Communion Of Dreams


Why yes, as it happens I *am* still alive …

The past few months have been … eventful.

* * * * * * *

A couple of weeks ago I got back to work on St Cybi’s Well. Yeah, the break since I finished Chapter 14 was much needed, as I had hinted in my last cluster of blog posts at the end of May.

Why? What happened?

Well …

… in no particular order:

  • Discovery, and subsequent treatment, of a major cardiac health problem.
  • Completion of a full course of cardiac rehab.
  • A substantial change in our financial situation resulting from the sale of property we owned.
  • A bunch of resultant legal and investment research, planning, and changes which every adult should do but few of us ever get around to actually completing. Something about almost dying tends to focus the mind on such matters.
  • A couple of extended out-of-state trips.
  • My starting to train someone from the MU library staff in proper conservation techniques a couple of afternoons a week.
  • A complete new computer system & software upgrade, with all the fun of transferring archives and working files.

And then there’s all the usual business of living and working. Having a couple of months of my life sucked up by dealing with the cardiac problems & treatment meant a lot of changes and trade-offs … but it sure as hell beats being dead from a massive sudden heart attack.

* * * * * * *

So, a couple weeks ago I went through and re-read the entire text of SCW to date, then started working to pick up the story again and bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Here’s an excerpt from the next section:

Darnell looked out Megan’s bedroom window, across the little lane into the large field beside the Tanat. The field, where so recently cattle peacefully grazed, was now a small village of tents and temporary structures. Most prominent among them was a large marquee someone had found and brought from a nearby town. Make-shift walls had been constructed of large plastic-wrapped round bales of hay from down the road, their tough skin making them weather and even somewhat fire-resistant. The marquee was the main recovery center, where people would be brought from the church after healing, allowed to emerge from the deep sleep at their own pace.

He turned and looked at his sister, who was sitting on the side of her bed. “There’s no reason for you to get up. We can handle it. Go back to sleep.”

There was a faint blue-white shimmer to her skin which never left her now. It wasn’t like she was glowing, exactly, but more like she had a permanent echo of the healing energy which she had used so much in the past couple of weeks. She shook her head. Darnell wasn’t sure whether it was in response to his comment, or just an effort to clear away cobwebs of sleep. “It’s better if it comes from me. I’m known as the Guardian of the Shrine. That carries some official weight with the Church.”

* * * * * * *

I got my garden in late this year. No surprise, given how things went with spring and the early summer. So my tomato plants were not as far along as they could have been when the first waves of heavy storms hit in June. Since then we’ve had fairly regular poundings of storms. And it looks like the tomatoes are almost at the end of their producing for this year — a full month or so early. But between what I harvested, and extra tomatoes picked up at the farmer’s market, I’ve put up about 60 pints of chopped tomatoes. Not quite as much as I would normally like to have, but not bad considering the situation.

And my habanero plants seem to be doing OK this year. Won’t be a bumper crop, but it ain’t nothing.

* * * * * * *

The past few months have been … eventful.

And a lot of things which normally get done, didn’t. Or were handled in a more superficial way than I would usually do.

But that’s OK.

 

Jim Downey



Writing is a process of discovery …

It’s an annual ritual. Salvaging what I can of the deer netting, pulling up the long lengths of rebar which pin the support towers in place, packing up chickenwire. While it wasn’t as good a year as it could have been, it was a better year than I thought it would be, and I hope that the next year to come will be even better yet.

* * *

This is good. Relevant excerpt:

You know what writers feel like when they’re not writing?

Guilty. Incredibly guilty.

Miserable.

They don’t need anyone to come by and kick them while they’re lying there, writhing in the seventh circle of hell, telling them, “Oh, remember those ten books and multiple short stories you wrote? Well, sorry, you stopped writing for a year so none of that counts. You’re no longer a writer.”

* * *

We live in a disposable world. Disposable electronics (when was the last time you tried to fix a tablet, laptop, or television?). Disposable water bottles. Disposable people.

