Saturday, April 30, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 120: New Market Hardware, St. Louis

Monday, April 30, 2007

I'm only in St. Louis for one weekend helping my daughter and son-in-law remodel their bathroom.  St. Louis plumbing - at least, old St. Louis plumbing - is different from California plumbing.  Fortunately, there's an old St. Louis hardware store.

There's nothing "new" about New Market Hardware, and that's exactly the charm.  The store was bought as an ongoing enterprise by the current owner-family in 1914, so it's even older than that.  They moved to the present location in 1932. 

If you're ever in the mood to step back to 1932, just step into this store.  For a quick tour, there's a good video here.

The owner says, "We are fast."  Don't believe it.  Maybe they're fast by the standards of 1932, but when I buy one item there in 2007, it involves following a salesman down a rabbit warren of narrow aisles lined floor to ceiling with stacks of old wooden drawers the size of library card-catalog drawers, searching among several before finding the odd-size fitting I need, then a good ten minutes writing out the receipt by hand, looking up the sales tax by hand from a sheet of paper.

But then, have you ever gone to Home Depot for one item and spent 45 minutes crossing the endless parking lot, walking the endless aisles, trying to get non-existent "help" from some clueless clerk, waiting in an endless checkout line?  And Home Depot would never carry the obscure fitting I was seeking.  They have it - in drawer #872 or whatever - at New Market Hardware.  If I lived in St. Louis, I'd be there every weekend.

To be fair, my ten minute checkout might have been slowed by the fact that as the clerk is writing out my receipt, he sees that my address is in California.  Immediately I'm surrounded by three or four clerks who all want to talk about governor "Ah-nold" as they call him.  They think he's hilarious.  They all take turns imitating "Ah-nold" saying "It's not about me."  And that, too, is part of the charm of this place: personal service, which just might include ten minutes of Arnold Schwarzenegger imitations.

New Market Hardware is in the Central West End at the corner of Sarah and LaClede.  The neighborhood itself is classic St. Louis brick.

Go there and get a key duplicated.  Or buy a bit of plywood and watch them cut it on their one-hundred-year-old table saw.  Yes, one hundred years old.  It's an experience.

Friday, April 29, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 119: Peace of Mind

Tuesday, April 29, 1986

"I'm a little nervous about earthquakes," she says.  "I experienced a six point four quake in Santa Barbara.  Would you take a look at my foundation?" 

Her name is Marilyn.  She has a nice house in Los Altos. 


"And also tell me if you see any fire hazards?  My husband—"  Her eyes indicate a back bedroom.  "My husband is on one hundred per cent oxygen twenty-four hours a day.  I'm a little nervous about fires."

She's young.  She's gentle.  She has grade-school children.

I crawl under the house.  I return and report that her sills are properly bolted to the concrete.  No fire hazards, either.  Their home is already safer than 90% of the dwellings in California.  If she wanted to be any safer I could attach steel plates to the foundation posts where they meet the beams.  Right now the beams are toe-nailed, the weakest link.

"I want it," she says.  "But wait.  Let's run it by my husband.  I try not to completely emasculate him."

She leads me to the back bedroom.  A young man - somehow I can tell that he's young, though he looks like he's ninety - lies in bed, propped by pillows, with tubes up his nose and a big steel oxygen tank at his side.

I explain the situation, describe the steel plates as optional but something that might give them peace of mind.

"Fine," he says.  He looks at his wife.  "That's what I want for you.  Peace of mind."

In the hallway I have to stop, compose myself.  Marilyn glances at me and says, "You're right.  It isn't fair."  She offers no explanation of his condition, and I don't ask.

I spend the rest of the day on my back under the house banging 44 steel plates onto 44 foundation posts.  Upstairs, I'm sure he can hear - and probably feel - every strike of the hammer - pounding for peace of mind, the one thing nobody can give.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Clear Heart podcast had a glitch

A very kind listener notified me that the last 6 episodes of Clear Heart couldn't be downloaded from iTunes nor directly from podiobooks.  Meanwhile I noticed an obnoxious loud "pop" at the beginning of many episodes of the Babcock podcast.

The missing episodes are now available.  There was a problem with Libsyn, the host.  They've fixed it.

The "pops" remain.  We'll find a solution...

Lit Night in La Honda

My Google statistics show that this blog has a few readers in Brazil, Australia, China, Russia, Iran, Germany, Pacific Islands...

I want all of you to know you're invited to the next La Honda Lit Night - or any La Honda Lit Night.

They take place the last Wednesday of every month at Sullivan's Pub starting at 7 pm.  You can come early for dinner. 

Have a beer, a glass of wine, and listen to some audience-friendly poems and stories - or read your own.

Next Lit Night is Wednesday, April 27.

Here we are as discussed in the New Yorker magazine.

Here is our weapons policy.

