Sunday, March 29, 2009

Reading at Sullivan's Pub

Wednesday, April 1, Terry Adams and myself will be reading at Sullivan's Pub.

In La Honda.

Starting around 6:30 p.m.

These photos were snapped by Tom Dodd at the previous reading. I'm on the right, getting stage fright. Terry's on the left, thinking melancholy poetic insights. In the center, David LeCount is selecting his amazing haiku. If we're all very very lucky, David will be joining us again, too.

In the photo below, framed with beer and wine, ketchup, mustard, and soy sauce, is a small sampling of the crowd caught in one of the quieter moments.

I'll be reading in a duet with Caroline Graham, who has been helping me with my latest podcast. Caroline has a fresh and spirited voice you won't want to miss. Come on down for some friendly readings.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Reading tonight!

I'll be reading at Moon News Book Store in Half Moon Bay tonight, starting 7:30 p.m. at the open microphone. Come down and say hi.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Joseph Millar: Tools


I was sixty days without a drink
working the back of the Howard Street store,
cleaning the tools my boss scavenged from basements
of tradesmen's widows all over the state.

I'd sort through the wrenches, boxes and crescents
from Stanley, Craftsman, and Utica Tool,
bright sockets from Snap-On
we could charge twice as much for.
I'd polish the wrecking bars with WD-40,
the claw hammers, jack planes and pliers,
then clean up the handsaws, old Disston Brothers
and the best, London Springs,
twisting the studs from the filigreed handle
and sanding away the resinous shell,
one stroke at a time,
from the wide steel blade.

I seldom looked out through the dusty panes
at the rubble of Howard Street's
plywood-scabbed storefronts. I stayed
in the back near the cracked tubs of solvent
whose gray vapors ghosted the air
and kept my eyes lowered, watching
the grinding wheel whirr in its armature,
cutting blue rust from the chisels and knives,
washing my knuckles in sparks.

--Joseph Millar, Fortune, copyright © 2007 by Eastern Washington University Press

This poem by Joseph Millar paints a vivid picture in my mind of a man in recovery, sixty days without a drink, washing his knuckles in sparks. I knew the scruffy neighborhood of Howard Street in San Francisco, the plywood-scabbed storefronts, the winos and worse who wandered there. (The street itself is these days undergoing a form of recovery.) I can see the old tools, sense their cold metal, take pleasure in their restoration while appreciating the labor involved and the fumes from the cracked tubs of solvent. I can hear the "whirr" of the grinding wheel and feel the tingle of the sparks.

Support this craftsman. "Tools" is from the book Fortune, and you can buy it here. At $18 for the entire book, that comes to 43 cents per poem. Those are flea market prices for quality craft.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Mark Turpin: Gene Lance

I hope it's okay with Mark if I post another of his poems. Again I urge you, if you like this, support poets who can drive nails: buy the book.

Gene Lance

He misses the years after the war.
The tracts of houses springing up.
His first job the lead man gave him

a plumbstick and a sledge and said --
knock all the doorframes plumb,
but stay away from my house.

Hunched in a truck bed
he passed miles of half-built frames,
a single floor-plan flipped or flopped.

Wood so green the yardman said
he saw a 2x4 take root.
Joists spat into their faces as they

flew their commons in. High on
the roof ridge, as shadows stretched
past noon, they'd hail - singing

down at laborers on the ground:
Bring us more lumber! More nails!
We are the kings of carpentry!

-- Mark Turpin, Hammer: Poems, copyright © 2003 by Mark Turpin

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Living With Wood

Back in 1978 when I made a down payment on my little cabin in La Honda, it came with a garage that was falling down. Fifty years earlier, in 1928, the garage had been framed with beams of Douglas fir. Now the termites and beetles and ants and bees had turned the beams to powder.

The siding, though, was redwood. Rough heart redwood. Old growth redwood, I suspect, though not the prime cuts.

