Communion Of Dreams

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.


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

The end of things.

This morning, NPR repeated the story of Voyager 1 having apparently left the solar system.

I wonder why?


* * *

Philip James Bailey, Festus:

We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths;
In feelings, not in figures on a dial.
We should count time by heart-throbs. He most lives
Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best.
Life’s but a means unto an end; that end
Beginning, mean, and end to all things,—God.


* * *

We went shopping yesterday.

Big deal, right? Actually, it kinda was. It was the first time my wife had been in good enough shape to do so since her emergency appendectomy. Things are slowly returning to whatever passes for normal.


* * *

Dr. David Casarett is the director of hospice care at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He works with families as they try to navigate end-of-life decisions.

At least once a week, Casarett says, one of his patients expresses a desire to end his or her own life. “It’s a reminder to me that I have to stop whatever I was doing … and sit back down to try to find out what is motivating that request,” he says. “Is it really a carefully thought out desire to die, or is it, as it is unfortunately many times, a cry for help?”

It’s a good story.


* * *

Tomorrow’s the last day this month to get the free Kindle edition of Communion of Dreams. And this week is the last one to get entered into the drawing for a hand-bound leather copy of the special edition. Remember, you have to have posted a review on Amazon of the book, and then post a comment with a link to that review in this blog entry. There are currently 65 reviews on Amazon, but only 8 entrants for the drawing — don’t delay, as the end will come sooner than you expect.

As it usually does, for good or ill.


Jim Downey

Moments of revelation.

“All of life can be broken down into moments of transition or moments of revelation.”

-G’Kar, Z’ha’dum

Sometimes you don’t recognize when things change — the moments of transition — except in hindsight. That could be because the change is incremental enough that you don’t notice it for a while, or it might be that you’re so completely involved in the moment that the realization of what just happened doesn’t sink in immediately.


* * *

This morning there was a news item on NPR which caught my attention: that perhaps the Voyager 1 spacecraft has already left our solar system.

Scientists have known for a while that it was approaching the limits of the heliosphere. The expectation was that there would be a fairly clear change in orientation of the magnetic field when the craft crossed the boundary of the Sun’s influence into true interstellar space.  But perhaps that boundary was less defined than we thought. From the story:

How did we miss that? As it turns out, it wasn’t entirely our fault. Researchers thought the solar system was surrounded by a clearly marked magnetic field bubble.

“There’s one at the Earth, there’s one at Jupiter, Saturn, many planets have them. And so just by analogy we were expecting there to be something like that for the solar system,” Swisdak says.

Scientists were waiting for Voyager to cross over the magnetic edge of our solar system and into the magnetic field of interstellar space. But in in the September issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters, Swisdak and his colleagues say the magnetic fields may blend together. And so in July 2012, when Voyager crossed from the solar system into deep space, “Voyager just kept cruising along,” Swisdak says. All they saw was a change in the field’s direction.


* * *

Last Thursday my wife had a follow-up with her surgeon to see how she was doing in recovering from her emergency appendectomy.  She had been released from the hospital the previous Saturday, but there was some concern over the risk of secondary infection within her abdomen.

Well, without getting too much into the details, tests indicated that she might be developing exactly that sort of infection. The surgeon ordered a procedure called a needle aspiration and scheduled it for the following day.

We dutifully reported to the hospital for the procedure. It didn’t go smoothly, and the upshot was that it didn’t help her condition at all. A couple hours later we left the hospital, and she’s been mostly resting since. We’re now waiting to hear from the surgeon about what happens next. And what it means.


* * *

Some six years ago I wrote what could be considered a companion piece to this blog post. In it I quoted a friend, talking about Communion of Dreams:

“Yeah, but it’s like the way that the people involved in your book – the characters – are all struggling to understand this new thing, this new artifact, this unexpected visitor. And I like the way that they don’t just figure it out instantly – the way each one of them tries to fit it into their own expectations about the world, and what it means. They struggle with it, they have to keep learning and investigating and working at it, before they finally come to an understanding.” He looked at me as we got back in the car. “Transitions.”


* * *

Where Communion of Dreams was largely about transitions, in many ways St. Cybi’s Well is about revelations. How we experience them. How we understand them. How we do or don’t recognize them when they happen.

The Kindle edition of Communion of Dreams is free today. And you have less than two weeks to enter into the drawing for a hand-bound, full-leather copy of the book. So far only two people have entered. Don’t miss the moment.


Jim Downey

“And it exploded.”*

A bit of an apology to any who feel they deserve it:  I intentionally understated just how bad my wife’s acute appendicitis was earlier this week. Once she had surgery and was admitted to the hospital we knew that she was going to be fine with a few days of intense care, and I didn’t want to get people overly concerned about what her condition had been.  Which was, frankly, really bad. Following the surgery, this is pretty much how the surgeon characterized it:

Seriously, that’s what happened. The surgeon said that the appendix hadn’t just ruptured, it had “basically exploded, with pieces all through her abdomen. A real mess.”

