Thursday, November 27, 2008


Also known as whippletrees. You use them with a team of horses. Ken Laundry, the owner, hasn't needed them since he bought his tractor in 1951. During the Great Depression, Ken used to cut blocks of ice from the lake and haul them to local ice houses. He used to plow his fields behind a horse. Now Ken keeps the whiffletrees hanging in his barn, just in case. Which, these days, seems like a good idea.

(Continuing my homage to hardware and hard work. You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

News Alert: Joe the Plumber and Joe the Other Plumber to release books on the same day!

My Joe the Other Plumber post, and the follow-up Joe le Plombier, got picked up by several news reports including the United Kingdom and Croatia, for heaven's sake. So I hope you'll forgive me for announcing that the official publication date of Clear Heart, the worldwide launch, will be December 1, 2008.

Why December 1? Because that's the announced publication date of Joe the Plumber's (Samuel Wurzelbacher's) book. I have no idea what his book will be about, but I expect a lot of flag-waving. Maybe he and his ghostwriter will surprise everybody and come up with something good. I actually wish him well. We writer/plumbers (or ex-plumbers ) need all the help and good luck we can get. It's a tough and smelly world out there.

Mr. Wurzelbacher will have quite an advantage over me. Tons of free publicity and probably a trainload of review copies sent out. I've only sent one review copy of Clear Heart. I don't even have a book for myself. My copies are in a truck right now somewhere on a highway between South Carolina and La Honda. But it's available on Amazon and already has a nice write-up there. From such modest beginnings, we proceed...

(If you want to read the book jacket text, click on the image to see a larger view.)


Even the most orderly tradesmen seem to end up with a pile of wrenches. So many tools, so little time...

(Continuing my homage to hardware and hard work. You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Donald Finkel

The poet Donald Finkel died last week. You can read an obituary here, or the New York Times' version here.

When I was a student at Washington University, St. Louis in the 1960's, he was teaching Creative Writing. The university was swirling with writers at the time: Stanley Elkin, William Gass, Howard Nemerov, John N. Morris, with visits by Robert Creeley, John Hartford (singer-songwriter), many more - I even met Cyprian Ekwensi, the Nigerian writer. I had classes with Elkin, heard a stunning reading by Gass, had lunch with Creeley, sang along with Hartford and soaked up the roots of my writing knowledge from all of them.

Donald Finkel was kicked out of high school for playing hooky, and he was expelled from the University from Chicago for smoking marijuana. He taught the best Creative Writing class I ever took. He forgave me for skipping classes, and I may have shared a joint with him at some point - I can't recall. As they say, if you can remember the 60's, you weren't really there.

In Don Finkel's class, I wrote my first novel. It's never been published. Finkel loved it. My own take on it, looking back, is that it was extremely well-written (a credit to Finkel), an exuberant ode to freedom and adventure, but that I was too inexperienced in life, too young, lacking the wisdom that is the other half of writing - the understanding of the world, of how life really plays out.

Life played out pretty well for Don Finkel. I'm sorry it's over.

“The Ape Who Painted”

Toward the end of his painting career, Congo was
producing excellent circles, but nearly always filled them
in immediately.
–Alexander Alland, Jr., The Artistic Animal

from time to time he would pause
to examine an apple, turning it
in his long, sensitive fingers, or fish
a dust-mouse gently from under his bed
not a hair displaced
or moon for hours, sprawled on his favorite tire
praying to his thumb
how fortunate we are to have captured on film
this miraculous thumb, in full career
sweeping in a great assured arc from left to right
trailing a gleaming Indian Red parabola
counterclockwise, following its own law
tailing up again, toward its beginning
deftly dividing out from in
then filling carefully the bowl of zero
with precious red, horizon to horizon
toward the end, the painter’s cage was strewn
with fallen suns, great bloody periods
pages from some cosmic calendar
while he grew more taciturn than ever.