I'll be there.  Hope to see ya!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 114: Leather Tool Belt

Leather Tool Belt
Monday, April 24, 2006

First thing in the morning, the phone rings and it's Stan.  Uh oh.  I repaired his kitchen faucet yesterday, and when a client calls you at 7:15 a.m. after a plumbing job it can mean trouble.  Spectacular, spraying, floor-flooding trouble.  Actually, it's only happened to me once, but for the rest of my life I'll have PTSD - Plumbing Trauma Screwup Damnation.  Thirty years later, I still dream about it.

But not today.  Stan says, "I just want to thank you for coming to my place on a Sunday."  Stan is one of my core clients.  I have a key to his front door.  Heck, I installed his front door and the lockset that controls it.  In fact, I drew up the design for the entry and created a sand-blasted pattern for the glass.

Stan is an insomniac, so I guess I'm lucky he didn't phone me at 3 a.m.  He's still talking: “You know, I look around this house and see all the nice things you put in, and I just want you to know that you’ve made this a great place to live, and I appreciate it.”

Which is nice to hear except that it's almost like an elegy.  He's an old man.  Yesterday, Stan was dropping hints that he wasn't making any long-term plans.  He's a wealthy real estate developer, my polar opposite in politics, but we respect and trust each other - which you could say about all my core clients.  I hope he's okay.

My day's task involves setting up planter boxes and generally sprucing up the entry to an office building.  After a week of rain, it's a sunny day.  I'm attaching a flower box to a stucco wall - hammer drill, molly bolt, spirit level, caulk - when it comes to me: I love this work, this simple but skilled puttering in a pleasant place in cheerful weather.  All the nice things you've put in.

At one point there's a commotion.  A bearded man in layers of old clothing is walking down the center of Menlo Avenue followed by a Menlo Park police car with flashing blue and red lights.  S
taggering slightly, the man ignores the cop car and the oncoming traffic.  He's homeless, crazy, and high.  He veers from the street and walks straight toward me.  Two policemen approach on foot, grab the man, and place him in handcuffs while the man looks directly in my eye and shouts “LOOK AT ME!  THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS!” 

Do I know this guy?  I don't think so. 

Back home my son Will has come for dinner and brought a couple of friends.  Will lives in San Francisco now.  He plays a new song he's recorded which begins: "I am a carpenter, and I'm trying to get back home..."  It's an autobiographical song mentioning the successful careers of his brother and sister while he is still a struggling musician working as a carpenter.  All true.  In the chorus there's a line: 

"Got these carpenters' bags slung over my shoulder.  
My father used to wear them before he got older..."

Ouch.  Also true.  I gave him my old leather tool belt when I could no longer cinch it around my expanding waist.  I'm taking fewer jobs because - yes - I'm getting older.  Look at me.  This is what happens.  I do have a new belt with built-in lumbar support and a nice holster for my drill, but it's made of some kind of nylon polyester crap, and I've never warmed to it.

Will apologizes for making it sound as if I'd retired and for ... the other thing.  "I had to do it for the song," he says.

I understand altering reality in pursuit of truth.  I should; I'm a writer.  And I understand the other thing, the underlying, unspoken message of the song: a carpenter is a failed musician.  Or a failed writer.

A writer who is still mounting flower boxes.  I've lost weight.  Maybe the old belt would fit. 

"Hey Will.  Can I have the old tool belt back?"  

No elegies yet, please.

(Continued, sort of, here...)

(Note: You can hear part of Will's song at the beginning and end of each podcast episode of Clear Heart.  You can hear the complete song at the end of the final episode.)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 113: Superhero

Saturday, April 23, 1983

I'm repairing a dishwasher at an apartment complex in Palo Alto.  I've removed the front door panel when suddenly a voice is shouting "WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU?"

He's a big burly guy with a toolbox.

"I'm Joe."


The apartment manager, a little thin man, is standing behind, looking frightened.  "I'm sorry," he's saying.  "My wife called Red.  She didn't know I'd called you."

In a wrestling match, Red would have me by 75 pounds and a mean streak.  "It's all yours, Red."  I pack up.  I can tell from the look of the apartment manager's wife that Red may have won the battle, but he's already lost the war.  I leave the door panel detached - no point undoing my work - but while Red is outside berating the apartment manager, I plug the dishwasher's electric cord back into the outlet and turn the water shutoff back on.  It just seems like the right thing to do.

A week later, I'm back.  The dishwasher remains unrepaired.  "What happened?" I ask.

"We'll never call him again," the manager says.  "First thing he does is stick his hand in there, and he nearly electrocuted himself.  Then a minute later he flooded the kitchen.  Then he messed around for an hour and never figured out what the problem was."

Rarely does life work out so well. 

The dishwasher had two glitches, the timer and the float valve.  Red got confused because it's harder to diagnose multiple breakdowns.

