Monday, November 28, 2011

365 Jobs: The Chris Craft Cure

Tuesday, November 28, 1994

Isabella, my favorite decorator, calls and says, "I need you right away to install cable in my bedroom so Henry can watch TV in bed."  Henry is her husband.

"That's an emergency?" I ask.

"Yes.  On Thanksgiving morning he woke up blind.  He thought he must be dreaming.  Then he tried to touch his eyes because he thought they might have disappeared or something.  He didn't blink because he couldn't see his fingers coming, so he touched his eyeballs.  I drove him to the hospital which was a trip because he likes to sleep cool and he was so angry and upset that he wouldn't let me dress him.  So I walk him across the front yard and get him in the car and of course he won't even put on a seat belt so I throw a blanket over him and he starts thrashing and I drive this naked old blind man in the front seat of my car to the hospital without a seat belt and you know I'm a fanatic about seat belts.  It was a stroke.  A mild stroke.  His eyes still work but his brain lost the pathway."

There are pathways in Isabella's brain that seem to get lost, too.  As she says, sometimes she's "totally blond."  Other days, she's simply smart.  If you were to divide the world into Yes and No, Isabella is a Yes person.  Today, though, she's understandably flustered.

I ask, "Are you okay?"

"Do I sound okay?  I'll be okay if you'll come over today and install the cable."

"Can Henry see now?"

"No, I told you, he's blind as a bat."

For some reason I say, "Bats can see."

"And so will Henry as soon as you install the cable."

An hour later I'm at their house, letting myself in.  Isabella and Henry are at the hospital. 

It doesn't take long.  My drill bit hits the wall cavity on the first try, and I stuff the cable through the hole.  I know their crawl space by heart.  I do small jobs at Isabella's house for free in exchange for all the work she sends my way.

That night, Isabella calls.  "Thank you," she says.  "He's sort of starting to see.  It's the powerboat races."

Henry loves powerboats, especially old wooden Chris Crafts.

1928 Chris Craft Cadet (from Wikipedia)
Isabella continues: "He couldn't stand it that he couldn't see the boats, so he reorganized his brain.  That's what you have to do after a stroke."

Medical science, as filtered through Isabella and implemented by me, has restored Henry's sight.  

"Call me if you need anything," I say.

"Yes," Isabella says.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Review: A Carpenter's Life by Larry Haun

I wish I’d known Larry Haun.  From his writing he comes across as one of those spry, sometimes cranky, remarkably ageless carpenters you meet from time to time who love their work and understand the deeper meaning of their craft.  Best of all, his passion was for creating durable, practical housing.  Not McMansions.  Not ego-castles.  Just shelter, a basic human need.

Here’s the purpose of the book in Larry’s own words:

I can’t help but wonder about the relationship between people and their homes.  How do these vastly different dwelling places affect the people who live there?  How have I been shaped by the houses I’ve lived in?  Who and what would I be if I’d been born in an upscale mansion or a shack by the river? 

His knowledge of practical housing came first hand.  In western Nebraska his mother grew up in a sod house and later taught in a straw bale school.  Larry worked as a production framer in the 1950’s tract housing boom in Los Angeles at a time when production framing was just being invented.

Larry avoids the cult of exquisite wood craft.  He used power saws and drywall and makes no apology.  At the same time he cares about sustainability and green values while laughing at the self-canceling concept of a 10,000 square foot house that was certified “green.”

In A Carpenter’s Life he discusses twelve houses in twelve chapters, from his mother’s “soddy” to the quonset huts he built during World War Two to post-war tract houses to Habitat for Humanity houses to his own small, simple house in which he raised a large family.  Most interesting are his personal experiences with each form of construction.  Least interesting are his occasional sustainable ecology rants, which become a bit too frequent near the end of the book.  Not that I disagree with him.  It’s just that if you’re reading his book, most likely you’re already among the converted.

Larry Haun
There are photos and drawings, but this is not a glossy book about glossy houses.  If you’re seeking a holiday gift for a non-glossy carpenter (and, ahem, you’ve already given my own book Clear Heart), you might give A Carpenter’s Life.  I doubt if it’s in many stores.  I ordered my copy through Amazon, and here’s a link if you want to do the same.

