Tuesday, December 4, 2012

365 Jobs: Custom Electric Mandolin, Old Growth Redwood Closet Trim

December 4, 2012

It's a simple closet, 3' wide and 2' deep.  I'm adding shelves and re-painting because — in my empty nest — I'm re-purposing my son's old bedroom into a sewing room/guest bedroom. 

My son Will, who is now 30, left his favorite bear behind, along with a couple of instruments he built.  That's an electric guitar on the left with the humbucker pickup and Will's version of a sunburst finish.  It's the second guitar he ever built (at the age of 13).  On the right is an electric mandolin which Will built as a seasoned old luthier at the age of 18. 

The mandolin is unique, an experiment built as a senior project in high school for which he received a B minus for some bullshit reason.  Not sufficiently challenging or something.  CHALLENGING?  I mean, jeez, at high school, how many kids design and build their own one-of-a-kind electric mandolin?  I think actually Will got the B minus for being, at a prestigious academy, the only kid with dreadlocks, just as the police used to stop him for Driving With Dreadlocks.  I confess, he did look sort of like a pineapple.

Will didn't care about the B minus, but he was never satisfied with the instrument's timbre or the sheer weight, so here the custom-built mandolin sits in my closet.  I'm damn proud of it.  And proud of my son, who likewise is one-of-a-kind.  (Here's a sample of his music, if you're interested.)

But I digress.  This is a post about a closet.  Specifically, the closet trim.  In 1979 I salvaged a pile of 1x12 siding from a garage that had been built around 1932.  After de-nailing, ripping, planing, sanding, staining, I had these lovely old boards for the cost of a few sanding belts plus days and days of hard labor.  Some of that lumber was old-growth redwood with tight vertical grain. 

I was totally poor back in 1979 when I was building my house, so salvage was an economic necessity, not a philosophy.  (Now — these days — like James Adams, salvage is my creed.)

And here's the thing: 34 years later, as I'm prepping to repaint the interior of that closet, I stick my head in there and discover that I trimmed the inside.  I mean, this isn't a walk-in closet.  Nobody was ever going to see it from the inside.  I could have simply butted the drywall to the jamb or used some of that thin cheapo trim like they use in the tracts (when they use trim at all).  But no, I used my lovely salvaged ancient redwood where nobody would see.  Not the best pieces, apparently, as you can see from the wide grain and from the knothole at the top of the vertical casing.  But, still, each piece was precious for the perspiration that went into it.

A pleasant surprise.  Here's proof that 34 years ago I was crazy enough to bring beauty to the inside of a closet that no one would see.  And then I'd forgotten all about it, just as Will has forgotten about that insanely beautiful mandolin that he built with such care, such pride, such goofy hair.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

365 Jobs: The Karma of Plumbing

May 1979 to November 1989

Some background:  In May of 1979 I installed a gas cooktop for a man named Greg who had an incredible estate in Los Altos.  He had a tennis court, pool, brick walkways, a lovely wife, two blond munchkins, a golden retriever, and a mansion covered with ivy.  He was a Xerox salesman, and he must have sold those copiers by the truckload.

I had to extend a gas pipe the entire length of the house through the crawlspace.  When I finished late in the day, Greg asked if I would double-check all the fittings because his wife was terrified of leaks. 

I was charging by the hour, so the longer the job lasted, the more I earned.  But…  I was exhausted.  Crawling the length of that house was like doing 62 pushups.  Already on the first pass I'd connected each joint firmly and tightly. 

"I already double-checked," I lied.  Unforgivable.  I never lie.  And yet I lied.  Exhaustion is no excuse.

Half a year later in October of 1979 I got a call from Greg.  He was furious.  After continually, faintly smelling gas he'd called a plumber named Bruno to check it out.  "Bruno said you did it all wrong."

"Could I talk to Bruno?"

Greg gave me the number.  I called Bruno and asked what I had done wrong.

Bruno had a German accent: "One of the joints was wrapped in Teflon tape.  You can't use Teflon on gas pipe."

"I know I can't do that.  Just one joint?"

"That's right."

"You told him I did everything wrong."

"I may have exaggerated."

I never use Teflon tape, so I don't know how I happened to use it there, but anyway Bruno had charged more to fix that one mistake than I had charged to plumb the entire line.  Greg hadn't asked for reimbursement — I think he just wanted to yell at me — but I sent him a refund check: a day's pay.  A day of crawling, for nothing

Could've been worse.  At least I didn't blow up the place.

More background:  Eight years later, in 1987 I remodeled a kitchen for a depressed, and depressing, woman named Jacqueline M.  Even in her sadness, Jacqueline was a gourmet French cook.  She treated me to exquisite pastries.  Always stiff and formal, she'd sit straight-backed in a chair flipping through cookbooks, pouting and moping and watching me work.  Probably I'm flattering myself, but she may have entertained a fantasy of boinking the plumber.   

A few weeks later, Jacqueline called and told me that her kitchen had flooded.  The plumber she'd called, a man named Bruno, said I'd kinked a drain line on the dishwasher, causing it to overflow and ruin her floor. 

"Did he say I did it all wrong?"

"No, just the one kink.  He said otherwise everything looked great."

Her insurance would cover it, so she wasn't asking for anything.  She just thought I'd want to know.  She didn't seem angry.  Or sad.  Maybe Bruno had fulfilled her fantasy.  At least he wasn't badmouthing anymore.

Okay, enough background:  Now it's 1989, the Monday before Thanksgiving.  I get a call from a woman named Ingrid for some plumbing repair.  She says I was recommended by her friend Jacqueline M.  (Which makes me wonder: Are they enemies?)  Ingrid has the same address, and the same last name, as Greg.  Oh my gosh. 

I take the job.  What will happen when her husband sees me?  Will he attack?  Will he send me away?

When I show up, men with jackhammers are removing concrete around the swimming pool.  There are soccer balls in the ivy and cleats by the door.  The munchkins have grown.

Greg isn't there.

Ingrid is a touchy/bouncy type.  She says a man was working on their plumbing this week, and then the shower and sink faucets stopped dead.

Jokingly I say, "What was his name?  Bruno?"

"Yes.  That was the man.  Bruno."

Plumbing is a small world.  I say, "You should make him fix this."

"I don't want him back.  He said something indiscreet.  About a friend."

About Jacqueline?  Did they boink?  I don't ask, and maybe it was just something he saw, but I'm thinking: As a plumber, you not only enter people's houses.  You enter their deepest cabinets.  Under the sink, behind the toilet, over the tub.  You enter their lives. 

Bruno entered.  Then he blabbered.  What an asshole.

Ingrid's shower and faucets were clogged with debris.  Bruno should have flushed the line after making his repair.  I say nothing about his fundamental mistake.  No badmouthing.  This circle is now complete.

Ingrid is delighted.  She bounces up and down.  "I can wash my hair!"  (She already looks great.)

I leave a bill and a business card.  Will her husband recognize and remember my name?  We’ll see.  This is Tuesday.

Wednesday night I get a call from Ingrid.  The men with jackhammers shut off the water to work on the pool, and now it won't go back on.  Could I come back on Friday?


