Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Turtle Life

What makes me so fond of turtles? Not their witty conversation. Not their glamour. Not their speed or elegant lifestyle or great works of art.

They like to lie in the sun. Loll in the water. Hang out in cool spots by lakes.

They seem to get along with each other. And with ducks.

Most of life's problems just roll off their backs.

They find their own food. They don't bother anybody.

To spend all day hanging out on a log, telling stories, cracking jokes, maybe nuzzling a bit, or cuddling with somebody cute.

You could do worse with your life.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Reading tonight

We've switched our readings to the last Wednesday of the month, so this coming Wednesday, April 29, come down and hear La Honda's literary best - and maybe some of its worst. So far, the quality's been pretty high. Last time we had readers from age 14 to 74 and subjects from the sublime to the bawdy. This time, who knows? I've been in touch with an award-winning popular writer who wants to take part. Let's hope he can join us.

As for myself, I'm about to embark on a book tour of Italy to promote a new edition of an old novel called Famous Potatoes. In Italian, it's called Famose Patate. To get myself in shape, I'll be reading from it (in English) and - fair warning - I may even sing a few words from the song that's interwoven into the story. For some reason little Joe Cottonwood is still remembered in Italy. Come down to Sullivan's and see if you can figure out what they see in him. And then please tell me, because I really can't figure it out, either.

Sullivan's Pub. Doors open at 5. Readings start at 6:30 more or less. Good food, friendly folks.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Poem: Revenge of Oak

Revenge of Oak

Saw blade
with the strength of three
electric horses
kicks back the piece of wood
like a hoof to my groin.
The first sound
as I fold
comes not from the brain
but directly from pain
to throat
to the indifferent air:
a guttural crack
like the cry
of a falling tree.

(Slightly revised from the book.)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Reading at Sullivan's Pub

At the April 1 reading at Sullivan's Pub in La Honda, Miss Caroline Graham demonstrated why I chose her to help with my upcoming podcast. Here we're reading Chapter One of my novel Babcock. Caroline, in this reading, plays the part of Kirsten, a 13-year-old white girl who has blond hair, freckles, big ears - and spunk. I, meanwhile, play the part of Babcock, a 13-year-old black boy who has, uh, fatness - and also a lot of spunk. Chapter One describes Kirsten and Babcock's first meeting and first fight - a physical fight between a white girl and a black boy which ends up embarrassing them both. And intriguing them both. Kirsten says the worst thing she can think of, the meanest insult, and she calls him ... fat. That's all. Just fat.

Though written in 1992, I call Babcock a post-Obama novel because it's about the somewhat rocky relationship of a white girl and a black boy - and race isn't the problem. I was about 16 years early. At that time, Barack Obama was an unknown young attorney in Chicago. Reviewers didn't know what to make of the lack of racial conflict - not that it doesn't exist, but that it isn't the central problem. Now maybe people can accept the story as a clash of characters.

Caroline's reading makes it a lot more acceptable. Her rendition of Kirsten is lively, nuanced, and strong. Caroline is a sophomore at Pescadero High School. She lives in La Honda.

I uploaded an mp3 of that reading at this web address. The web host doesn't quite have its act together yet, and I was unable to play it or download it. Maybe if you try, you'll have better luck - or more technical smarts - and be able to listen to it. If not, the podcast will be out soon.

Meanwhile, the next reading at Sullivan's is coming up on Wednesday, April 29. I'll be there. Come on down. Try the fish and chips with Newcastle Ale. See what people are reading.

La Honda: Literary Hub of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Remembering Charlie Cutten

A few years ago I spent a day helping a neighbor build a recording studio. Though I'd done a lot of paid carpentry work for him, this day was spent as volunteer labor, sort of in the spirit of a barn-raising for music. One other man showed up to help, a gentle cherub of a guy with a twinkly grin and a white beard. This man was Charlie Cutten.

Charlie was recording, or had just completed, his first CD. On this day he cheerfully wielded a hammer and staple gun. I don't know if he regularly worked as a carpenter - in La Honda, carpenter/musician is a common occupation. Most days, Charlie wielded a Martin D-35 guitar. He drove an old baby blue VW bug. I liked him on first sight. I can't imagine anybody who wouldn't.

Five years ago in April I was hiking in the hills overlooking La Honda when I heard sirens on the highway in the valley. From the distance, the sirens had a soft, almost musical sound. A few minutes later a medical evacuation helicopter flew over the mountain and slowly, carefully, dropped into the valley. A while later, the helicopter lifted upward, over the trees, as I watched from the hills above. A chill ran through me. From nowhere a thought flashed into my head: There rises a soul on its way to Heaven.

