Communion Of Dreams


“You always – always – fail.”

Gods, this is so painfully, penetratingly accurate: You think writing’s a dream job? It’s more like a horror film.

Just one excerpt:

However, as I emphasise to the fledgling writers who come and attend my Guardian Masterclass courses, writing novels for a living is hard – unimaginably hard, for those who have not tried it. I cannot imagine that it is less complex than brain surgery, or, indeed, the proverbial rocket science. To master dialogue, description, subtext, plot, structure, character, time, point of view, beginnings, endings, theme and much besides is a Herculean labour, not made more appealing by the fact that you always – always – fail.

And as I noted the other day, the knowledge that you are failing never leaves you, and it is only then that self-confidence can get you though. Maybe.

But Chapter 12 has been finished and put to bed. Now working on revisions for the rest of the story arc before getting into the next chapter.

 

Jim Downey



Nooooooooooooooo!

This news: Harrison Ford To Star In ‘Blade Runner 2′

strikes me as a supremely bad idea, exactly for this reason:

Moreover, Alien was just the first of many films. Blade Runner—based on Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep—is a stand-alone film, and one shrouded in mystery. It’s one of those films that could be talked about forever without ever reaching a solid conclusion about its meaning or its murky ending. That’s part of what makes it a classic.

Sheesh, Ridley, just leave well enough alone for a change.

 

Jim Downey



Knowing when to walk away.

The summer before this past one I almost lost my wife to appendicitis.

All my adult life I have known that sudden, unexpected death can strike those we love. And I have tried to live my life accordingly.

The flip side of that, of course, is that I know I could die suddenly, as well. And while I have done a number of crazy and stupid things, I’ve always tried to keep an eye on the real risks involved. It’s not smart to lose track of the fact that you’re mortal.

But being there in the hospital with my wife, as she recovered from an emergency appendectomy, reflection on my own mortality took a slightly different direction. Rather than just thinking about what I had accomplished, and whether it had been a full life, I got to thinking about what I had to offer. And one thing I started thinking about was that I had accumulated a lot of very specific experience which was fairly rare: my book conservation skills.

Now, there are some really good schools out there to train conservators. As well as professional organizations, and workshops and all the sorts of things you would expect. But not a lot. Certainly not enough to meet the need for trained conservators; a need which will only continue to grow as more and more books and articles are published only in electronic format, and the current inventory of printed material starts to age and grow fragile.

Since I have been in private practice as a conservator for 20+ years, I haven’t done a lot of just low-level routine repairs. Rather, I’ve worked on the more valuable items from both private and public collections — the sorts of things which individuals and institutions felt it was worth paying me for my expertise. In other words, I’ve been fortunate enough to work on the cream of the crop from multiple collections, as it were, which has given me the opportunity to further hone a wide range of techniques and demanded that I do my very best by the books and documents entrusted to my care. And with that experience came judgment about what techniques are appropriate in what cases, what will work and what won’t. Judgment which often isn’t even conscious, but lives in my fingertips and can only be shared by close example and repetition.

That’s what I have to offer. And that’s what would be lost were I to die suddenly.

That’s what I got to thinking.

As luck would have it, about the same time I started working with an old acquaintance who had developed an interest in medieval bookbinding. He doesn’t live close, so we had to discuss things online and over the phone, with his coming to visit for weekend training now and then. Because *nothing* compares to hands-on, face-to-face training.

And working with him reminded me of how much I enjoy sharing my skills and love for my craft. Oh, I’ve taught plenty of bookbinding classes over the years, and that has been enjoyable. But there is nothing like working with a student who shares my intense passion for caring for historical texts, rather than someone who just wants to make some blank books for Christmas gifts or needs to have another example for their arts portfolio.

So I got to thinking of how I could find another mechanism to share my skills with people who already share my passion. And I decided to sound out a local institution about perhaps training some of their staff (many large libraries and archives have one or a few preservation technicians, who do the valuable basic repair work on the collection). I knew that while the budget environment wasn’t good, there might be a way for us to work out an arrangement for long-term, careful training in depth of some of their staff, allowing me to transfer both specific skills but more importantly nuances in judgment through hands-on work of items in their collection.