For more information, there’s a glowing review of the book here in the New York Times.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving Poem

Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving Day is
     for lizards that scuttle over logs,
     big-bellied spiders that creep in my woodpile,
     fungus that forms a bright wedge of slime.
Thanksgiving Day is
     for life in every corner,
     wet cells sucking nourishment, giving birth,
     teeming through every grain of earth.

We drink water once swallowed by Jesus,
breathe atoms once blown by Buddha,
share the light of stars
     with unknown beings
     on undiscovered planets.
For this light, this water and air,
     this brotherhood
     of countless souls
I give thanks.

I wrote this poem after visiting my wet woodpile on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1982.  I showed the new poem to a friend and was shocked when he said it was "dark" and "creepy."  I meant it as a celebration of life.  Most of my firewood consists of construction scraps from something I was either building or demolishing — and then burning.  The same atoms, cycling endlessly...

(Update: I was going to post the poem on Thanksgiving Day, but at the last moment once again I thought it would be too dark and creepy.  In the light of a new day — and much too late — here it is.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Diary of a Small Contractor

Monday, November 3, 1986

All day
shaping lumber with a
clear heart.
I've built a cabinet and a laminated-wood countertop: cutting, gluing, clamping, sanding.  A pleasure.  Now, just before bed, I want to apply a first coat of finish.

To many woodworkers, the use of polyurethane is a mortal sin.  I'm sympathetic.  In fact, my favorite wood finish is good old tried-and-true linseed oil, a 100% natural product.  But tonight I'm finishing a bathroom countertop which will be under constant assault.  I'm going with poly. 

A long time ago I used poly-euw (as we call it) for some other project.  I ended up with half a quart unused, so I poured it into a jelly jar and screwed the lid down tight.  Air tight.  Exposure to air, of course, makes poly harden.

Now the lid is frozen to the jar.

As a child I learned a trick from my mother: she used to open the stuck lids of food jars by tapping the handle of a butter knife along the outside of the lid, glancing blows in the direction she wanted it to turn.

Mother knows best.  In the basement where I'm working, I don't have a butter knife handy but I do happen to have a 22 ounce framing hammer in my tool belt. 

Tap.  Tap.  A few glancing blows on the lid. 

It still won’t come off.  I rotate the jelly jar in my hands, tapping.  I make dents in the lid, but it just doesn't —


Broken glass in my hand.  Poly-euw all over my clothes, the worktable, the radial arm saw, the basement floor.  Poly-euw mixed with blood.  Sticky.  Smelly.  Gooey.  Unwashable.



“I can’t do the poly tonight,” 


“I just broke the jar.”


“I was just trying to open it.”

“With what?”

“A framing hammer.”

Bless her, she keeps a straight face.

Stripping off my shirt and pants, I throw them in the trash.  Rose wipes and then binds my hand with gauze and tape.  Then I go directly to bed. 

Maybe it's a message from the wood sprites.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lit Night in La Honda

On the last Wednesday of every month, we hold Lit Night in La Honda.  We meet in the bar of the Cafe Cuesta (formerly Sullivan's) for beer, wine, dinner and audience-friendly words.  I'll be reading as usual, along with a mix of pro and amateur writers.  Poetry (including the always-popular cowboy poetry), amazing stories, and the occasional one-person drama.  For the folks in Australia and Slovenia, I'm giving you extra advance notice this time.  Y'all come!

365 Jobs: Peace and Love and Wall Thermostats

Diary of a Small Contractor, Day 23

Wednesday, October 29, 1986

An early morning consult.  Taylor is an intense, speedy young man in blue jeans and a black mustache.  In less than an hour we plan about $2000 worth of small projects in his glorious house, a beam-and-stone castle with a broad view over Silicon Valley.  Whenever I name a price, Taylor immediately says "Okay" so quickly that I wonder if he heard it.  He gives me a business card: he's an electrical engineer, a manager at Hewlett Packard.  By my reckoning he's about 24 years old in a ten-room house with no wife, no kids.  King-size bed. 

