Communion Of Dreams


Proving title.

“A home without a cat — and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat — may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title?”
Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson

So, a couple weeks ago I had an idea … which, if you know me or have followed this blog for a while, can sometimes get me, well, not exactly into trouble, but can lead to things not entirely intended. Anyway, the idea was to build a climbing tree for our cats, which might take advantage of the 12′ ceilings we have in our historic home (ours is the next-to-last in that article).

Here’s the (probably) final result:

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Now, for those who may be curious about the process of making this cat tree, there’s more below.

We have a huge slump of an ancient catalpa out in front of the house, near the road. Here it is:

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It’s been a favorite of photographers and children for generations, and overall is doing pretty well. But one large part of it died a couple of years ago, and we’ve delayed removing it. That part is the pair of major mostly horizontal limbs which come out from the tree towards the viewer in that image.

After some discussion, my wife and I decided that the lower limb could serve as the basic structure for our cat tree. So I cut it off, and then trimmed it and started removing the bark, as seen here:

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It’s a little hard to tell scale in that pic, but that limb is about 12′ from base to either tip, and about 12′ from tip to tip.

After removing most of the bark, we somehow managed to get the thing in through the front door and then into our living room. Without breaking any windows. Or bones. This was trickier than it might sound. And did require a bit of additional editing with a chainsaw on some of the various extensions. Of the tree, I mean.

So, we got it into approximate position, then braced it with a couple of chairs. Here it is, with Greystoke (our younger cat — he’s not quite two) investigating:

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Next, we got it mounted to the wall securely. This required some stacked-lumber spacers in order to make sure that the branches cleared the windows and curtains safely. The way I mounted it was to mount the lumber to the wall, then I added heavy hook brackets to the lumber, and cinched the tree down with rope. That way, if it was ever necessary, we could detach the tree fairly easily. Here it is mounted, with a 12″ cardboard concrete tube I intended to use for part of the ‘furniture’:

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Almost as soon as it was secured, Greystoke was wanting to explore:

That's an 8' ladder, by the way. Both of our cats love climbing on it anytime we get the thing out.

That’s an 8′ ladder, by the way. Both of our cats love climbing on it anytime we get the thing out.

Hello, there!

Hello, there!

I started adding elements to the tree: a couple of simple platforms, and a horizontal bridge which would support a carpeted tube. These (and all the subsequent elements) were mounted using a combination of metal shelf brackets and rope.

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At this point I also started wrapping cotton rope around the branches, to make them more cat-claw friendly/safe:

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The branch on the left was at enough of an angle to let the cats climb it easily. On the right, I decided to put in steps similar to a ladder, but spiraling as they went up to make it easier for the cats to climb:

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Next I settled on a final design for the tube:

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Then it was time to carpet it, as well as add carpet to the ladder steps and the platforms:

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Covering the steps and platforms just required a rectangle of carpet the correct size and some double-sided carpet tape. To do the tube was a PITA using a combination of carpet tape, construction adhesive, and hot glue. I recommend checking YouTube for instructions. And gloves. Definitely you want gloves.

Here’s the semi-finished tree, before I added a final platform on the upper right, or some ‘interactive’ toys/elements:

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The (probably) finished final result again:

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Complete with a suspended ‘bird’, a dangling rope, and a couple of simple wood spinners. Note that Greystoke, instead of being on the tree, is snoozing in his favorite chair below. Typical.

But he has already started climbing on it, playing with things, looking out the windows, climbing *into* the windows …

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Silly cat. But that’s why we built it.

So, all of the wood and most of the hardware used in making the tree was stuff which I already had leftover/recovered from other projects. The tree as shown in the final version (which may get tweaked a bit over time as we see how the cats use it) has about 800′ of rope on it, and that was the biggest expense. All together, had I had to buy both rope and all the wood & hardware, the out of pocket costs would have been about $200 (I actually spent about half that). And it took me a total of about 30 hours labor, in 2-3 hour sessions over the last couple of weeks.

Fun project. I was a little concerned that wrapping it with so much rope would detract from it feeling like a ‘tree’, but it has maintained that organic feeling, even with the other elements I added. I’m pretty happy with the final product.

Jim Downey

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Faith.

I wrote this back around 1993, and had it up on my archive site. Yesterday I had reason to look it up, and first looked here, figuring that at some point I must have reposted it. But a search didn’t turn it up, and I thought that I should correct that oversight.

It’s interesting to now look back to it, and to see how little my attitude/approach to the subject has changed with another 23 years of book conservation experience.

 

Jim Downey

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mark Twain, in his early work Innocents Abroad, described how Christian craftsmen were given special dispensation to enter mosques in the Holy Land in order to install or repair the clocks which called the faithful to prayer.  Sometimes I feel like those clockmakers, and wonder how they reconciled their non-belief in Islam with the service they provided that faith.  Did they feel the grace of Allah’s touch in their craftsmanship, or in the heartfelt thanks and blessings they received from the faithful?