Bugs hadn't touched the siding, but weather had. After 50 rainy winters and 50 summers of blasting sunshine, the surface looked like garbage:
I was relatively new to the construction business, and sometimes weeks would go by when I had no work. And no money. I had two little children with a third on the way and I was trying to expand a 500 square foot cabin into a 1800 square foot house. We were living in the shell of the newly framed addition, camping out, cooking on a camp stove, no furnace, no water heater, no doors, washing dishes in an old clawfoot bathtub with cold water, burning construction scraps in the fireplace for warmth.

That garbage heap of a garage looked like gold to me. Having more time than money, I invested in a few sanding belts and set to work. I de-nailed, sanded, ripped, sanded again, and started testing stains. If you oiled the old redwood without any stain, it turned nearly black. Through trial and error, I created a mixture of stain that was partly white and partly red which seemed to restore the redwood to its original color.

I trimmed all the interior doors and window frames with that old wood. Now, 30 years later, here's how they look:

There's flat grain, vertical grain, and weird grain, sometimes all in the same board.

I used every scrap, for better or worse:

Using the same wood, I also built some bookshelves.

I could do better now.

I've got better tools, and I've got better skills.

I also have more money and less time.

Faced with the same situation today, I'd probably buy new wood.

We tend to be self-critical.

And it's intimidating to compare your own work to the gorgeous pieces people are posting on their woodworking blogs.

With this set of photos, though, people are probably thinking, "I could do better."

Well, so could I - now. But back then I did the best I could with the tools and the money I had.

I'm proud of what I did.

It's funky, but it's unique.

It's part of the house I built, the house I've raised my kids in, the house I hope to die in.

When I'm gone, somebody can rip it out and replace it with clean, uniform, nice new trim.

But not yet.

Not, I hope, for a long time.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Jody and me

At the end of yesterday's post, I said that Jody Procter and I "treat parallel subjects with slightly different perspectives."

Here's what I mean.

On the subject of personality traits in the various building trades:

Actually, plumbers tend to be the most twisted people in the trades, just as the roofers are the wildest, the drunkenest, and have the highest number of tattoos per square inch of exposed skin. Electricians are the cleanest, although, oddly, the drivers of the concrete trucks tend to be meticulous about their clothes and boots.
--Jody Procter, Toil: Building Yourself, page 39.
Abe was coming to the opinion that cabinet makers had authority issues, electricians were obsessive by-the-book rule geeks, plumbers were smarter than people gave credit, painters were flat-out nuts, and drywallers were all Jesus freaks...
--Joe Cottonwood, Clear Heart, page 256-257

Then there's the matter of measuring hairs:
Anything closer than one-sixteenth of an inch is inevitably a cunt hair and the smallest of cunt hairs is always a red cunt hair.
--Jody Procter, Toil: Building Yourself, page 39.
“I’m learning new units of measurement. I always knew that a hair was a unit of measure - like, ‘That board is too long by a hair’ - but did you know that a pussy hair is a smaller unit? And a red pussy hair is the smallest unit of all?”
--Joe Cottonwood, Clear Heart, page 91

Also, there's catching the rhythm. And work as a form of prayer:
On a day like this, in quiet, in peace, with no rain, with the boards lining up easily and falling into place, the nails plunking home, one after another, ...I am in a state of perfect flow, of harmony, of almost mindless happiness. The work, itself, becomes a prayer.
--Jody Procter, Toil: Building Yourself, page 154.
Abe kneeled, carried, held in place, lifted, watched, learned. The flow of work, the hot breath of the power saw and the whine of the blade, the heft of the wood in his hands, scratches on Abe’s elbow where he collided with a four-by-four, drops of blood sprinkling in powdery sawdust, the sharp fresh-cut scent of fir, the nails whacking true, the prickling heat of the sun, the outline of the gazebo forming and then filling, board after board, joist to beam to rafter, the skillful and yet spiritual rhythm of it all was like a song. Or a prayer. The frame came out tight as a drum.
--Joe Cottonwood, Clear Heart, page 63-64

Sunday, March 15, 2009

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

Jody Procter went to a fine university, migrated to San Francisco in a VW bus, became a hippie, spent his entire life writing while pursuing other work for money, and ended up as a carpenter. A lot like me. Toil: Building Yourself is Jody's meditative diary of one of the last jobs of his career, one rainy winter working as a carpenter building a McMansion in the Pacific Northwest.

