Thursday, June 30, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 181: Blue Moon

Sunday, June 30, 1996

The kitchen has been garbaged.  The trash can is on its side.  Paper towels, melon rinds, coffee grounds are scattered over the floor.  A cardboard barrel of pretzels has been opened, nibbled, and excreted upon.  In a basket, every single apple and peach has been sampled, gnawed.

I was gone just a few hours, a drive to the Burlington airport to meet a midnight flight.  I've done a week of rehab work at a house called the Blue Heron.  Now my family has come to join me for a few days.  At 1:30 a.m. this kitchen full of garbage and pellets of poop is their welcome to the Adirondacks.

As I sweep the floor, two chipmunks brazenly enter the kitchen through a gap beneath the door.  Seeing me, they stop, rear on their hind legs for a moment as if to get a better look, then flick their tails and run back out.

I feel like I'm the chump in some Chip 'n' Dale cartoon.

In the bedrooms, tiny bugs are swarming.  I light citronella candles.  In my daughter's room a giant pale green moth thumps its wings against the window glass, smitten by the candlelight or perhaps by my daughter, who at age 17 is lovely to the eyes of moth or man.  We are a family of four on this trip: myself, my wife, my 17-year-old daughter and my 14-year-old son.  Our oldest son is spending the summer at college.

In the days that follow, we climb mountains.

Chip 'n' Dale continue their relentless siege of the kitchen.  They break open the cookie can and gorge on peanut butter cups.

A hundred years of scuffling feet have worn a deep groove in the wooden threshold under the kitchen door, allowing entry to any manner of vermin including cute little chipmunks.  There are no power tools here, but with a hand saw I cut a piece of 1x4 pine for an extension to the door bottom.  To match the irregular trough of the threshold, I'll have to shape it somehow.  I have a pocket knife.  I have time.

Every morning, I clean up the mess that the chipmunks have made overnight.  Occasionally in an Adirondack chair on the porch or at the dock, I'm whittling, watching little brown toads hopping in the dirt or a pileated woodpecker grooming the trees.  I'm easily entertained.

The lake is becoming populated with motorboats as the summerfolk arrive.  Canoes pass.  Everybody waves.  We don't know them; we just wave.  Frisky lads and comely lasses are sunning on docks all along the shore.

Now it's Sunday, June 30.  All day it threatens to rain but never does.  The air is warm and muggy.  My wife starts her day with a cup of real coffee which then energizes her to sweep and mop floors and do laundry - all because we’re out of decaf.     

My whittling is complete.  I install an elegant chipmunk barrier at the base of the kitchen door.

After dinner we walk down the paved road to Union Falls accompanied by a cloud of mosquitoes and swooping swallows who appreciate the bugs.  Coming back, the fireflies are rising, frogs chirping, bats dipping.  My daughter tries to recall the song “I Swallowed a Fly;” then, to her disgust - she swallows a fly.  We hear what sounds like human voices from the bog.  Swamp ghosts?  Or frogs?

Back at the Blue Heron, in the kitchen I hear a scuffling.  When I switch on the light, two chipmunks dive through a small hole in the floor.  I plug the opening with the neck of a beer bottle, upside down.  The natural world that surrounds this lodge is the ultimate owner and will take it back over time.  Relentlessly it probes.  Chipmunks and giant pale green moths are only the most visible of scouts.

Late in the evening we go to the dock and watch the full moon rising over Silver Lake Mountain.  After a choppy day, the lake is calm.  Two big hairy spiders - wolf spiders - cling to the concrete just above water line at the boathouse.  

It's the sort of night when babies are conceived.  There's a magic by the lake in the warm air, voices floating over still water, children playing, teens flirting, grownups drinking and laughing.  

We launch two canoes and silently glide.  Trout jump for flies.  Nobody is fishing.  A meteor crosses without a sound.  A yellow streak of shimmer from the moon seems to follow us like a spotlight over the water.  The woods are black.  Lights of cabins go out one by one.  Each stroke of the paddle makes a gurgle, a swirl of lunar glitter. 

A loon calls.  Another loon answers from the opposite shore.  The song is wild and wonderful, a duet of call-and-response that echoes and amplifies.  The water is cool as it splashes our hands.  The scent is wet and evergreen.  The lake is dark, mysterious, alive.  It's the second full moon in the month of June.  By some definitions, that's a Blue Moon.  I want to tie it to the song of the loons, but rhyming seems facile in the presence of such a magnificent cathedral of night.  We are rich with life in all its messy glory.  Warm love, cool water, dark woods, glowing sky.  

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 180: Pairs

Friday, June 29, 1990
There's a popular bicycle loop where skinny people in tight outfits pedal slowly up Old La Honda Road and then speed screaming downhill on Highway 84. 

Today I'm driving to work down Highway 84 following a woman who is bent to the handlebars going 30 to 40 miles per hour in the middle of my lane.  On this curvy road I can't pass her and couldn't go any faster than her, anyway.

On one curve she leans - the wheels slip sideways - and she hits the asphalt sliding and flailing.  I slam on the brakes.  Swerving left to avoid her I go into a skid on the painted center line.  Helplessly she looks up at the oncoming tires.

I skid into the opposite lane.  Good luck: I miss her.  Double good luck: no oncoming traffic.  I could easily have skidded right into her head.  A car behind me has stopped, blocking the lane to protect the fallen woman with hazard lights flashing.  A man is already running to her.  I move the truck to a shoulder, run back. 

The other man has already taken charge of the situation.  The woman tries to get herself up, then lays back down.  She appears to have injured her neck.  She wore a helmet.  The man says he's an off-duty paramedic - more good luck.  Nobody has a cell phone - this is 1990.  A woman shouts from a nearby house that she's called for help.  We're all instantly members of a rescue team, strangers.

When the situation is under control, I drive on - warily.

I repair a leaky bathtub faucet and perform a few other fix-it chores at a rental unit occupied by a fragile man who I've never met.  His father, Elgin, is always the one to call me and to meet me at the son's rental to let me in.  I like Elgin - he's the one who told me he has "champagne taste on a beer budget" as he slowly improves a raggedy house in a bad neighborhood.  The invisible son seems extremely tidy and has a fondness for Shaker furniture.  Elgin seems to clear the way for his son to live a quiet life avoiding encounters with the rough-and-tumble commercial world of which, apparently, I am part.

Driving home, I come upon a second bicycle accident.  This time it's a woman on Portola Road.  It's bad.  Cops, paramedics, flashing lights.  She's being covered by a blanket.

Must be a full moon.

Back home my boys Jesse and Will, age 13 and 8, tell me that big Dave Stewart of the Oakland A's is working on a no-hitter, so I join them watching the last 3 innings.  And he does it!  Couldn't happen to a better guy.  As the team mobs him, I'm moved to tears.  Maybe I'm in a vulnerable state, loosened up by the bicycle accidents.

I have some dinner, putter around, and learn that Fernando Valenzuela is working on a no hitter, so we watch the end of that one, too.  He succeeds!  Wow!  I’m glad, but no tears.  I mean I like Valenzuela but it's the Dodgers, for Pete's sake.

I try to find meaning in these events, something about teamwork, about caring for others, about good and bad things coming in pairs.

No.  No meaning.

The planet is swarming with sparks of random tragedy, random triumph, every day since life began.

All we have is love.

In the sky, it's only a half moon.  Half light, half dark.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 179: The Rat Face Lure

June, 1996

You don't get to choose the places you love.  Sometimes you're just passing through, and it hits you.  Or you might spend 18 years in your home town and still hate it as much as I hated mine.  It's the people as much as the location.  The first time I drove into La Honda I knew within 30 seconds that it was home.  And it still is.

I first came to the Adirondack Mountains of upper New York State when at the age of 14 I spent a summer at Hawkeye Trail Camp on Silver Lake.  I returned for the next three summers.  My final summer in 1965 I was a camp counselor, my first paying job, where at the age of 17 I spent as much time as possible in the company of an amazing girl (who would eventually become my wife) while taking breaks twice a day to teach kids how to shoot a gun.  As Riflery Instructor it was my job to put a .22 Winchester in the hands of little children and take them to the rifle range.  In the process I became a great shot.  It didn't seem weird at the time.

