Tuesday, January 31, 2012

365 Jobs: Storms (Six) Following a Boy Who is Following the Water

Saturday, December 21, 1985

Following a Boy Who is Following the Water

to a ditch
where we drop
a cork
which bobbles
among bubbles
as we follow
to a corrugated hole
that we call groovy pipe
under the road, splashing out
from wrinkles into a trench of adobe clay
where faster now water streams to a concrete
culvert under another road and pours out sinking
into weeds. 

Here it
downhill in wild
grass and we run
galumphing in galoshes
while the spinning cork drops
rapidly in a gully through tree roots
with beer cans gushing under the hulk
of a Willys (like my grandfather drove) as
here the ground levels out while our little cork
skirts a horse pasture and runs right through a chicken coop
until behind the midwife's house it plunges over the bank on a
into the torrent of La Honda Creek. 
How utterly satisfying.
What's next?

Monday, January 30, 2012

365 Jobs: Storms (Five) A Good Day for Rainbows

Monday, December 2, 1985

Another winter of storms.  This is our fourth day without power.  Today there's hope: though wet and gusty, there are breaks of sunshine.  Trucks and crews are everywhere, men with chainsaws, men on cherry pickers, great spools of wire on trailers.  There are bulldozers and dump trucks and even a giant crane plucking fallen trees from a logjam in the creek.  Bless our road crews!  Bless our linesmen!  Everywhere it's teamwork, rough work, temporary patches that will have to do with no regard for how it looks.  This is a battlefield.  Open the highways!  Restore the power!  Aesthetics will come later, in more peaceful time.

At a house in Palo Alto I "repair" a broken circuit by flipping the circuit breaker.  Sometimes it's that easy.  I charge an hour's labor — have to, or I'll go broke doing this stuff — feel guilty but move on.  It's a day of small jobs, small checks. 

Every time the sun breaks through, lovely rainbows appear.

After the work day I pick up my three-year-old at Nursery Blue where there is a mammoth puddle.  Boys and girls in boots or barefoot are pulling boats.  The entire scene is framed by rainbow. 

Back home, lights are on.  The refrigerator is humming.  Suddenly, briefly, a hailstorm rattles the roof like God throwing gravel — and all the while, the sun keeps shining.  I see an icebow.

Pacific Storm

Electricity out and
a Pontiac overturned in a ditch
like after a war,
a pine tree uprooted with
branches skittering everywhere,
but coming down the mountain
through thrashing wipers
I see one
— there! — over Interstate 280
above crawling cars,
and later another
— there! — on El Camino
rising from Ernie's Liquors,
and then again
— there! — a full half circle
from the Shell station
to the Christmas tree farm.
Everywhere pots of gold
except home, the power now on
but the phone is out
as hail pelts the skylight
and through the trees, bolts
of sunlight: all in all
a good day for rainbows.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

365 Jobs: Storms (Four) For the Money

Saturday, December 3, 1983

The phone still works, and I'm getting emergency calls.  I drive the truck over the hill slowly.  Wind and rain are pounding the cab.  The road is a river of runoff, branches and rocks and entire bushes washed onto the asphalt, traffic lights out in Palo Alto and Menlo Park.  El Camino, the main drag, is eerily dark.  On the radio I hear that the Golden Gate Bridge is closed due to 70 mph squalls. 

I begin with a non-emergency job, one that I'd scheduled weeks ago, installing a new light fixture at a house in Palo Alto.  Their power is off, too, so the job is easy.  Hope it works.  I can't test it.

A bit behind schedule as I drive — oh so slowly — to the next job, I have to pull over for a moment, find a pen, and jot on the back of a credit card receipt while the truck shakes with gusts of air and water:

    I'm sorry I was late.
    I had to stop by the side of the road
    and write this poem.
In the middle of chaos it somehow pleases me to write a poem that means absolutely nothing.

