Thursday, May 28, 2009

Le Famose Patate

In Italy, I got my first look at the new edition of my book. The American title is Famous Potatoes and the original Italian edition, published 30 years ago, was Famose Patate. When I saw the new edition, two things were immediately obvious:
1. It was a high-quality edition, nice paper, nice endflaps, beautiful print job, soft almost leathery feel to the paper.
2. They'd changed the title. Now it is called Le Famose Patate.

So I innocently asked Paolo, the publisher, "Why'd you change the title?"

Immediately Seba, my translator, started shouting (in English): "See? I told you not to change the title! Never fuck with an author's title!"

Paolo, the publisher, shouted back: "It was the right thing to do!"

Then they switched to Italian and continued to shout at each other.

Hey, I was just asking...

It wasn't until a week later that I got the true story. It seems that in the last 30 years a new slang expression has emerged in Italy. While 30 years ago Famose Patate meant Famous Potatoes, now to the Italian ear Famose Patate means, um, excuse me but it means Famous Pussies.

By adding the "Le," it means Potatoes again. Don't ask me how.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Great Review of Clear Heart

Last night I returned from Italy feeling sleepy and idiotic after eleven hours cooped up in an airplane. My muscles needed exercise while my brain needed sleep. Now I've had both, and when I check out the Internet after a three week absence, first thing I see is this great review of my book Clear Heart. The reviewer is Kari Hesse of The Village Carpenter. Here's part of what she said:

Well I didn't like his book....I LOVED his book. In fact, I couldn't put it down and sped through it faster than it takes me to read a magazine.

It's about a 55 year old ex-hippy carpenter named Wally—his bond with his workmen, love for his work, respect for wood, relationship with a "perky Presbyterian" and her kids, Job-like patience, and determination to build the perfect house, despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

But more than that—it's about the connection and interaction between men who are true craftsmen, their good-natured joking, routines and habits (like sometimes getting too friendly with female clients), temperaments, and respect for one another's capabilities. It's male bonding at its finest.

And it's filled with endearing characters like Juke, FrogGirl, Abe, Opal (okay, Opal kinda drove me crazy--that chick needs a chill pill!), and fast-paced, nail-biting mishaps.

It's about second chances, belief in the things that truly matter, mentoring, teaching, and friendship.

And it made me want to ask Wally: "You hiring?"
As for Italy, I have a lot to say. Not about tourism, but about craft, something the Italians know best. Instead of taking snapshots of statues and art like all the other tourists, I would be walking through some ancient village saying things like "Look at the size of the gluelam they used as a header over that garage door!" This is why my wife sometimes has to pretend she doesn't know me.

Let me sort through my 350 photos of Italian bricks, doorknobs, windows - and let me get a little more sleep - and I'll try to make sense of it all.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Buon Viaggio!

Last October I got this email and thought it was a joke:
Dear Sir,
I am a literary translator and a journalist.
I often work with Mattioli 1885, the Italian publisher who is trying to bring your books back to Italy.
I know that the deal for the reprinting of “Famous Potatoes” is still in the works, but it also seems that it is a matter of days before it is official.
I was very curious and intrigued when Mattioli told me they would be willing to reprint your book, which I never had the opportunity to read but which I’d heard of.
I am the art director of an interesting music and literature festival, not far from Milan and from the headquarters of your publisher.
Your publisher has decided to bring you over to Italy to promote “Famous Potatoes” and has decided to take care of all your expenses (flight fare, food and lodging). We’d be delighted to have you appear at our festival, which will take place between the 10th and the 17th of May 2009.
You would be with us for the whole week and participate in a series of events. The festival started as a music festival only but now it is both a music and literature festival.
The music still plays a major role and we try to always make references to it, but you don’t need to be an expert…
You can visit our website (which is in Italian and English) on this page:
In 2009, we should have the likes of: Jeffery Deaver, Joe Lansdale, Ronald Everett Capps, Anne Perry, David Liss, David Fulmer, Laura Lippman etc.
Please let me know what you think.
All best.
Well, it wasn't a joke. Tomorrow I board a flight to Milan. For 3 weeks I'll be reading (and singing!) throughout northern Italy. I'll be on Italian national radio. I've already been interviewed by an Italian newspaper. It's all a little weird for an old La Honda hippie who makes his living as a building contractor and has never been to Europe.

I don't know whether I'll be able to post from Italy (I hear the electrons are metric over there), (that's a contractor joke), but in any case I return jet-lagged and groggy on Tuesday night, May 26 to the land where we measure in feet and inches. Wednesday, May 27 I'll be at Sullivan's Pub for the monthly reading. Come on down and I'll tell you what happened.


Monday, May 4, 2009

Living with Wood: The Art of Compromise

In the previous post I showed several projects that Aidan and I had built, including a shelf unit built of melamine with oak edging, hanging above a work table with an oak top and melamine cabinets. So just who am I to praise "natural" and "authentic" and "time-tested" craftsmanship? Am I a hypocrite?

I love wood. I hate to waste good wood. And it's in an office, not a crafts museum. It would pain me to see good oak wasted on shelving that, one day later, looked like this:

Offices mutate to meet rapidly changing business conditions and to accommodate rapidly changing technology. The shelf and work table may, a year from now, need to be moved or modified. Those cabinets under the work table are 3 separate units, each on casters, which can be wheeled to new locations. That was always the plan. The work table surface is the size of a single bed. At times we use the office as a guest room. For guests, we wheel the base cabinets out of the way, lower the table surface onto some short legs, lay a mattress on it, and - it's a bed.