1963.  Me standing left.  JK front center.  Duncan 3rd row center.
Thirty years later I return to the Adirondacks.  Hawkeye Trails closed in the 1970's.  Ex-campers JK and Duncan bought part of the run-down camp and refurbished it as a summer retreat for their families.  Every year in late June they have to repair and re-open after the hard Adirondack winter.  This year, 1996, they invite me to come and help.  They call it Workfest.

I remember the Adirondacks from the 1960's as a poverty-stricken area of terrible roads and survival housing.  Now the roads are smooth; the houses freshly painted.  Compared to California, the land is lush and green.

Arriving after noon, I find JK and Duncan down at the lakeshore.  Duncan is little changed.  He seems to feel the same about me.  There's the instant ease of old friendship after a 30 year gap.  Meanwhile JK and I have always stayed in touch - he's my brother-in-law.

We install the dock.  The job requires standing waist-deep in cool water as waves splash against you.  We pound pipes into the mud, mount a frame to the pipes, tighten bolts, add decking in the form of pallets.  Nothing about the process has changed since I first helped out as a camper 34 years ago, though the design is begging for an update.  Already I perceive a sense of tradition with JK and Duncan, a desire to keep things as they were. 

"People are always dropping by," JK explains.  "Old campers who remember Hawkeye from the Sixties or even the Thirties.  They're so happy it's still the same."

JK and Duncan have borne the expense, done the hard work, and run the risk of owning this property, but unlike lords of the realm they feel an obligation to everybody who has loved the place - and there are hundreds.  Never an architectural showpiece, it was a funky summer camp - but a very special place built of memories, of youthful rites of passage from first canoe outing to first kiss.  They want it to remain so.  The main building is a big old lodge known as the Blue Heron.

A couple hundred feet down the lake from us, Ken Laundry, age 85, is installing his own dock without help from anybody.  He joins us for a beer and a bit of talk.  Ken says his property assessment tripled this year.  Ken has lived by Silver Lake all his life, scratching out a living with strong hands and a strong head.  In winter he used to take horses out on the ice to haul in fresh water.  “And if the horse did his business on the ice, you had to clean it up.  Now nobody seems to care about the lake.”
With the dock installed, we make a trip to Aubuchon Hardware in Ausable Forks.  At Aubuchon I see the adult Duncan at work.  He was playful when I knew him in high school, and now he is playfully engaging as he jokes with the hardware clerk, asking questions about wood-preserving techniques, explaining our concerns, acknowledging the clerk's expertise and experience.  The clerk becomes a part of our project and feels he has a stake in the outcome.  Then when Duncan jokingly suggests that for the size of our order, we each deserve a free Aubuchon Hardware painter's cap, the clerk laughingly agrees.  Duncan scores free hats - disposable, emblazoned with the Aubuchon label, but they had prices on them.  I think it all happened by accident.  There's nothing calculating or manipulating about Duncan; with soft self-deprecation he simply charms you.

Since I haven't seen Duncan for 30 years, I can't say how he behaves back home in Minnesota, but I know he runs a serious business, supports his family and is a responsible man.  Here he's simply playful.  JK is equally lighthearted.  In Los Angeles JK is a partner in a law firm handling heavy-duty corporate law.  Here, he's a different person.  He's merry.  The spirit is infectious.

The next day while wearing our free Aubuchon caps we stain the new paneling in the living room with just a blush of red added.  It looks great.  Over the winter Duncan and JK hired a local carpenter to rip out the old dark interior walls, add insulation, and then panel them with knotty pine.  Apparently this was a new step for them, as they'd done most of the fix-up so far by themselves.  They're pleased with the results, and I agree - the carpenter gave them solid work, lovely details, for a low price.  During winter, carpenters around here don't have a lot to do.

Duncan mows the lawn.

I paint a new door.  Swimming in the lake, I come upon a big fish who doesn’t scare easily.  He's twelve inches long, sitting on the bottom chewing his cud.  There are fresh-water mussels down there and masses of tiny fish hiding among bright green weeds.  I feel I've re-entered a lovely secret world.

We drive out along the Ausable River, which is world-famous for fly-fishing.  Next to the river we dine at a restaurant called Rat Face McDougall’s.  Duncan finds the name amusing, since his last name is McDougall.  Down the road from the restaurant we stop at a fly fisher’s shop where they sell a fly called a Rat Face McDougall, recommended for catching trout.  Duncan buys two.

After dinner we visit a neighbor on the lake by the name of Fred who is remodeling an old cabin.  Fred's in a bad mood about his contractor because while Fred was away the man built a massive stone fireplace rising 30 feet from foundation to chimney top - and he built it in the wrong place.

The next day we return to Aubuchon Hardware where another salesman says, "Oh yeah, I heard about you guys," and he allows us to return some unused stain.  What did he hear?  Was Duncan's charm somehow offensive?  Should we offer to pay for the caps which seemed so freely given?  Or did he simply hear about a bunch of nuts from California and Minnesota who don't know beans about preserving wood in the Adirondacks?  We're the summerfolk in a very small town.  They depend on us for a livelihood; we depend on them for service.  Sometimes it's an uneasy relationship.

Across the street I buy groceries and have to wait five minutes to purchase beer, which to my surprise can’t be sold before noon on Sunday.  While I wait, the checkout lady tells me she's local but she left town for a while.   

"Where'd you go?" I ask.

"Oh I lived eleven years in Florida but then it started snowing down there."

"Really?  Snowing in Florida?"

"You bet your butt it snowed.  So I came back here and now you know what?  The winters are so much milder than they used to be.  All that snow must've gone down to Florida."

"Yeah, maybe the planet really is warming up."

"You bet your butt it is.  The snow here isn't nearly as deep as when I was little.  It used to come up to my chin.  Now it doesn't come up so high."

Then she laughs.  She had me.

"Noon," she says, and she rings up my Saranac Ale.

Duncan and JK
As a last act of opening the camp, Duncan and I install the mailbox at the end of the driveway.  Pre-internet, that mailbox is the portal connecting this camp to the rest of the world.  And so it's been for most of a century.

Workfest turns out to be a reunion, a chance to be boys again, a time when work is worked and play is played, a summer camp for grownups.  Or at least for me.  Like a trout, I'm hooked.

(The photo of Duncan mowing, and the photo of Duncan and JK, were taken by David Minard who reserves all rights.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 178: Calico Salvage

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

In late 2005 I remodeled some office space for a therapy practice.  May I show some pride?  I moved walls and doorways and created a well-functioning floor plan out of a hodgepodge.   

Stuff happens.  Now just eighteen months later in June of 2007 I'm tearing out my own short-lived construction.  Of course I won't be tearing out any walls or doors.  I've improved the landlord's property - at no expense to him - so he can rent it to the next business at a higher rate, quite a windfall for a man who frankly doesn't deserve such good fortune.

There's slim sentiment embedded in most offices, but this was a place where children found joy.  They acquired skills they never thought they could learn. 

From the ceiling I remove heavy-duty eye bolts to which the therapists had hung swings, trapezes, special gym equipment.  The bolts and their mounting braces can be re-used.  I patch the holes they leave behind.  What took three days to install, crawling in the attic over ratshit and dust, takes three hours to remove.

From the wall I remove a special wooden ladder built for kids to learn how to climb without fear.  I remove cabinets filled with art projects, shelves stacked with board games, custom-sized tables that I built with such painstaking care.  Parts of them can be recycled somewhere, somehow.  I hope.

I remove a truckload of planter boxes that I'd installed to spruce up the entry.  The landlord offers to buy them - on the cheap - but I haul them home to install outside our home-office window, where they look fantastic.  That's one piece of salvage that creates an actual improvement.

Finally in one hot shirtless afternoon I touch up the walls and pack an overloaded Okie-truckload of boxes and games, a mop and broom, two toilet plungers and a file cabinet - and I bring them home. 

It's taken one week to dismantle two months of work.

The next day, equally hot, equally shirtless, I perform an overdue cleaning of my garage, rousting a cat who has long dwelled there.  Unloading the truck, I pile cabinets and boxes of therapy equipment, little kid-sized tables and chairs painted bright blue and red where games were played, drawings drawn, skills acquired.  Now they are spattered with a few drops of my sweat.

It's a melancholy job dismantling your own work, especially from a place of such happiness.  