At an apartment complex in Palo Alto, they still have power, though ornamental trees have cracked in half.  The gales are lessening.  I patch a fence, put a sliding door on its tracks, glue a doorknob that kept falling off, and then — insanely — change an outdoor security light bulb, climbing my 40 foot extension ladder hoping for no sudden burst of wind.  What am I thinking? 

Getting paid, that's what I'm thinking.  This is the opposite of altruism.

Surviving that chore, I tackle the final job: tracking down a mysterious and frustrating leak in a woman's bathroom which seems to come from the toilet — no, the sink — no, again, not that.  This is the opposite of poetry.  Finally, on hands and knees grubbing beneath a baseboard full of silverfish and
soap scum and curly black hairs, I find it: the leak comes by subtle and hidden path from a shower door.  I almost gave up on it, but the more time I invested, the more I stood to not get paid if I failed.  Three hours to stop a tiny trickle of water.  In this storm, what irony.  Money motivates.

Friday, January 27, 2012

365 Jobs: Storms (Three) Like a Moody God

Saturday, December 3, 1983

From a deep sleep I awake in darkness.  The power has gone out.  I don't know why, but whenever the electricity stops flowing in the night, I immediately wake up.  Maybe it's the sudden complete lack of light.  Or of background hum.  Or of magnetic force fields, to which we are subconsciously tuned.  Me, I'm betting on the force field theory, but when I say so, my friends always roll their eyes.

Through blackness I hear trees bending in the wind.  In the redwood forest, the sound is a rush: Rush-h-h.  Rush-h-h.  I throw on a bathrobe and step outside, barefoot, with a flashlight.  Rush-h-h.  Rush-h-h.  Groan…  

Yikes.  In the dark a tree is falling — that sickening sliding accelerating sound of branch against branch— and I'm standing out here.  Where is it?  Desperately I whip the flashlight beam in a circle above me.


Below the house, across the street.  An old redwood, diseased, damaged long ago by roadwork.  It brought down a utility pole.  A live wire dances, sparking.

Inside I call PG&E and the Fire Brigade, then return outside and place orange cones that I'd collected for soccer practice.  I stand in the road, flashlight bobbing, until the fire crew arrives.

Dawn finds me sitting at the table with two lit candles and a cup of steaming coffee, surrounded outside the window by sequoia, dozens thrusting at the sky.  My hand still shakes as I write:

Like a Moody God

Last night
when you threatened to kill me
I realized how much
I love you.
To you I am just another little beast
among the chipmunks and chickadees
who you nourish with seed
as you feed my spirit.
In your height you create the fog
and then drink it.
You are a lesson in forgiveness
as you shrug off abuse
for centuries;
in wrath
as you will finally drop devastation
with a final groan,
no apology.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

365 Jobs: Storms (Two) Helping the Next Guy

Saturday, January 22, 1983
In this endless
El Niño winter there's a savage storm today, raining buckets, trees bending and roaring.  A roadside ditch is blocked.  Water is gushing across the roadway, down a hill and into my neighbor Mark's kitchen.  He's out in the rain with a pick and shovel, desperately trying to clear the culvert where the water is supposed to stream under somebody's driveway.  Mark looks like a madman plastered with rain. 

I bring out my six foot steel bar, which is pointed at one end like a sixty-pound spear.  Mark brings the rod over his head and then smashes it down again and again, poking holes through the driveway under which the culvert passes.  I shovel debris.  The blockage is cleared - and a third of the driveway is destroyed, stabbed to shreds by Mark and his heavy spear.

From helping Mark, I'm late leaving for work.  My son Jesse, age six, wants to come along, just for the ride.  He sits beside me in the cab of the truck listening to the radio as we drive an hour and a half through lashing gusty squalls across the Bay Bridge to Oakland and then north to Albany, where I replace my brother's water heater.  To Jesse, my brother is Uncle Ed, a strange and wild man who looks a lot like me. 

