The photo is from 1978. My son, his truck. Behind him, my truck.

Monday, August 29, 2011

"Do the math."

Monday, August 29, 1988

I start the day with a visit to the orthopedist for my knee, back, shoulder.  He says, "No ladder work.  No overhead work.  No deep knee bends.  No kneeling, period."

I reply: "That's like saying 'No working.'"

"You don't see many fifty-year-old carpenters."

On this day, I'm forty-one.

Next stop, a townhouse in Los Altos.  Bud is a white-haired man with penetrating eyes and a no-bullshit attitude.  I climb up and down my ladder to his attic running wires for new electric outlets.  I reach overhead.  I crawl.  I place the weight of my body through my knees onto 2x8 joists.

When I finish, Bud offers a glass of lemonade and says, "I used to teach at Saint Francis High School.  First day of class I wrote on the blackboard: 'Do the math.'  I kept it up there all year."

"Um.  Okay."

"What I mean is, I saw you wincing."

"Sorry."

"We break down," Bud says.  "I always figured I'd live at least to age seventy-six.  That's the average, and we're all above average, right?"  He takes a slow sip of lemonade.  "I died last week.  I was having surgery.  For three minutes my heart stopped.  They brought me back."

He's a no-bullshit guy so I ask, "Being dead — what was it like?  Do you remember anything?"

"All I remember is waking up with a heavy head.  I had a feeling I'd dreamed something."

"Did you see light?"

"You mean the tunnel?  Everybody asks that."  He pauses, considering.  "I keep trying to put it there, but it wasn't.  No tunnel of light.  Not that I can remember."  He laughs.  "You never know.  Until you do.  And then it's too late."

On the way home I stop at California Shingle & Shake.  I need to reroof my house.  I want to live in that house the rest of my life.  There's a choice of 20, 25, 30 or 40-year shingles.

Easy.  I buy 40-year Sierra Brown shingles and haul them home — slowly, shakily — in my pickup.

At home that evening, my back aches.  My knee feels like it has gravel inside.  But I'm not complaining.  I'm busy; I'm thinking; I'm doing some math.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Summer of Love

Summer, 1967

Working my way through college while trying to do some good in the world, in 1967 I spent half a summer in the mind-numbing heat of rural Missouri as a counselor at a summer camp for "underprivileged" children — poverty kids from St. Louis.  My cabin, by my request, contained the oldest kids in the camp: 15- and 16-year-olds.  They tried to assign me one boy who, according to his record, "killed a parole officer."  Fortunately, he never showed up.

"Long haired" Joe Cottonwood

I played my guitar.  They thought I was a genuine folksinger — or a Beatle.  I had the longest hair, by far — it almost came down to my eyes!  My theme song was "I Don't Want Your Millions Mister."  The song they related to the best was "Frankie and Johnny," which was of course about a murder in St. Louis.  These kids knew about killings in St. Louis. 

By accident I discovered one song, "All the Good Times," that put them right to sleep.  It was a quiet song, but mostly I think it was just boring.


On a campout, they caught frogs and fried the legs "like they do in the fancy restaurants in Gaslight Square."  Butchering frogs, I saw they were adept with knives.  One kid caught dozens of lovely powdery moths and pinned them, live, to the bathroom wall.  In the shower I overheard them whispering, laughing, comparing penis size: they said mine  was the smallest. 

They were hoods, but friendly hoods.  One kid, Calvin, had an asthma attack — in secret — and nearly suffocated.  He was afraid to tell me.  I learned later that at home Calvin's stepfather would beat him for having asthma.  Calvin was pigeonbreasted.   

We explored a cave where you had to slide on your belly through cold water to reach a giant room.  We canoed down the Cuivre River, and I went crazy splashing kids with paddles, racing, tipping canoes, doing everything that Charles the canoeing counselor had warned the kids not to do.  Afterwards, Charles chewed me out, saying he'd never let me or my kids take another trip.  Then he spotted a snake, forgot himself, and said, "Look!  A water moccasin!" 

"Where?"   

He pointed. 

Suddenly the snake snapped into the air and bit him right on the tip of the finger.

"Charles, you better sit down," I said, and he did, while the kids mauled that snake with canoe paddles.  Looking at the carcass, we could clearly see that it was a common copperhead. 

The driver picking us up was wearing a clown costume because he'd just performed in a play back at camp.  Now he had to rush Charles to the hospital and go into the emergency room dressed and painted like a clown.  Charles, a medical student, refused to take the anti-venom, believing it was more harmful than the copperhead venom itself and also distrusting the level of expertise at the little local hospital.  The hospital staff wasn't happy taking medical advice from a student accompanied by a clown.  Charles was very sick, never returned to camp, and probably to this day he curses my name.  But I go crazy in canoes.  Always have.  And nobody made him point his finger at a copperhead.

On a day off I drove into St. Louis with Bob Eichorn, a counselor who had an old clunker Buick and a bad habit of trying to pass trucks in the suicide lane where US 40 was a three lane highway.  He pulled up to a flower stand, reached out his window, grabbed a pot of flowers and spun out without paying.  "For my girl," he said.  "She's got small breasts.  You like big boobs?"

"I don't care."  I really don't.

"I don't like them so ... voluptuous."  He told me how he'd stolen money from his parents, spent several months with a buddy on the road from Long Beach, California to East St. Louis, Illinois where he was arrested at two A.M. in a laundromat when he'd put all his clothes in a washer and was wearing only a towel.  He'd dropped out of four different colleges, been a Marine for three years, been around the world three times, and had three nervous breakdowns.  Bob was 24 years old.

That was the summer I turned 20.  I'd never been west of the Cuivre River or east of Ocean City, Maryland.

My roommate looked like a young Matt Dillon, 18 years old, handsome, who said that Washington University and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were both controlled by communists.

"How do you know?" I asked.

"My father told me."

"Do you know what a communist is?"

"A bad guy."

