Communion Of Dreams


‘Watch the skies, everywhere!”

That’s from the 1951 classic The Thing from Another World, one of the first (and defining) science fiction movies which set the stage for much of what was to come even to the present day.

It was also very much a product of the early Cold War era, reflecting the fear* of the USSR and atomic weaponry. This is typical — science fiction usually is a reflection of (or commentary on) the technology and social conditions of the era when it was created.

So, what to make of two news items which showed up this week?

Here’s the first:

First State Legalizes Taser Drones for Cops

It is now legal for law enforcement in North Dakota to fly drones armed with everything from Tasers to tear gas thanks to a last-minute push by a pro-police lobbyist.

With all the concern over the militarization of police in the past year, no one noticed that the state became the first in the union to allow police to equip drones with “less than lethal” weapons. House Bill 1328 wasn’t drafted that way, but then a lobbyist representing law enforcement—tight with a booming drone industry—got his hands on it.

And here’s the second:

Welcome to the World, Drone-Killing Laser Cannon

Hang on to your drone. Boeing’s developed a laser cannon specifically designed to turn unmanned aircraft into flaming wreckage.

The aerospace company’s new weapon system, which it publicly tested this week in a New Mexico industrial park, isn’t quite as cool as what you see in Star Wars—there’s no flying beams of light, no “pew! pew!” sound effects. But it is nonetheless a working laser cannon, and it will take your drone down.

* * *

Instead of a massive laser mounted on a dedicated truck, the compact system is small enough to fit in four suitcase-sized boxes and can be set up by a pair of soldiers or technicians in just a few minutes. At the moment, it’s aimed primarily at driving drones away from sensitive areas.

 

I’m already seeing posts by friends on social media complaining about drones being operated by annoying neighbors, with discussion about what possible solutions there might be to deal with them (both by legal recourse and um, more informal approaches). There have been a number of news items already about people who have shot down drones, and there’s even a company advertising a specific kind of shotgun ammunition for just that.

“Watch the skies!”, indeed.

 

Jim Downey

*As good an explanation as any.



Excerpt.

Part of a scene from the chapter I posted an excerpt from a week or so ago. Context: at this site, when news of a pandemic flu has just broken, and governments are attempting to stop its spread with a variety of travel restrictions. If you’ve read Communion of Dreams you may find a connection here.

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

Darnell couldn’t help himself, he turned and looked at the monument as well. He knew that it was of modern origin, but it felt as though it were ancient, like the sacred standing stones found all over Wales. A dark grey granite, mottled across the surface. It wasn’t very wide, perhaps just a meter or so. It was four or five times as tall, with the upper portion like a smoothed-over pyramid.

“This is where hope died,” said a man’s voice beside him.

Darnell looked at the man. He was shorter than Darnell, about the same age. Wearing workman’s clothes, a simple flat-brimmed hat. “Then why come here? Why now?”

“I dunno,” said the man, shaking his head slightly. “I just felt … drawn here.”

Darnell nodded. “You’re local?”

“Yes, jus’ outside of town. Family farm.” The man looked at Darnell, seemed to make a decision. “Look, iff’n you need a place to stay … you know, for the time being … you can come an’ stay with my family.”

Darnell considered the man. “This isn’t where hope died. It still lives in you and all the decent people here.”

The man looked uncomfortable with this praise. “I dunno about that. But if you need a place …”

“I’ll be fine. But you – you and your family need to prepare. I know about these things – trust me on this. Hard times are coming, you may need to hunker down on your own for a while.”

The man shook his head. “No mister. If hard times are coming like you say, then we’ll all need each other that much more. You’re welcome to stay, if you don’t have someplace of your own to go to.”

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

 

Jim Downey

 



Writer’s block.

A friend posted this little aphorism to my profile on Facebook:

Writer’s block: when your imaginary friends refuse to talk to you.

My response:

Hmm. Pithy, but not sure I agree.

For me, being blocked isn’t about the technical stuff – dialog, description, understanding motivations. That’s all pretty straight-forward.