I am a book conservator in private practice in the Midwest, and a significant number of the books I work on are religious texts, usually but not exclusively bibles.  While I am a deeply spiritual person, largely in the Christian tradition, I do not consider myself to be a person of faith, and I have doubts about the existence of a single divine entity by whatever name.  Still, I respect the religions of others, and am comfortable working on the books that deeply religious people bring to me.

Repair of holy scripture is an odd thing for an agnostic to do.  My friends of faith say that it is part of my path of spiritual growth, perhaps the way I will be led to discovery and belief.  Perhaps.  But I consider it more that I am keeping faith with my clients.  A bible, particularly a personal bible which is used for daily prayer and inspiration, is probably more private and revealing than a diary.  I can tell from the way the binding is broken, from the wear on the pages, from the passages highlighted or notes made, what is important to the owner, what their innermost fears and hopes are.  I suspect that often I know more about these things than they do themselves.  I am a therapist of paper and glue.

These books are precious, not in a monetary sense, but in a personal one.  I can see it in their eyes when they bring the bible to me, asking me if it can be repaired, worried less about the cost than the time it will be absent from their lives.  The repair of these books is usually simple and straightforward, just an hour or two of labor.  I can fit this work in between larger projects, and get the bible back to the owner in a matter of just a few days.  This news usually comes as a relief.  But almost always the owner is still hesitant let go of the book, hands slowly passing it over as they search my face for a clue as to whether they can trust me with this part of themselves.  Just as a veterinarian receives a beloved animal who needs treatment with gentleness and grace, out of concern for the owner as much as for the pet, I receive their bibles as a sacred trust.

And when they come for their bibles, I am sometimes embarrassed.  Embarrassed because of the praise, the occasional blessings, and the overflowing joy they feel.  It is times like this that I feel that my hands are not really my own, my craftsmanship and skill not something that I can take pride in, but a rare gift that comes from outside of myself.  And I am grateful, whatever the source, for this touch of grace that enters my life.

 



Reflecting (on) reality.

Any work of literature is, to some extent, part of the society in which it was written, and needs to be understood within that context. Whether you’re talking The Bonfire of the Vanities or On the Beach or Life on the Mississippi  or just about any novel you care to name, it is, to some extent, a reflection on the culture surrounding it.

Writers react to the events around them. Even science fiction authors like yours truly. We really can’t avoid it.

I mentioned events in Boston the other day.  Just a blog post. But it is some measure of what has gotten my attention. So it would be safe to assume that to some degree it will show up in St. Cybi’s Well. And it will. But perhaps not exactly as you might think.

Almost five years ago I wrote this:

This is nothing more or less than the peace of the gun. This is the abrogation of civil liberties as a solution for incompetent governance. Of course people like it – let things get bad enough that they fear for their lives more than they value their liberties, and you can get people to do almost anything.

Now, I don’t think that what happened in Boston was anything like what led to that blog post about HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. in August of 2008. In that instance, it was chronic problems with crime rather than a couple of domestic terrorists which brought about de facto martial law.

And I think that the police agencies involved in determining who was responsible for the attacks, and then seeking the suspects in a major metropolitan area did a very professional job. Just compare it to another recent dragnet and you’ll see what I mean.

But I keep coming back to that earlier blog post. Why? Because seeing a major city shut down, and then para-military operations going house to house searching for a suspect, gives me pause. I certainly can’t fault the police for taking precautions intended to protect their own lives and the lives of citizens. SWAT equipment and tactics have been shown to be very effective.

Yet …

… I feel somewhat like the owner of a couple of highly trained and massive guard dogs, who has just watched those dogs chase off/control a threat. There’s a satisfaction in watching them do the task so well. But there’s also a nagging fear that maybe, just maybe, things could be bad if they ever decided that they no longer wanted to obey commands.

Nah – no need to worry. That has never happened before.

 

Jim Downey

 

 

 



Italy, 2012: The ghosts nearby.

“Finally we stood in a level, narrow valley (a valley that had been created by the terrific march of some old time irruption) and on either hand towered the two steep peaks of Vesuvius. The one we had to climb – the one that contains the active volcano – seemed about eight hundred or one thousand feet high, and looked almost too straight-up-and-down for any man to climb, and certainly no mule could climb it with a man on his back. Four of these native pirates will carry you to the top in a sedan chair, if you wish it, but suppose they were to slip and let you fall, – is it likely that you would ever stop rolling? Not this side of eternity, perhaps. We left the mules, sharpened our finger-nails, and began the ascent I have been writing about so long, at twenty minutes to six in the morning. The path led straight up a rugged sweep of loose chunks of pumice-stone, and for about every two steps forward we took, we slid back one. It was so excessively steep that we had to stop, every fifty or sixty steps, and rest a moment. To see our comrades, we had to look very nearly straight up at those above us, and very nearly straight down at those below. We stood on the summit at last – it had taken an hour and fifteen minutes to make the trip.”

Mark Twain, Chapter 30 of The Innocents Abroad.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Yeah, it isn’t quite that bad climbing Mount Vesuvius today. There’s now a very good path which switchbacks a couple of times, then winds around the mountain a fair amount, making for a longer walk but one which is still fairly steep, climbing the final 200 meters of elevation from the parking lot. Take a look:

 

 

 

 

Then once you’re to the top, you can walk about a third of the way around the lip of the crater. On one side, you look down into the crater, on the other out over the volcanic plains to the Bay of Naples:

 

 

 

 

Looking towards Naples.

