Communion Of Dreams


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

 

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Caring for demented America.

The eighty-something man fumbled with the pocket knife he had carried his whole life. His hands trembled with age, rage, and fear, but if the hulking stranger refused to leave his house, well, then by God he’d force the man to leave!

The stranger easily took away the knife, and told the man to go back upstairs. Then he sat down on the mechanic’s stool next to his motorcycle and began to weep.

I was about 14, and had just witnessed age-related dementia for the first time.

The hulking stranger was my uncle, whom I had come to live with. The elderly man was his grandfather. We were at his grandparent’s home, using the garage under the house as a warm place to get a little work done on his bike. He and his grandparents were close, always had been. He had lived with them for a while when he was young.

* * *

President Trump is certain that he was cheated out of a popular election mandate due to voter fraud. Almost no one else agrees, and even members of his own party who are responsible for elections at the state and local level have said that there is virtually no evidence of actual fraud.

The President has also claimed that his inauguration had more people in attendance and watching around the world than any previous. The best evidence and estimates available from multiple sources do not support this claim.

I could go on.

* * *

I remember Martha Sr getting fixated on things which were weird, unpredictable. Fixated in such a way that no matter what we tried to  say or do, she was certain that we were wrong. Or just lying to her. Or something.

It was almost always some strange idea or memory or object which would catch her attention seemingly out of the blue and often at the most inconvenient times. The idea that the strawberry seeds in her yogurt were necessary for completing a crossword puzzle, so she had to pick them out and keep them. Or that she was going on a train trip, and had to make sure to go get her tickets right now. It drove us completely nuts, and was one of the more difficult challenges of being care-givers. We’d try to distract her with other things, or explain that we already had her tickets and she didn’t need to worry. Sometimes that worked. Sometimes she’d go on and on and on about whatever it was which had captured her attention, returning to it for days on end.

* * *

In the aftermath of the presidential election, many people who had supported Secretary Clinton were shocked, stunned, at the outcome.

Some started looking for ways to challenge the results. First there was an effort to get the Electoral College to not affirm Donald Trump as the winner, on the basis that Russia had influenced the election. Then there was a hope that the House of Representatives would not confirm the results of the Electoral College vote. Then there were challenges made to whether President Trump could hold the office, since he was in violation of the Constitution.

I could go on.

* * *

It seems like the long-respected norms of civic behavior are finally starting to break down. They’ve been stressed for a very long time, like a marriage which has gone badly wrong, but is held together out of fear for what would actually happen if one partner were to confront the other over perceived slights or suspected betrayal.

But now someone has had enough, and said words which cannot be taken back.

The shouting, the screaming, the breaking of china in anger and frustration has begun.

Young children stand in the doorway to the kitchen, tears streaming down their face, unsure what this means or what will happen next.

* * *

Someone punched a neo-Nazi. Plenty of people cheered. It’s hard not to cheer when Nazis get punched.

The day after the inauguration, millions of people marched in protest of the new president and his administration. Plenty of people cheered. It’s hard not to cheer the affirmation of civil rights and political empowerment.

The day after that, a top-level presidential advisor ill-advisedly used the term “alternative facts” when disagreeing about the turnout at the inauguration. Plenty of people jeered at her for doing so. It’s hard not to mock something straight out of 1984.

The day after that saw the start of a number of Executive Orders and memoranda signed by President Trump, putting into motion the changes which he and other members of his party had promised. Plenty of people cheered to see the change they wanted starting. Plenty of people jeered both the spirit and the letter of the changes.

* * *

I’m not saying that President Trump has age-related dementia. Not even the first signs of it. I’m a bookbinder, not a doctor, and am in no way qualified to make such an assessment.

And I’m not saying that the rhetoric and actions from those who oppose the new administration are equivalent to the rhetoric and actions of those who have supported it.

I am saying that things have changed. I think that we are on the precipice of something akin to Heinlein’s “The Crazy Years”. Things have changed so much, and so quickly, that I have had to go back and make substantial revisions to St Cybi’s Well. Because what before was a challenge to the reader’s ‘suspension of disbelief’ has been completely superseded by our reality. It’s not the president who is showing signs of dementia — it’s our society.

And I am saying that when you accept and embrace the use of violence against a political opponent, you open yourself up to the use of violence against you by your political opponents. Because there are always justifications and rationalizations for such use, and human history is filled with the resultant wars civil and decidedly uncivil. Be very careful what you wish for.

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.



A path out of darkness.