Friday, Greg greets me at the door.  I say hello.  Greg says, "I had seventeen guests yesterday for Thanksgiving dinner, and no water." 

He shows not a flicker of recognition.  To him I'm just a generic tradesman.  Which is how it is with most people.  I'm the invisible plumber.

The main shutoff, a 1 ¼" gate valve, is stuck.  It's surrounded at the base by a brick walkway.  I tell Greg there isn't enough room to make a repair.  Greg runs off and comes back with a jackhammer borrowed from the pool workers.  He doesn't ask one of the workers to do it for him.  He just grabs the jackhammer and blasts away.  I see the key to Greg's success as a salesman: he is a man who doesn't blink at denial.  He gets results.  He turns his own front entry into rubble.  Then he watches as I solder a ball valve into place with painstaking care.

As we stand among the wreckage, the dirt, the fragments of brick, when I turn the new handle, the sound of rushing water makes him shout: "Thank you!  Thank you!"  Then he looks at me closely.  "Do I know you from somewhere?"

I tell him about our previous encounter of ten years ago.

He's surprised: "That was you?  That son of a bitch?  He had a beard.  He had hair down his ass."

I'm clean-shaven at the moment.  Short-haired.  I'm in disguise.

Then Greg laughs.  So much time has passed.  "I remember now — you sent me a refund.  I was amazed."

We part on good terms.  Another circle, complete.

There are lessons to be learned.

Don't lie.  Don't badmouth.  Don't blabber.

Double-check your gas lines.

Build good karma. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

365 Jobs: Deposit, Return

November, 1984

Caroline C. hires me to build a deck and a woodshed, replace some lights, install a faucet.  She lives in a badly built but glitzy McMansion overlooking a golf course.  She has three teens and five cars.  The house is utter chaos. 

The older daughter is watching a television movie exclaiming “Oh my God I can’t believe it — Oh my God he’s doing it — Oh my God how awful…” as a kid commits suicide on screen.  She shouts for her little sister to answer the phone and only accept certain calls.  For the others she’s "in the shower." 

Meanwhile little sister is listening to the radio in her room, loudly.

The son is in the driveway building a go-kart when the father comes home and says, "What happened to the lawnmower?"  He's a stockbroker.  Mr. C. goes to the kitchen, turns on another radio — loudly — and pours bourbon into a glass. 

A golf ball bounces into the driveway.  As a golfer approaches, the son deliberately sets the ball on fire with an oxyacetylene torch.

A delivery truck brings a large carton, a Kohler low-boy.  Caroline says it is for me: while I'm here, she wants me to replace their toilet. 

The next morning a team of housecleaners has converged with vacuum and squeegee and dusters.  I work around them; they work around me.  Nobody else is home. 

I pull the old toilet and hook up the Kohler.  A sticker on the base says "Leak tested." 

It leaks.  Badly. 

There's a crack in the bowl.  Shame on Kohler.  And shame on Shady Plumbing Supply for selling it.  And shame on me for not noticing the crack before installing it.  Multiple botch.

I call Shady, and they say they will send out a van to pick it up today, just leave it by the driveway.  It's Friday.  They'll deliver a new one on Monday. 

The housecleaners depart at noon.  I finish early, tidy up, go home.

Monday evening I call Caroline C. to ask if the toilet was delivered, and she tells me I'm fired.  Further, she's deducting $95 from my bill to cover the plumber she hired to install the new toilet.  Seems that Shady Plumbing decided not to pick up the toilet on Friday since they could simply get it on Monday when they delivered the new one.  When Mr. and Mrs. arrived home Friday evening with Important Clients to Impress, there sat the cracked toilet — on their front steps. 

"I left it by the driveway," I say.

She talks right over me.  "Imagine the surprise of my guests," Caroline says, "to find a toilet at the front door.  And somebody had made a, um, deposit in the bowl."

"Wasn't mine," I say.

She owes me a thousand dollars. 

A week later I receive a check in the mail, full payment, no deduction.  Maybe she asked her son what happened.  Boys will be boys.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

365 Jobs: At the Bank

Wednesday, November 23, 1994

He's wearing a pinstriped suit, slightly frayed.  The necktie is narrower than the fashion these days.  In the breast pocket is a smartly-folded handkerchief with a small dark stain.  He has a gray beard which is neatly trimmed but smells dirty. 

He's a black man in a white town.  I'm standing behind him in line at the Wells Fargo Bank where it's crowded, last day before the Thanksgiving holiday in wealthy Woodside, California.

Two tellers are open.

"I want to withdraw fourteen dollars," the man says.

His teller is a young woman with short dark hair, a soft sweater.  Her eyes widen when she sees him.  "There's only — let me check — yes — fifty-two cents in the account."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."  She tilts her head.  "Sorry."  The sorrow is genuine.

"There might be—"

"No.  It's always the same."

For a moment the man closes his eyes.  A long moment, standing at the window.  The teller rubs her nose.

The man opens his eyes.  "Blessings on you," he says.  He walks away with a shuffle.

I cash my check, a big one from three days of messy muscle-work for a matron of the horsey set.  I'm in a sweatshirt and jeans, dirty. 

My teller counts out a stack of fifties.  I feel rich.

Outside the bank, in the parking lot of glistening cars I look around for the man.  I might offer him something.  He might refuse to take it.  Anyway, no matter: the man has disappeared like the last stagecoach. 

Only the blessing remains.

Friday, November 16, 2012

365 Jobs: My First McMansion

Autumn, 1981

John P was a stocky guy with red hair and a red mustache.  From the moment you shook his hand, you liked him.  He had an open personality and an engaging smile. 

In the gold mine of real estate known as Los Altos, California, John P bought a new house with enormous rooms on a cul de sac of similar structures.  Back in 1981, I don't think anyone had coined the term "McMansion" yet for mass-produced, oversized dwellings with ersatz architecture.  But ready or not, here they came. 

John P hired me to replace the chintzy globe in his entry hall with a colossal chandelier.  He liked my work.  "I'm going to get you a pair of Forty-niner tickets," he said.  It was, from him, the ultimate compliment.  He quickly decided to install track lights, sconces, and wall washers all over the place.  And a couple of Casablanca fans.  Oh — and how about outlets in the wine cellar, the master bath, the walk-in closets?

John P was a child.  He'd interrupt me when I was speaking to someone else and once — I don't know how he did this — he had the operator break into a phone call at my own home so he could ask me a question about his fireplace.  Another time when I arrived at his request after a 45 minute drive, he told me he'd decided to go to a golf match and would I please come back another time?  When he couldn't figure out how to operate his dishwasher (which I had not installed), he called me at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night asking if I could talk him through it, and I couldn't get angry because from the sound of his voice, he was on the verge of tears.

John P had a daughter who was pretty, blond, and simple.  She liked to watch soap operas, sun herself by the backyard pool, and bake cookies.  Young men would come around, and she'd go off in their shiny cars.  She loved babies.  She wore a health profession uniform, didn't seem to work very often, and had an endless closet stuffed with expensive clothes.  When she found out that I'd written several novels, she crinkled her nose and said, "How do you think of all that stuff?"