Another counselor named Rodney was my singing partner.  Clean-cut and black, he'd join me in a duet of "Tell Old Bill" that was always a showstopper.  He took me to his house on a day off.  "I'm gonna integrate my neighborhood," Rodney said with a chuckle.  He stopped chuckling when a crowd of angry Black Panthers gathered in his front yard.  "If we can't live in their neighborhoods, he can't stay in ours," they said.  I ended up sleeping on the sofa at the house of a man who was the head of the NAACP in St. Louis and whose daughter, I could see, was sweet on my friend Rodney.  Rodney spent the night there, too.  Maybe he'd planned it all along.

Meanwhile in St. Louis they were having rolling brownouts in a heat wave that seemed hot enough to melt traffic lights.

A young woman working in the kitchen at camp had the largest breasts any of us had ever seen pressing into a blouse.  Breasts were a common subject of male conversation, at least in this corner of Missouri in 1967.  They believed Playboy.  They believed that unsupported flesh really could stick out like that.  One of the counselors took her on a date, and the saying around camp was, "Jack is taking Estelle to eat out.  They're also going to a restaurant."  But afterwards he wouldn't say a word about it, nor would he take her out again.

One counselor started complaining about a sore spot on his penis.  Another said he had a sore lip.  "Aha!" we all concluded.

Every day was like an open air sauna.  Every night, I sang my hoods to sleep.  When they arrived some of the boys were frightened out of their wits by the forest.  At night the whippoorwills sounded like police sirens to their ears.  They breathed fresh air, made friends, learned to swim and canoe, to explore caves, to catch frogs and — for better or worse — to cook them.  Breaded, like chicken.

The last night of camp, the kids would usually pull pranks.  Set off stink bombs.  They wouldn't go to sleep.  That night in the summer of 1967, after singing a couple songs, I started talking about nuclear war.  There wasn't a peep out of my cabin all night.

I wish I knew where those boys — and men — are today. 

From that camp I headed west, ending up in San Francisco.  For me there were two summers in 1967, one along the Cuivre River, one on the west coast.  In popular mythology it was the Summer of Love.  The first half, for sure, it was.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Plumbing and LSD

August, 1987

Stony Ridge was an isolated, quiet, hardscrabble ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  You'd never find it unless you had good directions.  At the end of a long, twisting, somewhat hair-raising driveway you came to a gorgeous little valley, rocky and rugged and utterly private, with an ugly stucco ranch house.  A Stanford professor owned it with plans to someday retire there.  Meanwhile he rented the place to some Stanford MBA students who seemed incongruous in the wild west setting. 

The house was unfurnished.  Apparently all the Stanford MBA students required at the time was a mattress, desk, and gigantic stereo equipment.  They decorated the walls with pictures of themselves bare-chested riding motorcycles and singing rock and roll.  No doubt these men are now Silicon Valley moguls of the highest rank. 

When the stereo was off, the only sounds were the scuttling of lizards and the clicking of computer keyboards.

For several years I repaired the ranch house and surrounding outbuildings, never meeting the owner who spoke to me by phone and mailed me checks.  The house was a dusty broken-down disaster that had previously been maintained by an 80-year-old legendary mountain handyman.  I removed the man's deadly bootleg electric system which had tapped into the service entrance before the breaker box.  I patched the funky water system and tried to keep everything running.

Eventually I met the owner, Bob, who wanted to make the small barn livable so he could use it on weekends and eventually retire there.  Part of the barn would be a sculpture studio. 

On a hot morning in August I was installing a sewer line from the barn to join the main septic line from the house.  Olen Ring, a fellow La Hondan, was operating a Bobcat.  Olen was backhoeing  the ditch while I followed along with a shovel, communicating with hand-signals and head nods. 

After Olen departed, Bob invited me to join him for lunch.  He said he'd been watching me and, he said, "I like the way you work."

"I try to get it right," I said.

"I mean I like the way you synchronized with that backhoe guy.  How you communicate.  How you visualize."

All we'd done was plan a ditch and dig it.  I selected Olen because he always had a precise, gentle touch on a Bobcat. 

Bob showed me the sculpture studio, which was basically a stable with a window.  He was working with clay, shaping a nice little nude.  No model.

Over bowls of soup Bob questioned me and pried out the fact that I was a published writer, something I rarely revealed to clients.  My most recent novel, Frank City Goodbye, was about the birth of the hippies in the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.  Upon learning this, Bob peppered me with questions.  How did I know so much about the hippies?  Had I been there?  Did I take LSD?  Did I hang out with Ken Kesey in La Honda?  What did I know about the origins of Kesey's LSD experience?

I answered as best I could.

Bob's wife was there, too, spooning soup and looking more and more uncomfortable.  Finally she said, "Disclose yourself, Bob."

He disclosed.  Bob had been one of the researchers at the Menlo VA hospital where Ken Kesey was given LSD.  Bob knew more about the whole story than I did.  He attended the Trips Festival, met Timothy Leary, etc.  But he’d been an academic and seemed to know little about how it felt to be young then.  That was my area of expertise: being young then, being a seed blown by the wind of the Sixties.  Bob was fascinated at how I'd taken root in La Honda, writing books, raising family, working with my body as much as my head.

I told Bob I’d quit writing.  At the moment I couldn’t juggle it anymore with work and raising kids. 

"I've been through the same thing," he said.  "It comes back."  He meant the sculpting, the nice little nude.




Robert McKim
As I found out later, Bob — Professor Robert McKim — was an engineer and industrial designer.  He created the Product Design major and the graduate-level Joint Program in Design at Stanford, an interdisciplinary program that combines mechanical engineering, art, math, physics and psychology.  Dean Hovey, one of the first graduate students in the program, said, “Bob McKim was trying to create little Leonardo da Vincis, people who were skilled in many things and diverse enough to create a whole product."

As a professor Bob had become frustrated that his engineering students couldn't draw or, in his words, "think visually."  He searched for ways to open their minds to visual problem-solving, which led him to the LSD research at the Menlo Park Veteran's Hospital.  

