Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Death in the Family

I've posted about my brother before: first here, and then here.

He died yesterday morning. He was 66 years old.

Luz, the caregiver who adored him, was with him at the end.

After a day of sleep, full of morphine, Ed opened his eyes, saw Luz, laughed, and closed his eyes. Then gradually, he stopped breathing. It was 3 in the morning. He died at home, in his bedroom, surrounded by posters of trains. He always loved trains.

Later that morning, I came to his house and said my goodbyes. He was still in bed, looking peaceful and gaunt. His flesh was cold. His spirit was everywhere.

Ed was a rebel, a non-academic scholar, an original thinker. As the younger brother, my relationship with him was an endless adventure, a trying-to-catch-up.

Later that same day, I learned I have pneumonia. No, thank you, I don't think I'll catch up to Ed's latest move quite yet. It's "minor" pneumonia. I'm supposed to rest - which I will do later, I promise. Right now I have to go out and inspect a couple of houses.

Let's just say it's been a tough weekend so far.

Here's a photo of Ed performing Wagner's Die Meistersinger with the San Francisco Opera. He's the one in the center holding the staff.
Ed's life was something of an opera, too. I'll write about it when I gather my thoughts.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

My Top Ten (or Five, actually, or maybe Six...): Mike Rose

After posting about Jeff Taylor's book, I settled into a bath to refresh my memory of the next book I want to write about. ( I do most of my reading in the bathtub, make of it what you will.) The next book is by Mike Rose, and I see on second reading that he is a fan of Jeff Taylor, too. And just as I had lamented the lack of power tools in Jeff's book, here is what Mike Rose had to say: "Someone, following Jeff Taylor's lead, should write a subsequent book on the 'art and craft' of the power tool: an attempt to render the knack and judgment required for the router, the jointer, the band saw."

Wow. I think I'm onto a theme here. Mike Rose is almost a god. More in my next post...

My Top Ten (or Five, actually, or maybe Six...): Tools of the Trade

There are dozens of books about tools. What I love about Jeff Taylor's Tools of the Trade: The Art and Craft of Carpentry is that tools are just the starting point. Jeff is a born story-teller. The chapter on hammers, for example, isn't really about hammers. It's about, as the subtitle states, "the art and craft of carpentry." It's about his first job working for an old carpenter named Swanee. It's about Jeff's raw naivete and Swanee's years of accumulated knowledge and wisdom. It's about attitude, which is the most important tool of all.

If you've read or listened to my novel Clear Heart, you might remember Abe, the Princeton preppie, being trained by Steamboat, the big old quiet guy, with lessons about mucking in concrete and learning to "work smarter, not harder." Well, Jeff Taylor had an apprenticeship like that, working for Swanee.

From Jeff Taylor and Swanee, I learned something new about hammers, too: "Swanee showed me how he had bored out the bottom of his wooden handle almost to the head and filled it with castor oil, which bled out into the wood to make a microscopic slick on the surface; hence, fewer blisters. By capping the opening with beeswax, my mentor could dip screw threads to glide them into pilot holes."

The book imparts a lot of wisdom with self-deprecating humor. I particularly appreciate that he devotes equal attention to the tools of framing and finish carpentry as well as the workshop tools used by furniture and cabinet makers.

No power tools, though. Nobody seems to have any affection for power tools, except me. I may have to write my own book about that. In a way, Clear Heart was a start: A Duo-Fast nailgun named Debbie the Doofus was a central character, along with a Hitachi H65 forty-pound demolition hammer, several belt sanders including the legendary Porter-Cable 504, and ... Well, don't get me started. Oh, and pickup trucks, too! But, again, don't get me started...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Clear Heart available on Kindle

If anybody out there has a Kindle, I have a favor to ask of you. Would you tell me how well the book survived being run through the digital grinder and sent to your Kindle screen? Does it look okay?

Here's a link to the Kindle edition: Clear Heart.

I don't have a Kindle, and I don't know anybody who has a Kindle. So I have no idea what's being sold to the world in my name. And it's my name, my reputation that will suffer if they did a bad job.

I already know it's a little different from the printed book, because I had to make some changes to the manuscript before they would accept it. Kindle won’t accept Unicode, if you know what that is (I didn’t). My manuscript contains a couple of Greek characters set in unicode (the symbol theta used in sine and cosine equations), so I had to rewrite a couple of sentences leaving out the equations, which is a shame. I wonder how many other books had their content rewritten to be published on Kindle?

My Top Ten (or Five, actually, or maybe Six...): A Splintered History of Wood

I've had this book for 6 weeks now. I'm on page 66, so I'm progressing at a rate of about 11 pages a week. Not that it's dense - far from it. It's incredibly engaging. And it's already one of my all time favorite books. At this rate, I look forward to 31 more weeks of enjoyment - and then I bet I go back to the beginning and start all over again.