As the newest hire on the crew, Jody was low man in the pecking order. He provides a detailed, graphic account of construction as viewed from the bottom. A bit too detailed at times. What I like best is when he steps slightly outside the job and considers the larger implications of what he's doing:

"Someday this house will be done, and we and all our voices and our inane chatter and our grim faces will be the ghosts of the workmen who built it, and whoever lives in it will know us only by the strange, unsettled sensations of movement and thought they pick up sometimes... We will have moved on somewhere else with our yearning laughter, our muddy boots, our hammers with their odd nicknames, our ladders, our wet nail-belts and tired feet, our fear of fuck-ups and death. And the house will be like our mountain and it will remain."

I like it when he tells us not what he's doing so much as how he feels about it: "When I'm at work, I like to work, to get into the rhythm of it, the perfection of it, the uninterrupted flow of it - on a really good day, the mystical, mantra-sounding, deep spirituality of it." This is a guy who recites his mantra while he's nailing studs.

We begin in November, 1994 with an empty lot, the first scrapings of the bulldozer blade "curling up rich, brown chunks of river-bottom dirt," and follow the work through the bickering and joking, the competition and the camaraderie. We meet Vern, the nearly unflappable contractor with a laconic Gary Cooper personality attached to a Don Knotts body. We meet Brian, the brash 19-year-old whose energy outpaces his skill set, who has a motor mouth, who thinks Rush Limbaugh is God and who, naturally, irritates the crap out of old hippie Jody. We meet Bud, whose one-year-old daughter is on chemotherapy and whose life is on the edge. We care about this crew, we watch them practice their craft, we understand how working on a construction site can be like immersing yourself in a nearly dysfunctional family.

Most of all we come to know - and worry about - Jody Procter, a man who, as the subtitle says, is building himself. Despite the humorous image on the cover, this man is haunted by some dark ghosts. First there are the aches and pains of a 51-year-old carpenter, such as on this occasion after spending a day on the roof in the pouring rain, a day of wondering whether it would be better, on sliding off the slick roof, to land dead on his head or to land on his back and be a paraplegic:

"About 8:00, I'm lying there on the couch, Kathleen has gone in to take a bath, and suddenly both my legs seize up in violent cramps, cramps in both upper thighs that turn my legs into these wicked, painful knots of constricted muscle.... The pain is almost unendurable, and I call out for Kathleen, who emerges naked and dripping wet from the bathroom to find me thrashing around on the floor, my legs out straight, eyes closed, jaw clenched; she pounds on my legs, tries to loosen them." The cure, it turns out, is a warm glass of salt water. "When I drink this, the cramps go away almost immediately. The floor of the living room is a chaos of plates, books, and magazines from where I have been thrashing around between the coffee table and the couch. Everything is wet from where Kathleen, ministering to me, has left water tracks from her interrupted bath. But I am all better. I stand up. I laugh. We both laugh about it.... I am in bed and asleep by 9:30."

But as a reader, I was less troubled by Jody's physical problems - which, as a 61-year-old carpenter, I am fairly acquainted with - and more concerned with his mental well-being. Jody grew up with wealth and privilege: "My father was a Republican businessman, a Harvard-club man, and a golfer ... whose only tools were the weeder and the trowel for the garden.... The work, such as it was, that was done to our house, was done by rough-looking working men, plumbers and carpenters and electricians who came to the house in their old trucks, and seemed to me as alien as if they had just arrived from Outer Mongolia. Now I had become one of them." And later he says, "I wonder, out of my graduating class, if I am now working at the most menial job. Would there be some sort of reverse accomplishment in lowliness?"

I hate that attitude. Having spent my own life in the construction trades, I've never seen myself as a failure. Yes, I was a National Merit Scholar. Yes, I went to a fine university. But no, it is not failure to spend your life working with your hands - hands that are attached to an active and engaged mind. It is the work of my hands that has sharpened my mind and kept it in focus, reality-based, unlike the weird and useless abstractions of some writers who spend their lives in the academic world sucking on - and simultaneously hating - the university teat.