In a book called Altered States of Consciousness, Bob co-authored a chapter (originally published in 1966) describing volunteers — engineers, physicists, mathematicians — who were trying to solve problems after a 200 microgram dose of LSD supplied by the U.S. government.  (Oh how I wish there were a followup study of those volunteers, many years later.)
  

Bob moved on to other, non-drug methods of encouraging visual thinking and wrote a textbook on the subject: Experiences in Visual Thinking.

Thirty-some years later, by coincidence my son Jesse took a few of those classes pioneered by Robert McKim at Stanford.  By then, Bob had retired.  


Bob was a visionary in his field and an inspiration to a generation of designers, including the founders of IDEO, a world-famous design firm in Palo Alto where in the long strange trip of life, my son Jesse now works.  For the record, Jesse has never taken LSD.  But I'm sure Bob would appreciate Jesse's work methods, just as he admired mine.


As a handyman you never know what connections you'll make in the dusty backroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Back Yard Waterbed

August 18, 1978

When I built a sleeping loft in my Montgomery Ward cottage, it wouldn't support the weight of our dear old waterbed.  That, in a nutshell, is how I came to have a waterbed in my back yard. 

The frame of the bed was two-by-ten Douglas fir.  As one of my first woodworking projects I'd charred the wood with a torch, then wire-brushed, creating a lovely three-dimensional pattern of black hard grain like mountain ridges and yellow, indented soft grain like valleys.  If you saw it, you couldn't resist running your fingers over it.  Beginner's luck, maybe, but a great-looking bed.

I set it up in a patch of ivy growing under a Bishop pine tree.  Also in that back yard were a rusty steel shed full of construction equipment, a usually overflowing metal garbage can, several clay pots on broken-down benches, an antique wringer-washer I'd bought at an estate sale for $5, and a noisy electric dryer I'd salvaged from a job.  You could lie on the waterbed while waiting for the washer or dryer to finish.


 
In the hot days of summer, the unheated mattress was cool against your back while sunlight speckled through the branches of pine.  Beyond the rocking of the wringer-washer or the whine of the clothes dryer and the endless vroom of traffic on Alpine Road, you could hear the cows mooing in the pasture on the other side of the street, or you might hear splashing and giggling from Sonny's hot tub in his back yard next door.  In the rare quiet moment, you could hear the soft rush of wind through the needles of pine above.  Once in a while, a squirrel working a pine cone might spray seeds.  It was funky, but it was an oddly pleasant place to take a moment's rest.

By no means did we expect our daughter to be born out there.

Friday, August 18, I'm building a tree house at a health center for children (when I say I do odd jobs, I mean I do odd jobs).

When I come home for lunch, my wife (we're calling her Rose) says she "might be" in labor.  I dash back to the tree house for two more hours, then return home to check on things.  Rose is clearly in labor.  We call Iris and Sara, our midwives.

Sonny helps fix up the back yard waterbed with sheets and pillows and incense.  The plan is to escape the heat of the house but avoid the hospital vibes of Stanford for a while.

Sara checks Rose and says that it's still early labor.  Rose has been having contractions for several hours, not uncomfortably, without much progress.  Sara goes into the kitchen with Iris to make some tea.  Alone, Rose and I hold hands and chat in the back yard. 

The day is cooling down.  The sun has set; a full moon is rising.  Unusual for a Friday, there are no parties in Sonny's hot tub or anywhere nearby.  In the hush we can hear the cows coming single file down the hillside to gather at the barbed wire fence beside the road, as they do every night.  Dapples of moonlight dance through the pine and over the waterbed where Rose lies on an Indian bedspread.  A scent of sage from the incense mixes with the scent of pennyroyal from the meadow on the hill.

Suddenly Rose sits up.  Something has changed.

Sara had gone into the kitchen only 15 minutes earlier. 

"Sara!" I yell. 

Sara and Iris run outside and check.  "The baby is crowning," Sara says.

There's no time to move.  Sara pulls off Iris's ring; Iris puts on gloves, and a baby arrives and is wrapped in a towel and placed in my arms on Rose's belly.  In what seems like seconds.

It's a girl.  She's snorting.  She's also steaming in the cool air.  Sara throws some clean towels in the dryer and starts heating them.  As the dryer rumbles, the she-babe grabs my finger, cord still pulsing.  Iris clamps.  I cut the cord.  Sara nestles warm towels over the newborn. 

Don the OB arrives with a screech of tires.  We were supposed to call him when we were ready to go to the hospital.  Sara phoned him with the change of plan.  From sitting in the arm chair at his house four miles away, he got here in about four minutes. 

Standing by the garbage can at the corner of the yard, Don says it looks like everything is under control.  He says if he touches Rose or the babe out here — if he even comes close — he'll lose his license at the hospital. 

It's fine.  He's just a backup, and there's no emergency.  Suddenly all is calm.  A breeze shakes the branches.  Sara has lit candles, mixing their glow with the moon.  The light flickers across the undulating woodgrain of the waterbed and the classic, ever-new scene of baby meeting mother, becoming acquainted, surprised to be here, the instant bond. 

Don watches, arms folded, leaning against the garbage can.  The doctor is witness.  It's a normal birth.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Like a Hammer

Tuesday, August 17, 1993

I begin the day with Amelia, one of my favorite clients since 1977.  She follows me around her house gratuitously filling me in on her life.  "You remember Lyle?  My son?  Always in a snit?"

"He wasn't always in a snit."

"It seemed like it.  Anyway, he's at UCLA.  Pre-med.  Can you believe it?  I just got laid off."

Amelia is over 50 but still looks great.  She remarried two years ago.  There's a new Jaguar in her driveway.  She could retire now with more money than I'll earn in my lifetime, but she tells me she's taking classes on how to get a job.  She approaches every project as a hammer approaches a nail.  She's one of those people who are born to work.  Like me.  Which is part of why we like each other.

I tape some wallboard, put molding around a window, weatherstrip two doors and install a threshold.  Amelia is comfortable with my style of workmanship: creative, quick, not too fussy but never sloppy.