–Donald Finkel
From: What Manner of Beast

Almost Out

Here's my "proof copy" from BookSurge. Clear Heart is now listed on Amazon, but it says "out of print" and lacks the cover image and the "search inside the book" feature. In a day or two, the cover image and search-inside feature should appear, and you should be able to order it. The list price is $15 (Good news - less than I expected). The workings of Amazon are mysterious indeed, and even though Amazon owns BookSurge, BookSurge says they have no idea if Amazon will discount the price.

BookSurge is a print-on-demand publisher. When you place an order with Amazon, they print one copy and ship it out within one day. I've never done this before. I hope the quality is consistent. Please - if you order it - drop me an email and tell me how the printing came out.

For those of you who are Amazon-phobic (quite a few, I gather), you may buy the book directly from me, and I will happily inscribe it. My copies will arrive in 3 or 4 weeks (for bulk orders, they print it through a regular printing press, and it takes longer), so I can't guarantee that I could fulfill an order before Christmas. An order from Amazon will ship the same day that it is placed, so that's the Christmas solution. Once I receive my bulk order, I - like Amazon - will be able to fill orders in one day.

Clear Heart won't be in bookstores except in the Greater La Honda metropolitan area. When I receive my bulk order in 3 or 4 weeks, I'll place copies in the San Gregorio Store (the store itself is well worth the trip) or at Moon News Bookstore in Half Moon Bay. Maybe I'll get to some stores in San Francisco or East Bay eventually. I'm a shy salesman, though, so I can't promise to go around peddling myself very much. Also - just to warn you - bookstores have to make a profit, too, so in order to break even myself I may have to set a bookstore price of $18.95. We'll see.

Here's the deal: Send a check made out to Joe Cottonwood for $23 ($15 book price plus $8 for packaging and postage) and tell me how to inscribe your copy. My address:

Joe Cottonwood
P.O. Box 249
La Honda, CA 94020

Yeah, I know, it's an archaic way to order books. Maybe someday I'll figure out how to enable orders over the web (would anybody like to help?). Meanwhile, there's always Amazon.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Tucked between rafters is that all-important tool called Stuff. Stuff is too good to throw away. Stuff has many uses though we can't think of one just now. So we keep a bamboo pole, a dowel, threaded rod, flat steel, and the yellow curling pages of a 1956 catalog from Montgomery Ward.

Stuff is what we all know is valuable though it wouldn't fetch a penny at a garage sale.

Stuff is my favorite tool.

(Continuing my homage to hardware and hard work. You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Joe le Plombier

In a file cabinet in my attic I've found a stack of French reviews of Famous Potatoes, which over there was called Les Tribulations de Willy Crusoe. (Willy Crusoe was the name taken by the main character when he was on the lam from the law.)

All the French reviews make note of my college degree and my occupation of plumber. None of the USA reviews seemed to find it worthy of note.

Here's the one I was thinking of (sorry, I can't type the accents). The reviewer was comparing Famous Potatoes to a recent work of French literature written by somebody who evidently had never dirtied his hands:

En definitive, c'est peut-etre ce qui manque a notre literature: des etres ronds et sales, dont les reves seraient aussi les reves des ecrivains. Des etres capables de s'attendrir, non sur eux-memes (cela, nous n'en manquons pas), mais sur plus pauvre, plus desespere qu'eux.

Rich Amerique qui a encore de pareils vivants. Et des informaticiens-plombiers capables de les observer.

Pauvre Europe, ou les detenteurs de diplomes universitaires ne deviennent jamais errants, ou il n'y a plus ni plombiers, ni reveurs, ni racines. Et ou les livres ne retentissent que de mea culpa...