The oak trim on the shelves brings them into the theme of the office, which has oak floors and a gigantic oak desk on the opposite side of the room. Too much oak would be overkill. Sometimes, you appreciate a little oak trim more than you would an entire wall of oak. It's a matter of accents, of proportions. And, I suppose, it's a matter of compromise.
In my living room, I built a shelf unit entirely out of oak. It's meant to be permanent, and the oak is a statement of permanence - and of values.

When I started out as a carpenter, I hated drywall. I hated Formica, plastic, Masonite, linoleum, fiberglass, particle board. I guess I've mellowed. That oak bookshelf in my living room would look worse, not better, if the wall behind it were paneled in wood. The painted gypsum wall is gentler on the environment and serves to make the oak stand out.
My younger self would say I've "sold out." My older self says I've grown up. My practical self says, "If I sold out, where's the money?"

Meanwhile, I'm just doing what I think is right. Sell-out? Practical man? Hypocrite? I'll let you decide.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Portrait of a carpenter: Aidan Wing

I've known Aidan Wing since he was five years old. He and my son went through grade school together. His mother is a librarian; his father ran a nursery school. I never would have predicted that he would become a carpenter. And in fact, he isn't, not exactly, and not just because he works as an electrician half the time. Aidan's a musician.
La Honda is full of musician/carpenters. If you need work done on your house, there's always somebody you can hire. Down at Sullivan's Pub or Applejack's Bar or just hanging out on a bench down by the lake, there's always someone you can listen to. They repair our houses; they give us music. Someday the world will recognize the La Honda Sound, just as distinctive as the Seattle Sound or the Memphis Sound or the Liverpool Sound. In the La Honda version, there's always great guitar work combined with a steady rhythm that sounds vaguely reminiscent of somebody banging a hammer.

As a contractor I've hired a lot of teenagers, often providing their first job. I like to get them early. Aidan's no longer a teen, and I don't think I was his first job, but it's been a pleasure to watch him develop his skills. I've been his mentor in many ways, teaching skills and instilling standards. One thing I never had to teach Aidan was attitude: he's got that nailed. He's cheerful, eager to do well, and appreciates the same things I do such as recycling old wood and taking the extra time to do it right. Here's a vintage window Aidan trimmed for me using a combination of old redwood (the same wood as in this post) and some new red oak for the sill. We both like the mix of oak and ancient redwood:
Aidan built this shelf unit and also this worktable in my office:Working together, Aidan and I came up with a design that we've now used several times in my house. That worktable surface is one example of it, and here's another:
It's made of red oak floorboards nailed to 9/8 inch plywood, and it makes a solid, pretty surface. I came up with the design when I needed to build a huge desktop and had a pile of leftover flooring. They say necessity is the mother of invention...

La Honda is hippie country, and maybe it always will be. Aidan fits right in, both by heritage and by temperament. If you've heard my podcast of Clear Heart, then you've heard Aidan playing guitar in the song "I am a Carpenter." Which he is.

(You can click on any photo for a closer look.)

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Toolbelt: Aidan Wing

Previously in this blog I've attempted to draw a portrait of a man through his tools. (See Ken Laundry.) Now it might be fun to see what one can learn from one worker's toolbelt:
His name is Aidan Wing, as you can see written on the red plastic case of Milwaukee drill bits.

First impressions: The choice of a leather toolbelt shows a preference for authentic, traditional materials even if there's a trade-off in weight or cost. The stains and dirt indicate at least a few years of hard work, but the stitching looks solid and the leather hasn't frayed or ripped. It looks comfy, broken-in but not broken-down. A relatively young belt - like the worker who wears it.

In contrast to the old-fashioned leather, the plastic case of drill bits and the purple Sharpie marker show a willingness to go modern when it's expedient. The green-handled cleanup brush in the background shows a commendable interest in tidying up, and the ear protectors show an interest in self-preservation.

As for the contents of the belt, let's spread them out:
Clearly, he's a carpenter. But also, he's an electrician. Like most electricians, he always carries a voltage tester around even when he's doing a job that is strictly carpentry (so do I). The wire cutter seems less obvious a choice, but maybe it's useful in carpentry. I usually carry my linesman's pliers in my toolbelt when doing carpentry - they just seem to come in handy sometimes for pulling a nail or bending a piece of metal. Maybe it's like that for Aidan with the wire cutters - they just seem to come in handy.

Wood handles on the hammers. Like the leather, a taste for the traditional, the time-tested, the natural. Both the framing and finish hammers show wear, whereas the cat's paw still has a pristine bar code label on its handle. Either it's new, or Aidan is so deadly accurate that he rarely needs to pull a nail. Me, I vote for new. If he were deadly accurate, why would he carry it in the toolbelt? Also, in repair work, often you're pulling other people's old nails.

The raggedy chisel blade shows a certain "oops" factor. Or maybe intentional - don't we all keep one old chisel for abusive banging and prying?

The Hyde blade is an interesting choice. From the wear marks, I'd say it's used for prying and scraping, and maybe for applying putty. Useful and light weight.

The nailsets and small hammer are for finish work, the waffle-face hammer and cat's paw and beater chisel are for banging on framing. He's not a specialist. He's been working for a while, long enough to break in a toolbelt and ding up a few tools, but not so long as to lose the blue paint on the hammer or to scuff up the square, the cat's paw, the utility knife.

He's a young man, not settled in a specialty. That's the evidence of the toolbelt.

Next post, I'll introduce him.