"I'll fix it," I say.  I'm the Super Handyman.  My cape is brown and slightly soiled.  At this moment on this day, I could fix any problem.  Sometimes the power strikes you like a beam of light.  "Anything else I can do for you?"

Friday, April 22, 2011

Clemens Starck: Putting in Footings

I can't resist posting another poem by Clemens Starck.  I don't have permission to post it, nor do I know how to obtain it.  If lawyers come after me with six-guns blazing, before I die in a fusillade of subpoenas, just let me say this: I'm only trying to call attention to this great poet.  He slops in mud and at the same time steps back in his mind and considers what it's all about (or not about), how tearing down a house - or building a Safeway - or repairing a car - blends into the great cycle of life. 

People, buy this man's books.  If you find the man in person, kneel at his feet and hear whatever he has to say.

The poem is in
Journeyman's Wages published by Story Line Press, © copyright 1995 and 1997 by Clemens Starck. 

Putting in Footings

Jake is the superintendent on this job,
I draw foreman's wages.
Mack the carpenter, Tom the laborer,
and there are others
wet to the skin
and cold to the bone --
that's Oregon in December.

Be joyful, my spirit.  Be of high purpose.
We are putting in footings --
slogging through mud, kneeling
in it, supplicants pleading for mercy,
brutal, cursing,
drizzle coming down harder.

This is the Project Site.
Tobacco-chewing men in big machines dig holes,
we build the forms.
Ironworkers tie off rebar.
This concrete we pour could outlast
the Pyramids.

        . . .

After the weather
has cleared, and the concrete has cured
and the paychecks are spent --

millennia later,
after the Pyramids
have pulverized and Jake has disappeared
and reappeared many times,
as grouchy as ever,
angels will come to measure our work,
slowly shaking their heads.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Clemens Starck: Changing the Alternator Belt on your 504

Clemens Starck is the best journeyman/poet I've ever read.

Often the word "journeyman" is an insult when applied to a writer.  It implies that one has learned the craft but hasn't risen to the level of Master. 

In the case of Mr. Starck, at the time of publication for his book of poetry, Journeyman's Wages, he was a carpenter.

A journeyman carpenter working in Oregon. 

Let me add to that title.  Clemens Starck is a Master of Poetry working in the world.

I simply love this book.  Here's an example:

Changing the Alternator Belt on your 504


To do this the radiator
must be removed.  Two bolts on top, three
on the bottom, and disconnect
the hoses.
Four small screws, and the shroud
comes loose.  This leaves
the radiator free.

Lift it out carefully.  Set it
outside the garage, on the gravel.
Take five.
Contemplate the plum tree.


If the soul took shape
it might look like that - a cloud of white blossoms
throbbing with bees...
In the rank grass,
daffodils flaunt their yellow message.
Six fat robins
skitter across the pasture.

It makes no sense.
Eddie Rodriguez is dying.  You know
that you are dying too, and still there is spring
and fixing cars.


With the radiator out,
the rest is easy.
After replacing the belt, reverse the procedure:
radiator, hoses, anti-freeze.

Turn on the ignition.
Be brave.  Be sad.  Check for leaks.
Wipe your greasy hands on a rag.
Drive on,
brother, drive on.

    for E. R., 1945-1987

by Clemens Starck from the book Journeyman's Wages published by Story Line Press, © copyright 1995 and 1997.

You can buy it with this link to alibris

Unfortunately, the book is out of print, so your purchase won't send any pennies to the poet.  He deserves some journeyman's wages.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Four Dog Riot is Even More Live!

I've uploaded two more episodes of Four Dog Riot, bringing the total to nine.  I'll keep uploading one or two a week until all 13 are available.

What I love about podcasting is that you get immediate critical feedback, sometimes naughty, sometimes nice.  Here's the first review posted about the work-in-progress:
"Engaging characters as always. The world through a different lens. Innocence in transition - and very funny.  Thanks again!"—Barry b
 I like that description: "Innocence in transition."  It's the end of a millennium, the beginning of a new age, and yet some things never change - like needing a friend.  And growing up.

365 Jobs, Day 110: The $4.17 Sermon

The $4.17 Sermon
Friday, April 20, 1979

On this drizzly day a great big truck pulling a tractor-driven drilling rig shows up at my building site.  They're costing me $400 per hour.  The quiet hillside becomes a bedlam of growling engine, chewing tractor treads, smelly diesel exhaust - and then the powerful grind of the drill. 

For the foundation we need 11 holes, 12" in diameter, extending to whatever depth the soil engineer - at $100 per hour - decides we need to go.  The engineer in white hard hat studies the clay and rocks as the steel blade screws them out of the hillside.  Eleven feet deep for this hole, 13 feet for the next.  We never strike bedrock - often in La Honda bedrock is 30 or 50 feet down, and not all that solid anyway - but the engineer decides that a dozen feet of "skin friction" will support the piers.  (Nowadays, standards are higher.) 