Most of the carpenters I know take pride in their work and in their livelihood. Only in literature, it seems, do we see ourselves as troubled, exploited, miserable laboring wretches. There's a strain of that attitude in the poems of Mark Turpin and Joseph Millar, too, and I suppose we can all be forgiven a bit of self-pitying. We have all been through some form of 12-step - it seems to be a job requirement. With Turpin and Millar, fortunately, there are equal expressions of pleasure, of taking joy in the work itself.

I'm not sure whether Jody Procter ever reconciled with himself. The story ends on a fairly positive note as he moves on to carpentry jobs that seem to give him more satisfaction. Then he died of lung cancer 3 years after the diary was completed. In an afterword, Catherine Silbert writes:

"If that God of his meant for him to learn humility or kindness or compassion, Jody learned it. The toil of manual work, the toil of creativity, the toil of living, and finally the daunting toil of dying was in the end done with a monk's perseverance and devotion, with stunning humor, and with love."

You'll come away from this book with a sense of that humility, kindness, compassion. You'll remember the humor and the love. And you may have a renewed appreciation of the depth of the word: Toil.

A sidenote: The book was unavailable for a long time. I originally read a library copy. When I recently purchased my own, it was hard to find a used copy and I had to pay a premium. Now, suddenly, it has reappeared on Amazon and is easy to buy. Compared to my own Clear Heart, we treat parallel subjects with slightly different perspectives. We even, I was stunned to discover, discuss such minutia as the use of hair - various colors and locations of hair - as units of measurement with a red pussy hair being the finest unit. Sorry, folks, but the language of carpenters, it seems, is fairly standardized and totally sexist, at least on the West Coast.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Joseph Millar: Fat City

A few days ago, I talked about Joseph Millar's book of poetry, Fortune. Now I'd like to call attention to his earlier book of poetry called Overtime.

Once again, I think the best way to review a book of poetry is to quote a good poem. Judge for yourself.

Millar writes about a lot more than just working in the trades (and so does Mark Turpin, who I mentioned yesterday), but in keeping with the subject matter of this blog, I'd like to post this sample, the heart of a telephone cable installer.

And if you like this, there's more. It's easy to buy his book, and it costs less than one good pair of linesman's pliers.

Fat City
For San Francisco

Outside the manhole near China Basin
after pulling cable all afternoon,
unwinding the black-jacket copper
one foot at a time
from the city's dark ovaries,
and watching the office girls hurry past,
glancing sideways at their profiles in the plate glass,
I don't want to be anywhere but here, on the sidewalk,
smelling french bread
while the sun goes down.

Behind me, the blue stairs of a church,
a peroxide hooker waving to someone
climbing onto the streetcar.
All the women I have wanted since I came to work today
will soon be combing their long hair down
into the night unpinning its skirts
over their hallways and doors.

The fat pigeons hustle for popcorn
under the benches of South Park
and even the homeless man by the bridge,
hunched over the cage of his shopping cart,
has a fifth of tokay
ablaze in his fist like a star.

(From Overtime, copyright © 2001 by Joseph Millar.)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Mark Turpin: Before Groundbreak

Just like Joseph Millar, who I reviewed a couple of days ago, Mark Turpin spent 25 years working in the trades in the San Francisco Bay Area. In Mark's case, he was a crew foreman and a master carpenter. I wonder if he and Joseph knew each other. I wonder if I ran into either of them on a job site and didn't know it.

Mark's book is called Hammer: Poems.

Mark, I'd be honored to meet you if you're still in the area. Meanwhile, I hope it's okay if I quote a few of your poems.

And to anybody who reads the poem and likes it, to anybody who thinks hammers and concrete and Skilsaws are the stuff of poetry, I have a suggestion: Buy the book. It's the same price as three beers at my local bar. The book will stay with you a lot longer, and you won't have to visit some scuzzy bar bathroom.