Rather, it tends to happen when I am trying to see the whole arc, and how a particular scene will fit into the developing narrative. There’s always a balance between knowing that you want to get from point A to point B on the ‘map’ of your story, and then working on the scene-by-scene movement. It’s been described as being like driving at night: you may know your destination a 100 miles away, but your headlights only illuminate the quarter-mile of the road ahead at a time. Being blocked is like having your headlights fail.

Jim Downey

Oh, and if you’re not at least following me or the Communion of Dreams page on Facebook … well, you should. I’m obviously brilliant and share a lot of interesting links and observations about the world there.  Just think of what you’re missing!  ;)



A meditation on what isn’t there.

I finally got around to seeing this the other day, and I have been thinking about it ever since:

 

* * *

I first heard of Michael Heizer in a sculpture class in college, sometime in the late 1970s. Well, that I remember. It’s entirely possible that I had seen some coverage of his work in the press before then. But my professor got me thinking about how sculpture defined space both by physical presence and absence, and I know that it was then that I became aware of Heizer’s work. I didn’t realize it at the time, but his basic concepts would manifest in my life in many ways, showing up in my interests in martial arts, book design, even writing.

* * *

In the movie, John Bowsher (then the Project Manager for Levitated Mass at LACMA) says this:

His ideas are incredibly simple, when you pare it all down to just its physical nature, it’s really quite simple, and you see it again and again in his work. To achieve that degree of simplicity is like, almost the hardest thing in the world to do.

 

* * *

Not being there when your opponent strikes.

Drawing the eye to the empty space.

Allowing the reader to fill in the suggested, but missing, description.

Each of these engages and enlightens in ways that no amount of force, or color, or detail ever could.

 

* * *

Chrissie Iles, Curator at the Whitney Museum, talking about Heizer’s Double Negative in the movie:

Micheal Heizer makes you aware of space and your relationship to space and how you move through space,the role of the sky, the role of the land, beyond what you’re looking at. You have to rethink the nature of who you are physically in relation to what you are walking around inside and observing from a distance and up close.

 

* * *

We’re not always aware of what we do while we’re doing it, or why. Sometimes, the trajectory of a life is determined by little things, subtle things. Even things which are mssing.

 

* * *

I finally got around to seeing this the other day, and I have been thinking about it ever since:

Shortly after I had conceived of the idea behind Paint the Moon, I knew that it wasn’t actually feasible. But the idea delighted me. And after some thought, I realized why: it was taking the principles of Michael Heizer’s art — of paring down art to the very simplest, physical elements of experience — and going one step further. Remove the physical object altogether, and replace it with pure experience, pure concept. Hence my description of the project as a “collective lyric fantasy”.

You can’t see the artifact of that project at a museum. There is no massive boulder to walk under, or a negative space in the desert to encounter.

But there is the Moon overhead, and the memory of a moment in time.

 

Jim Downey



Promising developments.

It’s been seven and a half years since my mother-in-law passed away from Alzheimer’s. A couple years later, we published Her Final Year. Since then I have kept an eye on ongoing research concerning the disease, and have mentioned it here when I thought appropriate. This week, there are several new promising developments to come out of the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Washington, D.C.

First is a saliva test for metabolites which indicate brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s. From this CNN article:

Researchers from the University of Alberta in Canada analyzed saliva samples of fewer than 100 people, divided into three groups based on cognitive ability: 35 with normal aging cognition, 25 with mild cognitive impairment and 22 with Alzheimer’s disease.

Using protein analysis technology, researchers examined the saliva of each individual, analyzing nearly 6,000 metabolites, which are small molecules that are byproducts of chemical reactions in the brain.

The team then discovered specific biomarkers (or patterns of metabolites) in the groups with known Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment, in comparison with the natural aging group, and tested the biomarkers as predictors of cognitive performance.