The cat returned.  A feral calico, catching rats.  I don't feed her; I didn't ask for her.  She first appeared about ten years ago.  I find paw prints on the truck windshield.  Sometimes when I enter the garage the cat leaps past me in a flash of flying calico.  Sometimes she sits outside the back door to my house and peers through the glass seeking me out, wanting some vague companionship but fleeing my approach, never to be touched.  She's like the ghost of a relationship that never was.

Four years have passed since I dismantled that office.  Junk accumulates.  Sometimes, fetching tools or some old box from the garage, I'm surprised to see spots of bright paint poking out through the debris.  In her search for comfort the cat rearranges the insulation, the old carpet, the coils of corrugated pipe exposing little glimpses of the past, of blue table and red chairs, of careful work and thoughtful play.

(Note: my garage cat is camera-shy.  I've included a generic photo from Wikipedia of an elderly calico.  My feline - if she is indeed mine - has more orange, less black and is gaunt with a raggedy coat.  Life is tough out there but it's a life she chooses, and many times at night I've heard her defend that territory with a screaming passion.)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 177: Septic Dog Karma

Monday, June 26, 1995

So a lawyer calls me asking about a house that I repaired, a house just two doors down the street from my own.  The house has been sold.  The buyer is suing the seller for fraud and nondisclosure.  The lawyer's voice is precise.  Immediately I sense the chill, the threat of large sums of money changing hands.  Hopefully not my money.

"I understand you did plumbing in that house."


"Did you install a graywater line?"


A graywater line is a way to dispose of wash water - never toilet water - by a system less elaborate, and much less expensive, than a septic tank.  They're not allowed in San Mateo County, but lots of rural folk install them because they combine two good things: they dispose of soapy waste, and they water the plants.  Generally, the county inspectors pretend not to see them.

"When you installed it, were the owners aware that it was illegal?"

"Yes.  I told them.  I installed it at their request.  And then later I noticed that they tore it out.  They said it was smelly.  And then even later I noticed they'd restored it themselves.  So whatever is there now is something they did themselves.  They never talked to me about it.  I'd stopped working for them by that time."

"Why did you stop?"

"They stopped hiring me." 

"Do you know why?"

"I raised my rates.  They were ... uh ... frugal."  Jake was a schoolteacher who tended to stray from the curriculum; Mindy was a seamstress who sold her handmade tie-dye dresses at flea markets.  Both of them tended to engage in wishful thinking.  Mindy liked poetry and birds.  Jake liked poetry and college football.  I'm sure they had no money saved up beyond the equity that had accumulated in their house.  They hired me when I was first starting out, paying me as I was learning on the job, and to them I'm grateful for that.

Like most of La Honda, their cabin had been built in the 1930's when the town was a summer home community.  During the hippie invasion of the 1960's, Mindy and Jake had bought a place and converted it - whimsically - into a year-round dwelling.  Unfortunately for the plumbing, the cabin was at the bottom on a sloping piece of land.  As a summer home, lightly used, maybe the location wasn't a problem, but as a full-time residence, it was a drainage disaster.

One more thing: they had a dog named Gandalf who was the bad boy of the neighborhood.  One time when he had my dog in a death grip, I broke a two by four over Gandalf's back.  Another time after Gandalf had broken into his house and impregnated his dog, my next-door neighbor wanted to borrow my rifle and shoot him.  Another time Gandalf attacked a seeing-eye dog  in Golden Gate Park - and Jake not only didn't intervene but also pretended he didn't know whose dog it was.

The people who had bought the house were a nice hardworking couple with a young boy.

"Do you remember the layout of their house?"


"Did you install a downstairs bathroom?"


"Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure.  They asked me once, but I told them their downstairs was below the level of the septic tank, so the only way they could drain the bathroom would be with a septic pump which the county wouldn't allow.  And it would cost more than they would want to pay anyway.  And even if they could somehow get the waste to the septic tank there was no place for an additional leach line which they would need.  In fact, there's no place for any leach line for that cabin and I have no idea what happens to their septic water and I bet they have no idea either."

"So you have nothing to do with the downstairs bathroom?"

"There's a downstairs bathroom?"

"We'll be in touch."

I would never hear from that lawyer again.  Forces of karma - and civil law - would grind Mindy and Jake to bits.

They were irresponsible.  But I'd always sort of liked them.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 176: Thomas (Hosed)

Monday, June 25, 1984

Thomas is a salesman for IBM.  He's an affable man, fortyish.  Apparently he earns very good money. 

At his house in Saratoga, I spend an entire day - nine hours - rehanging dozens of cabinet doors.  Somebody had painted the kitchen, then re-hung the doors in an adequate but not-quite-perfect manner.  "I got hosed," Thomas says.  "But then he's just a painter."

After nine hours of fussing and fitting, microscopic adjustments, more care than any cabinet door should ever receive, I get them darn near perfect.  The task is not unpleasant but feels insanely unproductive.

Thomas comes home from IBM sales-land and inspects.

"Hosed?" I ask.

"Pretty good," Thomas says.  He's a pleasant perfectionist, which must be a winning formula for his career.  At least he can afford an eight-room house in an expensive town. 

I feel like this day was somehow stolen from me, like I'm selling my time - the hours of my life - until they're used up.  But then I'm just a carpenter.

Before I leave, Thomas asks me to check out a Casablanca fan somebody installed dead center over his king-size bed.  "It spins kinda fast," Thomas says.  "Is this thing gonna fly off?" 

Smiling, I say, "Maybe you should sleep with a pillow over your crotch.  Or a garbage can lid."

"Or a lady."  He guffaws.


"Just kidding," he says.

I check out the fan.  The mounting is firm, connections solid.

"You won't get de-hosed," I tell him.

I drive home by way of Highway 9 up into the mountains, then north along the ridge of Skyline Drive.  I have my arm out the window as the sun sinks toward the ocean turning golden hills aglow.  At Alpine Road I drop into the shadows of the canyons, the ranches, the forest, home to my kids and my wife.  I have a check for nine hours' pay.

Thomas is a salesman, living alone.

Friday, June 24, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 175: Just Shut Up

Friday, June 24, 1983

A realtor in La Honda buys a bargain of a house, has some work done on it, rents it to tenants, and then calls me to snake a drain.

Something is wrong.  The more I snake, the more the water seems to back up.

On the hillside behind the house I dig out the lid of the septic tank.  After peering inside, I trace the drain field up the hill.  Now I understand.  The drain field, incredibly, is above the septic tank.  When it rains, water from the drain field flows backward into the septic tank and then into the house drain. 

I tell the realtor that the guy who built that septic system should be in jail.

The realtor is not happy with my report, to say the least.  The septic builder is her son-in-law.

I'm tired.  I smell.  After a shower I join the neighbors for a dinner of barbecued chicken which looks just like what I was pulling out of the drainpipe.  Unfortunately, meaning no insult but simply trying to make an interesting and somewhat ironic observation, I say so. 

Maybe sometimes, judging from the reaction, I shouldn't say what's on my mind.

But the chicken is delicious.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 172: Cracking the Pool (Part Two)

June, 1994

(This is Part Two of a story that began yesterday.  Part One is here.)

In March of 1994 the rainy season lingered, but you can't wait forever.  The maintenance man ran the backhoe around the perimeter of the pool.  We needed a trench three feet deep.  He could excavate four of the pool's five sides, but one 70 foot side was up against a steep slope and would have to be dug out by hand.  Volunteer hands.  I spent two entire weekends in April shoveling muck with the help of some tireless volunteers including an astrophysicist who specialized in "space plasma."  Meanwhile we had unearthed an underground creek on one side of the pool, which had to be channeled and diverted through a culvert.

Misty rains continued.  The ground was still saturated, especially on the side with the underground creek.  We drained the pool half-way.  On weekends in May when it wasn't raining too hard, I cut and assembled and glue-welded six-inch PVC pipe all the way around the pool with short one-inch pipe runs to the water inlets, for which I would hammer-drill holes in the concrete sides.  Then I repeated the process for a separate drain system, hammer-drilling holes through the upper lip of the pool to the gutters.  You'd normally hire big burly muscle guys for this kind of job.  I was the thin muscle guy, but I didn't dare delegate the work - it had to be right.  At night I slept like the dead.