The institution was certainly receptive, and for a while we worked hard to see how to bring my initial thoughts into reality within their system.  Meetings were held, brain-storming sessions conducted. Lots and lots of meetings, involving lots of different people and departments, different budget lines and facilities. The prospects were very promising, and I was very excited about the possibilities to begin a new phase of my book conservation career, teaching others part-time. But ultimately the bureaucracy proved too hard to overcome; rather than starting a long-term, fairly permanent training program, the bureaucracy could only accommodate a temporary ‘pilot’ program within its usual rules and guidelines for professional development.

And here is where the title of this post comes into play: knowing when to walk away.

Because when all was said and done, there was a chance … but only a chance … that the temporary pilot program teaching two or three people might find a home (and funding) within the institution. Maybe.

What should I do?

I considered and consulted with some close friends. After all the discussions, after all the meetings and brainstorming, I was deeply vested in seeing this work out.

But I had to take a step back and think about my initial goals, and rationally assess whether or not this would accomplish what I wanted. I decided that it didn’t — that I would be committing too much time and energy to trying to meet the needs of the bureaucracy rather than my own needs, and that I would have too little control over what I could teach.

I can’t blame the bureaucracy; it exists for a reason. Trying to change it, to get it to do something unique and risky, was probably a fools errand from the start.

So, failure.

Maybe.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, though. The bureaucracy at the institution in question, as well as the bureaucracy at many such institutions, is already set up to handle another version of training for their staff: specific workshops conducted by outside consultants, lasting from a few hours to a few days.

So that’s what I am going to do. In the next couple of months I will put together the initial offerings of training workshops for specific conservation techniques. All will have detailed descriptions of what the workshop will include. All will include plenty of hands-on practice under close supervision. All will be completely modular, so that any institution can select from the menu of offered workshops without being committed to other workshops.

I may not be able to do in-depth training of a small number of people, but I can share my skills and judgment with a much wider selection of institutions. It’ll be a lot more work on my part, but will hopefully also accomplish more.

We’ll see. I’ll keep you posted as to developments as things happen.

 

Jim Downey



House horrors, part one: the uncovering.

We live  in a “Notable Historic Structure“: the house built by the first dean of the University of Missouri Medical School back in 1883. As with almost any structure this old, it’s seen a lot of alterations and additions over the years, complicating the history and the condition of the house. It’s quite literally the case that there are layers and layers of changes you uncover when you do any work on the place. About a decade ago we had the house professionally painted by someone who specializes in doing work on historic buildings, and the painter estimated that he removed about 35 layers of paint — it was about a half inch thick.

So whenever we have to do any work on the place, you expect to find … surprises. For major projects we’ll call in a crew of professional. But for smaller jobs, my wife and I will tackle it on our own. Since she’s an architect with a lot of practical construction experience, and I’m good working with tools, this usually works pretty well. Usually.

Earlier this year, a spring storm peeled back some of the roofing material off of a small porch on the west side of the house. This porch was probably put on sometime around WWII, and was just a roof over a small concrete pad, open on the sides. In the sixties it was chosen as the site to install an air conditioning unit which serves to cool about half of the first floor. Anyway, while we knew the porch roof was in need of work, we didn’t realize how bad it was until the storm revealed this:

roof

Seeing that, we planned on doing some substantial roof repairs the next time we could set aside a couple of days for it. Which turned out to be this week (hence the fall leaves in the pic above).

When you start a project like this, you don’t really know what you’re getting into until you actually start getting into it. So we got up there and stripped off the rest of the flat roofing materials, and expected to have to replace some of the original sheathing board. But after close examination, we decided that it made more sense to just replace the entire deck surface — it looked like the deck boards had probably been scavenged from some older building when they were originally put up, and all of them were in pretty poor condition.

So we got them off, and were down to the rafters:

roof2

Then closer examination of the rafters, and the support beams on the front and side of the roof indicated that they were likewise in need of replacement. Here’s a pick with the rafters removed:

rafters gone

In removing the rafters, we saw how the porch roof had been tied onto the roof of the house (seen above in shingles). This is looking down at the fascia and house roof:

fascia

Good lord.