 

There’s a dark patch of green surrounded by buildings directly above the corner post: that’s Pompeii.

 

 

At the top – at the very end of the public trail – there’s a little hut selling refreshments and souvenirs. And the prices are more reasonable than you might expect. But I decided that I didn’t really need either an ashtray or a skull carved out of black pumice.

Standing there on what’s left of Vesuvius, looking out over the plains below, I felt a bit melancholy. It could have just been the exertion to climb to the top. Or that I knew the trip was coming to a close. But looking out over the misty cities, it was easy to picture another eruption. There are millions of people within potential reach of the volcano. Naples – a city of some 4 million – is conceivably at risk. In the immediate area around the volcano some 600,000 people are subject to possible pyroclastic flows. Current scientific models indicate that there would probably be two to three weeks of warning before a serious eruption, but no one is entirely confident of that. And at best, it would take 5 -7 days to evacuate those most at risk.

 

* * * * * * *

 

We came down off the mountain, but in some sense didn’t leave it. It lurked there on the skyline as we went to Herculaneum.

I said that visiting Pompeii was “sobering,” but the primary thing that going there did for me was to help me envision what a Roman city was like.

Herculaneum was different. It was even more immediate – more “real.” That’s because of the way the city was destroyed.

When Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, Herculaneum was mostly out of the immediate ash cloud. In Pompeii, the city was largely buried by ash and small rock debris to a depth of several meters in the first few hours. This caused roofs to collapse, and entombed people in ash after they suffocated or died from blunt trauma.

Not so in Herculaneum. They only got a few inches of ash initially. This meant that they had a lot more time for the city to be evacuated. But when the blow came to Herculaneum, it came very swiftly – in the form of a pyroclastic flow of molten rock and debris moving at 100 mph and at a temperature of over 900 degrees Fahrenheit.

Those who were in the city died almost instantaneously, their flesh vaporized in the heat. All that was left was bone.

Likewise, structures were encased in the molten mass, and it happened so quickly that wood didn’t burn – it was carbonized, turned to charcoal, sealed in super-heated rock. Roofs didn’t collapse, as the structures were filled inside as well as covered over on the outside. Eventually, the entire city was covered to a depth of more than 20 meters. The result was a city which was even better preserved than Pompeii. Better preserved, and because of that more tangible. You couldn’t help but walk the streets, enter the houses, and feel like you were in a living city, one which had just misplaced its populace. The ghosts were still close here:

Vesuvius waits.

 

The boathouses where the final refugees died.

 

Courtyard of the baths.

 

Temple paintings.

 

Temple paintings.

 

Temple paintings.

 

Carbonized rafters.

 

Street scene.

 

At the wine merchant’s.

 

Wood on the outside of the wine shop.

 

A local snack bar.

 

Another street scene.

 

Wooden screw press, now carbonized and behind glass. This was probably used in the making or cleaning of cloth.

 

City above, city below. (Ercolano – the modern city, and Herculaneum).

 

* * * * * * *

It was our last night at the villa. Usually this is something of a party night for everyone, and for much of the group this was true. But somehow I just wasn’t really in the mood.

Jim Downey
PS: there’s an excellent collection of additional images from this trip, taken by Angie Bohon, another member of the group. They can be seen here, here, and here.



Nine words.

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” – Mark Twain.

* * * * * * *

I have a secret I’d like to share. It’s something that almost everyone thinks they know. But it is something which we all think doesn’t apply to us.

The secret? Just nine words: You’re not as smart as you think you are.

* * * * * * *

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you think you know that ain’t so.” -Will Rogers

* * * * * * *

I don’t care who you are. We’re all prone to making this mistake. To ignoring this thing we know – which has been common wisdom for millenia, and across almost all human cultures as far as I can tell.

Why do we do this?

* * * * * * *

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” *

* * * * * * *

I think that we do it because we have to. Trusting our knowledge, our experience, is the only thing that allows us to make sense of the world.

It starts with the most basic things. Breath. Life. Light.

Then it grows upon those, builds with knowledge accumulated and shared.

* * * * * * *

“Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.” Kay

* * * * * * *

“That which emerges from darkness gives definition to the light.”

It’s the central mystery at the heart of Communion of Dreams.

What does it mean?

* * * * * * *

From Communion of Dreams, Chapter 16:

Jon shook his head. “I still don’t see where it really makes that much difference to us.”

“Perhaps not to us. We’re inside the bubble. But to the crew of the Hawking, it made a very big difference. They got on the other side of the bubble.”

There was a moment, a heartbeat, as the implications of this sank in. And then the universe changed. “Sweet Jesus . . . ”

* * * * * * *

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” – Mark Twain.

Actually, it’s just attributed to Twain, thanks to a Reader’s Digest entry from 1939. It sounds like the sort of thing he would have said, but Twain scholars haven’t been able to document it as actually having been his.

Nine words: You’re not as smart as you think you are.

Neither am I. None of us are.

More later.

Jim Downey