As I’ve noted previously, I’m mildly bipolar, with my ‘natural’ bipolar cycle running about 18 months. I had noticed the start of a psychological downturn three or four months ago, following the intense boost that came with the discovery and correction of my cardiac artery blockage and subsequent recovery. Since I don’t usually realize that I have taken a downturn until it has gone on for a while, I’m guessing that I’m approaching the bottom of the cycle.

* * * * * * *

Some 50 years ago, my father-in-law (who I never met — he passed away before my wife and I knew each other) put in a simple brick walkway around two sides of his garden. OK, that doesn’t sound like too big a deal. But his garden was almost a full acre in size, and the walkway more than 100 yards in length. Yeah, it really is that long.

After his death, the garden was reverted back to lawn. And slowly the brick walkway was reclaimed by that lawn.

But since the house remained in the family, memory of the walkway wasn’t lost. Some time back the walk was uncovered, and for the last decade or so we did a pretty good job of keeping it clear and used. Here’s a pic of some of it:

20160905_093857

Note the box turtle in the patch of sunlight in the upper part of the pic.

* * * * * * *

I sent this in a message to a friend this morning who had asked if I was feeling more healthy these days:

Maybe?

I do feel a lot stronger and more … vital. But I really don’t want to be one of those ’50-something year old guys who discover the power of exercise!’ At best, it’s annoying to most people. At worst, it’s obnoxious able-ism. My situation, both my peculiar genetic problem and my lifestyle permitting me to get a LOT of exercise time in, is extremely unusual, and not something I can claim as being due to my own effort.

Yeah, I think a lot about this.

* * * * * * *

For a couple of years we’ve talked about rebuilding the brick walkway, because while we’ve been able to keep it uncovered, it is nonetheless ‘sunk’ relative to the surrounding lawn. Meaning that it collected grass clippings and mud, tended to puddle, and retained ice and snow for a prolonged period. Plus there were sections which had been damaged by construction and heavy  trucks which came into the yard to do utility and tree work.

But redoing a 300’+ length of brick walkway is no small task. To do it correctly would require a lot of work and a fair amount of expense for proper landscape edging, landscape fabric, gravel/chat, and sand. And if we were going to go to the trouble of redoing it, we wanted to do it correctly and expand it a bit.

About two weeks ago we ordered the first four cubic yards of chat, got some of the other materials, and got started. Since the edging material we’re using comes in 60′ lengths, we decided to use that as the operative size of each ‘section’ of the walkway. The first step was to remove the old brick walk:

20160907_114300

Then expand the bed, take it down, and level it out:

20160911_153047

Then put down the base layer of chat on top of the landscape fabric:

20160912_110315(That’s about 10,000 pounds of chat, by the way.)

And then start putting down brick. Here’s how far we’ve gotten as of yesterday afternoon:

20160917_135339

With luck, we’ll finish getting the rest of the bricks laid in this ‘section’ today or tomorrow. Then we’ll be about one-fifth through the whole project.

* * * * * * *

As I’ve noted previously, I’m mildly bipolar, with my ‘natural’ bipolar cycle running about 18 months. I had noted the start of a psychological downturn three or four months ago, following the intense boost that came with the discovery and correction of my cardiac artery blockage and subsequent recovery. Since I don’t usually realize that I have taken a downturn until it has gone on for a while, I’m guessing that I’m approaching the bottom of the cycle.

One of the things I learned long ago is that doing something constructive helps me cope with the depressive part of my bipolar cycle. By focusing on something in discrete chunks, I can slowly ‘walk’ out of my depression, since I can see tangible progress happening on something.

We probably won’t be able to finish the full 300’+ of the brick walkway before winter sets in. But that’s OK. Being able to spend a couple of hours working on the walk each day (when the weather permits) helps. It’s good exercise for my body. And it helps to keep my mind from falling too far into the darkness.

 

Jim Downey



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



Spread your wings and … walk?

No, this is not about the ongoing fiasco which is the TSA. But it certainly could be.

Rather, it’s a chuckle I thought I would share about my cardiac rehab sessions. Remember those? I started them about a month ago, with all the expected advice about diet and exercise. Since then, except for a trip to California to visit family early this month, I’ve been a good boy about going to my sessions and putting in the time and effort to meet the goals they have for people who had a couple of stents installed like I had.

Actually, let me amend that: I met all the goals they have set with my first workout session. As in, for where they want you to be at the end of 36 rehab sessions. Today, at my tenth such session I hit twice those goals. That isn’t to say that I am some perfect physical example of athletic prowess; rather, it’s that typically when people have the procedure I had done, it’s usually because they have systemic atherosclerosis with all the problems that entails. I had a genetic defect. And while I am overweight and out of shape, I’ve managed to avoid the real damage of cardiovascular disease.