I found out later. It was Charlie. A car had crossed the center line and crushed his little blue bug.

Charlie Cutten's CD is, quite simply, the most wondrous collection of original guitar pieces I've ever heard. Lovely, inspirational, disciplined yet exuberant, he blends folk, jazz, classical, and I believe a bit of church music into his melodies. You can still buy it on CD Baby, and for fifteen bucks, that's a deal.

Charlie, you touched a lot of lives, and we're the better for it. Thanks for being here.

Living With Wood

Turtles, hot day in my little town. The tree is lying over the pond, but still... how do they climb up a tree trunk?

I took the photo today. A year ago, about 20 feet from this scene, I took the Turtle Crossing photo (the sign has since disappeared, though the turtles are still crossing...)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Crime Scene

As I was walking my dogs, I happened to glance down the fence line at the far end of my property... And something didn't look right. See those 3 fence posts? Well, beyond them, there should be about 5 or 6 more.
Somebody had stolen my fence.

I don't know how long it had been missing. I don't go out checking my fences every day, and it never occurred to me that somebody might just take them.

I had a pretty strong suspicion about what happened. So I knocked on my neighbor's door, and when he opened it I said, "Where's my fence?"

"Oh." He smiled. "I tore it down." It bothered him to look at it, so without even telling me that he had a problem with it, he tore it down.

I built that fence with my own hands: dug the holes, set the posts, nailed the green wire. And paid for all the materials. It wasn't handsome, but it wasn't ugly, either. It was just a fence. And, by the way, it was entirely on my side of the property line. It was in place before my neighbor bought his house. Before he ever saw the place.

He says he just grabbed the 4x4 posts and pulled on them. If that's true, he broke this 4x4 with his bare hands:

It takes a lot of anger to break a 4x4. He must have really hated that fence. And yet he'd never said a word about it.

He said he'd build a new fence, a better fence, when he had the time and the money. But he'd like to build it about 5 feet back in one corner so he'd have more room to turn his car around. And also he'd like to cut down one of my trees.

I didn't get angry, not at first. I was simply flabbergasted. In my town, La Honda, we do things our own way. We have a long history of outlaw culture here. But this is ridiculous.

It's probably a good thing that I wasn't angry right away. Things can get out of hand quickly around here.

Monday I'm talking to a lawyer.

What would you do?

Friday, April 17, 2009

My Top Ten (or Five, actually, or maybe Six...) House by Tracy Kidder

House by Tracy Kidder is probably the best book that will ever be written about the building of a house. Not "building" a house as in a how-to-do-it guide, but "the building" of a house as a process of personalities, philosophies, histories, trends, class status, power, and economics. Mostly, personalities. As a contractor I read it with a sense of recognition and, I admit, occasional boredom because to some degree it was like reading about my day at work. Jim, the contractor in this project, seemed like a clone of my own personality - the drive for quality, the disdain for haggling, the over-sensitivity to the slightest insults of class warfare that seem to come with the job. I recognized all the carpenters in the crew - Vietnam vets, college grads, the likable kid clawing his way out of poverty, the equally likable one rejecting his father's bourgeois life, the dyslexic, the fuckup, the perfectionist, the speedster - mix and match - and became very fond of them. But Tracy Kidder brought so much more than just the carpenters' points of view. He followed the thoughts and actions of Bill Rawn, the architect, who I came to admire. And Kidder described equally the drama of the house-building from the clients' point of view. I never warmed to Jonathan Souweine, the attorney husband, as he used his advantages and self-justifications to beat down the price, completely oblivious of the demoralizing effect it had on the workers. Meanwhile I liked Judith, Jonathan's wife.

Page after page, I found myself nodding my head in agreement, such as when Tracy Kidder talks about "rectitude" in carpentry: "Reverence for builders of the post-and-beam tradition arises from the examples of sturdy work they left behind, but then again it's the sturdy work that survives. The examples of high craftsmanship, ones that have stood for centuries, aren't distinguished by the framing technique so much as by the care with which builders applied it. Those old houses are distinguished, as Jim would say, by the rectitude of their carpenters. And although modern materials, such as concrete and plywood, as well as scientific data about the strengths of woods and structural arrangements, have made it easier to build a durable frame today than formerly, there's still room for rectitude in framing."

