Communion Of Dreams


Scene, 2073

She stood there, looking out the thick transparent aluminum window, hands resting on the sill next to her favorite houseplant.  Even though the house was relatively new, and built to the latest safety specs, she could still feel the slight vibration of the storm outside. In her mind was the howl of the wind, though she was fairly certain that she was imagining that. She turned and looked at her friend. “Remember when hurricane classifications only went up to category 5?”

Jim Downey

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It’s October! That must mean it’s time for …

… more House Horrors!

OK, this time it’s not nearly as bad as it was last year. But nonetheless, I don’t think this is exactly what most people mean when they talk about having a “green roof“:

Green

Yeah, probably a safe bet.

So, this is the small roof of an unused porch on the front west of our house, which is a “Notable Historic Structure“ built by the first dean of the MU medical school in 1883. We’re fairly sure that this porch used to be a separate entrance for the dean’s private office/surgery, which is now our living room. At some point the door was closed off and turned into window, so now the porch is purely decorative and out of the way. As such, it tends to not get a lot of attention … including, unfortunately, maintenance.

But I was doing some other work up on the roof, and noticed that this small porch was to a point where it really needed some work. Eventually we’ll replace the steps and perhaps the floor of the porch, but first we needed to do some roof repairs.

Originally, this porch just had a sheet metal roof, over 1″ thick decking. But when the sheet metal started leaking, applications of roofing tar were applied in an effort seal the leaks. And for more than 100 years, that’s the only attention that it got. With the result that there was dried (and cracking/leaking) tar almost an inch thick in place over the whole small roof (it’s about 4’x8′).

To repair it was straight-forward: remove the old dried tar, repair the sheet metal as necessary, and then put down an appropriate proper flat roof.

To see that process, follow me below the fold:

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House horrors, part two: rebuilding the monster.

Three weeks ago we started a “small” home repair project.

Well, we thought it was going to be small. And then we discovered the horror within. As I said in my first blog post about this:

When you start a project like this, you don’t really know what you’re getting into until you actually start getting into it.

Boy, howdy.

Well, it became much more of a project than originally envisioned. If you want to know why I haven’t done a lot of blogging recently, this is almost entirely the reason: we wound up replacing everything about the original porch except the two upright posts, and those we altered. We even wound up having to clean up and put aright some of the work which had originally been done to tie in the porch roof to the house roof, which was a real horror.

And when I say that “we” did it, I mean that literally: my wife and I.  We actually did every single aspect of the work. My wife is an architect, and we’re both very used to working on smallish practical repairs — the sort of thing you always have pending on a house which is 130+ years old. Had we known that this job was going to turn out being so big, we might have opted to put it off until a contractor we trust was able to work it into his schedule. But once we got started, we were committed to doing the work all the way through, not according to someone else’s schedule. So, we did it.

What follows below is a step by step photo documentation of the work, just for grins. We finished the work this weekend (well, except for the painting, but that’s pretty minor and will get done in a week or so when we have a chance), and I’m really pleased with how well it all turned out. So, if you’re interested, take a look.

And with a little luck this week I’ll get back to a more normal posting schedule.

Jim Downey

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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



“I was speechless for a time.”

We got a little more than 2″ of rain yesterday.

On my walk this morning, the grass no longer crunched underfoot.

* * * * * * *

Got a note from a friend this morning. He’d just finished reading CoD last night, made this comment:

“That was one hell of a lot of keeping things straight on your part. Very nice job and a thoroughly enjoyable read.”

* * * * * * *

From almost a decade ago:

My awareness shifted, slowed, and a calmness and sense of peace came over me.  I did a cursory examination of the cottage, but then walked behind the Well room to find the source of the stream which fed the pool there:  it was a spring, unencumbered by metal bars, bubbling up in a stone-ledged pool complete with small steps, perhaps four feet across.  I knelt on one knee, left hand on the cold stone slab, the right reaching down to caress the surface of the water.  Just touching that water gave me an electric chill, and brought tears to my eyes.  Those tears have returned as I write this.  I paused there, and just felt the joy of that water through my fingers for a few minutes, before returning to the Well room.