John P had an elderly mother who would follow me around, pushing a walker, fretting about dust and cautioning me about black widow spiders which she was convinced were everywhere though I never saw one and, she admitted, neither had she.  When she wasn't banging around in her walker, she'd sit watching the soaps, occasionally muttering "That bitch!" to herself as evil unrolled on the screen.

At first it seemed odd that such a large new house had been built with such minimal lighting.  Then I started noticing nail-pops in the drywall.  When I cut holes for new outlets, there were gaps in the insulation.  Standing at a Palladian window, I saw a crack of light around the frame — I was seeing right through the exterior wall!  The window had no flashing, no caulking.  Incredible! 

I told John P about the problems.  "You should go after the builder," I said.  "He should fix this stuff."

"The builder?  He's incompetent.  You've just shown me the proof.  So do you know any good carpenters?"

The one who happened to be available was Fuckin' Floyd.

Floyd tackled the problems with his usual gusto.  He ripped out siding and slapped flashing around windows.  He carried gallons of tar — which he called monkeyshit — up a ladder to the roof.  He struck up conversations with granny — who had an almost equally salty vocabulary — and they quickly became friends. 

Floyd kept a watchful eye on the daughter sunning by the pool, but he scarcely spoke to her.  Puzzled, I asked, "You got a girlfriend, Floyd?"

"First I get paid.  Later, maybe I get her."

Meanwhile, Floyd had made an assessment of the house with the high-end kitchen, the Jacuzzi bathroom, the multiple fireplaces (in balmy California), and then all the shoddy details: "Whip cream on a turd."

Like a lot of homebuyers, John P wasn't stupid.  He just wanted a large house with goodies.  In California in the 1980s, plenty of big-time builders scrambled to meet that need.  Catching the first wave, I surfed for years as a small contractor cleaning up the details that the big guys ignored. 

John P paid promptly with both cash and praise.  He recommended me to his friends.  I don't know what happened, if anything, between Floyd and his daughter.  One thing, though: I never got those 49er tickets. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

365 Jobs: Fuckin' Floyd

It's Veterans Day in the USA.  I don't write specifically about veterans issues, but I do occasionally write about people who happen to be vets.  You might like Jim the Plumber.  Or The Chewing Gum Teacher.  Or here's a new one:

August 1979, August 1981

The first time I met Floyd was also one of my first jobs as a solo electrician.  "Fuckin' pleased to meet ya," Floyd said.  We were rebuilding a cottage in Mountain View.  Floyd was framing like a madman while I was drilling holes, running Romex.

Floyd was a skinny guy with an extreme mustache like the bad guy in a cowboy movie.  He wore cutoff shorts, steel-toed boots, and a tool belt.  Nothing else.  On a jobsite, I never saw him wearing a shirt.  There was a wildness in his eyes like the untamed gaze of a coyote.

We were freaks, hippies, dropouts who liked working with our hands.  In the late 1970s we were a loose collective of hairy craftspeople working the boomtowns of the Silicon Valley. 

We all started as carpenters.  Gradually we diversified and specialized.  I became the hippie electrician, reliably unstoned and logical.  Floyd was, first and always, the hard-core carpenter.

For this job, I spent a 12-hour day inch-worming over fiberglass insulation while old rusty roofing nails scraped my back.  At least 2 of those hours were spent on my belly reaching under a 6 inch overhang to splice wires in a junction box at the far end of the attic. It was easily 110 degrees up there.  At last I flipped the main breaker back on — and nothing worked.  It took me another hour and a half to track down the problem, which was in the original knob-and-tube, not my fault.  Floyd had cut a neutral wire in his frenzy of framing. 

"Oops, fuckin' sorry," Floyd said.

The next day, while waiting for the Mountain View building inspector, Floyd told me tales of women he'd known.  As a 19-year-old he'd been a grunt in Vietnam with R&R in Pee Eye — the Philippine Islands.  "I'm a hunter," he said, "and I learned a thing or two about females."  Now in the USA he was still hunting but having a little trouble meeting women as a noncommercial transaction.  Disaster after disaster.  Drugs, disease, demands.  "I'm not what they think.  All I want is a little fuckin' companionship.  Is that so fuckin' hard?  I'm a sensitive person."

"Maybe," I said, "you should tell them what you want."

"Ya think?"

"Where do you meet these women?"


The inspector arrived.  He hated us.  None of us were licensed, but the homeowner had a valid permit and could hire whoever he wanted.  We thought we were outlaws, sticking it to The Man.  Later we figured out that mostly we were sticking it to ourselves, unable to earn premium wages as long as we stayed outside the system.

The inspector combed the structure — never before or since have I seen such meticulous scrutiny — until at last his flashlight beam detected the junction box at the far end of the attic.

"I'm citing that," the inspector said.  "All junction boxes must be accessible."

Floyd exploded.  "No fuckin' way!" he shouted.  "He fuckin' crawled back there and installed it, so by fuckin' definition it's fuckin' accessible."

Floyd proceeded to call him a fuckin' ignorant fuckhole, but somehow the inspector was not persuaded.

We bonded right there, Floyd and I.  He thought I'd suffered an injustice.  I knew the inspector was right.  I'd made a rookie mistake.  It would have saved me hours of itchy labor if I'd located the junction box elsewhere.  But I appreciated how Floyd had leaped to my defense, regardless of the facts. 

I spent a couple more hours in the hot dusty coffin, rerunning Romex.  Later, unpacking the truck at home, I realized I'd lost my favorite chisel.  It must have fallen from my tool belt somewhere in that attic.  No way would I go back for it.

I didn't see Floyd for a couple months.  One day, though, I found an odd bundle attached to the front door of my cottage with a rubber band: my chisel, a $5 bill, and a note:

Found it in the attic.
Sorry I kept it so long.
Here's a "tip" for the inconvenience.
I appreciated the tip.  Mostly, I was impressed that he'd written 3 entire sentences with correct spelling and the use of quotation marks, and without swearing.   Buried somewhere in his background, the mustachioed desperado had a fuckin' education.

* * *

A couple years later my friend Sonny got married.  Sonny, the ultimate hippie carpenter, wanted a conventional wedding with all the trimmings.  My wife baked an enormous wedding cake using, as I recall, 24 pounds of butter.  I hired a stripper named Brandy (a story in itself), and the night before the wedding we had a bachelor party at somebody's house in Mountain View. 

Brandy was a pro.  Great body, friendly personality.  Sonny removed her last item of clothing with his teeth.  She then removed clothing from several of the men, dancing all the while.  One of those men was Floyd.

At the halfway point, Brandy said she needed a break, so she followed me to the kitchen where I handed her some bottled water.  Since I'd hired her, she treated me as the boss even though it wasn't my house.  We then proceeded to have a business-like conversation in the kitchen, me and a naked woman sipping bottled water in front of the refrigerator while the other guys watched from the living room.

There was never any physical contact with Brandy, other than Sonny's teeth on her panties, and her fingers removing clothing from several of the guys.  At the end, with the only flesh-to-flesh touch, she shook my hand, thanking me for the job.  Then she was gone, and we all stood around in stunned disbelief.  What had just happened?  We'd never done a bachelor party before.  We were used to casual nudity among friends at beaches, in hot tubs, or at the saunas in San Francisco.  Our straight friends called us the let's-get-naked crowd, but this was a whole different vibe.  We'd never experienced the unspoken, rigid rules of conduct with a stripper.  And if we hadn't sensed the rules, Brandy was accompanied by a male escort who sat silently watching us, unsmiling, packing heat.