This is to be my house. 

At one point, a pile of dirt needs to be moved.  The only construction machinery on this hillside is the blue-painted drilling rig.  It's a task for a man with a shovel.  Me.  I start digging.

The rig operator is a young white man wearing a yellow hard hat and a T shirt that says MALCOLM DRILLING.  He leans out of the rig and sneers, "Where's your Mexican?"

Shit, that's ugly.  I'm familiar with bigotry - I grew up in southern Maryland - but this kind of casual gratuitous racist insult always seems to catch me by surprise. 

I glare at the rig operator.  Surprised, he glares back.  Muscles twitch.  Bystanders - the truck driver, the engineer - watch expectantly.  It's one of those hair-trigger moments.  And it passes.  We've got jobs to do.

At $500 per hour, I'm not going to take the time - and the futility - of engaging in a teach-in on the subject of Brotherhood.  Best estimate: a 30 second glare.  Which cost me $4.17 at the going rate.

Nothing is changed.  Or maybe, ever so slightly, something has.  The operator makes no more comments.

We move on.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 109: The Bill (Part Four)

The Bill (Part Four)
Friday, April 19, 2002

Isabella, my favorite decorator, wants me to install lights for a new client.  "White carpets, no kids," she says.  This is code.  A warning.  Children are the great leveler.  Clients without kids sometimes suffer the delusion that perfection is possible.  They have the free time to obsess over it and the money to try to buy it.  Clients with white carpets, same delusion.  Combined, it's double trouble.

To install the downlights I have to move a sofa out of the way, place a drop cloth, set a ladder.  Running wires, I cut a hole in the ceiling, then patch it.

She's a whiner.  While I work she complains about the crows in her mimosa tree, the declining quality of Coca Cola, the daffodils that refuse to bloom.  The house is immaculate.  She's a former stewardess for United Airlines, successful in her marriage quest, now dwelling in a wealthy enclave with no job, no children, a life of shopping and lunches and serving one high-flying man.

By this stage of my career, I'm a pro.  If you aren't careful, a retrofit downlight will be wobbly, not quite flush with the ceiling, expose chipped edging around the hole, get a scratch on the trim, or it can overheat if you don't clear the insulation.  Here, I do a damn good job. 

I carry the ladder back to my truck, pick up the drop cloth, and am about to move the sofa when she says, "There's a stain.  On the carpet."

Yes, there is.  A pale brown stain in a white carpet.

"That stain is all dried out," I say.  "It's brown.  I was using white plaster, and anyway the carpet was covered by a drop cloth."

"Then how'd it get there?"

"It was hidden by the sofa.  It's been there a long time."

I write up a bill.  The stain, I'm thinking, is the color of old Coca Cola.

"I'll mail you a check," she says.

"I have a policy."  Actually, I don't.  "I have to get a payment before I leave."

She squints at me.  I don't move.  It's a silent argument.  There's body language in my stance, nonthreatening but nonyielding.  What I'm counting on is her desire for order, to be alone once again in her almost perfect, slightly stained little world.  When she was six miles above the earth stewarding the aisles in search of marriage material, a tradesman was not what she was seeking and she does not want another minute of my presence in her domain.

Let's for a moment acknowledge what I do, entering women's houses, working among their private places.  Call it metaphor or call it Freudian, it's the same thing.  At least on a subconscious level, most women are aware of it. 

She writes a check.  And I'm gone.

Monday, April 18, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 108: Baseball and the Pope

Baseball and the Pope
Friday, April 18, 1986

In Los Altos Hills I install track lighting for a woman named Mary.  On the wall hangs a gilt-framed photo of Mary and her husband with the Pope. 

Mary is tentative, decision-averse.  She can't make up her mind exactly where I should install the track.  She wants reading light, but she also wants to spotlight some paintings - and the Pope photo - on the wall.

I tell her that track lights, like all ceiling lights, aren't particularly good as reading lights, but they're great for spotlighting art, so she should place the track where it will do the best job of lighting the wall.  Or have two separate tracks.  Still, she dithers.  Finally - and she knows the clock is ticking on my labor charge - she chooses to put the track half way between where it would be best for the wall or for the sofa.

I start to install it.

After an hour her husband strides into the room.  He's a little man with a big presence.  With one glance at the track, he says, "That was a mistake.  Why'd you put it there?"

I explain the issues.

"We should have two tracks," he says, and he marches out.

The man is CEO of a big Silicon Valley company.  He controls a room the moment he enters.  He makes you want to salute. 

In this case he's right.  Firm, clear, fast.  But is he infallible?  He isn't the Pope.  What happens when he's wrong?  Can you appeal?

Twenty-five years later, I still remember how he could walk into a room and start barking orders.  

The company went bankrupt.  