There's rectitude in writing, too, and Kidder's got it. The fact that I reacted so strongly to each of the characters in this project shows how well Tracy Kidder described them. I'm not an objective reviewer here; I'm somebody who has lived through most of the scenes that he portrays. As I've said in Clear Heart, a house is alive - and House, the book, is about the birth of one particular house, a birth filled with drama, conflict, history and hard work.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Poem: Prayer


Grant me deep roots.
Solid branches.
Let the fires pass me by.
Let generations of squirrels,
blue jays, butterflies
cling to my limbs.
Let me drink fog, chew sunlight
and look down
over centuries.

Slightly revised from Son of a Poet.
© copyright 2009 by Joe Cottonwood

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Poem: Repair Job

Repair Job

You poor woman
in your mansion and estate
regret my every minute
at the labor rate.

You quiver
so pretty, so pale
as I, hairy male
hammer home
each pointed nail.

In my book Son of a Poet, published in 1986, I wrote:

You poor woman
in your house worth half a million...

It seemed like a fortune at the time. Here's a lesson in why actual money should never appear in poetry. Where I work in the Silicon Valley, half a million these days, even post-bubble, would barely buy a scraper in a bad neighborhood. In the rewrite, the poem is bubble-proof. And depression-proof.

© Joe Cottonwood 2009

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Poem: Carpenter, carpenter, what do you say?

Carpenter, carpenter, what do you say?

Cut wood all day,
bring home the pay:
A pocketful of sawdust.

© Joe Cottonwood 2009

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Poem: My House Was Always Wet

My House Was Always Wet

Faucets dripped.
Gutters overflowed.
The old roof, Vermont slate, leaked.
The two toilets, mysterious machines,
whistled, gurgled, clunked in the night.
Drains backed up with smelly gray suds.
Cellar walls wept.
never slept.

If I took a shower upstairs,
downstairs a waterstain
grew on Gramma's ceiling.
Once after an extra long shower
("What were you doing in that shower, boy?")
Gramma's ceiling

My father was no plumber.
Once he broke a china sink.
Ripped a hole in a bedroom wall,
then didn't come home at all, at all.

Doors grew mildew, ceilings grew mold.
Floor joists quietly rotted.
My own sprouting body grew fungus
in places I didn't dare mention.

Sister moved across the sea;
Brother, to the coast;
Gramma, to the hospital
and then gave up the ghost.

I, too, traveled far
though moisture haunted
my every move:
sweating palms,
saliva of lips,
teardrops and their salty tracks,
juice of genitals, flood of birth,
milk of breast . . . The house
was leaking love, my friend,
and no pipe ever
brought it back.

© Joe Cottonwood 2009
(This poem appeared in slightly different form in my book Son of a Poet, published in 1986)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Fashion Page

With all the literary blogs, writing classes, and how-to-write books, it's odd that nobody has ever covered the all-important topic of What to Wear to a Reading. You won't find this topic in Vanity Fair or Gentleman's Quarterly. Strunk and White neglected to mention it in The Elements of Style.

And then there's the subtopic of What to Wear When Reading at a Bar. The answer, as seen in La Honda at our most recent reading at Sullivan's Pub, is: It depends.

You could go East Coast Bohemian, like Norman from Maine:You could go Steve Jobs style, like Tom Lichtenberg:which is a modification of basic beatnik coffeehouse style:
There's the T shirt and gloves approach, as with Thomas Krempetz:There's the slovenly blue jeans style, as modeled by Joe Cottonwood.

And then there's my favorite, the Whatever Style, and I bless these young women for displaying such plumage:

Reading at a bar tends to deflate pretensions and bring literature down to earth. The feedback is immediate and very honest. It's a great way to shape your writing skills, just as playing in a bar band has been the starting point for many a fine musician. The readings at Sullivan's have been as varied as the plumage. Several of the readers are too young to order a drink (and too wise to try), but their talents are striking, and it's fun to mix them with old hacks like myself. We've got a good thing going here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Reading at Sullivan's Pub

The April Fool's Day reading was the best-attended yet. We had an overflow crowd. If you think this is just a local event, one reader came from as far away as Maine. Selections ranged from serious to sentimental to raunchy. The audience was engaged,
and amused;
sometimes shocked
and sometimes bored.We agreed to change our readings to the last Wednesday of the month, so our next celebration will be on Wednesday, April 29. I'll be there. So will other writers from coast to coast. Come on over to downtown La Honda. It's fun. Engaging. Thoughtful. Shocking. And sometimes, a little bit boring. But that's why they serve beer.