Normally, the pool would open on Memorial Day Weekend.  This year at the end of May we had a 3/4 empty pool surrounded by a muddy ditch and white PVC pipes.  In the remaining water were chunks of concrete, a layer of mud, and clouds of wiggling tadpoles.  Worried people were asking, "Will the pool open this year?"

I would answer, "I hope so."  I spent that entire gorgeous sunny Memorial Day Weekend alone in the ditches at the pool soldering copper, welding plastic pipe, and patching pool walls.

In early June we backfilled the ditches with mucky mud.  We drained all but a foot of water and mud from the tank.  The ground was drying somewhat, except on the side with the underground creek.

On a weekend - Saturday, June 11 - John Lindstrom rounded up a dozen volunteers to tie steel rebar, set dobies, and shovel base rock in preparation for pouring a new concrete deck.

On Sunday, June 12, the volunteers continued while I ventured into the tank, pants rolled up to my knees, to pump tadpoles out of the bottom, which is 8 feet below ground level.  As I'm working I hear a slow crackling sound.

I look up.  Above me one 60-foot section of pool wall is bulging inward with a spreading network of cracks.  It's the side with the underground creek.

For a moment, I think I'll be buried alive.  I scramble out of the tank as the crackling continues.  We race to run a fire hose from a nearby hydrant.  Our best hope of avoiding utter collapse is to refill the tank, providing counter pressure.

Only a trickle comes out of the hose.  It's a hot Sunday afternoon in La Honda when everybody is gardening.  Our water system is as antiquated as our swimming pool.  There is no pressure.

I dash home for lumber.  Returning, I build a wooden brace 30 feet long from one wall to the other, wedging the cracking wall in place.  Then I have to take my son to a soccer game.  Some things are more important than the imminent collapse of a swimming pool.

When I return a few hours later, the fire hose is pouring a steady stream into the tank and somebody has vacuumed the rest of the tadpoles and mud.  One crack is an ugly inch and a half across, running from top to bottom, spilling raw mud into the tank.  But it's stabilized, at least for now.  Standing knee-deep in water, I apply quick-dry patching compound to the fissures.  The compound has no structural integrity but at least will stop the mud from oozing into the tank.

Eight days later, the wall has not moved farther.  The pool is full of water and we are ready to pour the concrete deck.  For this phase, thankfully, we've hired professionals.  The deck is what will show after all our hard work, and we want it to look good.

We still need volunteers, though, to sleep by the pool overnight guarding the deck.  There are some rather determined vandals in La Honda, and nobody wants to see what they would do with yards and yards of soft concrete.  One of the volunteers, the same old-timer who explained to me about the La Honda way, is a kindly-looking grand-daddy type.  He says he's actually hoping to capture one or more vandals.  It's as if we've baited a trap.

“We won’t turn him in," the old-timer says.  "We’ll deal with him ourselves.  They understand pain.”

I don't think they caught anybody, but they wouldn't have told me if they had.  Some things, you just don't want to know.

Remodeling that pool, shoveling mud and gluing big heavy pieces of pipe, I'd already learned a lesson in pain.  I hired a firm that specializes in cracked concrete.  They poured some 15 gallons of epoxy into the fault lines along the side of the pool.  It hasn't budged since then.

La Honda pool today

There were more details before the pool could open that year.  I posted another call for volunteers: 

Free beer!
Live music! 
Fabulous door prizes! 
Special guest celebrities! 
Clothes optional! 
Enough people showed up to clean the grounds and help with painting and plastering.  Nobody complained that I'd lied about the beer, the music, the door prizes and the celebrities.  And the clothes truly were optional.

The pool finally opened on July 30, two months late.

Seventeen years later, the deck and pool remain, a beautiful sight on a hot summer's day.  I'm proud of what we did.  The town of La Honda is a bit more gentrified these days, and the lovely pool is part of its appeal. 

Volunteering is another part of the La Honda way - as is a lingering fondness for outlaw culture.  It's how we get things done around here.  You just try not mess up.

Monday, June 20, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 171: Cracking the Pool (Part One)

June, 1994

La Honda, the small town where I live, is managed by an unpaid Board of Directors.  I volunteered to become Recreation Director (though I ended up as President for a while).  The outgoing Recreation Director,
an energetic young mother, briefed me on my duties running the swimming pool, the tennis court, the Fourth of July picnic.  She warned me: "You will find yourself making decisions for which you are in no way qualified.  Nobody will help you but somebody has to do it, and then everybody will criticize you afterwards."

She was right.  I knew absolutely nothing about swimming pools.  I dealt with a series of incompetent, surly, downright criminal employees.  One was on the take, one drunk, and one turned out to be an arsonist who would set fires and then show up as a hero volunteer firefighter to put them out.  The arsonist, when discovered, was dealt with privately and severely.  Nobody called the law.  As one of the old-timers explained to me, "We dealt with him the La Honda way." 

Eventually, we found a good maintenance man. 

In summer the swimming pool was the social center of La Honda.  It was the only activity we provided for kids.  On hot days, it was also the best way to cool off.  Nobody had air conditioning.

La Honda pool (foreground, right) circa 1920's

The La Honda pool had been built in the 1920's.  Unheated, summer-only, it was an irregular five-sided shape, poorly cleansed by ancient wheezing pumps with failing sand filters that leaked dirty powder into the water.  The tank would turn green with algae requiring periodic closures and shock treatments.  Leaves and dead bugs accumulated on the surface.  Vacuums broke down.  Teenage lifeguards had bursts of libido.  Parents would drop off non-swimmer kids and leave them unsupervised all day.  A pervert started bothering little girls underwater and had to be dealt with.  Babies pooped.  At night teens would break in and have parties.  A few midnight skinnydips took place (nobody complained, though some came to watch).  One winter a mud slide filled the bottom with twelve inches of dirt.  The diving board broke in half.  When I bought a new expensive board, the entire diving structure ripped loose from the concrete base and tumbled into the water on top of the overweight man who had bounced on it.

All the while, a county health inspector named Joe Miluso would hand me an ever-expanding list of what was wrong with the old pool.  The code violations were only tolerated because we were "grandfathered" into the system and because Joe, a truly nice man, couldn't bear the thought of closing us down. 

After 3 years of deterioration, lack of funding, and ignored warnings, in exasperation Joe Miluso asked me, "What can I do to help you get this pool fixed up?"

I didn't even have to think about it.  "Shut us down," I said.

With enthusiasm the inspector wrote a list of problems on an official-looking ticket which said if the pool was not in compliance by next year, he would not allow us to open.  With a wink, he handed it to me.

I presented the ultimatum to the town.  The response was electric: SAVE OUR POOL!  We had a town meeting, and suddenly $30,000 was allocated by the same people who previously would ignore the problems or plead poverty.  It was my political epiphany: to accomplish anything in politics, you first must manufacture a crisis.

I put the pool remodel out to bid and got quotes of $50-60,000.

On the advice - and promises to help - of several people in town, I came up with a plan to do it ourselves by cutting a few corners and using volunteer labor.  I, of course, would be the primary volunteer with help from John Lindstrom, another contractor in town.

The basic tank would remain the same.  The plan was to replace all the plumbing pipes, adding new water inlets and a better side gutter.  A new pump and filter would complete the job.

We couldn't do the work during the winter.  A basic bit of folk wisdom, handed down from one Recreation Director to another, was that you must not drain the pool over the winter (which is our rainy season) or else the hydrostatic pressure of the water-soaked ground will press against the concrete walls of the tank and possibly cause them to collapse.  You need the water in the tank to press back against the wet ground.  Nobody had ever tested this theory.  After all, would you want to risk being known as the person who destroyed the town swimming pool?  You might then be dealt with in "the La Honda way."

(Continued here...)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 170: Rockets

Saturday, June 19, 1993

When you raise kids to believe that they can build anything, there may be unintended consequences.  After Will constructed a model railroad but before he started crafting his own guitars, he passed through a different type of passion: rocket ships.  Basically, Will would go down to the basement and build pipe bombs with pinholes in the bottom.

They were amazing.  You could buy fuses for the bottom and a mini-parachute stuffed inside a nose cone that you could attach to your homemade bomb.  Will bought a rocket-launching pad, which is simply a rigid upright wire on a base to guide the rocket for its first few feet, along with a spark igniter with a hundred feet of wire.  He bought a legal rocket fuel that looked and smelled suspiciously like gunpowder.  He painted each pipe bomb with snazzy colors.  Somehow, he never blew up the house.