It’s a very small study, but if additional research into this area bares out the results, this could be a quick and inexpensive screening tool to help determine who may be at risk for Alzheimer’s. Because, as discussed in a very good segment on the Diane Rehm show this morning, early detection helps even though there are limited treatment options for Alzheimer’s (and other age-related dementias). That’s because there are things you can do to prepare for managing the disease: establish necessary legal protections (things like family trusts and durable power of attorney), educate family members and caregivers, investigate daycare and assisted living options, participate in drug and treatment trials, and similar.

Speaking of drug and treatment trials, the Alzheimer’s Association has a very useful online tool for Alzheimer’s patients, care-providers, and family members:

About Alzheimer’s Association TrialMatch®

Alzheimer’s Association TrialMatch is a free, easy-to-use clinical studies matching service that connects individuals with Alzheimer’s, caregivers, healthy volunteers and physicians with current studies. Our continuously updated database of Alzheimer’s clinical trials includes more than 225 promising clinical studies being conducted at nearly 700 trials sites across the country.

This is just one of the new tools which have been made available since we cared for Martha Sr. Because in the last 7+ years, there has been a lot of research and a growing awareness that Alzheimer’s will touch nearly every family at some time.

One of the other pieces of information to come out of this week’s is that women seem to be more susceptible to the disease, and experience a faster decline in their mental abilities than men:

Study: Women with mild memory problem worsen faster than men

Older women with mild memory impairment worsened about twice as fast as men, researchers reported Tuesday, part of an effort to unravel why women are especially hard-hit by Alzheimer’s.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women.

At age 65, seemingly healthy women have about a 1 in 6 chance of developing Alzheimer’s during the rest of their lives, compared with a 1 in 11 chance for men. Scientists once thought the disparity was just because women tend to live longer — but there’s increasing agreement that something else makes women more vulnerable.

 

There are a number of other factors which can have an impact on those numbers, of course. But even accounting for differences due to education, lifestyle, and social status, the discrepancy between men and women could not be accounted for. And having close family who had Alzheimer’s is a substantial risk factor, about doubling your chances of developing the disease. As is having any kind of major health crises requiring either hospitalization or surgery under general anesthesia.  In each and every case, men seem to fare better than women.

That may not seem to be a “promising development”, particularly if you are a woman in the high-risk category/categories. But it is, in the sense that scientists are now coming to understand the disease much, much better than they did just a decade ago. When we cared for Martha Sr, there really wasn’t a good diagnostic tool to determine whether or not someone had Alzheimer’s — it was a diagnosis confirmed postmortem. Now there are very good imaging tools available for amyloid plaque and tau protein, as detailed at the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative.

As I noted above, there are still very limited treatment and drug options, though even there some hopeful results have been reported at the Conference. But real progress has been made. Alzheimer’s no longer needs to be a devastating diagnosis, something to be feared and hidden. If you, or someone you love, is showing any signs of memory or cognitive impairment, seek help. It’s even possible that through participation in some of the clinical trials you can be part of the solution.

 

Jim Downey

PS: As noted previously, the Kindle edition of Her Final Year is available as a free download on the first of each month.



“We.”

The Globe and Mail has a wonderful essay by Col Chris Hadfield as an introduction to a new edition of Ray Bradbury‘s The Martian Chronicles. Here’s an excerpt:

Bradbury’s Mars offered unlimited new opportunity for exploration and discovery, and expansion of human awareness. Yet virtually every step in the Chronicles, as through much of human history, is a misstep. Mutual ignorance and distrust between normally peaceful peoples leads to violence and death. Greed causes unfathomably bad behavior; uncomfortably reminiscent of gold-hungry Conquistadors in the New World, five hundred years previous. Anger and frustration at the constraints of an intensely bureaucratic society somehow permit the craziest of personal behavior. And the ultimate threat of the destruction of it all somehow draws everyone back into the maelstrom, as if there is no escape. As if we all have a necessity to accept the consequences of everyone’s actions, and take our punishment, no matter how deadly.