Last week, I did this:

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20151104_110513

That is, I detached the deer netting I had put on my tomato towers, folded it up, secured it, and stowed it away to reuse next year.

This, actually, was a stupid thing to do. That’s about $20 bucks of deer netting. It took me about 90 minutes to salvage it. The amount of my time (in terms of billable hours) which went into doing that is literally 10x the value of the netting I saved. Stupid.

I don’t mention this to tout how environmental, enlightened, or noble I am. None of those things explains why I did what I did.

Well, OK, I try to be environmentally conscious. But I’m not fanatic about it.

No, I did that because in this instance it wasn’t about economics. Gardening, in purely economic terms, is fairly dumb. I don’t do it to save money. I do it to save my sanity.

* * *

By nature and profession, I save old things. It’s just part of my life. And I’m good at it.

Now, that deer netting above isn’t old, or valuable. And how does spending 90 minutes on a weekday morning fiddling around with rusty twist ties and uncooperative lightweight netting save my sanity?

Well, because it gives me time to think.

And thinking is how I spend the vast majority of my time & energy writing.

* * *

It’s an annual ritual. Salvaging what I can of the deer netting, pulling up the long lengths of rebar which pin the support towers in place, packing up chickenwire. While it wasn’t as good a year as it could have been, it was a better year than I thought it would be, and I hope that the next year to come will be even better yet.

Yeah, I’m talking about my garden. But I’m also talking about St Cybi’s Well.

I should have been finished with the book two years ago, according to my Kickstarter plan and promises. Hell, even at that point, I thought I would be done with the manuscript early in 2013.

But writing is a process of discovery. Self discovery. I knew this, but having it driven home during the last couple of years has been … sobering.

Other than periods when I’ve struggled to sort out some particular issue with the book, I haven’t suffered the writer’s block which J.H. Moncrieff discusses in her blog post linked above. But upon occasion my writing has made me feel miserable. And guilty.

Part of that is just a sense of failure because I grossly misunderstood what it was going to take to finish this book. Yeah, I’m talking about the time & energy commitment. But I’m also talking about the psychological challenge of writing a book about the onset of the end of the world we know. Thinking through the details of that takes a toll.

Recently I asked an old friend to read the book so far, and give me feedback. As I told him, I have been so deep in this thing that I had lost my bearings — I could no longer tell whether the thing was any good or not. And that was true.

But the deeper truth was that I could no longer tell whether I was any good or not as a writer.

He says it is. We’ll see if I am.

 

Jim Downey

 



When hope is real.

Last April:

I took advantage of the cool but beautiful Spring day and did this yesterday:

Done 2015

That’s about 40×40. Good deep churn to about 10″ depth. The soil conditions were just about perfect. Now it’s prepped for me to plant things in a couple more weeks (it’s still a little too early here for tomatoes and Habaneros). And surprisingly, I don’t hurt nearly as much today as I expected.

Back to work on St Cybi’s Well. All that time tilling yesterday gave me a chance to think through some things.

* * *

From page 261 of Communion of Dreams:

“Who, Darnell? Who was she?”

The old man blinked, focused on Jon. “My sister, Megan. Somehow, she found th’ courage t’ step up, t’ look past th’ things that they’d always taught her about science ‘n medicine, t’ trust a small blue-white light that she could feel grow under her skin whenever she came close t’ someone with th’ flu. That light would seep out ‘n into ‘em, givin’ ‘em strength ‘n th’ ability t’ fight th’ virus.

“That was hope. That was real. Some of us were able t’ learn t’ find th’ light ourselves, ‘n she showed us how t’ allow it t’ grow, t’ become strong enough t’ reach out ‘n heal th’ others.

Guess what happens in the chapter I am currently writing.

* * *

Hope isn’t always real, or realistic. I’ve seen far too much of life to think otherwise. Likely, you have as well.