Ben with rocket
He launched a few at the playing field of the La Honda Elementary School (after hours), but there was some, um, concern about safety.  So on Saturday, June 19, 1993, we set off to Pescadero with Will's friend Ben, who was equally rocket-crazed.  We found an empty soccer field a couple miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.

These rockets don't start slowly like a moon launch.  They go off like a bullet.

Will's first launch went a half mile high.  As designed, the parachute popped open.  Immediately the wind caught and carried it across a field, over some trees and out of sight.  We searched among some strawberry fields but never found it.

This is the beauty of a rocket hobby - rapidly depleting inventory.  Also, a lot of healthy running and searching.

Ben was next.  His contraption was already dented and cracked.  Come to think of it, I don't know why I allowed him to launch.  Fortunately it didn't explode into high-velocity shrapnel but zipped along a curling path into the top of a tree where we couldn't reach it or hit it with stones. 

So far, the two rockets launched had been built from store-bought kits.  Next, Will launched an entirely home-made model of his own design.  It flew a series of loop-de-loops that had us running and dodging, and then finally it plowed into the earth.

Lastly, Will launched a two stage rocket which I had doubted would ever work.  It shot straight up and then seemed to pause for a moment.  Then the second stage ignited, and the first dropped to earth though nobody saw where it fell.  We were watching the second phase rising more than a half mile into a cloud of wispy white fog...  And it never came down, as far as we could see.  Weeks later, perhaps, somewhere in some strawberry field near Pescadero, a farmworker must have come upon a spent first stage and, much farther away, a second stage attached to a parachute.

Will with small rocket

It was a great day.  Will and Ben continued their rocket-building for a while, but gradually Ben was drawn to automobile engines while Will was drawn to music.  I'm not sure either of those new interests is any less dangerous than rockets to a young teenager.

Will and his friends formed a band - which included Ben for a while - and joyfully tackled any song that caught their fancy.  Within months, they were jamming, making it up as they went along.  Their music teacher, John Fuller, shook his head in wonderment.  "They have no fear," he said.

In music, as in everything else in his young life, Will believed he could make anything.  After handling gunpowder and dodging errant rockets, he would simply launch a guitar riff like a barely contained explosion and expect to somehow come out safely on the other side.  If he got lost, there were always more riffs he could build.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 169: Camping Out in a Half-built House

Monday, June 18, 1979

The shell of a house goes up quickly.  Then it seems to take forever to finish.  In 1979 my father-in-law joked, "Your children will never know what it's like to live in a finished house."  He was right.  I began working on the final room of the house in 2002 in preparation for my daughter's wedding and didn't complete all the details until 2008.  That's 29 years of construction.

By June of 1979 the house had exterior walls, rough plywood subfloors, and bare stud interior walls.  Scavenging from garage sales and the city dump, I furnished the interior with a couple of giant wooden cable spools and a few chairs.  I was doing construction jobs for other people while desperately carving out time to write a novel while raising two small children while grabbing a few spare hours to work on my own house.

A friend named Nick had just broken up with his girlfriend.  Wanting to focus his mind on something other than the breakup, Nick volunteered.  He was particularly interested in learning house wiring, so I gladly handed him my big Makita power drill with a half-inch bit.  Ironically, Nick was an electrical engineer, but his job involved micro-voltages.  After the first day of work, Nick said with dismay, "I didn't realize electricians spent so much time drilling holes."  He would soon learn that the other activity of electricians involves pulling Romex and driving staples.  It's vigorous physical labor.  Connecting wires comes at the very end.

For a week Nick worked for no pay other than beer and sandwiches.  To keep Nick on course, I took a week off from working for other people and concentrated on my own projects, such as hanging the exterior doors so that random people and raccoons would stop wandering in. 

On June 18 I hung the final exterior door - with lovely beveled glass from a garage sale - while Nick wired the hot water heater.  Now we had a house with lockable entryways, one flushable toilet, one claw-foot bathtub with hot water where we could wash dishes.  Such luxury!  There was no kitchen, no furnace, no electric lights and no privacy.  But on that day, it became our home.

We wouldn't make the final move until the end of the year, but already in the living room I could sit at the cable spool table with a pot of coffee and work on my novel.  In the dining room we could eat at the other cable spool table and wear goofy hats.

It's true that the kids never lived in a finished house, but they knew - instinctively, as kids do - how to make a home from what was at hand.  Even a cardboard box:

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 166: Soss Hinges - A Touch of Grace

Friday, June 15, 1984

Before I knew any better, I would take any job that paid.  Any style, any client.  Even Mrs. Mullenstein.  Her house in Los Altos was unlivable, a decorator's statement with major wallpaper and white carpets.  The glass furniture would be lethal to a child under the age of ten. 

My taste has always been for the rough and natural.  And kid-friendly.

Her teenage son had a bedroom the size of an auditorium, painted black.  Immaculately clean.  He had dark wood furniture, heavy drapes, a lamp made out of a giant vodka bottle.  The bed alone was larger than my son's entire bedroom.  On the ceiling was a mirror.  The kid was seventeen and had his own dark blue Mercedes convertible.

I was working in an alien land.

Peter the decorator was an import from San Francisco, 30 miles and an entire culture away from suburban Los Altos.  With a boyish smile, he looked slightly younger than Mrs. M's teenage son.  To my surprise, I liked him, though I hated his style.

Peter's plan called for remodeling the front entry.  Peter wanted smooth, uninterrupted walls with a barely noticeable closet.  What should be noticed was wallpaper.  Expensive, glossy wallpaper which had a well-deserved reputation for telegraphing any slight imperfection in the plaster beneath it.

Mrs. M told me first thing that she was a perfectionist.

I'm not an elegant guy.  Nor a perfectionist.  I enjoy a certain earthiness in a structure, an acceptance of the funky side of life.  I love natural wood.  My bias is for the strong, the competent, the long-lasting, the safe.  Within those parameters I try for touches of grace. 

In other words, I'm not a glossy wallpaper guy.  And I was so wrong for this job, this decorator, this client. 

But the closet was an interesting challenge.  I removed a conventional single door with a conventional knob, conventional hinges, and conventional wood molding surrounding the frame.  In place of the single, I installed flat double doors.  Instead of a doorknob, I installed touch latches.  Instead of wooden molding around the frame, I filled the gaps with smooth plaster to be covered by wallpaper.  Instead of conventional hinges with their exposed barrels, I installed Soss hinges.

A Soss hinge is a touch of grace.  Soss hinges are simple in concept and yet elegantly engineered.  They work smoothly and quietly, visible only when the door is open, anonymous when closed.  Up to this point, I'd never installed one.

The hard thing about double doors is mounting them to line up so that the edges meet at the same height and the perimeter has an even gap - and Peter wanted any gaps to be minimal.  With these doors surrounded by glossy unforgiving wallpaper, any unevenness would be glaring.

I did it right.  I got the doors aligned and even.  I gave them so much attention, I may have slacked off on finishing the plaster around the frame.

There's a good reason for door molding.  You can run drywall flush against a door jamb, but the wood and gypsum respond differently to changes in temperature and humidity.  In addition, opening and closing the door will put strains on the jamb and cause microscopic movement.  Cracks are inevitable.

When the wallpaper went up, the frame showed.  It was my (nearly impossible) job to prevent that.  I failed.

"I don't blame you," Mrs. M said.  "I blame Peter.  That silly child."  Another example of her bad judgement.  It was truly my fault, not his.  But she called me back for more jobs, and they were the type I do well.  I replaced a hideous light with an even more hideous one.  I repaired the garage door.  I repaired and refinished some outdoor furniture - sanding, scraping, rejuvenating - just my style.

After that, I never heard from Mrs. Mullenstein again. 

Life goes on in its messy way. 

A few years later working at another house, same street, I got an update. Mrs. M's son wrecked the Mercedes, ran into a few legal problems, entered rehab.  And - so I heard - the glossy wallpaper was still there. 