This is a substantial room, all the walls mostly intact but the roof missing.  Perhaps 15 feet on a side, the pool in the center 8 or 9 feet across.  Again, there were stone steps leading down into the pool.  In the thick stone walls are several niches for sitting, perfect for contemplation.  I sat.  I just felt that place, felt the faith and devotion that had shaped it, and the deep source that fed it.  The pool is quiet, the surface a mirror for looking up into the open sky.  After what was probably only a few minutes, but what felt like hours, I again kneeled, reaching down to touch that smooth inviting surface.  Here there was a different character to the energy, less raw, perhaps easier to digest.  A sense of communion with all the souls who had entered that pool.  A moment that stretched back centuries.

I was speechless for a time.  Alix (my wife) knows me well enough, has seen me in these moments before, that she let me be, allowed me to just experience the place, until I was filled and ready to move again.  With the silky texture of worn stone sliding under my fingers, I rose and left the pool, pausing only to pat the dark stone of the doorway and give thanks.

In was in that moment that St. Cybi’s Well was conceived.

* * * * * * *

It’s a strange thing to write a novel. To have it churn inside you for years. To feel it gestate, to become heavy in your mind, slowly pushing aside everything else.

I think this is part of the reason why so many writers suffer with addiction and relationship problems of one sort or another. The book takes up all the space in your head. And if you can’t extract it at the right time, and in *just* the right way, it hurts. It hurts like hell.

* * * * * * *

We got a little more than 2″ of rain yesterday.

On my walk this morning, the grass no longer crunched underfoot. We’re still in a drought — still some 10″ under for total precipitation this year — but two inches of rain over the course of 24 hours has helped. A lot. It no longer feels as if the entire outdoors is holding its breath, hanging on in anticipation . . . and in worry. The world has sighed.

I was speechless for a time. I am no longer.

There is work to be done. Hard work. There is no guarantee that I’ll be successful. There certainly is no guarantee that anyone will like the book. While it is very much a prequel to Communion of Dreams, St. Cybi’s Well will not neatly fit in the usual framework of a classic science fiction story. The passage above should give you some sense of that.

But I have to be faithful to the story. And have faith in my fans.

Stick around.

Jim Downey



99.29%

I’ve written before (even recently) about the tree in the image at the top of this page. It’s locally known as the “Williamson Oak”, named after the family which owns the property where it grows. It is, simply, magnificent, and the oldest/largest such tree in the world.

And it is suffering from the drought which is having a devastating effect across the whole state and region:

The tree was starting to show signs of distress, Williamson said. “The leaves are beginning to curl up a little bit, and they have turned kind of brown. I think it has aborted a lot of the acorns. And the leaves turn upside down to keep from losing moisture.”

The ongoing drought didn’t get much worse in the past week, but things in Boone County and across the Midwest did not improve much either. According to the drought monitor report issued this morning, 99.29 percent of Missouri is in extreme drought or worse. The remainder of the state, a tiny sliver of the northwest, is only under a “severe” drought designation. More than one-third of the state, including most of Boone County, is designated as undergoing an “exceptional drought.”

Typically, the older a tree is, the deeper the roots it has. So older trees tend to fare better in severe droughts. And the Williamson Oak is in the Missouri River bottoms — the river’s natural flood plain, where ground water isn’t that far below the surface. In other words, this tree should have the best possible chance to survive this drought. Still, things are so bad that this was the image on our local paper’s front page last evening:

John Sam Williamson releases 850 gallons of water at the base of the 350-year old champion bur oak at McBaine Wednesday. Six generations of his family have owned the land since the 1830s. Williamson plans to release roughly 1,600 gallons of water around the base of the tree each week for the next several weeks.

Yeah, this drought is bad. The worst I’ve ever seen.

Jim Downey