The only one of us familiar with the stripper scene was Floyd.  And now everybody was ready to call it a night — except Floyd.  He was urging us to go to a sleazy bar: “I want to get stomped on, pissed on, beat up and thrown out.  I want to be degraded, man.”  We just shook our heads. 

Sonny told his naturally curious bride-to-be what happened at the party.  She of course told her friends.  The next day at the wedding I overheard Floyd, champagne in hand, telling the sister of the bride: "It's fuckin' painful to be such a sensitive person like me." 

"Yes," she said.  "It must be difficult."

"Let's dance," he said.

"No," she said, walking away.

Floyd, smiling, moved on to the next bridesmaid.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

365 Jobs: The Wall Whisperer

Saturday, November 9, 1996

Running electric cable through wall cavities from an upstairs bedroom, I had to saw two small holes in the vast ceiling of a McMansion living room.  If I was slightly off in my positioning, if the wire wasn't waiting where I cut the ceiling, I'd have to enlarge the hole.  Which would be bad. 

Sometimes everything goes perfectly.  The wires were exactly at the cut.  Twice.  Minimal work, minimal patching required. 

The client was watching me, amazed.  "Dead on!" he shouted.  He was a banker, but he seemed like a pretty decent guy.  "How'd you know it would be right there?"

"Just lucky," I said.  Not true, of course.  I knew from measuring that I'd be within a couple inches of the spot.  And then I'd studied the ceiling — you learn how to interpret drywall, after a while, so you can almost see the joists in a finished surface, especially in a tract house.  A McMansion is basically a big tract. 

"Now would you hang a mirror in my bedroom?"

My screw hit the stud, first try.

"How'd you do that without using one of those stud-finding thingamajigs?"

"After a while, you get a feel for these things."

As the banker paid the bill, he gave me two bottles of white wine.  "You're a wall whisperer," he said. 

Sometimes you get praised for silly things.  I'll take it, though, and I won't worry until the walls start whispering back.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

365 Jobs: The Paper Route

1958 Joe Cottonwood, paper boy
November 6, 2012

Twice I had a paper route when I was growing up in the D.C. suburbs.  This was in the late 1950s.  First I had a morning route delivering the Washington Post, and later I had an afternoon route delivering the Washington Star

It gives you perspective, tossing papers to a front porch in the dark of morning on a snowy day.  It gives you perspective, seeing the senator from Minnesota come out in his bathrobe to pick it up.

They're just people.  Politicians, yes, but still they were people and they knew, most of them, how to get along with other people. 
The best tipper was a lobbyist.  The worst was a member of the President's cabinet.  The scariest was a general.

Snowy days, sometimes my best friend and I would knock on doors, offering to shovel sidewalks for a buck or two.  It was probably the hardest I ever worked, but the money came fast.  One man invited us inside for a cup of hot cider, and then he wanted us to watch his model trains, but the vibe was creepy and we got the hell out of there.

Fifty years ago I saw a congressman painting his own garage.  I saw a member of the President's cabinet wearing plaid shorts and a T shirt in his yard raking leaves, and when he bent over I saw his butt crack.

Never, in those days, would a member of Congress have shouted at a President, "You lie!"  I had an extremely low opinion of President Eisenhower (much higher in retrospect), but I would never have shown any disrespect in his presence.  You just didn't do that.  The White House wasn't on my paper route, but some big white houses were.  People lived there.  They had dogs and kids and smelly garbage cans.  Just like the rest of the world.

Barack Obama could not have lived on my paper route back then.  No black people could.  It just wasn't allowed.  My parents, and a few others, would have welcomed a black family, but we were in the minority.

In some ways, the world is better now.  In other ways, meaner.  Today I'm voting for Barack Obama.  Again.  Welcome to the neighborhood.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Review: Cabin by Lou Ureneck

Cabin: Two Brothers, A Dream, and Five Acres in Maine by Lou Ureneck is part story and part encyclopedia.  It's a compilation of everything related to the location and construction of a cabin in Maine, though it's by no means a how-to manual.  Half of it is about the human relationships of the builders — which is my sweet spot.  The other half, intertwined with the story, is about the ecology, history, and social structure of the area, sometimes in exhaustive detail.  If the subject of a particular page doesn’t interest you, just skip ahead a few paragraphs or pages and read about something else.  Like:
By the 1830s, Stoneham (Maine) was … a source of staves for the manufacture of wood barrels.  Stoneham’s staves, the beveled pieces of wood that formed the sides of the barrels, traveled by wagon to Portland and then by schooner to Cuba and the West Indies, where they were assembled into barrels and filled with molasses and rum.  The staves were temporarily assembled into barrels in Stoneham to assure their eventual watertightness, and then broken down and packaged into shooks that took up less space in shipping — in the local vernacular, the staves were “all shook up.”

Did Elvis Presley know that when he recorded the song?  Well, now you and I know it.

I must have skipped a third of the text, but the parts that engaged me were wonderful.  He's a descriptive writer.  I could feel the snow coming down.  I could see the beaver in the pond.

I loved the author's boyhood trapping of muskrats in New Jersey (and what does this have to do with building a cabin in Maine?  Not much.)  I loved the Civil War history detailing what happened to the local Maine boys who went away to fight.  I loved meeting the locals who helped with the construction — a carpenter, a dowser, an excavator — and I loved meeting a crusty local lumberman who greeted the author with a long skeptical stare and then asked, "Are you a liberal?" as if he were asking, "Are you a cockroach?"

It's about men: the author, his brother Paul, their sons, their father.  Both the author and his brother go through divorces.  Though he examines every other tangential aspect of the cabin-building, we learn almost nothing about the break-ups except how they affected the work.  The very lack of women in the author's narrative — and I suppose, the author's mind — might indicate why the divorces took place.  Or might not.  I have to respect the author's discretion, though it creates a notable hole in the story.

Here's a construction detail I learned, while it twisted my stomach in a knot:
Paul smacked his thumbnail hard with the hammer.  It immediately turned purple and throbbed as the blood from the bruise pushed up the nail.  He applied pressure on it to slow the pooling of the blood, but the pain was bad enough to make working difficult…  So I proposed a solution I had learned on a construction job and had once used on myself: Piercing the thumbnail to relieve the pressure…  I sterilized a tiny drill bit with the flame of a butane lighter and went to work in my operating room — the front seat of his truck.  Slowly and carefully, I turned a tiny drill bit, about an eighth of an inch in diameter, back and forth with my thumb and forefinger over Paul's thumbnail to make a hole.  'You're going to know it when I touch the flesh,' I told him.  'That's okay,' he said.  'It can't be any worse than what I'm feeling right now.'  The bit came through and the pressurized blood shot over the dashboard and onto the windshield.  He wrapped his thumb with a handkerchief and tied it tight.