But sometimes it is. I picked these today:

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That’s probably about 250 peppers. Most of them Bhut Jolokia. But a fair number of Carolina Reaper and a few Moruga Scorpion peppers. All three are recent or current “world’s hottest pepper” record-holders. And like last year, I’m going to box them up for a few days so that they can become fully ripe. I have not quite as many others I picked earlier and have frozen.

So, what does hope have to do with these?

Well, we had a *very* wet spring and early summer. Enough so that I thought that this year’s Habanero crop would be a complete loss. The plants were stunted, sickly, and very late to blossom.

But sometimes late bloomers will surprise you.

 

Jim Downey



Out there … and down here.

Via Laughing Squid, a nice little animated exploration of the Fermi Paradox:

(Does not contain spoilers for Communion of Dreams. 😉 )

* * *

Been a busy week. Part of it was putting in my garden:

Garden

(That’s just the tomato plants — the super-hot peppers will go in next week.)

Part of it was a MASSIVE job converting a 16 x 16 storage space into the beginnings of a workshop:

Shop

(There’s still lots to do, but man, what a change from being hip-high in grungy boxes and scattered junk!)

And part of it was we have a new addition to the family:

Kitten

(He’s just 6 weeks old, entirely too cute, bold & adventurous, and tiny. For now. No name yet, though given his grey color I suggested perhaps we should go with Dukhat … )

* * *

I’m just now finishing up the first major revision to the working copy of St Cybi’s Well. I already have a couple of people lined up to take a look at it with fresh eyes, but if anyone else is interested also having a preview, leave a comment and I’ll get in touch with you.

Lastly: for Mother’s Day weekend, the Kindle edition of Her Final Year will be available for free. Check it out, download it, share it with others!

Jim Downey



Hope springs eternal.

Because I want this:

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And this:

I took advantage of the cool but beautiful Spring day and did this yesterday:

Done 2015

That’s about 40×40. Good deep churn to about 10″ depth. The soil conditions were just about perfect. Now it’s prepped for me to plant things in a couple more weeks (it’s still a little too early here for tomatoes and Habaneros). And surprisingly, I don’t hurt nearly as much today as I expected.

Back to work on St Cybi’s Well. All that time tilling yesterday gave me a chance to think through some things.

 

Jim Downey



Scary. Just plain scary.

Behold this year’s Habanero experiment:

The Compote of DEATH.

The Compote of DEATH.

What you’re looking at is pureed super-hot Habaneros. With just enough vinegar and salt to preserve them for canning.

OK, the full story …

This morning I made a batch of my Habanero Sriracha sauce. One of my standards. But I decided to do it a little bit differently this year. Rather than use a limited amount of Habaneros in it, and just blend them in, I added a full two gallons of frozen habs to the vinegar & tomato sauce mixture and cooked them until soft. Then I removed all the peppers, setting them aside to cool. There’s still plenty of heat and flavor from the habs in the Sriracha (recipe below).

But then I added some more salt and a little apple cider vinegar to the cooked Habaneros, and ran the whole lot through a food processor. And that’s in the pic above.

The idea behind this isn’t that you’d actually use this stuff directly on food, like you would a hot sauce or some of my Habanero Dust from a spice grinder. Rather, it’s intended to be used in very small amounts as the basis for some larger dish or sauce, giving you just concentrated (almost pure) Habanero flavor and heat. I’ll put it into 4 ounce jars for a very limited number of insane friends.

Just thought I’d share the idea.

Jim Downey

This year’s Sriracha recipe (variation on the theme of recipes you’ll find elsewhere):

  • 5 quarts homemade tomato sauce
  • 2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cups dark honey
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 3 heads of garlic crushed
  • .25 cup of Kosher salt
  • 3 Tablespoons of Fish Sauce
  • Habaneros (mix of super-hot varietals)

Add all ingredients into large pot. Heat to simmer, stirring often. Remove Habaneros. Simmer rest for half an hour or so, then allow to cool.

EDIT NOTE: After trying the Sriracha prior to canning, I decided that it was just plain too hot, so added another couple of quarts of tomato sauce and changed the total above. Everything else still seemed pretty much in balance after. I think the heat level was masking some other problems earlier.