What had been done was that they just added the 1″ wide fascia on top of the original fascia, with notches cut into the new fascia to help support the rafters. Oh, and some of the rafter ends were cut at an angle and then just nailed RIGHT ON TOP of the old house roof. Yeah, they didn’t clear it off, or anything. In fact, if you look closely, you can see that someone had just put down plywood sheathing over the old roof of cedar shakes and asphalt shingles.

So first we removed the 1″ fascia, so we could examine the original:

2nd fascia

And finding that the original was in pretty poor condition, removed it. This is what we found behind that:

behind

The horror, the horror …   That’s more of the original roof material just covered over by plywood. Sheesh.

Here’s a detail showing the end where the last porch rafter was mounted on top/through the piled mass of old shingles and shakes, along with globs of pitch to help seal the whole mess:

phd

Getting to this point was two days of work. We had allotted three days to do the entire porch repair, including time to assess the true nature of the work and get the needed materials for completion. That was because the weather forecast was for heavy storms to start late on the third day.

There was no way we were going to be able to get the whole thing finished.

So yesterday, on the third day, we got the additional materials and prepped the area for later. We also prepped it to close in securely, not with a permanent repair, but with a sufficiently solid repair to get through the bad weather of a few days time:

prepped

That temporary close-in consisted of a layer of new tar-paper tucked under the clean edge of the extant tar-paper on the house roof, then stapled down. After that, a layer of roof roll goods tucked up under the second rank of shingles shown above, and secured with roofing nails just as you would put down a new line of shingles. To make sure that the paper and roll goods were secure and would extend out sufficiently to cover & protect the exposed house rafters, we tacked down three lengths of wood to hold everything in place until the weather got better. Here’s a shot of that:

ready

And I’m *very* happy to report that the temporary work has handled the storms so far just as intended. When we get good (enough) weather again, we’ll take off the side beams and replace everything with new lumber, properly constructed. With all the old crap roof stuff out of the way we’ll be able to attach the porch roof much more securely and have a better seal/transition of the roofs as well.

Blimey, what a job.

Jim Downey



This could be straight out of …

St Cybi’s Well, what with an incompetent theocratic government in place:

So imagine the scenario. A deadly flu pandemic is beginning in the northeast. TSA agents are asked to report for work in the germ incubators that are airports to keep the transportation system running. And while their bosses in Washington, D.C. can’t supply them with reliably functioning respirators to protect them from infection, they’re keeping thousands that may not work on hand, thinking they may hand them out for “employee comfort,” like security theater karma for those who make us remove our shoes and take our water.

But sadly, scarily, it isn’t. Rather, that passage is from the following news item:

The Department of Homeland Security Is Not Prepared for a Pandemic

As the Department of Homeland Security endeavors to prevent another 9/11, a terrorist attack that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, it is worth remembering that there are far deadlier threats out there. I speak not of ISIS or Ebola, but the influenza virus. The flu pandemic that began in 1918 killed 675,000 Americans. That is to say, it killed about as many Americans in a couple years as the AIDS virus has in decades. Worldwide, that same flu pandemic killed an estimated 30 to 50 million people. It would take 16,000 attacks like 9/11 to equal that death toll. Those figures powerfully illustrate the case for redirecting some of what the United States spends on counterterrorism to protecting ourselves from public health threats.

Of course, money only helps if it isn’t squandered. Take the extra $47 million dollars that Congress gave the Department of Homeland Security in 2006 to prepare for a pandemic. As a recent Inspector General report explains in depressing detail, a lot of that money was wasted. And one darkly hilarious passage in the audit reveals what may be the most galling example of security theater ever.

Oh, joy.

But it’s OK, because the rest of the world is ready to step up and fight against a viral threat which could explode into millions of cases in just a few weeks, right?

Um …

Dire Predictions On Ebola’s Spread From Top Health Organizations

Two of the world’s top health organizations released predictions Tuesday warning how bad the Ebola outbreak in West Africa could get.