I asked about the Soss hinges, but the neighbor said she'd never noticed them.  Which is just right.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 165: Do Something

Friday, June 14, 1985

In a multimillion dollar dream house in Los Altos Hills I'm cutting holes in the ceiling, running wires, installing lights.  Don the owner is in and out, carrying golf clubs or a tennis racket.  He's about 25.  Pleasant-sounding women - of many voices - leave come-hither messages on his answering machine.  Held by a magnet to his refrigerator is a trade confirmation for 300,000 shares of Puget Sound Power and Light.  Big bucks.

Isabella the decorator drops by to check on my progress.  I ask her, "What does Don do?"

Isabella laughs, shrugs.  “Strange, isn’t he?  Somebody else asked me exactly the same thing.  ‘What does that man do?’”

When you talk to Don you understand in an instant that he's cheerful and smart.  He lives alone with five bedrooms and three baths.  Everything on his walls or in his shelves is new.  The man has no history.

So after discussing the placement of a light switch, I ask him: "Don, what do you do?"

"What do you mean?"

"Like, what kind of work do you do?"

"I don't work."  His tone is amiable but final.  He moves on.

I wasn't asking if he had employment.  I was asking what defines him.  Don is always in motion, always in contact with somebody or other.  To what point?

I will work for Don off and on for 20 years.  He will give no sign of involvement in charities or political causes.  He will show no interest in the arts.  No visible hobbies.  No projects like restoring an old car or growing a garden.  No obsession with women, though they seem endlessly available.  Nor men.  He will always appear good-humored and busy.  And single.  I will never find out what he does.

Everybody has to "do" something.  Don't they?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 163: A Daughter Named Porsche

Wednesday, June 12, 1985

On Interstate 280 I hear an odd fluttering from above the truck cab.  A shadow flies across the hood to the side of the highway.  It's a fiberglass panel.  At 65 mph, the wind peeled up the front end of a corrugated panel, creasing it at the tie-down, and snapped it off.  Pulling to the shoulder, I assess the damage.  Out of 10 panels, 2 are destroyed. 

At the job I install the 8 remaining panels as a translucent roof for a potting shed.  Mrs. Drewer, my client, is unhappy with the black tar I've used to seal the edge of the panels.  She wanted white, though she never said so.

Okay, it's a botch.  My fault for not tying the panels down better to the lumber rack of my truck.  My fault for not considering color for the sealant.  My fault for working shirtless in the hot sun and getting sunburned, and probably my fault for somehow twisting my knee while scrambling over rafters.

And then there's the matter of Mrs. Drewer's daughter, a lovely little 4-year-old who is playing with a hose.  "What's her name?" I ask.

Mrs. Drewer, in a bad mood from my mistakes, softens and begins to smile as she says in her British accent, "Her name is Porsche."

"Really?  You named your daughter after a car?"

Mrs. Drewer scowls.  "Portia.  As in Shakespeare."

I reduce the price, eat the cost of the 2 damaged panels that I have to replace, and just break even on the job. 

Hot with sunburn, sore of knee, I go to Anthony School where I'm taking a class to get ready to take my contractor's license exam.  On a practice test, I score 96%.  You only need 50% to pass the state exam.  The scorer says, "Wow, you’re really smart!  You’re the smartest student we’ve had in a long time!” 

Mrs. Drewer would disagree.

If a contractor could make a living filling in bubbles on multiple-choice tests, I’d make a good one.  In real life, the tests look a little different.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 162: Chopper Bicycle

Saturday, June 11, 1983

Garage sailing, I find what looks like a BMX bike with extra-strength wheels for $15.  It needs paint, padding, a kickstand.  Some bolts are loose.  Still, it's a $150 bike abandoned by a kid who rode it until he went off to college.  Among other items, I also buy a jigsaw puzzle map of the USA.

I call home, mentioning the bike to my wife, and then go to work for Bert. 

Before I figured out that working for Bert was on a moral plane with working for the Mafia, he used to send me a steady stream of small jobs.  I was inexperienced and inexpensive; Bert was a decorator seeking high profit with low standards.  We were a match.  Today, he wants me to fix a few things at his own house.

Bert has a mansion in Atherton.  Unlike the garbage he sells his clients, his own home combines luxury and good taste.  I hang a shelf, unclog a fountain, cut a lock off a slot machine he wants to keep in his den.  When I finish, Bert tries to cajole me into giving him a freebie.  Or at least a deep discount.  He comes on like a father figure.  "For cash, for friendship," he says.

We're not friends.  He's a referral source, not a father figure.  He's asking for a kickback.  By this point in our relationship, I've increased my skill set - and my prices.  Because of the steady jobs he sent me, I got a chance to practice and improve my craft.  I owe him for that.  But also he owes me for keeping my mouth shut when I've been caught in disputes between him and his clients, disputes caused by the fact that Bert, as his clients eventually discover, is a con man. 

Nothing irritates me quite like when rich people try to chisel me out of a few dollars.  For better or worse I quote Bert a straight price, no discount.  Politically unwise - and a bad business decision - but it feels good. 

Driving home, though, I begin to question myself.  I may have lost a steady source of business over a minor matter of personal integrity.

Back home I show Jesse the bike.  Right away he says he wants to paint it.  He's now six years old.  A year ago he restored my old red Raleigh bike when I had wanted to haul it to the dump.  He's still too small to ride it, but this BMX is just his size.

My wife tells me he was beside himself with excitement before I got home.  In my presence, he controls himself - but clearly he likes it.

Together we cut foam pads, tighten bolts, squirt oil.  I now see that it's a highly customized non-BMX bike, so I tell Jesse, "It's a chopper."

"Really?  Cool!" 

We find some old cans of spray paint in the garage, and Jesse blasts the wheels and frame.

It's such a surprise to watch your kids unfold.  Jesse, we're discovering, has a genetic love for bicycles, not just the riding but the mechanics, the work of metal and oil, the logic of machines. 

In the evening Jesse picks out a puzzle piece from the USA map.  Practicing what he's learned in first grade, he sounds out the letters.  A.  L.  A.  B...  Then looking very serious he says, “Daddy, this is Alabama.  At school we heard a story called 'Alabama and the Forty Thieves'.”

Sometimes I forget he's just six.

I did right with Bert.

Friday, June 10, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 161: An American Boy

Thursday, June 10, 1982

I've been remodeling a bathroom all week.  Today my saber saw breaks down, a shower rail collapses, and the toilet water supply won't fit for love or money.  Then while I'm carrying a heavy sheet of 3/4 plywood, the owner's dog suddenly runs up without bark or growl and bites my blue jeans.  Punctures the skin of my leg.

"Sorry," the owner says.  "He's spooked by plywood."


"He's a rescue dog."

As if that explains it.  Meanwhile it's High School Graduation Night for the owner's teenage son, and the house is filling with proud grandparents and in-laws while the son stands tall and awkward in a suit and tie which he clearly is not in the habit of wearing.

So now I'm driving home, wincing with each push of the clutch, feeling slightly sorry for myself, my sore leg, my small problems when I pick up a hitchhiker on our mountain road.  He has a backpack, a beard, and he has the breath of a brewery.

"I can take you as far as La Honda," I say.

"That's where I want to go," he says.  "I'm going back home."  He laughs.  "I was installing solar panels in Laytonville when a lot of heavy shit came down on me."

"That's too bad."

"I'm over it.  I'm going home." 

There's a code in what he's just told me.  Laytonville in those days was a hub of marijuana farming in northern California.  Solar panels were in great demand among folks growing illegal substance off the grid.  Tales of guns, outlaws, lawmen, "heavy shit" and high times were rampant.  You might hear similar stories about La Honda in the Sixties, though with different players, different substances.

The hitchhiker tells me where he grew up, which street, which house.  I tell him it's just a hundred yards from where I've been building my house. 

"So welcome to La Honda," he says, cackling.  "And the cocaine dealer across the street from you - with all those old Volvos - did your realtor tell you about him when you bought the place?"

"No.  But the dealer's gone now.  So are the Volvos."

"And did she - your realtor was a woman, right?  They all are, right?"  He cackles again.  "Did she tell you about Limey Kay?"

Limey lives up the street from me.  He's a bricklayer with a fondness for guns and alcohol.  "No.  I met him on my own."