Before Groundbreak

Off work and going upslope for a look
I left the plans, to see the view
their money bought, weighted with a rock,

and trampled a path of parted weeds
past pampas, nettles,
poison oak bristling in the breeze,

a weathered 2x4 nailed high up in a cedar's fork,
a haggard pair of panties waving
stiffly from a thorn,

I walked where they would walk.
Standing there, out of breath, where
they would stand, vacuuming,

or reaching for a towel, how bare
and graspable it will seem, and, ever-present,
our time and effort spent.

(From Hammer: Poems, copyright © 2003 by Mark Turpin.)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pesky Paparazzi

Now that sales of Clear Heart are up in the hundreds and the name Joe Cottonwood is recognized by at least two bartenders around the world, those pesky paparazzi follow me everywhere. Of course, they showed up for last week's reading at Sullivan's Pub.

Before the photos can hit the tabloids, I managed to obtain a few and - in an exclusive scoop - will post them here. First there's the attentive crowd:

And then we have some of the local writers who had the courage to stand in front of a rowdy group that was armed with Newcastle Ale and steaming hamburgers. David LeCount, who is never without a writing implement:

Diane Moomey:

Thomas Krempetz:
David Rock:

Tom Lichtenberg:

The crowd sang along with Tom Devine, who had put a William Blake poem to music:
Also reading, though missed by the paparazzi, were Terry Adams and Lynnette Vega.

Next extravaganza will take place on April Fool's Day. I'll be reading a passage from my upcoming podcast with a very talented young lady, Caroline Graham, who can do an uncanny imitation of a spirited and willful 13-year-old girl. Come join us at Sullivan's. We will applaud you.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Joseph Millar: Red Wing

Seems to me the best way to review a book of poetry is to quote a few poems. Joseph Millar kicked around the San Francisco Bay region for 25 years as an electrician and telephone line installer, with side trips to Alaska as a commercial fisherman. Now he's found a softer gig teaching poetry in Oregon - via internet, I suppose - while living in North Carolina. Nice work if you can find it.

Joseph, I'd love to meet you sometime if you're ever back in the Bay Area. In the meantime, I hope it's okay if I quote a few of your poems. They ring true to me. And hey - I bought your books. I hope some other people read this and buy them, too. We tradesmen should support each other in the arts.

This one's from Fortune: Poems:

Red Wing

Here's where they make the good work shoes
in the long brick buildings beside the road.
Shoes whose stitched, crepe-wedge soles
and full-grain, oil-resistant leathers
bless tiny bones in the ankles and feet, shoes
of carpenters balanced on roof beams,
electricians, farmers, iron workers, welders -
cuffs frayed with sparks from the torch.
At shift's end the socks emerge tinged
pale orange, tops of the arches crisscrossed
with lace marks, propped up in front
of the six o'clock news. Here's to the sweet
breath of pond mist filling the lungs of summer.
Here's to baked beans and twelve hours off.
Here's to dust from the trucker's shoe, dust
he stepped into three states back.
Here's to shingles, aluminum flashing,
wall studs, rafters, ten-penny nails,
here's to tomatoes, onions and corn,
here's squatting down and here's reaching over,
here's to the ones who showed up.

(From Fortune, copyright © 2007 by Eastern Washington University Press.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sherrie Stanley

Sherrie Stanley builds patio furniture in her yard near Sacramento. Every once in a while, she loads a pile of it in the back of her pickup and hauls it a hundred miles to La Honda, where she drives around looking for people who might buy it. She knocked on my door. The price was good - no middleman. Sure, I could've built them myself. But, as my wife pointed out, I hadn't. And I wouldn't for a long time.

I bought two chairs and a table.

No hassling with idiots at Home Depot. No dollars flying to China. A hardworking woman, a solid chair.

Good deal for both of us.

Update May 14, 2011: Sherrie just stopped by my house (selling more furniture) and said I could post her number.  Her cell (preferred) is 209-401-3504.  Her office is 916-689-4429.

Religion in Wood: The Shakers, continued

I've got some Shaker replicas in my house. Most photos of Shaker furniture look like museum exhibits. In my house, the dog chewed on the legs, the kids stuffed peanut butter in the joints, and I left sweaty beer bottles on top. But they still look good. It's a design that holds up.