He made millions in his failure.  Could it ever enter his mind - the tiny seed of self-doubt - thinking all things considered, he should have been a major league umpire?  

He would have been great.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Poets Pounding Nails

Today after 106 consecutive daily posts about my own work life (with the emphasis on "life"), I'm going to take a break and talk about other authors who write about working in the building trades. 

There are several authors I've read and quoted and reviewed in my Clear Heart blog.  Some of the writers are tradespeople themselves, others are observers.  Most are poets. 

If you want to read about work in the trades, here are some people to know:

Joseph Millar, poet:

"Red Wing" from Fortune.

"Fat City" from Overtime.

"Tools" from Fortune.

"Telephone Repairman" from Overtime.  (In the Writer's Almanac blog.)

Mark Turpin, poet:

"Gene Lance" from Hammer: Poems

"Before Groundbreak" from Hammer: Poems

"Last Hired" and "The Box" from Hammer: Poems.  (In the Writer's Almanac blog.)

Gary L. Lark, poet:

"Becoming a Librarian" from Men at the Gates.

"Getting By" from Men at the Gates.  (In the Writer's Almanac blog.)

"Driving Nails" from Getting By.  (In the Writer's Almanac blog.)

"Men at the Gates" from Men at the Gates.  (In the Writer's Almanac blog.)

Sue Doro, poet:

"Red Dust" from Blue Collar Goodbyes.

"Where's My Hammer?" and "Paper Napkin Poem for Larry" from Heart, Home & Hard Hats.

Clemens Starck, poet:

"Changing the Alternator Belt in your 504" from Journeyman's Wages.

"Putting in Footings" from Journeyman's Wages. 

"Journeyman's Wages" from Journeyman's Wages.  (In the Writer's Almanac blog.)

"A Brief Lecture on Door Closers" from Traveling Incognito.  (In the Writer's Almanac blog.)

Terry Adams, poet:

"Last Draft" from Adam's Ribs.

"Pieta" and "The Dump" from Adam's Ribs.


Jody Procter, carpenter, actor, memoirist:
Toil: Building Yourself 

Support the poets.

Buy their books.

Keep them writing.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 104: "A Little Water Problem"

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

"A Little Water Problem"
Monday, April 14, 1986

On the phone he says he won't be home but I can come by anytime because the problem is outside.  "A little water problem," he calls it.  So I visit a handsomely designed house of redwood and glass in Portola Valley where an underground leak has dug a gully under a concrete patio, sending a gush of water cascading down an embankment and into the street. Right now it's dry.

A neighbor wanders over and says he told the homeowners about the problem a couple of months ago. The owners' response was to shut off the main valve to the house.  In the morning the neighbor would see one of the owners walking out to the street in a bathrobe carrying a big wrench, kneeling in the dirt to turn the valve so they could take a shower.  Then a half hour later, dressed to the nines, they'd turn it off and drive away.  They've been living mostly without water for the last two months.

“When did they call you?” the neighbor asked.

“Last week."

“Amazing,” the neighbor says.

“People procrastinate,” I say.

The neighbor shakes his head. “Either they’re cheap or they’re idiots.”

Together the neighbor and I study the house. It's probably worth several million. The husband is a surgeon, the wife an attorney.

“Don’t underestimate inertia,” I say.

“Or tightwads,” the neighbor says, and he wanders off.

. . . In retrospect, I see that I used this job as an incident in Clear Heart almost exactly as it happened.  Sometimes, you can't improve on real life.

In the novel, Wally (the contractor) accepts the job.  In real life, I turn it down.  That lifeless gully of rock and bare dirt emerging from under cold concrete is scary somehow, a desolate distant planet.  If somebody waits two months to call you while living in a million dollar house without water, he might wait another two months to pay you.  As a contractor, you have to develop a sixth sense about weird situations.  There are too many Mr. Lunders in the world. 

Better to lose a few jobs than get sucked into a bad one.  And the wife is an attorney.  This job gives me shivers.  No thanks.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 103: Witchcraft

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Wednesday, April 13, 1977

"I'm Sheila," she says as she opens the door.  "Some people say I'm a witch."  She's old, gaunt, with long straggly blond hair.  (I'm young - 29 - skinny, with straggly brown hair.)

It's an aging house, not quite gothic, in disrepair.  She says she hears mysterious gurgling.  It's creepy in the middle of the night when she's alone.  "If I were really a witch," she says, "maybe it wouldn't bother me."

I tighten a no-hub coupling, open her clean-out and listen, investigate her toilet, fix a leak in a faucet.

I like her.  She likes me.  We chat.  She says she was an economist but now she's a therapist.

"What kind of therapist?"

"Hypnosis," she says.  "I teach self-hypnosis."

"Wouldn't work on me.  I never let myself lose self-control."