It’s a gas, gas, gas!*

It’s Habanero season again!

I noted a few weeks back that I had harvested the first of this year’s crop, and that I thought that things looked promising, if the weather held. Well, all together I harvested about 200 fully-ripe peppers, seeding freezing them in small batches, and I’ll make some of my Habanero Sriracha with that later. But last Friday we had the first hard freeze of the season, so I picked all the rest of the remaining fruit off the plants. Here’s a the pic of that:

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Now, since turning whole peppers into hot sauce is the sort of thing which can drive any sane person out of the house, I waited until today to do this year’s production. Why? Because my wife is a poll worker, and so is gone all day. Well, here’s that exact same box of peppers, which had just been closed up since Friday:

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Fun, eh? Welcome to ethylene gas. Yup, the peppers are a LOT more ripe, just from being shut up for a few days. Not as ripe as last year’s end-of-season harvest, but not bad at all. And since my version of Sriracha is fairly sweet, I decided to make a less sweet batch of sauce out of the above, since it will tend to accentuate the citric qualities of the not-entirely-ripe peppers. So, here’s this year’s recipe:

  • Approximately 335 peppers, crown removed and cut in half
  • Not quite a gallon of natural apple cider vinegar
  • 8 tablespoons of Kosher salt
  • 3 heads of garlic
  • 2 large yellow onions, rough chopped

Prepare all ingredients. Saute onions and garlic until soft. Add vinegar, salt and peppers to 5 gallon stock pot, simmer until soft, stirring often.

Scoop into blender, do a rough blend for 15 – 20 seconds. Then pour into Foley food mill, and crank until just seeds and skins are left.  Transfer to jar, can.

 

Edited to add later:  Total of 22.5 half pints. Which works out to about 2 habaneroes per fluid ounce, which is what my standard ‘Evil Green’ (previously my hottest sauce) runs, except that this has a much higher % of fully or mostly ripe habs.And this is clearly hotter than anything else I’ve ever made. Pic below – need a good name for it. It’s the one on the right, the reddish one is my Sriracha (about the color of tomato sauce) for comparison.

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Jim Downey

*With apologies.



Don’t fear the Reaper* …

… but *do* have a very healthy respect for it.

The SMOKIN’ ED’S CAROLINA REAPER® pepper, that is. Here’s a bit about it from Wikipedia:

The Carolina Reaper is a hybrid cultivar of chili pepper of the Capsicum chinense species, originally named the “HP22B”, bred by cultivator Ed Currie, who runs PuckerButt Pepper Company in Fort Mill, South Carolina, United States. It’s the world’s hottest hybrid pepper. The original cross was a red naga pepper and a red savina pepper. [1] The “Carolina Reaper” was rated as the world’s hottest chili pepper by Guinness World Records according to 2012 tests,[2] averaging 1,569,300 on the Scoville scale with peak levels of over 2,200,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). The previous record-holder was the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T.[3]

There are some included in today’s harvest of peppers:

2014habs

How are they? Oh, baby!

No, seriously, trying one of these peppers is sort of the equivalent of seeing a live, active volcano. Sure, it’s insanely hot (I ate the smallest little piece, about the size of an apple seed, and it did the whole ‘mouth numb, face flushed, lips melting, nose running’ thing). But it’s also insanely cool to just experience the thing … if you exercise a little respect for its power.

And they have the same flavor profile as other super-hot Habaneros, which is actually why I like them. It’s a deep, smokey, lasting peppery flavor.

I’ve only harvested about 60 peppers from my plants so far this season. For some people, that would be about 59 too many. But if the weather holds, perhaps I’ll have a total harvest along what I’ve gotten in years past.

 

Jim Downey

*Of course. And if you would like to order your own fresh super-hot peppers, you can do so from the same place I get my seedlings each year.



Matter of perspective.

This will probably come across as a little brag-y. Sorry about that. Not my intention.