Here's a passage from Clear Heart in which Wally teaches FrogGirl about the Shakers. The "Swedish carpenter" in the passage is pretty much based on the man I met who built Shaker-style furniture in a little shop:

“Toy chests,” Wally said. “Something I saw once. An old Shaker design.”
“Shaker as in salt?”
“Religious sect. They shook all over when they got the spirit.”
“Like Elvis?”
“Without the drugs. They used to build beautiful furniture, plain and simple. Very practical people building very practical things. I hear they invented the clothes pin.”
FrogGirl looked surprised. “What did people do before they had clothes pins?”
Wally shrugged. “You had to stand around holding the wet clothes until they dried.”
“Right.” FrogGirl nodded. “Maybe that’s why they started shaking. They weren’t getting the spirit—they were drying the laundry.”

Wally told FrogGirl of the Swedish carpenter he’d met, a man who built and sold Shaker-style furniture. At one point the carpenter had visited some old folks who were actual Shakers. He was expecting to see marvelous examples of their style, clean lines and solid craft, their reverence for good workmanship put to everyday use. Instead he found them sitting in plastic chairs. Somebody had offered what they considered a foolishly high price for their furniture, and they’d sold. Instead of building replacements they’d found these solid, sturdy items at Montgomery Ward. If the Shakers were still building today, Wally suspected that with their respect for the plain, the durable, the functional, they’d be building with plastic.
“What happened to the Shakers?” FrogGirl asked.
“They died out. Didn’t believe in sexual intercourse. Sort of hampered their ability to raise children.”
“And you say these people were practical?”
“What I like is, they believed that building something well was an act of prayer.”
“Amen,” FrogGirl said, applying a bead of glue. “They should’ve tried building babies well. As a prayer."
There is something deeply satisfying about planing wood. Scarcely speaking, hushed as in a church, and awash in the scent of ancient lumber, Wally and FrogGirl spent an entire evening among the quiet scraping of blade on board and the crinkle of shavings underfoot.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Religion in Wood: The Shakers, continued

The picture on the cover of Religion in Wood reminds me of a latch in Ken Laundry's barn:

Maybe it isn't fair to compare the latch inside a prosperous house with the latch of a hardscrabble old barn. I wonder if the Shakers put as much care into their barns as they did into their houses. I like the Shaker latch, but I like the simple practicality of the barn latch, too. Both were forged by a blacksmith. They are from the same era. One was built for the purpose it still serves. The other was salvaged, cobbled together. Both are a reflection of the men who made them, men of good values.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

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

RELIGION IN WOOD: A Book of Shaker Furniture by Edward Deming Andrews and Faith Andrews.

This isn't the best book about Shaker crafts, but it's the one I bought early in my woodworking career. It was recommended by a man I met who built Shaker-style furniture in a little shop. The man, and the book, were a deep inspiration to me.

"Fidelity to the demands of the workmanlike conscience was a fundamental act of worship."

"The Shaker cabinetmaker enabled wood to respond to the 'call' to become a chest, a table, a chair, a desk."

"The 'gift to be simple' was a creative force. The Shaker artificer found that the simplest things were not only the most useful, but also the most satisfying to his conscience." Like this child's folding bed:

Craft as a form of prayer. Avoiding the ornamental, the artificial. I adopted these ideas both in my carpentry and in my writing.

Here's a shoemaker's candle stand, made of cherry:

I love the Shaker idea that wood has a 'call.' I advanced the idea another step: Each board has an individual character, and it is our job to bring that character to its full potential. Perhaps it's a special twist of grain, an unusual knot, a vein of color. Often the main attribute of a piece of wood is simply its brute strength. That's useful, too - or else houses would never get built.

Likewise in storytelling I try to find the heart of each character, to bring out the full potential - without artifice - writing that is transparent, words that serve the story without calling attention to the writer. Writing as, perhaps, a form of prayer. To the Muse.

The Shaker simplicity is actually deceiving. If you look closely at a piece of Shaker work, or if you try to replicate it, you become aware of the many aesthetic choices they made. The curve of a chair arm, the lovely arch at the base of a trestle table, the soft red and brown stains applied to the wood, all are an application of style, of taste, that goes beyond the simple, the functional need.