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.