Anyway, I’ve been going to rehab 2 – 3 times a week, in addition to my regular morning walks and other yard/garden work. Frankly, I mostly hate it. I hate the TVs which are always on, tuned to some inane morning show. I hate the cheery encouragement of the nurses, particularly when they want to go over yet another handout they have about reading food labels and strategies for managing portion control when eating out. And I hate the pap of “motivational posters” featuring lovely outdoor images (which are fine) with mostly trite inspirational phrases in a very distinct typographical style. There are about a dozen of these things on the walls, mixed in with yet more posters about diet strategies and charts showing exertion and pain levels.

But …

… I noticed this one, lost in among all the others:

20160525_090230

It’s a little hard to read, with all the reflection/distortions, but it says: “Limitations. Until you spread your wings, you’ll have no idea how far you can walk.”

Er, what?

Turns out (as one of my friends noted on Facebook) that this is actually a DEmotivational poster. Yeah, one mocking the usual trite inspirational phrases ones.

I think that this is absolutely hilarious.

I don’t know whether it was slipped in there by someone as a joke which no one else has ever caught, or it was seeded among the others to give cynical bastards like me a chuckle, but it works. I get a laugh out of it every time I go to rehab. It makes the grim process of exercising slightly less annoying. And I think that is wonderful.

 

Jim Downey

 



The virtuous heart.

I got an object lesson in privilege yesterday. My privilege.

I went in for my first session/assessment for cardiac rehab, following the stent procedure I had two weeks ago. The RN who did my assessment had been a cardiac surgery nurse, and knew her stuff. She also had all of my medical records pertaining to my procedure, and was completely familiar with my overall health and particularly my cardiac health (which, as I have mentioned previously, is actually really good).

We went through what is the normal procedure for such things: I got hooked up to a heart monitor, she checked my blood oxygenation, my blood pressure, my pulse. All were excellent. Then we went through my exercise and dietary habits in pretty thorough detail, discussing the few points where my eating habits deviate from ‘accepted medical recommendations’ (which are actually just ‘outdated medical recommendations’ such as limiting how many eggs you eat in a week to just one or two) according to the forms she had to fill out. All that was routine, and the same material I had been over with at least half a dozen other medical professionals in the last month.

Then we got into discussing just exactly what the condition of my heart now was, and what was recommended to help me improve it, post-procedure. She started out with the model heart on the desk, relating it to how my own chart compared, and complimented me again on the fact that I basically have no other evidence of atherosclerosis or plaque build-up anywhere in my heart other than the one problem section of my RCA that they stented. She said something to the effect of “genetics plays a role, but undoubtedly your regular walking every morning for the last decade has made a huge difference.”

“I’m lucky. I’ve been able to arrange my life so that I could take the time out to do that, for the last dozen years or so,” I said.

She nodded. “A wise choice.”

“Well, not one a lot of people can make. Most people can’t just schedule an hour for daily exercise. Like I said, I’m lucky. Very lucky. ”

“True,” she said. “But I always tell people that whether or not to exercise is a choice they make.”

I paused, considered, then nodded. We went on with the rest of the assessment.

Why did I hesitate? Because in that moment — in her statement of my ‘choice’ — lies a perfect summation of my privilege.

I’m a ‘virtuous patient’, in the eyes of most of the medical community. I’m a nice guy, who is well educated, professional. I exercise regularly, eat (relatively) healthily, don’t smoke at all, and rarely drink to excess. I maintain good social integration, and work to have a happy marriage and a good support network of friends. I even floss more than is probably average.

So, since I do all those things, in their eyes the quirk of a fault that is my kinked coronary artery isn’t really my fault. It’s just a small bit of bad luck. A small bit which can be forgiven, because I make a lot of ‘good’ choices about how I go through life.

But while I have indeed made a number of choices which can be considered to be virtuous, my privilege lies in having been able to make those choices.  Realistically, how many people who are earning minimum wage are able to plan to go walking through their neighborhood (or at the local YMCA or city activity center or mall) every morning? How many people living in a food desert have access to plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables? How many people who are actually obese (I need to lose a good 50 – 60 pounds to be at my ideal weight), would be perceived as being lazy rather than working to maintain good health? How many people have the formal education and time to stay on top of modern medical research and discussion of best practices such that they can discuss the nuances of diet and exercise and the role it plays in cardiac rehabilitation?

I could go on and on. But I’ll refrain. For those who are already concerned with such matters, it isn’t necessary. And for those who seldom or ever consider how privilege affects health, it won’t be sufficient. However, perhaps a few people — you? — will take the opportunity that my privilege has presented to realize that how we judge the choices of others comes mostly from how we perceive them as people.

 

Jim Downey