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization agree that the epidemic is speeding up. But the CDC’s worst-case scenario is a jaw-dropper: If interventions don’t start working soon, as many as 1.4 million people could be infected by Jan. 20, the agency reported in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

*sigh*

Sometimes it feels less like I’m writing a cautionary work of fiction and more like I am looking back and writing an historical account …

 

Jim Downey



It’s not just the initial disease.

Sorry for my absence here — I’ve been very busy with a another big project, one which I can’t discuss publicly just yet. But soon.

Without wanting to buy-into the complete panic in some corners about Ebola, here are a couple of very sober articles to consider, which are less about the actual disease and more about what such a pandemic does to the society it hits:

Looters Attack Liberia Ebola Quarantine Center, Patients Under Observation Return Home

Battling the deadly outbreak of Ebola in Liberia has been a mammoth task for the country’s government and international aid agencies. Over the weekend combating the virus’ spread got even harder when a quarantine center in Monrovia was attacked, and 17 patients being monitored for possible infection fled the medical facility. The Liberian government initially said all of the patients had been relocated to another facility after the West Point health center was looted on Saturday, but later admitted that 17 patients had gone “back into their communities,” the BBC reports.

 

And this one from last week:

You Are Not Nearly Scared Enough About Ebola

Attention, World: You just don’t get it.

You think there are magic bullets in some rich country’s freezers that will instantly stop the relentless spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa? You think airport security guards in Los Angeles can look a traveler in the eyes and see infection, blocking that jet passenger’s entry into La-la-land? You believe novelist Dan Brown’s utterly absurd description of a World Health Organization that has a private C5-A military transport jet and disease SWAT team that can swoop into outbreaks, saving the world from contagion?

Wake up, fools. What’s going on in West Africa now isn’t Brown’s silly Inferno scenario — it’s Steven Soderbergh’s movie Contagion, though without a modicum of its high-tech capacity.

 

And from that second article, more to my point:

I myself have received emails from physicians in these countries, describing the complete collapse of all non-Ebola care, from unassisted deliveries to untended auto accident injuries. People aren’t just dying of the virus, but from every imaginable medical issue a system of care usually faces.

 

That’s the thing — a pandemic is bad enough in its own right, when a disease such as Ebola has a mortality of more than 50% under the best conditions.  Consider how much worse the impact will be once the overall public health system collapses due to the death of doctors and nurses, when deliveries can’t be made to restock supplies, when whole cities are quarantined, when people begin to really panic.

That is the horror of a true global pandemic. Like the one in St Cybi’s Well.

Cheery thought, eh?

 

Jim Downey

PS: Two other unrelated things I want to mention. The first is thanks to all who participated in Helping Cassandra – you made a real difference. And the second is just to link to a blog post about some black powder shooting I did this past weekend with some very fun historical guns.

 

 

 



Latest developments …

For one reason and another, this past week has been a little rough, hence the paucity of posts. The rejection from the agent kinda took the wind out of my sails a bit, since I thought that the prospects were good. And continued news on the Ebola front* kept reminding me just how grim St Cybi’s Well is getting, in regards to the onset of the fire-flu (though I hope that other aspects of the novel more than balance that out for the reader).

But now the winds have shifted again, and things are looking up. We’ve gotten a bunch of bids in the auction to help my friend (though you can still pick up a hand-bound limited edition hardcopy of Communion of Dreams for a song). There’s a new review of CoD up on Amazon. And this morning I got word that a major new project I’ve been involved with helping to get organized is going to be implemented — more on that when there’s an official announcement in a couple of weeks. But it’s kinda a big deal and one which I am excited to be part of. Oh, and there’s a fun little item here about a recent book conservation job I did which might be of interest.

So, those are the latest developments. Watch for more to come. Oh, and go put a bid in on something on the auction site — there are a number of great items available! Thanks!

 

Jim Downey

*I do want to note that I don’t think that Ebola poses a significant risk to people in the US. We have the medical infrastructure to deal with isolated cases, which is likely all that we’ll see here. There’s no reason to get into a panic.  But that doesn’t change the horror of the disease itself, nor the impact that it is having on people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone.




Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 331 other followers