Driving home, before crossing the Bay we stop at an Arco station that makes me feel like a criminal — cash in advance, attendant behind bulletproof glass — reminding me why I live in the country.  By the time we're coming down our mountain close to home, the storm is nearly over.  A mist hangs in the air and clings to the windshield.  Coming around a blind curve on La Honda Road, I have to swerve to avoid a landslide.  I stop, pull out flares so the next driver will be warned.  I show Jesse how to light them:  Cool!  Like roman candles. 

Falling boulders, trees down, wires down — a winter norm.  In these hills, everybody carries flares.  You put them out not to help yourself but to warn the next guy.  We're all in this together.  Jesse absorbs this lesson as you absorb a way of life, without my speaking a word.

Back home in front of Mark's house, water rushes down the gutter and through the chopped-up culvert, heading where it belongs.  To protect Mark's house from the next flood, the La Honda Volunteer Fire Brigade — men and women in bright yellow slickers — are stacking sandbags along the road.  Volunteers.  Jesse says we should go out to help.  So we do. 


(Last year I posted another story about that same El Niño winter.  You can find it here.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

365 Jobs: Storm (One) A Small Spot of Light

Tuesday, November 30, 1982

Every winter, storms slam into the Pacific Coast.  Trees crash.  Land oozes.  Roads close.  These are the days when you realize what it means to live in a rural area such as La Honda. 

The winter of 1982-83 was an El Niño event.  (El Niño occurs when the Pacific Ocean is unusually warm, causing severe weather.)  It began in November with a hurricane that devastated Hawaii and then, somewhat diminished, struck the West Coast. 

At that time my children were ages six, four, and an infant.  I was remodeling a house on the Stanford campus, where the storm was simply a wet inconvenience.  They had electricity.  They could drive to the shopping center without dodging fallen trees.

After the day's work, driving home into the mountains, I remember fierce waves of wind.  Hail.  Thunder and lightning.  At home we had two Aladdin Lamps, four oil lamps, and various candles.  A camp stove for cooking.  We slept huddled together in front of the fireplace for warmth.  By firelight, I wrote this:

Hurricane Eva

The floorboards tremble.
Branches pelt the roof.
Rain blows under the door.
The phone, dead.
The electricity will be out for days.
I build a fire, light lanterns named Aladdin,
heat water in the fireplace,
play guitar, fetch wood, buy ice,
help the neighbor start her car.
My house from outside is a small spot of light
in a dark storm.
The power is out
but we are not powerless.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review: La Honda Journal by David E. LeCount

The old gloves
hold the same wrinkles worked
into my hand

Just 20 miles from the Silicon Valley, the little village of La Honda has long served as a counterpoint to the frantic high tech lifestyle.  From the regulars who hang out on the porch at Apple Jack's (motto: We eat puppies) to the readers and writers who hang out at La Honda's monthly Lit Night (motto: Drink hearty and read something) to the musicians who seem to be playing everywhere at all times (motto: The best music you never heard), the town has long been an alternative outpost. 

Picture window —
a hummingbird stares at me
in my cage

David E. LeCount, whose haiku has appeared on tea bottles all over the world, now has a lovely new book called La Honda Journal: a haiku diary.  It's a gentle, funny, and very wise reflection of family, love, children, and the rural life.

Digging for "treasure" …
two boys hushed having found
a rusted square nail

David has frequently joined Lit Night at Cafe Cuesta (formerly Sullivan's) to down a beer and read a poem or two.

To write, the old waitress
takes the pencil behind her ear
and tongues the point

I want to quote them all, but I'll stop now.  You can purchase the book at amazon with this link. You'll get 153 haiku for just $12.  That's less than 8 cents per haiku.  What a deal!  Read them and you'll go to a place where fat frogs sink the lily pads, where a woman's hair blows across her lips as she's saying good-bye, where piglets climb tumbling over your foot as you shovel their wallow.  You'll be glad you came.