Standing in the driveway we agree to a timetable for the work.  Taylor zooms off in a shiny black Porsche.  Hesitating for a moment under the quiet redwoods, I can see sunlight glinting off tiny windshields on a fabric of highways from Palo Alto to San Jose.  A whole world is zooming off.

It's 1986; I'm 39 years old.  I've just bought my first computer, a Mac Plus.

From Taylor's tony estate, next stop is Sonny’s bungalow right next to the rush and rumble of the Bayshore Freeway.  Lovely red-haired sparkle-eyed Lorraine, Sonny's wife, is dealing with a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son.  Lorraine says she always thought she wanted seven children, but now she’s wavering.  “But don’t tell Sonny.  The minute I show the slightest doubt, he’ll run out and get a vasectomy.”

In one long day I install a sink, a faucet, a garbage disposer, a dishwasher, a vent fan, plus switches and outlets.  Sonny arrives at the end.  He's been out installing doors — his niche.  I tell him the parts cost a hundred dollars.  From his wallet he whips out a hundred dollar bill.

Sonny can’t stand to have anyone do favors for him.  This was an even trade, and he knows it, but still he won’t let me leave without giving me a screwdriver, a bran muffin, a cup of coffee.  Sonny is probably the most generous person I've ever met.  He's also a hardworking hippy, if you can handle such a combination of terms.  Sonny is part of a whole cadre of hardworking, hardplaying freaks in the crafts.  After the Haight came the diaspora.  They learned skills, found niches, and held onto their values.

From Sonny’s, next stop is an apartment complex near Stanford University.  Most of the residents are foreign-born students along with their spouses and sometimes their grandparents.  They don’t know how to use garbage disposers or dishwashers, and as the maintenance guy I end up performing some very simple repairs while trying to teach non-English-speaking housewives from Thailand and Paraguay and Nigeria how to use an American kitchen.

It’s dark when I arrive at the apartments.  Everyone is cooking dinner.  I smell rice frying here, pork baking there.  One of the units has “an electrical problem.”

It’s a bad light bulb.

Another unit has a "broken heater."  It's turned off.  I try to teach a Croatian-speaking grandmother how to operate the wall thermostat.

I'm not sure she gets it, but she seems satisfied.  She gives me something that looks like stuffed grape leaves.

It's 7 p.m.  I've been working since 7 a.m.  It's the era of Ronald Reagan.  The Fox Network has just launched.  I drive through rain to pick up 4 gallons of milk at a Menlo Park supermarket where, selecting vegetables, there is a lovely young couple.  Menlo Park, by the way, is the headquarters of Sunset Magazine.  Back home, on the Mac Plus I write this:

He wears an ill-fitting gown   
in this Sunset Magazine town.
She's dressed as a peasant.
The effect is pleasant
and flamboyant in this middle class store
of homeowners writing checks, wanting more.
This couple wants less.

Her hair needs care.
His beard is straggly, partly bare.
Age: about nineteen,
faces fresh, eyes keen.
The decade of their birth
was a struggle on Planet Earth.

In this cornucopia of Wonder Bread and Froot Loops
they choose rice, wheat germ, and chocolate soup.
On one hand he wears an embroidered glove.
What does he know of the Sixties, the Summer of Love?
Naive, laughed-at, sincere. . .

. . . back then, it was me
cruising the ghetto A&P
in paisley and sandals
for peace lighting candles
and what I mean is, God bless you, young couple
as your bubble of idealism washes down
a sea of weary shoppers in a too wealthy town.
My cart fills with yogurt and imported beers.
Somehow we saved the planet these nineteen years.
So much we learned!
Now it's your turn.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

I wrote that poem 25 years ago.  The Menlo Park supermarket is now a Safeway so vast you can get lost in it.  The young couple of 1986 would now be age 44.  Perhaps they have children, teenagers.  The Sixties are four decades gone, a time as distant and unreal to a present-day teenager as the Roaring Twenties were to me.  