She laughs.  "You don't lose self-control under hypnosis.  You enhance it.  That's what it's good for.  You'd be a pushover.  It's the physicists and engineers who have a hard time."  She's having an open house that very evening at her office.  She invites me to drop by.

That evening, I show up at a conventional office building in Menlo Park.  Her therapy room looks like your basic business conference room - carpet, drapes, sterile smell - but no furniture.

We sit on the carpet.  There are about half a dozen people in attendance, including one talkative couple: the woman is a nurse taking a course in business management, the man an engineer.  Both of them seem to flit from fad to fad, transcendental meditation to auras to crystals - and now to hypnosis.  They sound open-minded but seem to have no core.  Maybe that's what they're seeking.

Sheila describes what she can and, mostly, what she cannot do.  Hypnosis can't make you do something against your will.  It can help you do what you really want to do.  She's unpretentious and matter-of-fact.  She says some people fall easily into a hypnotic state, others find it nearly impossible.  Then she has each of us hold pendulums and concentrate on the motion - just like in old bad movies - and in good faith I give it a try. 

I'm there.  It's fascinating.  Like a tunnel. 

When she brings us out of it, the fad couple say how marvelous it was.  "I'm not sure you got there," Sheila says.  

Then Sheila turns to me.  "You fell fast," she says.

"So that was hypnosis?" I ask.


It was such a familiar feeling.  I go into that state - call it hypnotic, or not - whenever I write.  It's the feeling of obsessed, shielded, narrow concentration.  Sometimes with other craft work - carpentry, plumbing - I'm the same way.

"I haven't heard any creepy gurgling since you left this morning," Sheila tells me as I'm leaving.  "It's like you cast a spell on the house."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Four Dog Riot is Live!

The first 7 episodes of the podcast audiobook Four Dog Riot are now live.  For the tech-savvy, you can get them (free!) from  For the iTunes users, you can get them (free!) from the iTunes "store" by searching for "Four Dog Riot" and clicking the "subscribe" button.

For the 99% of the world who have no idea what a podcast is or how to obtain one, please consult a local teenager.

You can listen to a 3 minute preview here.

There will be 6 more episodes.  I'll have them available at a rate of at least one per week until all 13 are uploaded.

A word of warning:  You may have to grit your teeth through a jarring 30 second ad that's been tacked onto the beginning of the episodes.  I get nothing from the ads, but they help support my host, 

After all 13 episodes are uploaded, I'll make the novel available as an ebook on Smashwords.  I have no plans for a print version at this time.  This is the first work I've ever created where the music is an integral part of the story, so the podcast is really the best way to enjoy it.

And I hope you do enjoy it.

365 Jobs, Day 102: Fingertip Feedback

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Fingertip Feedback
Wednesday, April 12, 1989

The decorator wants me to install a switch and 3 downlights in the Cantor's living room.  The attic is difficult: stuffy, cramped, hot.  I have to lie in dusty insulation, stretch out my arms to a spot I can't even see, and make wire connections by touch.  It's amazing what you can do based solely on the feedback of your fingertips.

When at last - ta da! - I turn on the switch, the light pattern is not what the decorator or the Cantor had expected. 

The decorator frowns.

The Cantor looks embarrassed.  He has an ornate old armoire of dark carved wood.  Highlighted in the new light, it is suddenly obvious that the carvings are of naked women.  Of course they were always there, but now they jump out at you.  Their bodies - at least certain parts of their bodies - are polished as if someone has constantly rubbed them to a high sheen, glowing in the new light, while the rest of the wood remains dark, unrubbed.

"We'll install another light," the decorator says.  "To - um - balance things a little better.  I won't charge you for it."  She looks at me meaningfully.

"I'll be happy to do it," I say.  What I'm obviously expected to say - but don't - is: "No charge."  Not if I have to crawl in that attic again.  He isn't my cantor.  Heck, I'm not even Jewish.  And anyway, it's the oldest law of business.  Some services you provide at a loss, some at normal cost, some at a premium.  There's probably a great Yiddish phrase for this, but here it is in English: In the world of commerce, the more nookie, the more you pay.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Where the heck is Four Dog Riot?

At last.  In just two days will release my new audiobook Four Dog Riot.  It's not about construction*.  It's a combination of story and song.  It's about four smart kids in one busy town at one particular moment: Menlo Park, California, September, 1998.  A millennium is ending.  Lives are beginning...

Four Dog Riot has its own Facebook page here with a little more information.  Pretty soon you can download the podcast from iTunes.  I'll let you know when it's ready-to-stream.

*Well, okay, there's a little construction in the story - and even a song.  It's a counterpoint to the multigazillion dollar software company starting in the garage next door.  But it's not about software or any high tech stuff, either.  It's about four kids being kids.  Honest.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 100: Last Comes the Bathroom Door

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Last Comes the Bathroom Door
Tuesday, April 10, 1984

At the playground my son meets another boy his age.  Immediately, they hit it off.  I chat with Jennie, the boy's mother.  As any parent knows, your social network is formed by your children.  Jennie, it turns out, lives just down the street from me. 