I hope I never have to use this technique, but it's good to know.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

365 Jobs: Pissing out the Back Door

May, 1970

In 1970, my old friend Heidi and her new husband Mark bought some nearly inaccessible, mostly vertical land and started building a geodesic dome in the Rocky Mountains.  This was an utterly cool thing to do.  I helped them for a few days as they were erecting the basic geodesic frame, bolting triangle to triangle, higher and higher toward what was to be the last, triumphal piece at the top.  

It was less than a glorious topping, actually, because the different edges didn't align the way they were supposed to.  Slight errors of construction at the bottom became magnified at the peak.  I remember tugging on ropes and pushing on poles, trying to bring the pieces together, fighting the very rigidity for which domes are famous.

A lot of folk helped.  Imagine the barn-raising scene in the movie Witness, but substitute hippies for the Amish, and substitute the Colorado Front Range for the Pennsylvania farmlands, and substitute news reports of four students being shot dead at Kent State for the soaring background music.  Then we all faded away, leaving Mark and Heidi with years of hard work.

It leaked, of course.  Domes are notorious for that.  The driveway was like a bobsled run, and you needed four-wheel drive in the best of weather, so Heidi and Mark wintered in Boulder and camped in the dome during the summers.  They bought an old tractor and named it Teddy.  They set up a generator.  They built an outhouse with a spectacular window view.  On a clear day, I swear, you could sit on that throne and see all the way to Kansas.

It was a rugged life.  The weather could be merciless.  Nothing you bought off-the-shelf would work in the weird architecture of the dome, so life was constant improvisation.  Day after day, you'd see Heidi up on the roof, sealing leaks:

But inside, it was spacious, spirit-lifting, lovely.  The dome was a magnet gathering friends for food, music, and talk of how to sabotage Nixon, how to stop the stupid war.  Their dog Esau ruled the roost:

Mark bought a 1947 Dodge coupe so they could cruise the mountains in high style.  They got a kiln and a water pump.  A chipmunk lived in their wall.  A porcupine hung out in the basement and would eat the plywood, loving the glue.  Sometimes it waddled to the outhouse, so if you went there at night you'd have to stand at the window and shoo porky out the door with a broom. 

They built that outhouse, by the way, on top of an old mine shaft, which gave them a bottomless pit and also served to discourage anybody from returning to exploit the mineral rights, which Heidi and Mark did not own.

That was forty years ago.  The marriage split.  A hunter shot Esau in the leg.  Heidi ended up with the dome.  I don't know what became of Mark.  I'll never forget his satisfaction after a hard day's work, resting, reading, relaxing:

Mark was friendly, charismatic, sometimes crude, and he had a few demons.  He had one particular philosophy that, as soon as I heard it, I understood its appeal.  In fact, it's an idea that seems to have universal appeal, and I've heard it repeated many times in many places — among men.  Women, oddly, don't seem to agree.  What Mark said was: "A man should live in a place where he can take a piss out his own back door." 

And he did.

For a while.

Friday, November 2, 2012

365 Jobs: Paying for Power in Palo Alto

Monday, November 2, 1981

 A pleasant street in Palo Alto.  Plush lawns.  A man asked me to repair the wooden fence that separated his property from his neighbor.  A small job.  He said he'd pay me in full: "My neighbor should pay for half of it, since we share the fence, but Bella's such a cheapskate, I don't even want to deal with her."

When I show up, there's a problem: the man isn't home; his house is locked, and there's no outdoor power supply.  I need to use my electric saw.  Next door, Bella has an outlet on her porch.

I ring the doorbell.  She's an old woman living alone in a nice house.

"I'm repairing the fence," I say.  "Could I borrow a cup of electricity?"

"Whose paying for it?" Bella asks. 

I'm surprised.  Never been asked before.  But: "Okay," I say.  "I'll reimburse you for all the electricity I use."

She narrows her eyes.  "How will you know?"

"Hm.  I tell you what.  I'll keep track of how long the saw is running.  It's rated at thirteen amps, so at a hundred twenty volts I can calculate the number of kilowatt hours.  Then we can calculate the cost."

From the look on her face, I can see that she doesn't know an ampere from a volt from a kilowatt hour.  But she nods, pensively.  "Okay," she says.  "Cash."

I try to look as serious as I can.  "I shouldn't pay cash," I say.  "This will be a business expense, so I'll have to write you a check from my business account.  Otherwise my accountant will get angry."

Bella thinks it over for a moment.  "All right," she says.  "I'll take a check.  But then the IRS will think I'm getting taxable income, so you'll have to add twenty percent."

"Um, okay."

"Make it thirty."

"All right.  I'll add thirty percent."

I repair the fence.  It takes a couple of hours, which includes about five minutes total of running the power saw.  Let's call it six minutes, which is an even 1/10 of an hour.

I put the tools away, coil the extension cord, ring the doorbell.

"I'm ready to pay," I say.  "Shall we do the numbers?"

"Go ahead," she says.

I press buttons on my calculator, walking her through it: 

13 amps X 120 volts = 1560 watts, or 1.56 kilowatts. 
0.1 hour X 1.56 = 0.156 kilowatt hours of usage. 
Current electric rate [this is 1981] is 6 cents per kilowatt hour. 
Therefore I owe you 0.156 X 6 cents = 0.936 cents. 
Adding 30 percent for tax purposes, 0.936 X 1.3 = 1.2168 cents.
I can see she doesn't follow any of this.  "So you'll pay?" she says.

I write a check.  Generously, I round the 1.2168 up to a full 2 cents.  Signing it with a flourish, I tear the check loose and hand it to her.

Holding the check at arm's length, squinting, she makes a careful study — date, signature, amount. 

"Fair and square," she says. 

Money in hand, stepping back into the house, Bella closes the door.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

365 Jobs: How Insurance Is Done

August 1989

Isabella, my favorite decorator, sends me to a grand battleship of an Atherton estate, serviced by a flotilla of pickup trucks of which I am but one.  Carol, the owner, shows me a gate post that was struck by a delivery truck.  The post is a pagoda-like structure with cedar shingles.  One of the shingles is damaged.   

"Write me an estimate," Carol says.  Then she shows me a number of projects: widening a doorway, building an elaborate bench around an oak tree.  Classy work.  I've struck the mother lode. 

"Give me an idea what it'll cost," Carol says.  "Something I can tell my husband."  She winks.  "Then once he's on board, we can build whatever we want.  When can you start?"

"I can start next week.  I'll write up some numbers."

"Don't write it up.  Just tell me.  Except the gate post.  I need a written estimate for the insurance company.  Fax it to me.  Don't be cheap on that one.  I'm in the insurance business, so I know how this is done."

She must sell a lot of insurance to own this estate.

So here's the game: She expects me to bid low for most of the work — a nonbinding oral bid, so I'm fine with that — and bid high for the insurance work.  That evening, I write an estimate for the gate post.

Replace one cedar shingle:  Labor $150, materials $50.
Total: $200.
It's an outrageous estimate.  I'll do the entire job in fifteen minutes.  The materials — one shingle, two nails — will cost less than $1.  I'll make $10/minute on labor, with a 5000% markup on the shingle.

I fax it to Carol. 

She never responds.

Next week I call Isabella.  "What happened to Carol?"

"She didn't like your estimate for the gate post," Isabella says.  "In fact, she was furious."