When I finish, I tell her that once again I've raised my rates.

"Oh, good," she says.  "It's so great to see you again."

I treasure these clients.

From Amelia's I drive to the coastal town of Montara and a gigantic house by the ocean that a couple living in Los Altos uses as a weekend getaway.  Talk about money - wow!  Fine wines in a rack, great furniture.  Twenty yards from the beach and not a speck of sand indoors.

Her name is Briana.  She's a referral from Isabella, my favorite decorator.  I'm replacing a gaudy chandelier with a high-end track light which, I discover, requires some problem-solving.  Briana wants the track located a few inches away from the existing ceiling box.  The wire won't reach.  Normally this would require a splice and an ugly cover plate, but I come up with a solution that involves cutting drywall, then patching and coating.  An ordinary electrician wouldn't do this.  It's where I excel, and I'm darn proud to say so.  It's why decorators hire me.

Briana studies the completed job.  "I don't like the rings," she says.

The lights cast a lovely pink halo around their cones of light.  It's charming, a special effect.  It's the reason Isabella chose them.

"You'd better talk to Isabella about that," I say, and I present her with my bill.  After three hours of ladder work, my back is killing me.  All I want to do is go home.

Briana squints at the bill.  "Seventy-six dollars for a dimmer switch?  You're really gouging me."

I explain that it's a special dimmer required for low-voltage lights.  I have the receipt in the cab of my truck.  I could show her — but I don't.  It's a character flaw of mine.  Sometimes I become a grouchy bear when people accuse me of gouging, and I'm not going to show them the proof that I'm not.  Grrr.

Back home I take three ibuprofen and draw a hot bath.  From the tub I make a phone call to Isabella and warn her.  "Incoming," I say.

"Oh no.  What happened?"

I tell her she'll be getting a call about the pink rings.  Then I unload about the price-gouging accusation.  "Don't send me back.  I'll never work for that woman again."  I'm choosy at this point in my career.  I accumulate Amelias; I discard Brianas.   

Isabella says, "She doesn't have children."

That's it of course.  Isabella believes raising children is the ultimate lesson in realistic expectations.  Unfair, untrue — yes, yes, she knows that — but a useful shorthand.  "I'll talk to her," she says.  "Don't worry.  You'll get your payment."

"I want my pride."

Isabella sighs.  "Just take the money," she says.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Autopsy of a Douglas Fir

Tuesday, August 16, 1983

Autopsy of a Douglas Fir

In your bleeding cross-section I count
a century and a half of ripples
from that mother cone dropping,
startling a jay perhaps, when
my Great Great Grampa was a baby crawling
a dirt floor, log cabin, Kentucky homestead.


For a hundred and thirty-four years
you grew like a child.
Great Great Grampa migrated West
clearing forests, founding a town.
He lost his shirt (and his farm) in
the California gold rush, then was lynched
in Missouri for speaking out
against slavery.  Surviving the rope,
(rescued by friends)
he fled north and started again,
unbroken, a lifetime of accumulating
nothing.  Five children.

Great Grampa, still a child like you,
fought Rebel Bushwhackers in Arkansas
before settling to a lifetime of farming.
He wed a strong-minded German
one-room schoolteacher, happily
growing children and his beloved vegetables
to age ninety-three when he collapsed
one bright afternoon
while hoeing the garden.

I count forty-three rings of adolescence,
strong growth, vigor, healthy appetite
and I imagine spreading seeds
while Grampa grew to a man
who I never met
a high school principal
small town Missouri
who peers prim and austere from a photograph
and died at his desk. 

Productive solid citizen rings you added,
a good provider year after year while
my dad learned science and invented
fabrics, a double-blade razor
and a ballpoint pen.
In Maryland he became father of three,
lost his money to blackmail,
kept dynamite in a dresser drawer
and never explained.
A scientist to the end
loving his work unto death,
a family trait,
he jotted notes on a yellow pad,
observing his own transient
ischemic attacks.

Suddenly in nineteen fifty-eight
when I remember fallout and Elvis,
you slowed down.  You continued
your lumber creation with care,
the caution of age, as I
grew to my full seventy-one inches
reading Kerouac and picture postcards,
migrating west, fleeing normalcy
and the draft board.

Eight years ago you show
pain.  The lines barely move.
Three children were born to me and then
I cut your flesh.  You compressed a trench
two hundred feet long where you lie.
As you fell in your fury
you snapped the top of an oak,
stripped another fir of its branches,
destroyed two buckeyes, one bay,
one and a half alders,
mauled a young redwood.

Better you crush my yard than my house
which did not exist
nor any of this town
when you first advanced
one tender green shoot.
No one owned this soil.
Deer nibbled your buds.
Bear scratched their backs
against your rough bark.
Ohlone passed silent on their path
to the waters of La Honda Creek.
I want to believe that the end
was quick enough
and that the pain of falling was less
than the pain of standing
another winter of wind.

My golden lab (named Oak),
sire to six puppies,
protector of my house,
witness to your fall,
will seek caves,
fear the rush of wind,
the sway of branches for the
remaining dog-years of his life. 
Panting he curls over my feet. 
We both know that
all good fathers must fall.

Your children crowd,
waving,
blocking the light.

My children count rings,
hands sticky
with sap.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Music Man

August, 1978
Bob Swain was an affable businessman with a wry sense of humor.  He and his wife Pauline ran Swain's House of Music in Palo Alto.  I liked them.  They could be shrewd or soft-hearted, and I never knew from day to day which personality would win out. 

When Jerry Garcia decided to move beyond bluegrass and go electric, he and the rest of the Warlocks borrowed - or rented - their equipment from the House of Music.  According to Pauline Swain, Jerry borrowed guitars from them.  She told me they nurtured many bands the same way over the years.  Meanwhile Bob Swain told me Jerry rented the guitars, same as every other budding musician.  That, Bob said, was how you run a business.

I worked for Bob and Pauline maintaining and upgrading the ancient electrical system in their store as well as maintaining their modest home in Menlo Park plus a couple of rental houses in the area.  They paid promptly and good-naturedly, which is really all I ask of a client.