So, now that she’s been cleared to return home tomorrow, I thought I’d offer my apologies. Earlier I wanted to let people know that she was in the hospital, and why, but I didn’t want to get everyone too worked up over a crisis which had already passed. Sorry about being misleading. And thanks for your support.


Jim Downey

*If you didn’t instantly think of this scene just from that phrase … well, you need to watch Galaxy Quest again, as it has obviously been too long. When I discussed posting this with my wife, we both had a good chuckle over the fact that she had also thought of the exact same scene when the surgeon told us what had happened. Yeah, we’re weird like that.

“…while you’re busy making other plans.”*

Last week my wife was at a professional convention. She got home late Friday night, understandably tired. She was dragging a bit Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon said that her joints were aching and she felt a bit feverish. We figured that she had likely picked up a virus at the convention, since that’s not uncommon.

Sunday she wasn’t feeling any better, and had lost her appetite with a bit of a stomach ache. Mild headache. She elected to just try and sleep it off, taking OTC analgesics.

But come Monday morning …


* * * * * * *

Two weeks ago I had my annual physical. Routine stuff for the most part. My doc and I discussed some alternative pain-management strategies (I have chronic pain from a torn intracostal muscle – basically, it feels like I have a broken rib all the time. On good days it feels like a broken rib about four weeks into the healing process – mostly just a dull ache – and on bad days it feels like I just broke it, with intense and sharp pain). I have prescription meds for the pain, but even though they’re fairly mild as such things go, they dull my mind enough that I can’t really write very well when taking them.

But we also discussed dealing with another issue, for which I needed to start taking something else. A statin for cholesterol management. Which was fine by me, since diet only goes so far. I started taking the meds last week, and experienced the sort of side effect which is annoying but not really hateful as my body adjusted. Not wanting to get too graphic, let’s just say that I made sure to stay near a bathroom for a few days.

Anyway, I lost most of last week in terms of work, both in the bindery and on the novel. Neither one is easy to do when you have to keep running off to the bathroom at frequent intervals.


* * * * * * * *

Which really wasn’t too much of a problem, as far as it concerned writing St. Cybi’s Well, since for the last few weeks I’ve been somewhat … discombobulated … by recent news reports. Specifically, by the revelations of governmental spying, and the scope of the programs involved in it, all precipitated by the leaks from Edward Snowden.

Anyone who has read my blog for a while knows that these topics are ones I have discussed at some length in the past, well before the latest news. Just check the “Constitution“, “Government” or “Privacy” categories or related tags, and you’ll see what I mean.

And the things I have had to say in the past reflect a lot of what informs the background of St. Cybi’s Well.  I don’t want to give too much away, but a lot of the book is concerned with what happens when a government uses tools intended to protect its citizens to instead control them. And working off of what was already in the public domain about the different security programs, I made a lot of projections about where such things could lead.

Then came the Snowden revelations and subsequent discussion. As it turned out, I was very accurate in my understanding of the spying technology and how it could be used. Almost too much so.

See, there’s a problem with that: when writing about an ‘alternate time line’, you have to strike a balance between this reality and the fictional one.  And, well, some of my fictional spying programs are now shown to be just a little too close to real. So now I have to back up a bit and tweak a number of different elements in the book to get back to the correct (for me) balance. It’s not a huge problem, but one which has had me dancing/juggling  a bit.

Not unlike my body trying to find a new equilibrium with the meds.


* * * * * * *

But come this past weekend, things had settled down, at least as far as my body was concerned. So I was able to get back to thinking about the hand-binding of Communion of Dreams, and the promotional stuff related to that. So I went ahead and scheduled some ‘free’ Kindle days, and wrote the blog post announcing that I would also be giving away a leather-bound copy of the book, and outlining how people could enter for a drawing for said book.

My intent was to do a follow-up blog post on Monday, reminding people about that, and the fact that the Kindle edition of Communion of Dreams would be free all day. That was the plan, anyway.


* * * * * * *

But come Monday morning, well, things didn’t go as planned. Not by a long shot.

My wife wasn’t feeling any better. And she was poking around online, seeing if she could find out anything which would help. I popped into the bedroom to check on her, and the conversation went something like this:

“Hmm, it says here that appendicitis sometimes starts with pain high in the stomach.”

“Really? I didn’t know that. I thought the classic was when you got a sharp pain in the lower right quadrant.”

“Yeah, it seems like it can start high, then shift down.”


“You know, the pain I had in my stomach has shifted down …”

“We’re going to the E.R.”

And we did. Pronto. And I am very glad that we live about a mile from an excellent hospital. Again, I’ll spare you all the details, but let’s just say that my wife had surgery that afternoon, and they’re still pushing intravenous antibiotics into her. She’ll be fine, thanks to modern medicine. But it was a close call.

Yeah, so much for plans.

Anyway, about 120 people downloaded Communion of Dreams on Monday. It’ll be available for free next Monday, and the two Mondays after that. The deadline for writing a review and getting your entry in is the end of August. Remember, you have to post a link in the initial blog entry about the contest.

And some advice: don’t plan on doing it later. Take care of it now. You never know what might come up.


Jim Downey

*Of course.