"Yeah, it was grossly inflated.  She told me, 'Don't be cheap.'"

"No.  Not that.  It wasn't high enough.  Didn't she tell you she knows how insurance is done?  She's always saying that to me."

"She wanted it higher?"

"More zeroes.  Each number should've had one more zero."

"Can I change it?"

"No.  She's decided you're an idiot."

Friday, October 19, 2012

Lit Night Comes Early

Lit Night is our traditional reader/writer blowout in the bar section of Cafe Cuesta in La Honda.  Normally we meet on the last Wednesday of the month.  In October, however, too many goblins will be roaming the streets, and frankly we're scared of them.  So - notifying a week in advance, for the travel plans of all you people in Australia and Azerbaijan* - please be informed that this time Lit Night will be October 24.  I'll be there reading my heart out.  So will Terry Adams and a bunch of others.  Drop by, have a beer, listen.  Or read something.  It's an open mic.  We're friendly. 

(All the works on this poster -and there are many more, I ran out of room - were written by La Honda authors who have read at Lit Night.)

*Last month we had a visitor from Greece.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


On Tuesday, October 17, 1989 at 5:04 p.m. an earthquake ripped through the San Francisco Bay Area.  It was awful, but it wasn't the civilization-flattening Big One that we know is coming some day.  So we called it the Pretty Big One. 

Just in time for the anniversary of that event, I'm pleased to announce that my novel QUAKE! is now available as an e-book.

All the television news coverage was of the burning houses in San Francisco, the collapse of the Cypress Freeway in Oakland, the toppling of a section of the Bay Bridge.  Spectacular stuff.  And there was the postponement of the World Series.

Meanwhile away from the cameras, a remarkable story was unfolding on Loma Prieta Mountain, which was the epicenter of the quake.  Among the collapsed houses and broken roads, people started helping people.  Small heroes.  Thousands of them.

Five years after the Loma Prieta Earthquake (also known as the World Series Earthquake), I wrote a novel about it, seeing the quake through the eyes of a teenage girl living on Loma Prieta Mountain.  The events in the novel are true.  Only the characters are fiction. 

After many years out of print, I have - at last - regained the rights to my own book.  I'm making it available immediately as an e-book.

You can get it from Amazon: Quake! Kindle edition

You can get it from Smashwords in any format.

You can get it from Apple's iBookstore for iPad or iPhone reading.

And for a limited time, the price is just 99 cents.  That's an earthshaking bargain!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

365 Jobs: Bones

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Jeff climbs down from the cab of the Bobcat 331E excavator and plucks a couple of objects from the pile of dirt.  "Bones," he says.

My heart feels a jolt.

There are three bones.  One is old and large and decayed, the leg of a cow, most likely.  Tibia, I think.  I don't know how it came to be buried in my yard, but I'm guessing a dog was involved.

The other two bones are clean, relatively fresh, and a dog was definitely involved.  These are the tibia and fibula from a hind leg of my dog Norm, who I buried ten years ago.  I hadn't realized that I'd placed him right next to my lower septic drain field.

We're repairing the leach line.  After 32 years of service, roots have destroyed the pipes.  Muscular wooden creepers have strangled from the outside, while a solid mass of threads have blocked the inside.  It's all part of the challenge of living in a redwood forest.  The big trees, harvesting my sewage, are thriving.

I'd chosen to bury Norm just below the spot where I'd buried his best friend, my older dog, a golden lab mix named Oak.  In life, Oak had always roosted on a wooden loveseat in a sunny spot on my deck.  Norm would curl up at the foot of the loveseat, as close as Oak would allow. 


When Oak died, I buried him on the hillside below the deck.  I placed the old rotten loveseat over his grave, soon covered by vines of honeysuckle and ivy.  It seemed only fitting that when Norm died, I'd bury him at Oak's feet beside that now-collapsed loveseat.

Norm was a bouncy galumphus of a puppy who grew into a bouncy galumphus of a full-size black bear.  He looked like a mix of flat-coat retriever and newfie.  He slobbered.  He loved puddles.  

Norm had a tendency to overwhelm newcomers, so we often had to restrain him.  One day a Hindu panditji came to our house in connection with my daughter's wedding.  This wonderful, wise old man radiated lovingness while knowing only a few words of English.  Norm, of course, instantly loved him.  The panditji was delighted by antics that would lead most people to try to place a chair between themselves and the dog.  The panditji stared into Norm's eyes and said, "Big soul."

He could just as well have mentioned: Big paws.

Norm made a great pillow.


My youngest son, Will, grew up with Norm.  

It was Will who first placed a red bandanna on the dog.  It was Will who took Norm on long walks in the La Honda hills.  It was Will who shared his galumphing teenage years with Norm, growing his hair into dreadlocks, climbing (and falling out of) trees, playing in a rock band, wrecking the car, messing with girls, sampling illicit items, testing the limits of parental patience.  Maybe it's no coincidence that when Will went away to college, Norm declined rapidly.

Dogs give you years of love.  Then they leave you with a broken heart.  My kids had all left home; my daughter was getting married, and the day came when I knew Norm was dying.  On the deck outdoors under the trees I sat with him in daylight and into the night, touching him.  His breathing came hard.  "Dream of beaches," I said, rubbing the fur over his heart.  The breathing slowed.  And then stopped.

The big soul was released.  The woods were quiet and dark.  The moon was setting low among the redwoods.

Norm was a giant dog, and the next day I dug him a giant grave.  I placed his head uphill, facing Oak and the loveseat.  The panditji had left us bracelets of bright threads.  I was still wearing one around my wrist.  Now I placed another around Norm's front paw.  He wore a red bandanna around his neck, as he had for most of his life. 

Ten years later his legs, downhill, were clipped by the excavator.  When the work is finished, I'll bury the bones again.  With a fresh bandanna.  And freshly-blessed threads.

May he then rest in peace.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Podcast of Danny Ain't is complete

Danny Ain't is now up and running on iTunes.  You can download it for free.  Go to iTunes, search for "Joe Cottonwood Danny" and you'll find it.

Danny is hungry.  Danny is a boy living alone who is befriended by a couple of coyotes.  Coyotes are tricksters.  Coyotes are clever survivors.  So is Danny.

Though the book was published way back in 1992, the themes of hardship and survival seem as if they were written for the present day.  It's a "children's book" that is secretly enjoyed by many adults.

I hope you like it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Lit Night in La Honda

Tonight is Lit Night at Cafe Cuesta in swingin' downtown La Honda, California.  I'll be reading at the open mic, along with Terry Adams and whoever wanders in off the street.

It's always a fun evening.  Starts at 7 pm, usually over before 9 (hey, this is a working town).  Come early for dinner.

Malcolm (chef at Cafe Cuesta) will be making gnocchi.  Beer and wine, as usual, at the bar.  

Shirts not required.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Danny Ain't: The Mitt and Ann Romney Edition

My novel Danny Ain't was written in 1990 and published in 1992.  Some of my friends are claiming that I wrote it about the 2012 presidential election.

I can see their point.  Episode 14 gets to the heart of it:

"Danny?  Have you already eaten?  Or would you like to join us for dinner?”

“I might have a few bites,” I said.