Much of the world becomes middle class.  We are wealthy but feel poor.  We live better than medieval kings — better food, softer beds, longer lives.  In every castle we have music and jesters at the push of a button.  We have dishwashers, garbage disposers and wall thermostats.  Do we want more?

So much has changed.  And so little.

Friday, November 11, 2011

365 Jobs: Good Craftsmanship is the Lack of Botch

Diary of a Small Contractor, Days 17 and 18

Saturday, October 18, 1986

Surrounding the ultra-wealthy center of deep Woodside lies a territory that is merely well-off and sometimes, on the periphery, downright normal.  Today I'm in shallow Woodside working for normal people, spiffing up some closets. 

Magda is a chainsmoker, a “financial advisor” whatever that is — a tough-looking woman whom I wouldn't want to cross.  Her house is set on stilts clinging to a steep hillside.  The structure is solid but small.  The bathroom has been remodeled and is a knockout.  The bedrooms are plain.  The kitchen is an eyesore, poorly laid out.  The living room is falling apart, awaiting a remodel.  They seem to be upgrading the house piece by piece as money allows.

For Magda I install two sets of sliding mirror doors.  Easy.  Takes less than an hour, and I do a perfect job.  In this case, a perfect job is one that nobody will ever notice — the absence of botch. 

Next, Magda wants me to install a pair of birch doors on a sliding track for another closet.  These doors are solid core, heavy, easily scratched, difficult to carry without banging into something.  I install the track, the rollers, take meticulous measurements.  I place towels over sawhorses, scribe my cuts with a knife to prevent chipping, slide my power saw over paper to prevent rub marks on the wood.  After three cautious hours, the doors are hung — and one is nearly an inch shorter than the other.

Sacré bleu!

I had meant to trim 7/16 inch off each door.  Instead, I trimmed the same door twice!

So I have to trim the other door 7/8 inch too short, which means I have to lower the track that suspends them, which means I’ll have to buy and install a wider apron to hide the track, and I’ll have to eat the cost for time and material.  The doors would’ve looked better with the extra inch.  And I was so careful! 

So far Magda's husband, Kerry, has spent the entire day on the sofa flipping channels on Saturday afternoon television — a football game, an old movie, a panel interview, a standup comic.  Magda's gone out, so I tell Kerry I need to discuss a small problem with the doors.  From the sofa Kerry waves me off and says, “I’ll never drink again.  Until next time.”

A few minutes later, Magda returns.  I tell her we need to discuss the doors.  Without waiting for an explanation, Magda stomps to the bedroom and pushes the wooden doors along the track. 

"Why do they stick?" she asks.  "They're too hard to push."

Aha.  She hasn't even noticed the door length. 

"That's a light-duty track and roller set," I say. 

She frowns.  "It's what they gave me at the door store." 

"For solid core doors, they should have given you heavy-duty track and rollers."

"I'll get them," Magda says.  "And I'll give that salesman a piece of my mind."

I pity that man.  But I benefit from his mistake.  At least for a while.

Tuesday, October 21, 1986

When I return, Magda has the new heavy-duty track and new wheels for the closet door that I botched — and she still hasn't noticed that they're nearly an inch short.

To my delight, the new track and wheel combination requires nearly an inch more space.  My botch is perfect!  The doors are pre-trimmed!

Magda also asks me, as long as I’m there, to try to make some recessed lights fit into her ceiling.  I say okay.  She goes off to work and leaves me a bakery roll and a cup of coffee.  Nice lady.  Seems tough as nails at first.  But nice.

Whoever installed the recessed lights didn’t cut large enough holes for them.  His error becomes my pay.  I spread a dropcloth, remove the cans, resaw the holes, replace the cans, pick up the dropcloth, clean up some dust that settled on the floor.  Like most craftsmanship, in this case doing it right means doing nothing showy or creative — nothing you'd notice — it means simply the lack of botch, followed by a good cleanup.

It takes four hours to do the additional chores.  All billable.

Sometimes, everything works out.