The hitchhiker giggles - little hiccup burps.  "I bet you did.  Women are the realtors because they make all the money.  It's the men who get laid off.  I'm laid off.  My wife just kept on going.  Until I lost her."  He laughs, closing his eyes for a moment.  "And does Bobby Black still live in the house below you?"


"With four kids in a two room cabin?"

"Five kids, now."

The hitchhiker slaps the dashboard and laughs.  "And does Bobby still go off chasing UFO's?"

"I don't know."

"Me and him, we used to chase UFO's together."

"Did you catch any?"

"No."  Giggling.  "But Bobby, he still believes.  When we were about twelve, we used to hide in the bushes behind Ken Kesey's house and throw stones at him.  The Hells Angels used to chase us through the woods.  They can ride, but they can't run.  We knew all the hideouts."

"Sounds like you've always had a taste for adventure."

"I'm an American boy.  That's all.  Girls, they want to settle down.  I just lost my wife."

"I'm sorry you split up."

"She was killed in a car accident.  I'm coming home."

"I'm sorry.  I thought --"

"I know, I know.  Don't worry.  I'm over it."

"Maybe you're not."

"Okay, I'm not.  Who cares?"

I stop in front of the Post Office.  The hitchhiker gets out and grabs his backpack.  He staggers.  He's drunk as a skunk. 

I say, "Welcome back to La Honda."

"I'm home," he says.

And he's totally adrift.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 159: Sailing

Saturday, June 8, 1985

I used to call it "garage sailing" because that's how it felt, blown at random from one cluttered driveway to another on Saturday mornings.  On this day I score a three-piece suit (with pinstripes!) for $2 and a dress shirt for 50 cents.  Also a blender that turns out to be a piece of junk.  And, as always, I buy bags full of books. 

I drape the pinstripe suit carefully over the seat in the truck, drive on to the job wearing shorts and a T shirt, and am met by Rick, known as Rhino, the tile man who is wearing a brace on his twisted knee.  He's in dire pain and full of anger at me for dislodging seven tiles from his freshly-finished countertop yesterday.  He's balancing on a cane, barking orders at his assistant about how to replace the tiles, and says he's billing me for the damage.

Well, at least I didn't twist his knee.  He did that on his own time.

Next Kit, the high-drama decorator, goes over each kitchen cabinet that I installed yesterday while I was damaging tiles.  She finds three major dings, all of which she claims were caused by me.  Under the circumstances, it's hard to defend myself.

The client is tapping her foot, arms folded, glaring at me.

It feels as if I'm being stoned by a crowd.  So as penance I run ducting in the dusty attic on a hot afternoon while wondering why I work on weekends.  Why don't I just go garage sailing all day?

Back home, after a shower, just for the heck of it and to change the mood I dress in my new three-piece pinstripe suit for dinner with the kids, who think I look utterly bizarre, and then for a gathering of friends to play Trivial Pursuit.

My neighbor and I are on the same team.  We're losing.  The other team seems to know all things trivial, and we find our minds somehow blocked.  The more the other team guzzles the margaritas, the better they become.  Alcohol seems to open the brain to worthless information. 

Neither my neighbor nor I are fond of alcohol.  "But," he mentions, "one of my patients just gave me some terrific stuff." 

I haven't had any "stuff" since - let's see - since 1971 when I was living in San Francisco.  I gave it up because it was messing up my head. 

Maybe it would unblock the neurons.  Maybe I would become a Trivia Master.

We go outside to smoke it.  Can't let the kids see - just as in earlier times we couldn't let the grownups see.  I confide to my neighbor that I haven't touched the stuff in fourteen years.

"They make it stronger now," my neighbor warns, lighting up.

He isn't kidding.  I become so unblocked, I have to lie down.  It doesn't help my game any.  I can't focus on the trivia question.  Nor do I care.  My out-of-control mind is frightening, literally unnerving.  I tell myself to relax and enjoy the images like some bad but harmless movie, while at the same time aware that I will never touch this stuff again. 

And truly, it is pleasant.  No redemption here.  And no apology.  In a three-piece pinstripe suit after a long and crappy day, while the grownups inside drink margaritas and continue Trivial Pursuit, I lie on the boards of the deck outside my house as stars pass silently over the redwoods.  Sailing again.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 158: Slamming the Door

Monday, June 7, 1982

My truck breaks down.  I hitchhike.  An old pickup stops.  It's a junkyard composite with blue hood, red fender.  There are raw wounds in the seat.  The floor is bare metal, as is the dash.  For some reason, there's a toothbrush poking out of the ashtray.

The driver is thirtyish, short haired, clean shaven.  Younger than the truck.  He says, "Where you going?"

"Chevron station."

"What for?"

"Fan belt."

He nods.  I climb in and slam the door.

The young man says, “You didn’t have to slam the door.” 

“Oh.  Sorry.” 

“Everybody thinks you have to slam the door, but you don’t.” 


“I knew you were going to slam it.  Everybody thinks it’s such an old truck, they have to slam the door.” 


“I saw it coming before it happened.” 

“Listen - no offense - I always slam doors."

"Just because it’s old, it ain’t a piece of junk.” 

"It's my bad habit.  Honest.  In my own truck I always slam it.” 

"You have to respect a truck, or she won't work for you."


"That fan belt.  Is it for your truck?"


"See?  I told you."

(Note: This happened just as I describe it here.  I wrote it down in my journal the same day.  But I seem to vaguely recall a similar scene in a movie sometime.  Was this guy acting out some role on me?)

Monday, June 6, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 157: A Door with Beveled Glass

Wednesday, June 6, 1979

We're building a house.  We need a kitchen door.  At a garage sale we find a lovely one with beveled glass.  Clear fir, blessedly unvarnished.   The wood glows with a rich patina of hand-rubbed oil, nicely aged.

The seller wants $50.  In 1979, that's a lot of money for a garage sale door, even an antique such as this one.  Possibly I could haggle - as I often do - but somehow dickering seems disrespectful for such a nice old door.  Which is weird, but it's how I feel.   

Driving away, I start berating myself.  Why didn't I at least make an offer?

We've already spent our small savings throwing up the shell of the house.  Now we're finishing it with salvage, recycled wood, and the occasional yard sale bargain.  Fifty dollars seems like a fortune.

I tell my wife, "Whoever built that door had the good sense to choose just the right touch of elegance and restraint.  The molding around the window - did you notice?  It's beautifully crafted and yet it's simple.  It respects the wood.  It's exactly how I'd do it myself."

"So go back and buy it," she says.

"It'll be gone.  People were all over those doors.  Did you notice on one corner of the glass somebody put a little flower decal?  It seems so right."

"So go back and see."

But I don't go back. 

It haunts me.  The one that got away.  I hate it that I have to be so cheap.

Three days later, working into the evening, I install a sink for one of my favorite clients, a jolly man in East Palo Alto.  It's a high-end Kohler sink for his shabby little kitchen.  I ask if he's ready to upgrade the rest of the room.  "One step at a time," he says.  "Unfortunately, I have champagne taste on a beer budget."

So have I.  With the $85 he just paid me in cash, I return to the bungalow where the door was for sale.  It's 9 p.m.  The guy answers my knock wearing pajamas.  He looks annoyed.  "Who are you?  I was just going to bed."

"You had a door for sale last Saturday.  With beveled glass.  By any chance do you still have it?"



"I had some low offers, but I just couldn't sell something so nice to somebody who was trying to beat down the price.  It just wouldn't be right."

Sometimes it's not only what you buy.  It's how you buy it.  

For 32 years that wonderful door has been my kitchen entry, a portal for 3 children and 6 dogs who have slammed and scratched and chewed.  One dog in particular has chewed it to smithereens. 

Raising a family can wear out a door.  The flower decal is still there.  So is the karma. 

One day soon, I'll take that door off its hinges and rebuild the molding.  I'll sand and restore the finish.  I owe it that.

Friday, June 3, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 154: Wristwatch on a Dresser

Wednesday, June 3, 1998

It's a townhouse of recent vintage.  So far I've replaced a water-damaged ceiling in the front room while doing a complete makeover of the rear master bedroom.  Working with Kit, who is not my favorite decorator, we've installed soft lighting, crown molding, sconces over the bed.  The desired effect, Kit tells me, is to be gentle, nonthreatening.

"What was threatening about the room before?" I ask.