The reason it's taking me so long is that everything he talks about makes me want to set the book down and tell somebody, usually my wife who isn't even interested in woodworking, about 50,000-year-old logs salvaged from New Zealand bogs. They're ancient kauri trees, and there's a photo of one slab that's 20 feet long, 5 1/2 feet wide, 4 1/2 inches thick, contains over 500 board feet of wood - and has zero knots! How can I keep reading? You just have to stop and share this with somebody. And it happens again and again, page after page.

I've just finished reading the section about blind woodworkers. Once again, I had to stop and tell my wife - and at least this time it's relevant to her work as an Occupational Therapist. She was interested in how they measure with something called a Click Ruler - a tape measure that clicks with each 1/16th of an inch that you withdraw. It sounds like something she could use in her therapy practice.

Before that, I read about a guy who chainsaws designs onto wooden pencils, and another guy who carves Ferraris out of wood, Ferraris you can drive and that also float on water. I mean, you can't just read this stuff. You have to go out and grab somebody by the collar and say, "Did you know that there's a guy in England who as a hobby has collected over 7,000 species of wood? And that's only 1/10th of the species in the world?"

The book is very reader-friendly, with easy writing and a warm personality behind the words, lots of photos. For instance, did you know that cork comes from oak trees? And have you ever wondered how cork is harvested?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

My Top Ten (or Five, actually, or maybe Six...): Eric Sloane

I have this fantasy in which I'm a fly on the wall at a meeting between Stephen Shepherd and Eric Sloane. Together, you would have the sum of all knowledge about early American woodwork.

In A Reverence for Wood, Sloane appreciates both the practical details and the philosophy behind the design. Opening the book at random, here he is talking about doors: "In the pioneer days, doors were often symbols. Just as girls filled hope chests, young men planned doors for the houses they would someday build. A house might be built of local pine and chestnut, but the door was considered something special and the wood was often sassafras panels, apple or cherry, or even mahogany brought from the West Indies or Central America. A godly man might prefer a Christian door with stiles and rails that formed a Christian cross. A superstitious person might put a Maltese cross in the lower section and thereby make a 'witch door' to keep out the evil spirits, or frame the door with ash to make the spell more potent. (The ash tree was thought to have special magic to ward off sickness and evil spirits. No snake would cross a barrier of ash leaves.)"

Then, being a marvelous artist, he gives you this illustration:
I bought this book at a garage sale over 30 years ago, and I still learn new things when I go back to it. Let's put it this way: If Eric Sloane were alive today, we'd all be reading his blog. Imagine daily updates with this kind of detail:

My Top Ten (or Five, actually, or maybe Six...)

Kari Hultman of The Village Carpenter has posted her Top Ten woodworking books and thus moved me to consider the books that have inspired me over the years. Her bias, naturally, is for books about furniture and hand tools. One title on her list sounds like something I want to read right away - interestingly enough, it's called The Village Carpenter by Walter Rose, and I've just ordered a copy.

I think I'll tackle the books one at a time over a period of days.

Living With Wood

The split rail fence surrounding Our Lady of Refuge, the La Honda Catholic Church, was built in 1948 or 1949. With the help of some baling wire and a few repairs over the years, it still stands.

I was wondering where they cut the trees for this fence- perhaps redwood saplings growing on the church property itself - when I noticed this section: Split telephone poles! If you know anything about La Honda, you might not assume that those telephone poles were lawfully obtained. This being a church, however, I will assume they used honorable means.

I'm a wood salvager myself, so it warms my heart to see salvaged wood used in this fence - and still standing after 60 years.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Heartwood, the movie

I don't know if the movie Heartwood was ever shown in theaters. Nobody reviewed it. I'd never heard of it until last week when it was mentioned in one of my favorite blogs, Willits Daily Photo (a blog that appreciates the beauty of rusty hardware, lichen, old concrete...) So I got the DVD from Netflix (trivia note: Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, used to live in La Honda - I repaired his house a few times - heckuva nice guy).

Heartwood is a mess of a movie. Its heart is in the right place. The writing has problems. A sawmill in northern California is going bankrupt unless the sawmill owner (Jason Robards) is willing to accelerate the harvest of redwood trees to an unsustainable pace - and the owner refuses. The town ne'er-do-well and his girlfriend (Hilary Swank) come up with a plan to save the mill - if they can find financial backing. Gosh, I wonder if everything will work out okay.