365 Jobs: Weather Report

Friday, January 19, 1990

I'm mucking, disconnecting pipes around an old two-room cabin next to a creek whose water is rushing with recent rain.  After 50 years of settling into the forest floor, it's time to jack up the structure and pour a foundation. 

There's a quick wind.  Clouds scud overhead, framed in blue.  I like it that my job keeps me in touch with the weather.  Literally, in touch.  Today it sends icy prickles into my fingertips. 

Digging out a rusty pipe, I'm careful not to disturb a cheerful Castilleja — Indian Paintbrush — the last wild bloom of the old season.  Or is it the first bloom of the new?

Shutting off the water cock, I pause on hands and knees, peering closely.  From the funky earth, tiny sprouts of sorrel jut to the light — and here come swords of grass, fresh shoots of milkmaid and baby leaves of forget-me-not.  Excuse me but I'm thrilled.  Electrified.  The daily miracles of life on this planet.

At day's end I sit on the tailgate of my truck, pulling off boots. Overhead a vee of birds crosses pink wisps of cloud.  Children’s voices in the dusk beyond the trees.  A dog comes loping through the meadow weeds, tongue lolling, eyes bright, on the scent of something important.  For just a moment our gazes meet; souls touch.  Then he's off at a gallop.

We agree.  Work is hard.  Life is good.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

365 Jobs: Honking for Janelle

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Eight miles from the highway via a twisting dirt road I arrive at a faux-stone McMansion.  It sits alone on the side of Langley Hill surrounded by oat grass and the occasional craggy oak.  Janelle, who has probably heard the approach of my truck for the last ten minutes, greets me as I step from the cab.

"You made it," she says.  "Not everyone does."

Janelle has gray hair in a braid down her back.  Near the brand new house is an old barn where I repair copper pipes that their handyman accidentally cut through.  Janelle and her husband Gary watch me work and chatter constantly at me, two sweet people, lonely.  Upon learning that I'm a published writer, Janelle pumps me with questions.  She seems starved for intellectual conversation.  Gary, meanwhile, asks about water quality.  He's a retired software executive, struck it rich in stock options.

In the fields are no cattle, no horses.  A couple of deer are grazing.

It strikes me as odd: they buy 40 acres, build their dream house, a view of sunsets, rolling hills of golden oats, the ocean nine miles away, the country life without livestock or crops — and they can't fix anything.  From their chatter it becomes clear that their neighbors frighten them.  On one side, a billionaire from Silicon Valley is setting off dynamite, blasting holes in the hillside for wine cellars.  On another side, an old rancher shoots any dog that enters his property.

From outside the house I can see a telescope on a tripod next to the vast glass window, facing the fields and ocean.  Their great view comes at a cost.  They're naked to the weather, exposed to an unrelenting uphill wind bringing fog and chill.  As I work, the air screams — literally howls — through cracks in the siding of the barn.

At one point Gary realizes that while he has been talking at me, his wife has wandered away.  "Where's Janelle?" he asks.

"I don't know."  I'm soldering pipes.

A few seconds later, I hear the honking of my truck.  Gary is leaning, reaching through the window, pressing the horn.  From deep in the canyon comes an echo, like a ghost truck.

Janelle appears.  "I'm here, dear.  I just went to the house for a moment."

Gary grasps her.  They walk into the howling barn, side by side, clutching hand to hand as I finish my work.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

365 Jobs: Cranial Adjustments

Saturday, January 10, 1987

Caleb is an osteopath.  He says osteopaths have the same training as an MD, but I'm not so sure.  He's a friendly guy.  We have mutual friends and encounter each other from time to time.  He has two young boys who are like having two wild goats in the house.  My kids don't want anything to do with them.

About a year ago Caleb asked me to look at his bathtub.  One evening I dropped by after a particularly long day's work when I was too exhausted to be enthusiastic.  It's weird, but I have to sound enthusiastic about a plumbing job, or people won't hire me.  Maybe it isn't so for all plumbers, but it's true for me.  I need to instill confidence in my clients.  Anyway, Caleb gave the job to somebody else.

