Communion Of Dreams


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

 



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

 



My ambivalent year.*

2016 was odd. Just plain odd.

On the one hand, I had the same dumpster-fire of a year that everyone had, in terms of notable deaths, bizarre & unexpected election results here and abroad, and surreal news & social trends.

On the other hand, I’m alive. Which is something of a small (technological) miracle.

I now understand better (thanks to more discussion with my doctors, research, and experience) what happened with my heart, and what it really meant. Turns out that I didn’t have any plaque build-up even in the convoluted artery in question, as I initially thought. No, it was just that badly kinked, and probably had been all my life. I had started to notice it just because of normal aging, meaning that the normal parts of my heart were slowly getting weaker.

In the last six months or so I have finally been able to strengthen the 1/3 of my heart which had never had proper blood supply. Meaning that now I am actually in better cardiac health than I have ever been before. I walk three miles most mornings (5-6 days a week, usually), and don’t feel the slightest bit fatigued from it. The other parts of my 58-year-old body may limit me, but my cardiac condition isn’t a problem at all. Part of me wonders what it would have been like to have had this kind of stamina when I was young and athletic. Another part of me realizes that those limitations helped me develop awareness and self-discipline which I may have missed, otherwise.

Related to that, as mentioned in this post, early last year our financial situation stabilized for the good. We still need to be reasonably prudent about how we go through life, but I no longer feel as if I am hanging on by my fingernails sometimes. Without that change, I may not have felt secure enough to have my heart checked out when I did — meaning that I was very much at risk for the slightest little blood clot to trigger a massive heart attack.

Unrelated to any of that, the election lead-up and results also proved to be both a blessing and a curse for me. I was astonished at the results of both the Brexit and US presidential elections (and no, I’m not going to argue the point in comments — so just refrain from making any on this topic), yet it solved a problem for me with writing St Cybi’s Well. See, in the alternate time-line of Communion of Dreams, prior to the onset of the fire-flu, the US had become an authoritarian, semi-theocratic state. But I was having a really hard time explaining how we had gotten to such a point when actually writing SCW; everything I came up with just seemed too outlandish for the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader.

Well, that’s not a problem any longer. No, I’m not saying that I think that the US is headed for an authoritarian, semi-theocratic state … but because of the rhetoric and rise in power of some groups both in the US and the UK, that is no longer an unimaginable future. As a result, I have been revising the finished chapters of SCW to reflect these new insights, and I think that the book will be *much* stronger for it.

So yeah, I have really mixed feelings about 2016.

Oh well, I suppose that at least I’m around to have them. And that’s a good thing.

Happy New Year. Remember, today (and the first of every month until I say otherwise), both Communion of Dreams and Her Final Year are available for free download.

 

Jim Downey

*You should watch this sometime. Fun movie.



Huh.

This is not a drill:

An international team of scientists from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is investigating mysterious signal spikes emitting from a 6.3-billion-year-old star in the constellation Hercules—95 light years away from Earth. The implications are extraordinary and point to the possibility of a civilization far more advanced than our own.

The unusual signal was originally detected on May 15, 2015, by the Russian Academy of Science-operated RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya, Russia, but was kept secret from the international community. Interstellar space reporter Paul Gilster broke the story after the researchers quietly circulated a paper announcing the detection of “a strong signal in the direction of HD164595.”

Huh.

Even if it is a signal directly beamed at us, it would require a Kardashev Type I civilization (about 200 years beyond where Earth is currently). If it is just beaming off in all directions, it’s another whole magnitude of power — about a Kardashev Type II.

Huh.

Yeah, I’d say it warrants paying attention to.

 

Jim Downey



Having artists and writers involved in space research and planning? What will they think of next?

A good friend (and fan of Communion of Dreams), passed along an article which made me chuckle. Here’s an excerpt:

Earlier this month, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology assembled a strange gathering: scientists, artists, engineers, and policy-makers, for a workshop designed to imagine how humanity could settle the solar system.

The workshop, held in early February, was titled Homesteading in Space – Inspiring the Nation through Science Fiction, with the express purpose of imagining how manned space efforts can take us to our neighboring planets, not just for a short visit, but for longer durations.

And she added this comment with the link: “The group gathered reminds me a lot of your group from COD.

Ayup. Here’s the relevant passage from Chapter 1:

“I’ve had my expert do a preliminary search through the old NASA archives. I recalled that they had protocols for dealing with such possible situations, and I doubt that anyone else has really thought much about it since the turn of the century.

“In addition to Don’s field team, the preliminary search suggests that another component should be theoretical, a mix of disciplines so that we can get as broad a spectrum of experience and mind-set as possible. Probably we should have an expert in computer technology. A cultural anthropologist. Someone with a background in game theory and communication strategy. An artist or two. We’ll see if a more thorough survey of the NASA material has any good suggestions beyond that. I’ll get to work identifying appropriate individuals.”

And here’s a discussion the chosen artist (Duc Ng) has with the team leader in Chapter 4 about why it’s a good idea to have such non-technical people included in any such group:

“Why do you have an artist on this team?” asked Ng.