Pauline Swain

 
At their home they had a garage filled with lovely grand pianos covered by sheets.  Pauline would lift a sheet and with a musing, faraway look on her face, she'd play a few notes.  She told me they were investments, not for sale.

Pauline wanted to replace all the fluorescent lighting in the store with warmer natural-looking lights.  Bob refused.  It cost too much.  Sometimes I felt I was witnessing a domestic dispute. 

I overheard a couple of salesmen bitching with each other and threatening to get a court order against discrimination.  The young manager there was a snotty son of a bitch.  I watched a musician come in, sit down at a gorgeous Bosendorfer grand, and play a few notes.  The salesman started blathering about the polish of the wood and the prestige of the brand, annoying the pianist so much that he walked out.  Discrimination?  These clowns didn't have a clue how to sell to a musician. 

Upstairs at the store, they gave music lessons and had practice rooms.  There was a constant passage of kids through the showroom coming and going.  The lessons, Bob told me, were the backbone of the store.

They had an instrument repairman named Charlie.  One day when I was pulling wires, I wiped the wire-pulling lubricant from my fingers onto a clean cloth somebody had left on a desk.  Big mistake.  That was Charlie's lap pad, or so he called it.  Charlie threw a fit and ranted throughout the store until finally Bob calmed him down.  Charlie was temperamental but irreplaceable. 



Swain's House of Music

One day I wired the electric connection for a backyard fountain at Pauline's house, and then she spent a half hour fussing and worrying and seeking reassurance from me - of all people - about an illegal rental that they owned.  I told her there were illegal rentals everywhere.  It seemed to settle her down.

After one broiling August day in downtown Palo Alto, Bob locked up the store and offered to buy me a beer.  At a cafe on University Avenue he told me about the care and feeding of Charlie: "If you think musicians are neurotic, try working with a music repairman."

He told me about an IRS audit in which a man pored over his books for three entire days, then departed saying, "We'll be in touch."  Later, Bob received an envelope from the IRS.  With shaky hands he opened it.

Back home, I wrote this:

The Music Man               

The IRS agent sat down and shuffled
through ledgers three solid days and left
without comment.  Six weeks
later came the form letter:
"No changes recommended."
Which has become the motto of this store.

You hear that salesman?
The guy just wanted to hear
how it played, and that dingbat's
yakking about the polish
on the wood for chrissakes.
You can't hire a good piano salesman.
Hafta do it myself.  Mostly, we
get schoolkids.  Lessons upstairs.
Sheet music.  Drums.  You name it.
Repair it, too.  Hired Charlie
twenty-eight years ago
and he was a crank even then.
Hear him raving?
Somebody got grease on his lap pad.

Fire department comes in here
once a year, gives me a list
of violations.  Same list, every year.
I say Yes Sir. Right away, Sir. 
Then I throw it away.

Man offered me more money
for the land under this store
than I could make
in the rest of my life.
Laughed at him.

Both my daughters play piano.
Son, guitar.
All married.  Grandkids?  You bet.
Me?  I never played a note.

The building that was Swain's House of Music at the corner of Kipling and University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto is now an Apple Store.  When I bought my laptop there, I couldn't help but think of Charlie with his lap pad, long ago, and how deeply I had offended him by wiping my greasy fingers on what I'd thought to be an old rag.  The ghost of Charlie, hovering now inside this store, can't wait to drop machine oil and metal filings into my new keyboard while the ghost of Bob in the bar nearby is hoisting a beer my way and chuckling, repeating: No changes recommended.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Welcome to La Honda

Drawing by Denis Shaw
August 11, 1980

In 1980 I'm new to La Honda, but already word is getting out that I'm a handyman and that - lo and behold - I actually return phone calls.  A pipe is leaking outside my neighbor Cindy's cabin.  She asks me to fix it. 

I can't find a shutoff valve where Cindy's water line comes out of the main. 

"Typical," Cindy says.  "I'll call Bob."  Cindy explains to me that Bob is the town of La Honda's one-man Department of Water, Road Repair, Swimming Pool Maintenance and Public Works.

After the call, Cindy tells me, "Bob says the shutoff valve is just four inches from the water meter."

"I can't find the water meter."

Cindy calls Bob again.  She rolls her eyes and tells me, "Bob says the water meter is just four inches from the shutoff valve."

Cindy calls Steve, the former owner of the cabin.  Steve comes over on his Harley and leaves it idling while he pokes around with his boot.  "The meter used to be right there," he says.  "It's gone."

"What could've happened to it?" I ask.

Steve shrugs.  "Welcome to La Honda," he says, and he rides off on his Harley.

I patch the leak with a pipe clamp.  It will work for a while.

In the afternoon I go to the swimming pool.  La Honda has this nice old pool that was built in the 1920's.  The filter system (maintained by Bob) is barely functional, but that's a different story.

In the shallow end, a little black girl is playing on an inner tube.  Three white boys are taunting her.  "Hey Crackerlips," one boy says.  The other boys join in calling her Crackerlips.  The girl ignores them.  


I've never heard this particular racial epithet before, but I know one when I hear one.

Several mothers are lying nearby.  All of them are white.  Nobody is doing anything.

I grab one boy by the shoulder.  He seems to be the ringleader.  "Hey!" I shout.  "Cool it with those names!  They’re ugly.  She has just as much right to be here as you guys, and if anybody has to leave it will be you guys." 

They cool it. 

But why did I have to do it?  I wasn’t even the closest, and I wasn’t in charge of the boys or the pool. 

One of the mothers rolls over and smiles at me.  "That's Gracie," she says, pointing at the little girl.  "She eats a lot of crackers.  She always has crumbs on her face."

"Oh.  I'm sorry if I—"

"They shouldn't tease her.  Her mother's gone all day.  I try to watch out for her, but she doesn't wash her face, and then she jumps into the pool."