The somebody else couldn't have been too great, because now — it's 1987 — Caleb has called me for another job.  His two boys are somewhat calmer now, ages 3 and 5.  I install a new water heater, replacing 30 gallons with 50.  To comply with the building code, I put the new water heater on a stand, which necessitates some replumbing of the entry and exit pipes.  It turns into a full day job when Caleb adds some carpentry work: reversing doors, installing cabinet trim.

Sissy, Caleb's earth-goddess wife, waddles into the garage where I'm working.  With a smile she says, "Nice to see you again."  She's gorgeously, button-poppingly pregnant.

Joking, I gape at her belly and say, "Oh no.  Not again."

Sharply she says, "Well you have three!"  And she waddles out.

Sensitive subject, I guess.  Or my usual poor delivery.

Caleb follows me around for much of the day asking questions, watching, learning how I do it.  He tells me he bought a new Mac computer, just like me.  He got together with a group of 23 homeopathic practitioners and ordered 23 Macs, shopping for the best group rate, and paid less than I did.  There's a homeopathic program that runs on the Mac.

Try as I might, I can't make myself believe in homeopathy.  And now here's this guy who looks like a nice young Jewish doctor practicing wacko medicine.  Osteo makes sense to me, but homeopathy sounds like a con game. 

Unlike so many alternative providers who claim to cure everything from acne to cancer, Caleb is modest.  "I usually get good results," he says.  "I don't think I've ever hurt anybody."

Caleb does cranial adjustments, especially with infants.  In other words, he squeezes the baby's skull between his hands, reshaping it.  "It takes a leap of faith by the parents," he says.  "There's no scientific proof.  Just good results most of the time.  Here — look at this."  Caleb shows me two photos of an infant.  "Before and after," he says.

In the first photo the child looks tense and anxious.  "Your basic colicky baby.  Crying for two solid months.  The mom was going crazy."

In the second photo, the child looks relaxed, smiling.  "Five minutes after the first cranial."  Then Caleb laughs.  "It proves nothing.  But the mom was sure happy.  Tell me: after you install a water heater, has it ever blown up?"

"Not yet."

"Have you ever left a job worse than before you started?"

"Not lately."

He pretends to wipe sweat from his brow.  "I'm reassured."

Apparently he's forgotten, so I tell him: "You gave a cranial to my youngest.  Three years ago."

"At my office?"

"No, at my house.  You were visiting next door, and we got to talking, and you came over and gave my son a cranial."

"Uh oh."  Caleb frowns.  "Did I charge you for it?"


"Good.  Boy, was I green!"  He pauses, thinking.  "Why'd you let me do it?"

"I honestly don't know.  You must've seemed confident."

"That's an act.  For the placebo effect."

"Yeah.  Sometimes I do that, too."

"Placebo plumbing!  And that works on the pipes?"

"That, and a little solder."

"So now, how's your son doing?"

"He's great.  A happy kid."

Caleb sighs.  "I lucked out."

"Have you done cranials on your own boys?"

"Of course."  He laughs.  "That's what keeps me humble."

Sunday, January 1, 2012

365 Jobs: I'm Still Here

The year has ended, but the blog continues. 

I posted 262 "jobs" in 2011, so to fulfill the promise of the title I'll aim for 103 more.  And maybe I'll go on beyond that.  I'm not number-driven, so I'll go as long as I feel I can maintain the quality.

A few of last year's posts were stinkers.  I'll be culling a few and revising a few more (I'm always revising, anyway). 

Mostly I'm proud of what I've written.  For the record, here are some of my favorites from the first three months:

Frantic Woman
Chateau No-hub Reserve 1994

Hugging Bill Ash
Screwdriver, Melted
Breaking Waves
Do You Believe in Miracles?

The Gorilla Method
House to House
El Niño
Grampa, Rainbow, Porch Lamp