Communion Of Dreams

Raising cane.

(So, been a while, eh? Yeah, it has. But no worries, things have been going very well, through a lot of minor and not-so-minor changes. More about all of that will emerge as I get back into regular blogging — you’ll see.)

A few weeks back a friend posted a question to a discussion group along these lines: what was a good, basic self-defense item which you could have under most situations which would be innocuous yet effective?

A lot of things were suggested, from the simple to the absurd. Yeah, OK, I’m a little opinionated.

But after a bit, a general consensus which emerged was that a walking stick or cane would fit the bill. And people posted links to various such items, ranging from the very basic to the traditional to the ultra-modern. There are a HUGE selection of different options out there, if you just do a search for one. Looking through a bunch of different choices, I got to thinking that it should be pretty easy for anyone with minimal woodworking skills to make their own walking stick to their own specs, for a lot less than most of the items was seeing cost.

So I set out to see what it would take. And I set my goals:

  • The stick should be made from readily available materials, with minimal tools.
  • It should be completely free of all metal, so as not to arouse suspicions when being scanned.
  • It should look and function as a real walking aid, not just a disguised cudgel.
  • It should nonetheless be an effective defensive tool.
  • It should cost $25 or less.

I stopped by a local home improvement store, and found the following:


That’s a 1.125″ rubber foot for about 50 cents, a wooden (oak) decorative cap (finial) that was about $4, and a hickory replacement handle for a sledgehammer or axe for about $14. Here’s another pic:


I chose hickory because it is well known to be a hard, dense wood. Next pic:


I removed the metal screw from the finial, then used a spade bit to expand the hole to about an inch. I used a wood rasp to make the mounting end of the replacement handle likewise about an inch in diameter.



Then I added some wood glue, and tapped the finial onto the replacement handle.



I did the basic shaping of the finial into a knob suitable for my (large) hand.



Here’s the top of the finial. I inserted a bit of .375″ dowel into the hole with some wood glue, then allowed it to dry. When it was dry, I rasped the whole thing down to a smooth hemisphere about the size of a tennis ball.



That’s the overall stick. It’s about 37.5″. Note that it is no longer quite the same size or shape of an axe handle — I spent an hour or so with the wood rasp, and took it down a fair amount. There it’s smooth, mostly uniform (no longer has as much of a swell in the wood up by the head), and about .25″ narrower and thinner.



This just shows the finished width of the handle — about 1.5″. It’s also just about 1.25″ thick. Both of those dimensions are a little larger than your typical commercially-available cane, but it no longer looks like an axe handle. After I was done with the rasp, I smoothed it out with some 60-grit sandpaper, then some 120-grit, then some 220-grit. I wanted it smooth and ‘finished’, but wasn’t worried about it being super smooth.



I then gave it three coats of urethane stain (dark walnut), sanding lightly between each with 600-grit sandpaper. Then I added the rubber foot and a simple braided leather lanyard.


10A detail of the head.



Another detail of the head.



Holding it with the lanyard around my wrist.


13And another view.

That’s it. Simple, effective cane/walking stick. Nothing metal or high-tech about it to alert someone that it is anything other than a walking stick. Total cost under $20, since I already had some simple tools, sandpaper, and stain on hand. And a total of a couple hours of labor.

Something I want to note: the handpiece/finial is not intended as a striking surface. You don’t need any additional bulk or weight there for this to be a very effective defensive tool. It’s more like the pommel on a sword. In fact, the overall length, heft, and other measurements is very similar to the rattan broadsword used in SCA combat. As such, I know full well just how effective such a tool can be against another opponent in even confined spaces. And now that I’m an old guy with a couple of cardiac stents in place, I need a good walking stick with me no matter where I go …


Jim Downey


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

What a difference a week makes.

Just think — all the folks who are prepping to deal with some global emergency almost got a chance to see how well their theories work in practice. My friends who are into Steampunk and the SCA would have reigned supreme!

Earth survived near-miss from 2012 solar storm: NASA

Back in 2012, the Sun erupted with a powerful solar storm that just missed the Earth but was big enough to “knock modern civilization back to the 18th century,” NASA said.

The extreme space weather that tore through Earth’s orbit on July 23, 2012, was the most powerful in 150 years, according to a statement posted on the US space agency website Wednesday.