A minute later in the shallow section Gracie slides out of the inner tube, bounces off the bottom, comes up on the deep side of the divider rope, and takes off in a splashy dogpaddle toward the far end of the pool.  The mother who had spoken to me says, "Oh shit."  She jumps up and runs along the side of the pool. 

The lifeguard is on her feet.  The pool - everybody there - even the teasing boys - become absolutely quiet.  All eyes watch as one small body in a very large pool makes slow splashy progress across the deep end. 

Gracie's movements lose whatever grace they had.  She paddles, panicky now, desperate, but she is still moving forward. 

At last she reaches the far end of the pool.  Clinging to the ladder, Gracie looks up at the mother reaching down to her and says in a small but firm voice:  “I need to work on that.”

In the evening, Frank comes over to my house.  Frank's a mason.  I called him six months ago about doing some tuckpointing on my chimney.  He says, "I guess I shoulda come over but I forgot."  He pauses, scratching his ear.  “That is, I didn’t forget forget, but I 'forgot.'  If you know what I mean.” 

He means, he remembered but he was busy.  And of course he never called me.  That wouldn't be the La Honda way.

That was 1980.  La Honda is less of a rural backwater these days.  The citizens, including children, are as feisty as ever.  The local tradesmen have learned how to use the telephone - and the internet.  The town maintenance department is now run competently and professionally ... by a prankster poet



(If you're interested, here's a link to a portrait of La Honda that I wrote in 1982.)   

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Grandpa's Pry Bar, Grandpa's Tractor

August 10, 2011

As I picked up my grandson Raj at childcare yesterday, we passed some construction work as we were walking to the car.  We stopped to watch. 

A man in a tractor was picking up sections of a felled pine and placing the pieces of tree trunk around the edge of a parking lot as a boundary and barrier for the cars.

"It has claws!" Raj said.


Technically, it was a Gehl skid steer with a bucket loader and grapple.  An assistant on the ground with a six-foot pry bar was helping to guide the heavy sections of tree trunk onto the loader.  Once the trunk was part-way onto the bucket, the driver would lower the grapple claws, gripping the trunk and lifting.  Then he'd steer it to an edge of the parking area and set it down.

It was fun to watch if you're of the male gender and of a certain age.  Raj and I qualify on both counts, though in different age categories.  Raj is three and eleven twelfths, as he will gladly tell you.  I'm sixty-three and eleven twelfths, though I usually omit the fraction. 

Raj and I took a seat on one of the sections of pine that had already been set in place.  While we watched, the driver would give us a thumbs-up sign each time he passed.  We'd give the same sign back.

Another boy leaving childcare stopped to watch, accompanied by a cute young mother who was dressed nicely and expensively for business.  Attorney, I'd guess.  I have certain mistreated friends who would argue that the words "cute" and "attorney" cannot apply to the same person.  I'm not so extreme.

The new boy was focused on the assistant holding the pry bar.  "It's like a light saber," he said.  "I want one."

"Actually," I said, "it's solid steel and very heavy.  I know because I have one."

Surprised, his mom looked at me with amusement.  She said, "Oh, you just happen to have one lying around at your house?"

"I'm a contractor," I said.  "I have all kinds of tools."

The boy gaped at me with a new respect.  That man has his own six-foot steel bar! 

The mom regarded me differently, too.  In her world people don't have funky tools.  In my world, some people have half a dozen pry bars in various sizes.

The woman and her son stayed for five minutes, watching the skid loader, giving a thumbs up when it passed.  Then they had to go.  They had things to do.

Raj and I had nothing better to do.  And what could possibly be better than this?  In warm sun on a log, we watched.  We observed a black squirrel clutching a pine cone, confused, wondering where the tree had gone.  We touched sticky sap oozing from the rings of our log.  We kicked our bare feet through a mound of soft sawdust. 

I told Raj that next time he came to my house, I'd show him my pry bar.  I told him I really like pry bars.  Some people are strange that way.  I knew one man who treated his pry bar like a special pet

Raj is more likely to grow up to be an attorney than a construction worker.  I'm doing my best to keep pry bars - and the whole funky world of honest-to-God labor - part of his life.

We watched the skid loader and the man with the pry bar for the next hour and a half until they had finished the job.  We talked to them for a few minutes.  They said the tree had to be cut down because its roots were lifting the sidewalk.

"Stupid!" said Raj.

"I agree," said the man with the pry bar.

A final thumbs up, and we call it a day.  


Back at Raj's house, I've brought a pile of new books from the library.  The stars must be aligned.  Raj selects one called Grandpa's Tractor.  

In the story a boy named Timmy goes with his grandfather (named, by golly, Grandpa Joe) to an abandoned farm which has mostly been obliterated by the new houses of an expanding town.  There Timmy finds a broken down rusty tractor.  (I have to explain what rust is.)  Grandpa Joe tells Timmy about the uses of a tractor and about his life as a farmer.  Timmy declares that somebody should restore that old machine to its former glory.

We agree.

The book is an affirmation of our day.  As I read the story aloud, we both are spellbound.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Watch Them Grow

July-August 1995

Around the age of 13, boys become useful.  Jesse, my oldest son was 13 when I first hired him to help me with a construction job.  Now Will, my youngest, is 13 and helping me lay plywood floors at Dolly's house.   

He hammers.  I tell him I want a nail every 6" around the edges, every 12" in the field.  It's a tedious though strenuous test.  After an hour alone, I check his results with a tape measure.  He never stretched, never wandered.  Okay, passing grade.  As a reward I let him drill holes and drive screws.

He proves to be a good worker and a good companion.

He's also illegal.  The law prohibits hiring 13-year-olds.  There's an exception for a family business (which of course this is) but even in a family business 13-year-olds are forbidden to operate power equipment or work in hazardous situations.  Is hammering hazardous?

I'm not exploiting the kid.  I'm teaching him skills.  He enjoys it.  Give a teenager a real job and watch him grow - it happens right before your eyes.  I don't let him operate the power saw or the router.  The big power drill, yes.  Cordless drill/driver, yes.  I keep a close eye on him.  He's earning a darn good wage.