Bradbury’s inclusion of the repeated patterns of human behavior, right down to inadvertent genocide caused by external pestilence and unfamiliar disease, makes The Martian Chronicles an ageless cautionary tale. It made me pause and ask myself – could it be possible that we are forever unable to go beyond who we were? Will every great opportunity of discovery be tainted, tarred and eventually destroyed by our own clumsy, brutish hand?

Are we so cursed by our own tragic humanity?

Wrestling with that very question … and depicting it … has been at the heart of my struggle to write St Cybi’s Well. And wrestling with my own demons at the same time has led me into some very dark moments, particularly over the last couple of months.

But there is hope. Here is the closing of Hadfield’s essay:

Their spaceship will be improbable, and the voyage will have been long. But as our first emissaries thump down onto Mars, stand up and look around, they will see who the Martians really are. And with that sense of belonging will come the responsibility and appreciation that has allowed us to flourish and grow on Earth for millennia, in spite of ourselves. By the time we land on Mars and first step onto the dusty, red soil, it will be alien no longer. We will know that we are home. And that may be what saves us.

As chance would have it, yesterday I started working on another conservation project which, in its own way, also affirms how exploration may save us. You’ve probably heard of the author, who had his own struggles and failings. Here’s the title page:

We

Maybe there’s hope for all of ‘we’, after all.

Jim Downey

Thanks to Margo Lynn for sharing the Hadfield essay.



Thoughts on this day.

I wrote this nine years ago, and posted it to this blog seven years ago. It seemed like a good time to repost it.

And as my birthday gift to everyone, Communion of Dreams is available for free download today. Please, spread the word to anyone who might enjoy it.

Jim Downey

 

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Thoughts on This Day

One birthday, when I was nine or ten, I woke with anticipation of the presents I would receive.  Still in my pajamas I rushed into the kitchen where my parents were having coffee, expecting to get the loot which was rightfully mine.  My father happily handed over a small, wrapped box.  I opened it eagerly, to find a little American flag on a wooden stick.  My father said that since my birthday was July 4th, he thought I would appreciate the gift.

Horror-struck first at not getting anything better, then a moment later at my own greed, I guiltily told my parents that I thought it was a fine gift.

After a moment, of course, my folks brought out my real presents, and there was a fair amount of good-natured teasing and laughing about the little trick they had played on me.

That was almost 40 years ago, and I can no longer tell you what presents I received that day.  But the lesson in expectations and perspective my dad taught me that morning always remained with me.  My dad had been a Marine, fought in Korea, and was a deeply patriotic cop who was killed while on duty a couple of years after that birthday.  I have no idea what happened to that little flag on a stick, but I do still have the flag taken from my father’s coffin, carefully and perfectly folded at the graveside when we buried him.

I’ve never looked at the American flag without remembering what a fine gift it really is and, as so many others have written, what it represents in terms of sacrifice.  I love my country, as any Firecracker Baby is probably destined to do.  You just can’t ignore all that early training of patriotism, fireworks, and presents all tied up together.

But that doesn’t mean that I am blinded by patriotism.  As I’ve matured and gained life experience, I’ve learned many other lessons.  Lessons about tempering expectations, living with occasional disappointment, accepting that things don’t always work out the way you plan no matter how hard you work, how good your intentions, or how deserving you are.  Still, you learn, grow, and do the best you can.  This, it seems, is also the story of America.  I believe we are an exceptional people, holding great potential, with our best years still to come.  But nothing is guaranteed.  We must honestly, and sometimes painfully, confront our failures, learn from them, and move on.  The original founders of our country were brilliant, but flawed as all humans are flawed.  Some of their errors led directly to the Civil War, that great bloody second revolution of the human spirit.  That they made mistakes does not negate their greatness; rather, it shows us our potential even though we are not perfect.  They knew, as we should know, that only we are responsible for our self-determination.  Not a king, not a God, not a ruling political class.  Us.

Today we’ve been gifted with a small box with a flag inside.  A token of our history.  Let us not take it for granted.  Let us not think that the thing itself is more important than what it represents.  Let us look on it and declare our own responsibility, our own self-determination.

Happy Independence Day.




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