“It was a recommended protocol in some of the old NASA guidelines. Artists have a broader perceptual framework, aren’t necessarily limited by ‘logical possibilities’.”

“And what does that mean to you?” Ng leaned across the table. “That I’m just another kind of sensor you can use? Think about it. Those folks at NASA may have had something else in mind.”

Jon paused with his breakfast. “Go on.”

“How about if intuition and creative insight are the guiding principles of the culture that created the artifact? Not just a technological culture with its unique aesthetic sense, but a culture of intuitives who eventually produced sufficient technology to create this thing. A culture just the obverse of our own: largely artistic, with a secondary interest in technology.”

“With only a secondary interest in technology, how could they ever become a space-faring race?”

Ng shrugged. “Who knows how long they had been at it? Their culture may be tens of thousands of years old. Even a very modest rate of technological development could have led them into space eventually.” He paused, sighed. “Look, my point is that we can’t get stuck just looking for a technological explanation. The very reason that artifact was created, sent here or left here, may have had nothing to do with anything scientific or what we would consider logical. It may have had as much as anything to do with the passions, the dreams of the creators.”

Dreams which may take us to the stars.

 

Jim Downey

With thanks to Jane for the link and observation!



“Uh, he’s already got one, you see.”

Happy 25th Anniversary to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has rightly been called one of the most important scientific tools in human history. It has brought the cosmos closer to us, just as it has helped to drive home an understanding of precisely how far away those twinkling lights in the sky actually are … and connected to that, just how old our universe is:

The depth of Hubble’s data, however, has touched or rewritten nearly every area of astrophysics. Ever since the discovery of the expanding universe in the 1920s, astronomers had struggled with the rate of expansion and what it means. The so-called Hubble constant, the universal rate of expansion, was much in doubt, with two factions arguing very different conclusions from the data. The Hubble constant is also inversely proportional to the age of the universe, another key holy grail of science. One of the primary goals of Hubble was to measure the Hubble constant accurately, using a variety of distance indicators, and by the turn of the 21st century, this helped define a relatively accurate Hubble constant of 72±8 and an age of the universe, which the more recent European Planck satellite has refined further to 13.8±0.04 billion years.

 

It’s an amazing piece of technology.

But I can’t help remembering that even as amazing as it is, a few years ago it was revealed that it was considered so … obsolete … that US spy agencies had just given NASA two other surplus Hubble-type instruments they no longer wanted to bother to store. As I noted at the time:

…we’ve just found out that what we thought was at the limits of our technology is so obsolete that it can be handed off as so much surplus junk. And the implication is that while NASA is currently without the means to launch and service something like Hubble, that there are plenty other agencies within our government which are not so inconvenienced.

 

Which brings me around to the title of this blog post. Monty Python fans may recognize it from this scene in the Holy Grail:

Which I just happened to watch this week, and snickered over, remembering the news item about the HST from 2012. Though of course, in this case I hope that the National Reconnaissance Office wasn’t *quite* so taunting of NASA …

 

Jim Downey



A process of discovery.

Got a couple of new reviews of Communion of Dreams over the weekend. Both are short enough to just post the whole thing. Here’s the first:

4.0 out of 5 starsHard to believe this is a first novel…, January 3, 2015
By Paula Jean

Well plotted with disparate characterizations. Avoids science fiction cliches by and large. An interesting yarn with lots of good new ideas, thought provoking, and moves right along. Makes you want more. Bravo, Mr. Downey.

If you look through many of the reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, this is a fairly common comment: people are surprised that this is my first novel. I suppose that makes sense, since that information is right there on the ‘About the author’ section on Amazon and at the end of the book.

But the thing is, I’m not at all new to writing. And I’m not a young man. I’m 56, and have been writing fairly steadily since at least middle school. Essays. Short stories. Criticism. Advertising copy. Opinion pieces. Reviews. Memoir. Travelogues. Meditations. Instruction. Easily more than a million words — hell, I’ve written almost that many for this blog alone. So, probably a couple million words. As André Aciman says in this video (about the 2:00 mark):

I’ve written in all kinds of genres. And I’d like to think that most everything I do is governed by one idea, which is that you are after something that is quite difficult to articulate. And so most of the writing process is sort of prowling around this center, that you don’t see, but that the writing process will unveil and unearth for you.

It’s a way of discovering things. About the world. About people. About yourself.

And nowhere is this more obvious than in longform fiction. Communion helped me uncover a lot. St Cybi’s Well is helping me discover a lot more. I think that is why both books have taken such a long time to write, to work through. That process of unveiling (which is a major metaphor throughout Communion) is difficult, demanding, and never entirely done. You keep digging, keep whittling away, looking for a glimpse of the truth.

Speaking of whittling away, here’s the second review from this weekend:

4.0 out of 5 stars Pleasant surprise, January 4, 2015
By Amazon Customer

Excellent story. Well written, well-plotted. The dialogue and scene-setting is sparse, almost minimal, but that allows one to appreciate the plot that much more.