We visit Jennie's house so the boys can continue their play.  Jennie and her husband live in a shell - a house frame with a relatively complete exterior.  Inside, they've been camping out for several years, completing rooms as time allows.  Just like my wife and me. 

Camping in an unfinished house, you learn your priorities.  First, running water.  A toilet, a sink.  At least one functioning electric outlet.  Each little improvement is a quantum leap in comfort.  Then heat.  What luxury!  Some kind of stove.  Then hot water!  A bathtub or shower.  Life is good.

Privacy came just about last.  Neither Jennie nor I had given much thought to it, but talking together we realize that in a close family, you can live a long time with stud walls.  Eventually, you put up drywall.  Even then, with young children there's little that's private, not even your bed.

Jennie says, "We didn't put doors on our bathrooms for about three years."  She laughs.  "Then my mother came to visit, so we finally got around to it."

"Same here!" I say with surprise.  I'd never thought about it.  "Except it was my father-in-law."

It seems odd, looking back.  Maybe it was a generational/counterculture thing.  We may have hung a blanket over the doorway from time to time to accommodate guests.  But for the in-laws, by golly, you need a door.

Once you have a roof to keep the rain off your head and walls to keep the coyotes from wandering through, what are your priorities?  Here were ours:
1.  Water.
2.  Toilet and sink.
3.  Electricity.
4.  Heat.  (In a colder climate, heat would rank higher.)
5.  Stove.
6.  Hot water.
7.  Bathtub.
Then came insulation, permanent lights, a kitchen sink, drywall, a comfortable chair, a shoe caddy, a shelf for toy trains and little stuffie bears.  And finally, for Jennie's family and mine:
100.  Bathroom door.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 99: Toy Chest

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Toy Chest
Monday, April 9, 1984

On this day in 1984 I'm building a toy chest for Will's second birthday.  In six days my son will be two years old.

I'm using 16-inch pine planks that I pried from Wagon Wheels just before the poor cottage was crushed.  Unlike my older two children, Will never lived at Wagon Wheels, but this toy chest will give him a piece of it.

Though not quite two years old, Will actually assists me in the construction at least to the extent of picking up sweet-smelling pine shavings and placing them in a pile.  His older brother Jesse, age seven, helps run the plane over the top.  Everybody loves to plane.  Then both Jesse and Will watch the quickening of color as I apply oil to the wood - no stain, no varnish, please.  

And oh how I love salvaged wood.  Here's a photo from 2007 which I've been advised never to show anybody because "there's something creepy about a man hugging a toy chest."  In the photo you can see the shape of the chest (an old Shaker design), the extraordinarily wide planks of the sides, the planed top.  You can also see that the chest is somewhat banged up from 23 years of use.  Eventually Will left it behind, not needing a toy chest at Dartmouth - so it remains where I can hug it again if ever I feel so inclined. 

Building that chest was such a pleasure - and such mental therapy - that I recreated the experience in a chapter of my novel Clear Heart.  If you're curious you can read all about it - Chapter 30 to be exact.  Or episode 14 of the Clear Heart podcast.

I'd quote the chapter here, but it's a bit too long for this setting.  But, hey, I tell you what.  For the rest of April readers of this blog can buy the ebook of Clear Heart for half price!  Such a deal!  Just follow this link to Smashwords, put Clear Heart in your shopping bag, and use this discount code at checkout: CJ48P.  You'll get 50% off the price of a book that already costs less than one beer at Sullivan's Pub.  Now it costs just half a beer!

Here are the words of some people I respect, craftspeople who could build a far finer toy chest than I:

" I LOVED Clear Heart. In fact, I couldn't put it down.  It's about a 55 year old ex-hippy carpenter named Wally—and the interaction between true craftsmen, their good-natured joking, routines and habits (like sometimes getting too friendly with female clients). It's male bonding at its finest, filled with endearing characters and fast-paced, nail-biting mishaps.  And it made me want to ask Wally: 'You hiring?'"—Kari Hultman, The Village Carpenter

" I just couldn’t put it down. It was a great read.  Now I have met many of the people in Joe’s novel, quirky sub contractors, stupid clients and the like. I found myself (I believe for the first time) actually rooting for fictional characters. The book is gripping. It is a love story and so much more.  I should also tell you that it is a book for adults.  I wouldn’t have my (prude) sister read the book."—Stephen Shepherd, Full Chisel Blog

Thursday, April 7, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 97: Creating the World

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

(Before writing these blog entries, I go back through my journals reading one particular day for each year, sort of a Ground Hog Day movie except that each time everybody is one year older, and in the end I still haven't gotten it right.  Here are three such days.)