When we return home, there's a package at the doorstep.  Will's order of guitar parts has arrived from Stewart McDonald.  As a summer project before starting eighth grade, Will is building an electric guitar.  It was all his idea.

In the guitar project, the roles are reversed: he's the boss; I'm the helper.  Together we've already shopped the intoxicating warehouse of a hardwood supplier and brought home a solid block of mahogany plus a sheet of walnut veneer.  At school Will's shop teacher, Mikel Kovach-Long, helped him cut the body with a band saw following Will's carefully-drawn design.  At home, I cut the neck with my radial arm saw.  Together, we veneered walnut to the body - with insufficient clamps - and botched it.  The veneer came out wrinkly.  Will scraped it off.

With our package from Stewart McDonald, we're ready to move on.  We cut a groove for the truss rod and glue the neck to the body.

Our two jobs done for the day, Will goes to a friend's house to play drums and spend the night.  I'm alone.  My daughter is in China on a tour that was sponsored by someone at her high school.  Next year, she'll graduate and then leave home for college.  My older son, on summer break from college, is working as a counselor at Plantation Farm Camp.  With mixed emotions I'm watching my kids take wing.

My wife comes home from a staff meeting and finds me in the bathtub with a mug of tea and a portable telephone, reading and taking notes in the margin of a book while listening to a Giants game on the radio.  Observing my bathing setup, she says “You’ll adjust better to life without kids than I will.”

Will and I return to Dolly’s where we spend a full day laying another floor.  Dolly is making up her house plan as we work, deciding which room will be art studio, which will be study as we are lifting bookshelves and desks.  To Dolly, relocating furniture means relocating memories of her husband who recently died, so we have to deal with an emotionally fraught situation.  It takes patience.

At night, Will and I work on installing the truss rod inside the guitar neck.  It's trickier than we expected.

The next day I take Will to San Francisco to catch a 6:30 a.m. bus to Camp Unalayee where he will trek in the Trinity Alps for a couple of weeks.  An hour later, I pick up my daughter at the airport where she has just returned from China, arriving an hour earlier than she departed through the magic of time zones.  Driving down the chaotic Bayshore Freeway, she remarks on how calm it is here.  She sleeps for the next 22 hours.

Continuing alone at Dolly's house, I finish the floors, hang doors, build a nice little sink cabinet and hang bank after bank of shelves.  The nice thing about Dolly is that unlike many clients, my standards are higher than hers, so she’s always pleased with my work.

After two weeks, Will returns from camp: tall, tan, and hungry.  Meeting him at the bus in San Francisco, I tell him the news: Jerry Garcia has died.  As we drive to La Honda, Will is in tears.  I had no idea it would touch him this way.  I tell Will about the time I sat right next to Jerry at a club called the Keystone.  "I never got to see him," Will says sadly.  "Now I never can."

Rummaging through my tapes, Will finds Workingman's Dead and pops it into the player.  He listens, not talking, the rest of the long drive home.  We all deal with loss our own way.



Will gets a big greeting from the dogs - and from his brother and sister.  My older son Jesse has completed his summer job, so we'll all be home together for a week or so.  My daughter has cooked fish with lots of garlic.  Everyone finishes dinner and then watches Will continue to eat.  After polishing off everything on the table, he goes to the refrigerator for more. 

When dinner is over, Will asks if I've done any work on the guitar.

"No," I say.  "I don't know what to do."

"Let's take a look," he says. 

I follow Will down the stairs to the basement.  I'm eager to help, eager to learn.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Justin

August, 1983

Justin is a friendly man in a big house, living alone.  I install ceiling lights.  He fixes me a steak lunch.  He has the gift of easy conversation.  At 53 he's almost old enough to be my father.  His wife died five years ago.  He has two sons, both salesmen as is Justin himself.  "Runs in the family," Justin says.

"Not mine," I say.  "I could never sell anything."

"I don't sell," Justin says.  "I help people."

I believe him.  It's a great attitude for a salesman.

The people he helps are purchasing agents for high-tech weapons manufacturers.  The equipment they buy is classified, so Justin can't tell me anything.

He seems lonely, following me around in a three-bedroom house that is now empty of wife and children.  I appreciate his company, especially because he keeps praising my workmanship, exclaiming how good and how low-priced I am.  It's nice to hear after a few clients recently have blown up at me.  I like this man.

"Does it just roll off you, Justin, when people are nasty?  In your line of work, it must happen a lot."

"I try to figure out what is their problem and if I can help them.  Which," he laughs, "I usually can - by going away."

I return to Justin's house a few days later to complete the job.  This time he has a companion who he introduces as "my lady friend."  She has a long firm body and hard old eyes.  She frowns as Justin feeds me croissants, strawberries and cream, bacon and eggs while telling me again how great I am.

When I go into the attic to run wires, I hear a few sharp words exchanged between Justin and his lady friend.  When I come back down, she's gone.

Justin says, "Hey, I've got some Swiss cheese that'll blow your mind.  Let me cut you a slice."

"I'm stuffed already."

Justin cuts a slice of cheese.  Grinning, he hands it to me.

He's right.  It's fantastic.

He nods his head toward the front door.  "I'm fine," he says.  "I meet people.  I'm easy.  More?"

"Yes, please."

Justin slices.  "I hope your wife never dies."  He hands me two more slices.  "That's all."

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Community of Parenthood

Summer, 1977

Her name was Betty.  She had a broken water heater and a de-hinged door.  The heater just needed a new thermocouple.  The door had been closed with a broom handle wedged into the hinge side, ripping it off the wall.  I rehung it.  I probably only charged her about $20.  I was a beginner handyman, working cheap. 

I liked Betty immediately, and I could tell she liked me too.  We were about the same age - I was 30 - but she was ahead of me in the child-raising department.  I had one boy, 9 months old.  She was divorced and raising 3 boys of 8, 10, and 12 years who had nearly destroyed her house - the broom in the door being only the latest escapade.