Happy New Year. Time for me to get back to work digging, digging, digging this Well.

 

Jim Downey

Via MetaFilter.



Is there anybody out there?*

From the opening pages of Communion of Dreams:

Jon sat there for a moment, trying to digest what Seth said. According to what pretty much everyone thought, it wasn’t possible. SETI, OSETI, META and BETA had pretty much settled that question for most scientists decades ago, and twenty years of settlement efforts throughout the solar system hadn’t changed anyone’s mind. Even with the Advanced Survey Array out at Titan Prime searching nearby systems for good settlement prospects, there had never been an indication that there was an intelligent, technologically advanced race anywhere within earshot.

It’s one of the very basic questions of space science: are we (sentient beings) unique? Rare? Common? There are a lot of ways to think about it, and here’s a nice piece on NPR discussing some of the relevant parts of the question and what we’re doing about it.  An excerpt:

So, to address the first part of the question we must find out how unique the Earth is. We then should figure out how unique life, and humans, are. Fortunately, thanks to NASA’s Kepler mission, we are making huge progress in the first part of the answer. A key finding is that the majority of stars (around 70 percent) have at least one planet orbiting around them. Based on the data so far (2,740 planet candidates and 115 confirmations), Kepler scientists estimate that some 17 percent of these are Earth-size, meaning with similar mass and rocky composition as the Earth, and possibly close enough to their parent star that water, if present, could be in its liquid state.

More good news arrived on this front earlier this month as NASA authorized the construction of Kepler’s successor, TESS (for Transit Exoplanet Survey Satellite). With launch scheduled for 2017, TESS will survey a much wider area of the sky than Kepler, while focusing mostly on stars that are closer. This way, it will use spectroscopy to resolve at least part of the atmospheric composition of the exoplanets. The goal is to find telling signs of life-related compounds such as ozone, water, carbon dioxide and, if we’re really lucky, even chlorophyll. Successful detection would be very exciting, as it’d point to what optimists expect, a few fairly close Earth-like planets with metabolizing beings.

I hope I live long enough that science is able to make a definitive affirmation of life, then intelligent life, outside our own planet.

Until then, well, there’s science fiction.

 

Jim Downey

*Seemed appropriate.



No, Seth would never do *THAT*.

I should be working in the bindery. Really.

But I came in here to send an email, then paused to check MetaFilter, and saw something which scared me. Something not exactly safe for work.

So of course, I had to share.

Welcome to the future:

That’s the business end of a, um, male sex toy.

Yeah.

And if that isn’t scary enough, here’s this bit from the actual tech article:

It also occurs to me that as amazing an experience as it is, it might be even better, in a purely physical sense, if I was given full control over it – maybe even just a series of different patterns like most girls’ vibrators have. I bring the idea up with RealTouch Director of Sales, Scott Rinaldo, and he tells me that a plan to open-source the development of third party apps is already up and running.

What could possibly go wrong?

 

Jim Downey

 



Crossing boundaries.

Major “spoiler” warning further down in this post. Skip the rest of the section after the [] warning if you haven’t read the book. It’s OK to watch the video or read the concluding section.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Tomorrow, with a little luck, we’ll break 20,000 downloads of the Kindle edition of Communion of Dreams, and could also break 10,000 downloads of the Kindle edition of Her Final Year.

* * * * * * *

This has been making the news the last few days:

Voyager 1 About to Become Interstellar Emissary?

NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft may be getting its first taste of interstellar waters beyond our sun’s familiar shores and, like the pioneers that first took to the oceans to explore seas unknown, the 34-year-old robotic spacecraft is about to make history as the first man-made object to venture beyond the known horizon.

This historic announcement was made on Thursday by the team keeping a careful eye on Voyager 1’s particle detectors who noticed an uptick in interstellar cosmic ray counts in recent years. That can mean only one thing: the mission is beginning to leave the outermost regions of the heliosphere — the farthest extent of the sun’s influence.

* * * * * * *

From Chapter 18: [MAJOR SPOILER WARNING.]

“Well, the two of them have been going over all the data coming down from the ship. In addition to the telemetry about the condition of the ship, they’ve had a flood of data about the communications broadcasts that the ship has been receiving since stopping.”

“Communications? I thought your report summary said that we couldn’t broadcast to the ship, that it was on the other side of some kind of barrier?”

“Correct. But on that other side is ample evidence that the universe is teeming with technological civilizations. Klee hasn’t been able to decipher any of the communications yet, but is certain that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of sources. Seems that we’ve been kept in the dark about all of them by this shell of artifacts that surrounds our system.”

* * * * * * *

Yeah, me too.

* * * * * * *

Tomorrow, with a little luck, we’ll break 20,000 downloads of the Kindle edition of Communion of Dreams, and could also break 10,000 downloads of the Kindle edition of Her Final Year. Downloads all day will be free to one and all.

Help spread the word if you can. It’s not like sharing it with an alien civilization or anything, but still it will be appreciated.

Jim Downey