On the plus side, the producers had the brilliance to hire the unknown Hilary Swank back when she was working for peanuts, and somehow they lured Jason Robards, too. Given Robards' knowledge and experience, I have to wonder if he ever read the script in advance - or did he just read his own role? He plays his crusty-old-guy character with the usual Jason Robards flair, and his role at least is consistent and makes sense throughout the movie. I wish I could say the same for the other characters.

Hilary Swank, playing a college kid who falls for the town ne'er-do-well, is simply magnetic on camera. Her freshness, her energy, her radiance reminded me of the yet-to-be-discovered Julia Roberts in Mystic Pizza. The writing lets her down, though. The romance aspect of the story is badly conceived. Like many aspects of the plot, the characters simply announce to each other that something has changed in their feelings or their motivations. The most fundamental rule of writing is SHOW DON'T TELL. Here, they tell. As a writer, it made me want to scream.

But I enjoyed it. Hey, I'm not a movie snob. Anyway, it's an indie production, so you have to cut some slack. The environmental theme advocating sustainable logging, plus the gorgeous cinematography of the redwood forests and the hills and meadows, simply won me over. The theme of the citizens of the town coming together to save the mill is similar to the theme in my own novel Clear Heart of tradesmen coming together to build a house (and I can imagine some snide reviewer of my book echoing what I said above: "Gosh, I wonder if everything will work out okay." The fact is, we writers choose to work within certain conventions. I'm as guilty as anyone.) If you love the vistas of northern California and the beauty of a redwood forest, and if you enjoy Jason Robards being Jason Robards and Hilary Swank showing why she was about to burst into stardom, you might like it, too.

(As a sidenote, I often wonder how good movies actually get made. My own experience with podcasting, involving just a few voice actors, one musician, one graphic artist, and the small challenges of recording good audio makes me wonder how even the simplest movie - involving an army of talent and technical crafts - overcomes the chaos of production.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Living With Wood

I love this sign, the old wood, the lichen, the two thumbtacks used for punctuation, in front of the split rail fence and the redwood tree.

(If you click on the picture, you can see the thumbtacks and the lichen.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Living With Wood

Young redwood trees and an old split rail fence in La Honda.

The "old" fence was built about 60 years ago. The "young" trees probably sprouted about 125 years ago. Just barely visible between the trees is La Honda's little Catholic Church. About which, more tomorrow...

Monday, February 16, 2009

Bike Race through La Honda

Which one is Lance Armstrong?

If you blinked, you missed it. If you drove a car that fast through La Honda, you'd get a ticket. Here, the sheriffs were escorting them with lights flashing and sirens blaring.

Now we can all say we've seen Lance Armstrong. We think. Maybe.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Reading at Sullivan's

Wednesday evening, in celebration of the publication of Clear Heart, I gave a reading at Sullivan's Pub in La Honda. Sullivan's is a new and wildly popular place to drink and dine, attracting a typical cross-section of humanity:
The pub is divided into two rooms, one for dining and one for the bar. I read in the bar. The usual suspects were there:
First I read the opening scene of the novel in which Wally is nailed to a rafter and left hanging in the air. Since some in the audience had ordered pizza or fish and chips, I skipped the detailed description of how it feels to hang with a nail through your wrist, the bone popping against the steel shaft and so on. I think they appreciated my discretion. And they seemed to enjoy the drama.

Next, I read the scene in which Opal quizzes Juke, learning that Wally writes a letter to his wife "every forkin' day." It's a somewhat comic situation, and folks laughed at the appropriate places - something you can never count on as an author, and very gratifying to hear. They started echoing the word "forkin'" which was kind of cool.The black pipe near my elbow is the chimney of the wood-burning stove. I was roasting as I read.

It's a little risky for an author to give a reading in a bar as people are getting lubricated. This was no wine-and-cheese literary event. La Honda is more of a sweatshirt and mudboots kind of place with a wonderful mix of people who don't, or won't, fit into the suburbs over the hill even if they could afford the price of housing over there. (Another tavern in La Honda found it necessary to post a sign saying NO CHAINSAWS AT THE BAR.) In the above photo the man on the left is an electrician, the man on the right is the chief technician at a biotech company. Among the 50 or so people crowded into that little bar were carpenters, an acupuncturist, a septic tank installer, a nuclear physicist.

So I learned something. And it's not something every writer can say: Clear Heart is the kind of novel you can read in a bar.

Terry Adams read several poems from his book Adam's Ribs. Thomas Krempertz read a few poems. Everybody says they had a great time. I certainly did. Sullivan's plans to have a Book Night on the first Wednesday of every month featuring local writers. I plan to return and read again. Come on down, have a beer, give a listen. Or read something of your own. You'll find a warm room and a warm crowd.

(A little disclosure: The pictures of the usual suspects were taken on a different night. But they serve as a sampling of this night, too.)