Betty offered me a cup of coffee.  We talked in her kitchen.  She lived in an Eichler in South Palo Alto.  Eichlers were 1950-era tract houses.  Betty's was typical: cinderblock walls with big windows, a flat roof, and an open floor plan that gave an airy feel in spite of the chunky construction.  It sat on a concrete slab with radiant heat pipes built into the floor.  She said, "Eichler was notoriously cheap.  All the houses are badly built."

"So you don't like it?"

"No, I like it.  The trade-off is that I could buy it at low cost.  And I love the open design.  From the kitchen I can see the living room and the yard and which boy is killing who."

One thing she didn't like was the radiant heat.  She slept on a waterbed for her bad back.  In winter the heat from the floor kept the bed too hot, so even with an electric fan it was a muggy southern night on top of the covers.  She said, "It's like something out of a Tennessee Williams play."

Words fail to describe the interaction between man and woman.  The glance held just a moment too long.  The distance between bodies as we talk.  The twitch of a lip.  The tiny beads of perspiration, the sudden wave of pheromones, the gesture of tucking one's hair behind one's ear, the fluttery feeling at the pit of one's belly.

Somehow Betty had hinted - without actually saying - that she slept naked on top of her waterbed, sweating next to an electric fan.  Was she flirting with me?  She looked abashed, as if she hadn't intended. 

She had a boyfriend; I had a marriage.  Neither of us were looking for a relationship.  I was new to parenthood but already aware of the changed rules, the more cautious behavior where the stakes are higher.  I'd entered the alternate world of mothers and fathers.   

A month later, Betty called me back.  She wanted my ideas for an inexpensive way to spiff up her kitchen.  The original Eichler cabinets were cheapo metal, ugly.  She wanted wood cabinets but suspected she couldn't afford them.

I suggested refacing the cabinets with simple wooden doors and drawer fronts.  She couldn't afford it.  Then I suggested just refacing the drawer fronts.  She went for it.  Meanwhile, I couldn't help but ask why there was a massage table in the kitchen.

"I'm taking a class in massage," Betty said.  "I'm draining the waterbed right now.  Then I'll put in a smaller bed so there will be room for the table."

"For your back?"

"Yes.  Of course I need a partner.  You can't massage your own back."

"I've always meant to learn massage."

Our eyes met.  A moment.  Betty said, "You'd need a partner.  You and your wife should take a class together."

Had we flirted again?  Had I put a move on her?  If so, it was uncalculated, spontaneous.  Neither of us wanted it.  We were separate members in the community of parenthood which is built like a tract of Eichlers: solid blocks but fragile windows, cozy homes with an open feel, vulnerable to broom handles and shoddy construction.

I took measurements in the kitchen and went home to build the drawer fronts.  As I was cutting wood that evening, I heard the news:  Sierra had drowned.

Sierra was a little girl living at Struggle Mountain, a hippie commune in the hills above Palo Alto.  I'd dispute the words "hippie" and "commune" to describe that place, but in the popular mind it was.  In any case, the people who lived there were my friends.  Sierra's father, Kim, had been watching her when somehow his truck caught on fire.  In the five frantic minutes of putting out the fire, Sierra had climbed - or slipped - or fallen into a pool.  She was at Stanford Hospital on life support.

A few days later, they took her off life support.  In blazing afternoon heat I returned to Betty's Eichler and installed the new facings.

The house was baking.  Betty was flushed.  For some reason she was wearing a rag around her hair.  "You seem quiet today," Betty said.

I told her about Sierra, that she had just died.

At arms length, Betty put her hands on both my shoulders.  Standing like that, she cried.  Silently.  A few tears, mixed with sweat.  Then we stepped apart.  We had evolved - there was no longer any chance of flirtation, whether calculated or not.  And yet we were bonded.

That simple fix, just a few wooden drawer fronts, enlivened the whole kitchen.  I was proud.  Betty was delighted.  I charged her $200.  Looking back, I can't believe I worked so cheaply.  Standing at the front door before leaving I said, "That was a fun job.  Thank you for letting me do it."

How could I speak of fun when Sierra had just died?  It happened.  I did.  The world doesn't stop.  Betty's youngest boy set off a string of firecrackers that hopped into a trash can and accidentally set some papers on fire.  I grabbed a frying pan from the sink and dropped water, drowning the flames.  Then I left.


A while later Kim, Sierra's father, gave me a Tibetan prayer flag.  Kim was giving them to all the young parents he knew.  There were many.  Our friends were of that age, bearing children, settling down.  I couldn't read the symbols, but Kim said the flag was a prayer for the good health and well-being of children.  The wind would spread its blessings.

Maybe it worked.  I hung the flag to the outside wall of my Montgomery Ward cottage.  When we moved to La Honda, I moved the flag as well.  Today, 34 years later, it's still hanging outside my kitchen door.  It's dirty after all those years - never washed - and shows the track of a slug who recently passed over it.  It's such a permanent feature that I stopped noticing it long ago.

I guess things went well with Betty and her Eichler and her massage partner.  I never heard from her again.  Her boys must now be 42, 44, and 46.  My children are now grown, independent, flourishing. 

Today Sierra would be 36.  Her spirit is in the wind.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Five Premium Studs

It's August.  The whole world is on vacation except you.  You work all day in the hot sun.  Your body is a sweat factory.  You drink a quart of iced tea, two quarts of lemonade, three quarts of water, four quarts of Gatorade.  Your brain is fried.  You sing to yourself.  Loud.  You might make up your own songs.  You don't give a shit who hears.  Nobody cares.  It's the Silly Season.

I went to the lumberyard,
I said if you please,
I want five
    premium
    studs.

I want fifty-seven screws
‘cuz I’m coming unglued.
I need five
    premium
    studs.

This ain’t no stickup
Just load my pickup
With five
    premium
    studs.

We can hammer all night
build a house of delight.
Keep it level and true
so we don't get sued.
If the order’s too large
put it on my charge.
Give me five
    premium
    studs.
That's five
    premium
    studs.