* * *

“If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire,” said Daniel Baker, professor of atmospheric and space physics at the University of Colorado.


Ah well. Better luck next time!




Honor thy mentor.

This item from the Getty on making illuminated manuscripts is making the rounds among my friends who are into things medieval.  It’s relatively short, quite good, and covers the basics nicely.

But I particularly wanted to share it because when it gets to the bookbinding part (at about 4:30) it shows my bookbinding mentor, the late Bill Anthony, doing the work.

Bill was one hell of a craftsman, and a better bookbinder than I’ll ever be. No, that’s not false humility — I’m now just a few years younger than Bill was when he participated in making this video. But at that point in his life he had been a bookbinder for more than 40 years. I’d have to continue to work at it full time for at least another 20 years to have the same time in harness. And since I’m distracted by writing and other things, well, it’d probably take another 40 years to even have a chance to achieve the same level of proficiency. But that’s OK — I’m happy with the choices I’ve made, and the things I have accomplished (and still hope to accomplish).

Anyway, I wanted to share this.


Jim Downey

“Is that yours?”

I’ve mentioned my earlier involvement in the SCA previously. And generally I’ve always had an interest in different historical recreation groups, particularly those which strive to do the different types of combat throughout history well (one of the reasons I really like Peter Woodward). So naturally I have to share this brilliant little film short:


Went and rescued a kitty today who was no longer wanted. She’s currently isolated in one of the bathrooms, getting slowly acclimated to being in a strange place with strange monkeys, another cat, and a DOG!!! I promise pix once she’s more settled.

Jim Downey

January 11, 2012, 6:35 pm
Filed under: Art, Humor, Music, SCA, YouTube

Yes, I have a very twisted sense of humor:

Uploaded by “historyteachers“.

And they have a buttload of other vids which may be worth checking out as well.

Jim Downey

“Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa.”
January 2, 2012, 11:03 am
Filed under: movies, SCA, YouTube

I remember back in 1987, sitting in a movie theater, enjoying a light, fun new movie. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was at the apex of my career as a martial artist. And then The Fight started. That’s how I (and millions of others) will always think about it: The Fight. Watching it unfold, the hair on the back of my neck started to stand up. Then I got goosebumps over my whole body. Because The Fight was really that good. It was very much a case of watching true mastery of a thing – swordfighting – which I knew well enough to understand just a bit of.

Bob Anderson, the man who was behind The Fight, and many others, died yesterday.

Thanks, Bob, for your life, your work, and giving me a glimpse of what true skill could be.

Jim Downey

Unexpected strength.
December 14, 2010, 1:01 pm
Filed under: SCA, Society, Survival

Holbrooke was the chief architect of the Dayton Accords, the agreement which helped end the war in Bosnia. The agreement was signed fifteen years ago today. The veteran US diplomat was 69.

* * * * * * *

I took the phone call in the kitchen of my aunt & uncle’s house (this was long before cell phones). I had spent my adolescence in this home, after they took me in following the death of my parents. Now myself and some friends were staying there for a big SCA event to be held in my hometown: my first coronation as “king“. It was going to be a festive event, a day which was to be filled with fun and a bit of pomp, something to be celebrated and enjoyed.

I listened to the voice on the other end of the phone. We talked. Not many words were used, but much was said. I hung up the phone, looked to my future wife. Even then, she could read my face.

“What’s wrong?”

“Something’s happened.”

* * * * * * *

Betty, the friend who was going to be my “queen”, looked at me. We were in a small room set aside for our use prior to the coronation ceremony. I don’t remember if anyone else was in the room at the time, but things were generally in chaos. What had ‘happened’ was that the night before a carload of friends who were traveling to attend our coronation had been killed in an accident. 4 people, known and beloved, were dead. Everyone was in shock, understandably.

Betty looked at me. She was a smart, caring woman, capable of dealing with just about anything. A child-abuse investigator, she had the training and temperament to understand tough emotional situations and still see what needed to be done. At that moment I realized just how incredibly fortunate I was to have her as a partner in the role I was about to play.

Betty looked at me, and I at her. There was compassion in her face. “Suddenly, it’s not just a game anymore, is it?”

* * * * * * *

Sunday was the anniversary of my father’s death. It’s been 41 years. My mom died about 18 months later. Both deaths were unexpected – one due to violence, the other accident.

