s been a recurring theme in Western culture for centuries. Look at Shakespeare. The first ‘Star Wars’ movie was largely that.

“One of my favorite movies is ‘The Princess Bride.’ There you have one of the main characters, Inigo Montoya, say, ‘You killed my father. Prepare to die.’ And that refrain plays out through the entire movie. It is interesting because one of the things that same character says in the movie is: ‘There’s not a lot of money in vengeance.’ That’s a very insightful thing. I could not have allowed that to twist my life, to give me that sort of single-minded determination, to seek revenge in one way or another.”

At the mid-century point of his life, the pain is still there.

“Talented authors can explore these themes, but I was actually faced with dealing with it. My father was murdered and the man who did it was sentenced to death for that crime. But his sentence was commuted to a life sentence without parole by the court in the mid-1970s,” reflects Downey.

“If I dwelled on who he was and what he had done, there would have been a lot of rage that would have been given personification. I really wanted to avoid dwelling on the negative things. This man is presumably still in prison. I have tried my absolute best to ignore him. By distancing myself that way, I don’t feel like I have to seek vengeance personally. But the thought still crosses my mind every time I watch a movie that has that theme, every time I read a book or watch a movie, or an officer dies,” he adds.

That’s from page three of an article in this month’s POLICE magazine, titled “What Happens to the Children of Fallen Officers”.

Trust me, that was not an easy interview to give.

I’ve written about this subject before, and mentioned it in passing. It’s obviously, and appropriately, been a major factor in my life – one which has never been far from my awareness.

It’s almost trite to say “we are defined by the choices we make rather than the experiences we have,” as if life were just simply a game of cards where you sought to win some small pot of money. I know hard choices. Choices that have to be made again, and again, and again, in the face of ongoing societal pressures pushing you to make different choices. And because I have had to face this, I am much less inclined to pass judgment on those who have chosen poorly. I know full well – as lucky as I have been to have a loving wife, a loving family, and friends who care deeply – I know full well how close I have come to making poor choices myself.

Rage and vengeance are part of our heritage, part of what makes us human, part of what has enabled us to survive. That cannot be denied. But they are less important than love and community – which have allowed us to start to build a civilization.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to Daily Kos.)