"She woke up one morning and her husband was dead.  Twenty-nine years old and a blood clot.  Ever since - and it's been months - she's slept in the front room.  Even when the roof leaked, she stayed there.  Our job is to entice her back.  She wants to go back.  Same bed but new sheets, new spread.  New drapes, paint, carpet.  With his wristwatch on the dresser.  That stays.  And don't you dare touch it.  Don't even look at it or she'll know.  Everything else, calming.  She's very particular.  High strung."

Kit may be the wrong decorator if the goal is tranquility.  Kit is a hard-charging, high-stress overseer.  Every job for her comes with drama.  To her clients she's sweet.  To workers, she's foul of mouth and mind.

Kit is petite but not cute, fashionably styled but not lovely.  Once I made the mistake of teasing her, calling her "macho" because she carried a 25-foot tape measure instead of the dainty kind most decorators use.  She blew up at me and said, "I don't have to take shit from a guy who wears flannel shirts and corduroy pants." 

Sometimes she flirts with me, confiding secrets about her clients or telling me about her teenage daughter who is always in trouble requiring bail bonds and rehab.  The daughter lives with Kit's ex. 

Kit is nakedly honest about money.  She has a penchant for analyzing her clients' marriages in purely economic terms: "She got a dream deal with that guy," or "She should have aimed higher."

Kit is complicated, brassy, insecure.  I think she's lonely but there's a hardness about her, a barrier to entry.

Without touching, I do sneak a look at the wristwatch.  It's nothing fancy, a Casio, one of those rugged, black, oversized kind meant to withstand mountain climbing or deep sea diving.

Kit brings Rusty, the client, to see the results.  Rusty is gorgeous, a redhead, the kind of looks that stop traffic. 

Rusty has a weak handshake, quickly withdrawn.  She wears no lipstick, no eye shadow.  Up close her skin is dusty, dry.

Rusty glances around.  Her nose quivers.  And she rushes out of the room.

I hear murmuring as Kit speaks with her outside.  Then Rusty vrooms away in an ancient silver Porsche convertible that must be about as old as she is .  She wears wrap-around sunglasses.  Hair flying.  What a sight.  Great beauty doesn't protect you from bad luck, from grief.

"We have to replace the door pulls on the closet.  I hadn't thought of that."  Kit doesn't seem perturbed.  Never-ending jobs mean never-ending fees.  Kit has some high-end pulls in mind, little sculptured figures that cost $130 each.  She'll need four of them.

I ask, "Why doesn't she just move?"  It's a cookie cutter townhouse in a complex of similar units built wall-to-wall.  Nobody can get attached to these places.

"Moving would be disloyal."  Kit shakes her head.  "She got life insurance.  I don't know how much, but she's not poor.  Men swarm around her like flies.  We should all have such problems.  Her cunt's worth a fortune.  I'm sorry she lost her husband that way.  I know it was a shock.  But really."  Kit laughs.  "To get rid of my husband, I had to divorce him.  And I didn't get a penny.  Or a wristwatch."

She sees the look on my face, whatever it is.

"I'm just joking," Kit says.  But she isn't.

Four Dog Riot is fixed

On May 23 I posted a notice that there was a problem downloading Episode 13 for people in Europe and Africa.

The problem is now fixed.  All episodes of the podcast are now downloadable anywhere on Planet Earth.

If you previously downloaded Episode 13, and it ended abruptly after 5 minutes, please download it again.  It should run for 39 minutes and 47 seconds.

Sorry about that.  There was a clunky server somewhere.

It's a big job managing a worldwide empire of podcasts...

Thursday, June 2, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 153: Doctors

Tuesday, June 2, 1987

First stop of the day is at the office of Red, a psychiatrist with a big butt (as he will be the first to tell you).  His patients keep stealing the art work from his waiting room.  I hang an Ansel Adams print with a special frame that can be locked to the wall.

Next stop is Red's house, where he has a one-year-old daughter.  I had a small walk-on part in the birth story of that child.  Today Red wants me to get his pool pump working.  It takes several hours tracing convoluted underground conduit to find a buried unmarked junction box, where a wire has broken. 

When I finish, Red says, "I'd like to show you something."  He leads me to a bathroom which I rewired a couple months ago, work for which he's never paid.  He points at some wires that I ran behind a piece of molding leading to a multi-globe set of lamps over the sink.  After I completed the wiring, a mirror was installed over the sink (by somebody else) which reflects the wires that I'd hidden behind the molding.  It's complicated to describe, but the essential fact is that the mirror has exposed my hidden wires to view.

"It looks like cowshit," Red says.  "I'd feel like a wimp if I didn't tell you that."

"Sorry," I say.  "I should've realized the mirror would do that."

"That's why I haven't paid you.  I was working up the courage to tell you."

"I'll fix it now."

"No, I'll put some more molding over it.  And now I can pay you.  I feel fine.  I just had to say that."

He pays me.

Now I'm the one who feels like cowshit.  He's been mad at me for a couple of months, and I had no idea.  Why did he need to build up his courage to tell me I'd made a mistake?  Is it against the rules for a shrink to criticize people?  Like the patient who is a kleptomaniac, am I supposed to realize the problem myself?  Only, I suppose, if I want to do it better.

My next stop is the house of Dr. Leuwenstein.  I don't know his first name.  He's one of those people who introduces himself over the phone - and again at the front door of his house - as "Doctor Leuwenstein."  Meanwhile he addresses me by my first name.

I'm to replace a security light over his garage.  First, of course, I shut off the power.  At the top of a ladder as I touch the fixture, the big 150 watt floodlight explodes with a POP shooting tiny shards of glass and a puff of white dust into my hands and face.  What the hell was THAT?

Shaken, I climb down the ladder.  My fingers leave bloody prints on each rung as I descend.  Dr. Leuwenstein is standing at the bottom.  He asks, "What did you do?"

"I barely touched it.  Is my face bleeding?"

He looks closely, squinting.  "No, just your hands.  Lucky you wear safety glasses."

I don't usually.  Today my contact lenses were irritating my eyes, so I'd taken them out.  Who would think I'd need safety glasses to remove a light bulb?

"Come inside," he says.  "I'll fix you up."

I follow Dr. Leuwenstein to his bathroom, where he tells me to wash my hands and pat them dry.  Then he wraps a couple of Band-Aids around my fingers.

I ask, "Are you a medical doctor?"

"Yes.  But I won't charge you."  He laughs.  "Unless you need an x-ray."

I find out later that he's a radiologist.

Returning to work, I replace the fixture and add a row of outlets so he can have a shop in his garage.  For an afternoon's work, with materials the charge comes to $264.

Dr. Leuwenstein raises his eyebrows, studying the bill.  "We all have our specialties," he says.  Then he writes a check.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 152: Kids and Sawdust

Thursday, June 1, 2000
Some kids are drawn to sawdust. 
And hammers.
And saws.

They grow up building things.  Shelves. 

Go carts.  


This day, June 1, 2000, both of my sons presented projects at school.  Jesse worked with a team of graduate students at Stanford redesigning an automated cow-milking machine.  It was their final project before receiving their Master's degrees.  The team, known as the Cowboys, put their work on display (without cows) in the hallowed halls of the Stanford Engineering Department.  For refreshments, of course, they served milk and cookies.  I don't have a photo of the machine, but I do offer proof that Jesse brought to the project a history of actual hands-on experience (the only team member to do so). 

On this same day Will, a musician, presented a 10-string electric mandolin that he built as a senior project in high school.  It was his own design.  He'd already built two electric guitars and an electric bass, each of his own original design, each an experiment and a learning process. 

Necks thin (left) and thick (right)
I tried to help Will build his first guitar.  He was in eighth grade.  My bias as a carpenter is to overbuild everything - better safe than sorry - so I decided to improve on his plans by cutting the neck 3/16 inch thicker than he'd drawn it.  As a result, whenever any musician picks up that guitar, the first comment is always: "The neck is too thick."  I play guitar myself, so I should have known better.  The thickness is crucial because you wrap your fingers around the neck to form chords.  I ruined his guitar.  Bad daddy.  Since then, I don't try to help.

Two independent boys who like to get their hands dirty and create original designs.  Am I proud of them?  You bet.

It all starts with freedom to play and to build, a grounding in the real world (with real cows), a childhood lived in sawdust.