They were not the first deaths I had known. And they certainly have not been the last. I’ve lost friends and loved ones. I’ve been there at the end to do what I can for another.

At 52, this is not uncommon. Most of us experience these things as we move through adulthood. But, prodigy that I was, I was ahead of the curve when I was younger.

* * * * * * *

Betty looked at me, and I at her. There was compassion in her face. “Suddenly, it’s not just a game anymore, is it?”

“No. Real people, real emotions.” I remember thinking that for all that that day was not what I had expected, there was some small part of me which was . . . satisfied . . . that I had entirely too much experience with such matters. Even with the shock and pain, I felt capable of dealing with what was to come.

She saw it, and knew. “Well, let’s go do what we can for everyone.”

* * * * * * *

Holbrooke was the chief architect of the Dayton Accords, the agreement which helped end the war in Bosnia. The agreement was signed fifteen years ago today. The veteran US diplomat was 69.

The radio moved on to the next story. My wife glanced at me. We were both getting dressed to go on our morning walk, adding extra layers because of the cold. “69. I heard that earlier. He was just ten years older than me.”


“It got me thinking about, well, unexpected death.”

“Me too.” I paused, looked at her. “I think about that all the time.”

“I know.”

* * * * * * *

Jim Downey

Revenge is . . . sweet.
November 15, 2010, 1:27 pm
Filed under: Health, Humor, SCA, Survival

Sometimes hard work is more satisfying than other times:

That’s what I just did. It’s my form of getting even with the damned wood that just about killed me a year ago. Took two hours to split it all, using a maul and a star wedge. That’s not quite 5′ tall, about 10′ wide. And yeah, I hurt, and will probably hurt more later once I cool down.

But damn, that felt good.

Jim Downey

Just when you think you know everything . . .
October 3, 2010, 3:41 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Ballistics, SCA, Travel

OK, I don’t actually think I know everything. About anything. Even things I know a lot about.

But every once in a while I find out I don’t know something that I should. Like there’s been a deliberate plot to withhold information about something from me.

Ha Ha Tonka is one such piece of information.

I grew up in Missouri. I was born here, raised here, and have spent most of my life here. And I thought I knew the state reasonably well, even the parts of it that I don’t know. If you know what I mean.

Then, I was in the SCA for a long time. Still have a bunch of friends from that time.

And I have traveled to Europe multiple times, in large part to enjoy the castles and other historic buildings/ruins. All my family, most of my friends know this, and a fair number have even been subjected to slide shows of our trips.

We own property south of Columbia, adjacent to a State Conservation Area, part of which features an interesting geologic area known as a Karst Plain. One of my favorite places on our property is at the edge of a wonderful 300′ cliff, looking down into Three Creeks. There’s an old cabin there, which we use as the backstop for the BBTI tests, and my wife and I would love to build a getaway home there. The whole area has caves, sinkholes, and wonderful exposed rock.

Lastly, I appreciate the eccentric. Particularly people who have slightly mad ideas and dreams.

So, for all these reasons, you’d think I would have heard of a State Park in Missouri with beautiful scenery, 80 acres of Karst formation with caves and sinkholes, stunning views, and the ruins of an honest-to-god stone castle (of the ‘mansion’ variety). But prior to late last week, I had never heard of Ha Ha Tonka.

See, my wife had an AIA thing down at the Lake of the Ozarks this weekend. That was just Friday night, and then Saturday until early afternoon. But since Saturday was also our anniversary, we decided that we’d stay over, find something else in the area to do for a bit of celebration. Now, we’re not the sort to “paint the town red”, so one of the things she suggested to me was a drive a few miles to Ha Ha Tonka.

I had never heard of it. She told me some. I wondered. Racked my brain, trying to think of when I might have heard of it. Nothing. I looked at the websites she sent me. Still didn’t ring any bells at all.


But yesterday, after her other obligations were done, we jumped in the car and headed down to Ha Ha Tonka. Here are a couple of images:

As you can see, those are from the ruins. For the full set of images, including some great scenic vistas, check out my Facebook album.

And I still say it’s weird that I never heard about this. It’s like I’ve been abducted by aliens and that part of my memory has been excised.

Uh-oh, now I’ve done it, haven’t I?

Jim Downey