Saturday, April 7, 1979

A good garage sale can cure a bad mood.  So can a ride in a pickup truck.  Today I apply the double cure to my son Jesse, age two-and-a-half.  He's been horrible, a not uncommon condition for a two-year-old, but enough is enough.

We're still living in the Montgomery Ward cottage at Wagon Wheels while building our new house in La Honda.  The new house, I believe, is the cause of Jesse's crankiness because it takes me away from home all day every day, and he's used to having me around. 

In the pickup (known as the Twuck), I let Jesse lean forward in his car seat and push the radio buttons, choosing random music.   

At one garage sale Jesse falls inexplicably in love with an old brass coat rack, so we buy it to install in his bedroom.

Stopping at a grocery store, Jesse's eyes alight on a display rack.  "What's that?"

"Those are called pocket pies."

"You put them in your pocket?"

So I buy one.  As it happens, Jesse has no pockets today, so I put it in mine.  In Palo Alto we drive to a quiet street of big green lawns.  We park but remain sitting in the twuck under the shade of a sycamore.  We unwrap and share the pocket pie.  From a grocery bag I remove a beer and open it.  I pop an old Beatles tape into the radio/cassette player.

A pregnant woman with two travel bags is walking down the street, crying.  Jesse grabs his teddy bear from the dashboard of the truck and holds it, watching the woman.  She's wearing a long blue dress which is flapping in the wind.  She’s stopped walking.  Her fingers are on her lips.  Still crying.  I want to help but know I would only be interfering.  After a moment, she walks on.

Driving home, I see the world through Jesse's eyes, the world I've brought him to - the sun burning over six lanes of El Camino Real, glinting off cars, while Daddy listens to old rock tapes with a bit of beer on his breath.  A large part of Jesse's world will be whatever I bring to him, such as cruising the garage sales and eating pocket pie.  The woman in the long blue dress will no doubt create a far different world on this, our shared planet.

Saturday, April 7, 1990

Jesse is now thirteen and a half.  He's in eighth grade and sometimes discovers that I'm weird.  We live in the house I built in La Honda.  The truck is a Ford.  We listen to Grateful Dead tapes - Jesse's choice - and drive to Palo Alto where we hit some garage sales and come away with a turntable.  Jesse in his lifetime has never played a record album but has seen my crates of them stored in the attic.  He'd like to listen.

After the sales, we drive to a medical office building on Welch Road near Stanford Hospital where together we repair six entries for six psychiatrists.  I need Jesse's help to remove and replace each solid-core, dark mahogany, massive door.  He's old enough - and big enough - to help dad earn a living. 

For three hours labor on this, his first paying job, I give him $30, a great wage for a thirteen-year-old.  And he knows that he accomplished something. 

Back home the turntable works.  In fact, it's excellent.  My old records - John Prine, Phil Ochs, Big Bill Broonzy - have never sounded so good.  I haven't heard them for ages, and now I'm hearing them through Jesse's ears, a whole new world.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Today I'm providing childcare for my grandson, age two and a half.  Raj was born in San Francisco and recently moved to the suburbs down the Peninsula.  I could stay at Raj's house where he is comfortable and happy, but I consider it my job as grandfather to introduce him to the more rural life in La Honda. 

From my house we take a walk.  There are no sidewalks in La Honda, so we walk the narrow streets.  A bit up the hill from my house are two llamas in a pen.  One sleeps; one watches us with a steady gaze.  I explain to Raj that you will never see both llamas sleep at the same time; they watch out for each other.

We walk downhill a bit to another house and feed carrots through the fence wire to a couple of goats.  The bigger goat keeps butting the smaller one away with a thwack of horns.  He can eat an entire carrot in a matter of seconds.

Farther down the hill, we throw popcorn to the ducks in the pond.  Farther still, we come to "the cookie store" otherwise known as the La Honda Country Market, where we select one large chocolate chip cookie from a glass jar.

Back home we read a book I just got from the bookmobile: Gramps and the Fire Dragon, which becomes the event of the day.  To Raj it's an utterly gripping tale in which a boy and his grandfather encounter a fire-breathing dragon who chases them up an apple tree which they escape in a hot air balloon, but the dragon follows through jungle and cave and finally is melted by water from a fire truck's hose.  When Raj enjoys a story he's all over it fingering pictures, flipping pages, shouting, laughing.  We read it six times, cover to cover.  What a great book.

We talk about the fire dragon all the way home in the car.  Raj reprises episodes and adds new ones involving butting goats, hungry ducks, watchful llamas - framing the story and the events of the day, coming to grips with the fear, the excitement, the camaraderie.  To Raj there is no line between encountering a dragon and what we did today; it's all part of the wonderful web of life.  For me it's a beautiful lesson in the purpose and power of story - why we tell them, how we respond and grow.  I brought Raj to my world; in return he brings me to his.