I walked over the white carpet down the hallway, following the smell of steak and baked potatoes in the air.

As soon as I sit down I grab a glass of milk and pour it straight down my throat until it’s gone with a few drops dribbling down my chin.  Then I cut off a big hunk of steak and slam it into my mouth, and cut another and stuff it in there before I finish chewing the first one so my cheek bulges out and I can’t even close my lips, and I cut another and happen to look up and see that Mrs. Livermore was just sitting there with her fork halfway to her mouth, staring at me.

“Hungry, Danny?” she said.

“A little.  I — uh — I’m not used to eating so late.”

Mr. Livermore was looking at me, too.  Like he’d look at a big hairy spider.

I slowed down.  Mr. and Mrs. Livermore drank red wine with the meal, one whole bottle and half of another.  I drank two more glasses of milk, ate another slab of steak, and helped myself to one and a half baked potatoes.

Mrs. Livermore with the blonde hair and blue eyes, the diamond earrings, and fancy dress looked to me like a movie star.  She could’ve been dressed for the Oscars instead of just for dinner.  Mr. Livermore had dark hair and one of those faces that always look like they need a shave.  Next to her he looked old and tired and angry.  His shoulders slumped forward, and his jaw looked like concrete.

When Mr. Livermore finished eating, he leaned back in his chair.  “Well, Norma,” he said, “I spoke with that man Henry Hoggle, and he said he could begin work on the pool tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Mrs. Livermore said.  “My, that’s quick.  Oh, this is excellent.”

Mr. Livermore nodded his head and said, “It’s a pleasure to speak to a man who’s eager to earn his money.”  He looked at me.  “Don’t you think so, young man?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.  “I mean, what other way is there to get money?”

“Some people,” Mr. Livermore said, “seem to think they can get money by whining for it.  There’s only one way to get ahead in this world, and that is to work for it.  Work hard.  It’s a choice you make.  You can choose to be poor, or you can choose to be rich.  You aren’t going to choose to be poor, are you, young man?”

“No, sir.  I’m not.”  Hear that?  I’m not.  Sitting at the Livermores’ table with Mrs. Livermore wearing diamond earrings under a sparkling chandelier, I could talk right.  It sounded right.  I said, “I’m not going to be poor.  I’m not going to make any more wrong choices.”

Mr. Livermore raised his eyebrows.  “You’ve made some already?”

“Well.  One,” I said.  A big one.  The first choice of my life.  If you believe that stuff.

Mrs. Livermore smiled.  “We’re all entitled to one mistake, Danny,” she said.  “But be careful.  There are a lot of temptations.  Sometimes it’s hard to stay focused on what you want.”

“I can stay focused,” I said.  “It’s not hard.”  Check it out: It’s not.  No more ain’t for me.  I was feeling like one classy dude.

Mr. Livermore sat leaning back in his chair, scowling.  He spoke, not to me but to his wife: “The main temptation of the poor,” he said, “is that they spend all their money as fast as they can get it.  They get paid, and they go directly to a tavern.  When I drive by that bar in town and I see all those decrepit old cars parked outside — and motorcycles — I can’t imagine what pleasure they see in there.”

“They meet their friends there,” I said.

“And spend all their money, no doubt,” Mr. Livermore said.

“Not really.  Pop goes there, and he doesn’t drink half as much as you do.”

Mr. Livermore winced. 

Mrs. Livermore said, “Danny, that’s not a nice thing to say.”

Mr. Livermore went back to scowling.  He leaned forward.  “Don’t mind what he says, Norma.  He’s just a little urchin.”

I’d seen urchins washed up on the beach.  They were purple with spiny things all over.  I didn’t know why he called me that.  But I didn’t like it.

“Well,” Mrs. Livermore said with a smile that seemed to take a lot of work, “tell me about this soccer game you’ve roped Law into playing tomorrow.  What is the name of your team?”

I coughed.

“What, Danny?”

“I forget.”

The funny thing was, I was taking a liking to Mrs. Livermore.  She meant well.  She could’ve brushed me off like a fly, but here she was feeding me dinner at her table and talking to me like she cared about me and encouraging Law to be friends with me, even though she didn’t know — she couldn’t even imagine — the way I live.  All she knew was that my clothes were raggedy and my skin was brown — two reasons for her to freeze me out of her life, if she wanted to.  But she didn’t.  The one who wanted to was Mr. Livermore, I think.  I guess that’s what he meant, calling me that name.

“Mr. Livermore,” I said, “about what you were saying — about earning money?  Could I ask you a question?”

“What is it, young man?”  He looked uneasy.

“How did you earn the money for that car?”

“Oh.  Well, you see, I was a Cee Eee Oh.  That means Chief Executive Officer.  I was the boss.  I ran a company.”

“You don’t anymore?”

“Well . . . no.  The company doesn’t exist anymore.”

“You mean you quit?”

“No.  The company quit.  It went bankrupt.”

“Bankrupt?  Doesn’t that mean it went broke?”


“That sounds like a dsh situation.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“How can you get rich if your company goes broke?”

Mr. Livermore frowned.  He didn’t answer.

Mrs. Livermore leaned forward and explained: “You see, Danny, he didn’t own the company.  He just ran it.”

“Norma,” Mr. Livermore said, “it is not necessary to explain — ”

“The boy wants to learn,” Mrs. Livermore said.  “You see, running a company is a very important job.  So they pay you a lot of money.”

“But if the company goes broke, doesn’t that mean you didn’t do your job right?  Isn’t it your job to keep the company from going broke?  Why would they pay you — ”

“That’s enough!” Mr. Livermore said.

“Yes, Nathan,” Mrs. Livermore said.

And they both poured themselves another glass of wine.

“So,” I said, “the way to get rich is to run a company that goes bankrupt.”

Mrs. Livermore shook her head, but she also smiled.  Mr. Livermore just scowled.

“Going bankrupt,” Mrs. Livermore said, “is very complicated.  I never understood it myself.”

“Then I guess I can’t, either.”

“Some day you will, Danny.  When you learn more about business.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do.”


“I’m going to work hard and earn a lot of money and buy a car just like yours.”

“Good, Danny.”  Mrs. Livermore looked pleased.  “We all should earn the money for the things we want.”

“What about you, Mrs. Livermore?  How did you earn the money for that car?”

“Me?  Oh, well, I married Nathan.”

“Is that like going bankrupt?”

Mr. Livermore pushed back his chair with a screech that made me wonder if he’d ripped the carpet.  Mrs. Livermore raised an eyebrow and watched him leave the table.

She never answered my question.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Danny Ain't on YouTube

Audiobooks on YouTube? Well, yeah.  Lots of people listen to music on YouTube, much of it displaying nothing but a static album cover.  So why not a book?

It's an experiment.  While my podcast host, podiobooks.com has been down for a few days (making all my podcasts temporarily inaccessible, even from iTunes —sorry), I started thinking about YouTube as an alternative.

Here's the result:

Episode 01

and Danny Ain't, episode 02:

If feedback is good, I'll upload the rest of the episodes.  Please — let me know what you think.

And good news: podiobooks is now back on the air, and so are my podcasts.  I'll upload the Danny Ain't podcast this week and let everybody know when it's ready for downloading.  Or you can get an advance listen on YouTube.