The other day I got a phone call. For Legacy Art. The gallery we closed May 31, 2004. Yeah, more than ten years ago.

And after I got through abusing the telemarketer over this point, I got to thinking about the many changes in the last decade.

First thing I should say up front: I’m at a low point in my bipolar cycle, as I’ve noted recently. That means that my self-image isn’t all that great. This isn’t a debilitating depressive episode or anything — I’ve managed to continue to work steadily, as well as enjoy the usual aspects of life. So not horrid. But it is sometimes difficult to not focus on the things which haven’t gone well, and my own failings which are often a component of that. And one of those failings is a sense of not accomplishing much, of being lazy, of wasting my time and the time of others.

Anyway. I got to thinking about the changes in the last decade. And surprisingly, more positive things came to mind than negative ones. That fed on itself, and I found myself making a mental list of the accomplishments.

In no particular order or ranking: wrote two books (one of them as co-author). Most of the way done with another. Visited Wales. And Argentina. And New Zealand. And Italy. Wrote several thousand blog posts. Became something of an authority on small caliber ballistics. Wrote several hundred articles and columns for publication. Was the full-time caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s. Have done conservation work on something more than a thousand (that’s just a guess … may be closer to two thousand) books and documents. Made some great hot sauces. Raised, loved, and then said farewell to a great dog. Tried to be a good friend, and husband. Tried to help others when I could.

We all fail. We all have things we’ve done that haunt us in one way or another. Sometimes, those fears and demons overwhelm. Me, at least.

I may or may not be at a turning point in my bipolar cycle. But I’m glad that at least I can think of things I have accomplished. That helps.

Back to work on St. Cybi’s Well.

 

Jim Downey



“They are near-death experiences in a bowl of guacamole.”

Mmmmm:

In recent years, “superhots”—chilis that score above 500,000 on the Scoville scale—have consumed the attention of chiliheads, who debate grow lights on Facebook (“You can overwinter with a few well-placed T-8s”), swap seeds in flat-rate boxes (Australian customs is their nemesis), and show up in droves at fiery-foods events (wares range from Kiss My Bhut hot sauce to Vanilla Heat coffee creamer). Chilis, in general, are beautiful. There is a reason no one makes Christmas lights in the shape of rutabagas. Superhots come in the brightest colors and the craziest shapes. Their names, evoking travel and conquest—Armageddon, Borg 9, Naga Morich, Brain Strain—sound as though they were made up by the evil twins of the people who brand body lotions. Trinidad 7-Pots are so called because it’s said that one of them is enough to season seven pots of stew.

* * *

Eating, more than breathing or sleeping, lends itself to competition. There are bake-offs, wing wars, contests to see who can eat the most hot dogs, bratwurst, Twinkies, tamales, cannoli, apple pies, buffalo wings, ribs, oysters, pastrami, sweet corn, deep-fried asparagus, ice cream, pancakes, pepperoni rolls, and boiled eggs. Superhots are the most accessible of thrills—fugu straight from the garden. For the culinary extremist, or exhibitionist, they provide an outlet for impulses that might have compelled his adolescent self to drink a concoction or try to swallow a teaspoonful of cinnamon. (A recent study found a positive correlation between chili-eating and “sensation-seeking” behavior.) As a leisure activity, superhots offer some of the pleasures of mild drugs and extreme sports without requiring one to break the law or work out. They are near-death experiences in a bowl of guacamole.

* * *

Barrus consumes whatever people send him, from raspberry-chipotle fudge to ranch-dressing soda. Armed with a jar of peanut butter and gallons of milk (casein, a protein in dairy products, can alleviate the effects of capsaicin), he regularly sets himself such stunts as eating twenty-one of the world’s hottest peppers: seven bhut jolokia, five Trinidad Scorpion Butch Ts, four Douglah 7-Pots, three Trinidad Moruga Scorpions, two Jonah 7-Pots. (He made it through eleven of them.)

 

Hmm. Sound familiar?

Superhots!

Superhots!

 

Yay, baby!

 

Jim Downey