The images, by the way, are various versions of the bookcover, ranging from the original hardback edition to sketches for an ebook cover through various stages.  The two versions of coyotes on a hillside are by the wonderful Chartan, while the final ebook version is by Melody Pilotte.  Then there's a photo of Will Fourt, the singer on the intro and outro.  At the end there's an old photo of myself from the original Danny Ain't bookjacket, which was published in 1992.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Gidget, Kathy Kohner Zuckerberg, and (ahem) the great Kahoona

The original novel called Gidget, The Little Girl With Big Ideas — which started the whole Gidget craze — came out in 1957.  I've just read the new edition of 2001 which is titled, simply, Gidget, and I'm amazed at how much I liked it. The new edition's forward by Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, who was the real-life Gidget, puts the story in perspective.

Kathy Kohner was a petite (less than 5 feet tall) perky Jewish girl who became obsessed with surfing back in the days before the Beach Boys started singing about it, before most of America had even heard of the sport. Her actual photo was used on the original book cover and again on the new edition. In the novel, Gidget remains a petite brunette, but I can't recall any mention of being Jewish. (She became a blond in the movie as played by Sandra Dee.)  Gidget is not interested in dating, at least not with her high school peers, and she is something of a tomboy. But she also wishes that her "bosom" was bigger. She's on the edge of discovering her sexuality at age 15 and is attracted to the college guys who spend the summer surfing at Malibu, especially one guy named Moondoggie. She also befriends the leader of the group, an older man called the great Kahoona who is a non-collegiate full-time beach bum, and quite proud of it.

With spunk and determination, Gidget ingratiates herself into the group of surfers, who reluctantly - but protectively - accept her as something of a mascot. There's a fascinating tug-of-war between Gidget's growing attraction for Moondoggie and the surfing group's determination to keep hands off.

Gidget is a rebel of the 1950s. She lies to her parents and sneaks out of the house.  And what's weird is that all this little rebel wants to do is surf (which was considered a boy's sport) and get pinned (frat pin, that is) by Moondoggie. How it all plays out is well worth the very short read.

An interesting dimension of the story is that the author, Frederick Kohner, was writing the novel about his own daughter with her cooperation - and her actual diaries. Some people will get creeped out that a father was creating a character of his own daughter and writing about her sexuality and her attraction for an older guy. As a writer and father myself, I admit to some queasiness, or at least some curiosity, about the situation.  Fred Kohner was a professional writer, a good one, who recognized that the sexuality was the essential part of the story. He also had a PhD from the University of Vienna, the training ground of Sigmund Freud.  Kathy Kohner in later life seems to have had no problem with what her father wrote and is in fact quite proud of her role - and interestingly, she was always attracted to professors and eventually married one. Analyze that, if you wish.

Ed McClanahan has written an interesting follow-up, based on his lifelong friendship with Kathy (he was her first English professor at Oregon State College in 1958): 
And the next thing I knew there she was, right there in the front row of my very first class, a drop-dead cute, Malibu-tanned, feisty-looking little Jewish beach bunny whose natural insouciance made her an enlivening presence amongst all the Presbyterian peaches-and-cream sorority girl home ec majors.  ...When, in her first in-class theme, she used the term "shit-heel squares" to describe certain of her peers ... I knew right away that this was someone I wanted to know. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Three Without Fear

A wonderful adventure, Three Without Fear was published in 1947 but is just as engaging today. It's like Gary Paulsen's Hatchet but for a younger age, and instead of a boy alone in the wilderness it's about three kids alone in the desert. I read it to a third grader, and neither of us could put it down.

After a shipwreck, an American boy named Dave is cast ashore on a beach in Baja California. He is found by Pedro and Maria,
brother and sister orphans who have run away from virtual slavery in a foster home at Cabo Blanco and are now hiding in a makeshift shelter in the desert. Dave wants to return to his parents in California, while Pedro and Maria want to find their grandmother in northern Baja. Together they decide to hike north following the desolate Pacific Coast (Baja in the 1940s was much more isolated and unpopulated than it is today). It will be a journey of hundreds of miles, on foot. Accompanying them are a half-coyote dog named Chico and a roadrunner bird with a broken wing.

 It's a story of survival, discovery, and friendship. They improvise and invent. They hunt rabbits with slingshots and dig up clams on the beach. They endure storms and days without water or food. They start fires without matches.  They make tortillas by grinding the seeds of wild plants into flour.  They are held captive by a bad man. They attempt to repair a derelict boat with nearly disastrous results.  They face these adventures, as the title says, without fear while their friendship grows.

The California white boy and the Mexican brother/sister learn their cultural differences and common humanity, which is woven nicely and unobtrusively into the story. In the trek, Dave becomes nearly as brown as his companions.  The ending - and their parting - is both happy and touchingly sad.

Only the rigid gender roles might betray the book's age (Maria cooks; the boys hunt) but the roles are consistent with writing in 1947 and particularly true to the Mexican locale. Maria, by the way, is one tough cookie.

The illustrations by Ralph Ray, Jr. are a striking bonus to an excellent story. The book is out of print and costs a small fortune on the used book market (I paid $50 for mine).

Here's the opening:
Dave was never quite sure how it happened.  He only knew that he awoke as he was being hurled from his berth, and mingled with the startled awakening, there was a terrific explosion.  For a moment or more he lay stupefied on the floor of his stateroom, struggling to regain his senses.  Then slowly he realized the steady throb of the engines, to which he had grown so accustomed in the week since boarding the ship, had abruptly ceased.

I recommend it to boys 8 to 12 and to adults who love good books about kids.

Given the nature of this blog, I was particularly enchanted by the inventiveness of the kids in plugging wormholes in a leaky old boat, building a raft, and in Dave's invention of a still consisting of a gourd filled with water sitting on an oyster shell to protect it from flame, heated over a fire with the steam escaping through hollow reeds to drip into another shell, by which they slowly and painstakingly converted salt water to fresh water.

Robert Coleman DuSoe (also spelled Robert C. "Du Soe" with a space between Du and Soe
— it makes a difference when you search) was born February 20, 1920 in Los Angeles, California and died September 1, 1964, also in Los Angeles.  He wrote several books for children, including a nice one called Sea Boots.  He is credited with story or screenplay for two movies, a noir The Devil Thumbs a Ride and a western 20 Mule Team.  That's all I can find out about him.  Whoever are the heirs of Robert C. DuSoe, (or Robert C. Du Soe), I beg you to re-issue at least Three Without Fear — or contact me and let me do it.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lit Night Tonight!

Last Wednesday of every month, we hold Lit Night in La Honda.  Tonight Terry Adams will join me in a voice duet, as we enact a scene or two from my novel Danny Ain't.  Terry will summon the voice of his old Kentucky moonshining shotgun-toting chicken-stealing ancestors, and I'll give voice to a 12-year-old boy who is living alone in a trailer with couple of coyotes as surrogate parents.

Literature is a spoken art, as old as language itself.  Ink on pages is a modern reduction and a mere imitation of the real thing.

Come on down.  Give a listen.  Or give us your voice.  We'd love to hear you.