-Jean Vigneaux in Pourquoi Pas? March 25, 1982

My French is rusty, and I can't be sure there isn't an element of sarcasm in the text. But I think M. Vigneaux was praising my novel and, oddly, the earthy roots of American literature. Would anybody care to translate? What's your take?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Joe the Other Plumber

"Joe the Plumber," also known as Samuel Wurzelbacher the unlicensed plumber who doesn't pay his taxes, is coming out with a book. I've been watching his 15 minutes of fame with detached amusement, but now he's threatening my status as the only published plumber named Joe.

Yes, me, Joe Cottonwood. I was a plumber. And an electrician. And a carpenter. If you read the bookjacket of my novel Famous Potatoes, the 1979 edition published by Delacorte, it says: "Joe Cottonwood is a young novelist living in La Honda, California. A 1970 graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, Joe Cottonwood has been a computer operator and now earns his living as a professional plumber..."

For the record, I am now a licensed general contractor. Back then, I was a handyman who did a lot of plumbing. The bookjacket could just as easily have called me a handyman, or a carpenter, or an electrician. I was all of those things. A French journal printed a long article in which some French critic made a big fuss about the fact that in America plumbers were publishing novels and how that could never happen in France. I'm not sure whether the critic was for or against the phenomenon of publishing plumbers. Him being French, and me being American, I suspect he was against.

I wonder what that critic will say now.

Continuing a Theme

(Continuing my homage to hardware and hard work. You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Leopards, Lions, and ... Rope

Rope, sensual and strong. Rope works hard and yet appeals to the eye. Okay, I admit, I'm sort of obsessed with rope and chain and cable. They're tools, just like hammers and screwdrivers. We use them all the time. And when we put them away, they remind me of sleeping felines. Coiled muscle. Power and grace.

I've previously featured rope, chain, and cable here and here and here. There will be more.

(Continuing my homage to hardware and hard work. You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Cracked by age, battered by work, recently repaired, creaky but useful - this toolbox is a lot like its owner. Speckled with sawdust, spattered with paint, stained by water - there is a ragged beauty.

The plywood partitions are a recent addition. One fresh nail was added to the end, probably at the same time that the plywood was nailed in the middle. The handle has an elegant curve, though I'm sure its shape was for function, not aesthetics. The saw notches on the handle speak of its use as a sawhorse. The notch where the handle joins the end was nicely cut, then sanded and rounded, as was the handle itself. In contrast, the angled cut on the end piece is rough, slightly wobbly, and never finished.

It's the work of a practical man. A busy man. A man who probably spent a couple of hours, seventy-five years ago, choosing a few strong scraps of wood and creating this portrait of his career building simple, practical things that we use - and use up - without giving a thought.

(Continuing my homage to hardware and hard work. You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

About a Man

I don't arrange these tools. I shoot 'em like I find 'em. And I love this grouping, this simple quiet statement about a man's life.

(Continuing my homage to hardware and hard work. You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mystery Job

Tools gather for a reason. But I'm scratching my head over what project could have caused this particular gathering of tools on a carpenter's workbench.

Maybe he needed to field dress a moose, solder a cavity in its teeth, measure the size of its antlers, and open a bottle of beer. But the screwdriver? I dunno. Any ideas?

(Continuing my homage to hardware and hard work. You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

'32 Ford, '80 Calendar, '64 Story

I took this photo of Ken's workshop in September, 2008. The calendar hasn't been turned since September, 1980. The hubcap is from Ken's 1932 Ford pickup. I guess the good things in life don't need to change.

Speaking of pickups, I remember Ken driving that truck - or maybe it was a later model - with the bed full of garbage. He'd haul the trash from one of the summer camps and dump it way back in the woods on his land. He told me bears started hanging out at his dump, waiting for the camp food, and after a while they learned his schedule. Further, Ken told me, the bears got so comfortable there that they wouldn't run away as he approached in his truck. In fact, as he turned the truck around and put it in reverse, those bears would stand there giving hand signals, helping him back up. . .

(Continuing my homage to hardware and hard work. You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Almost Out

Yee haw! After two months of proofreading, corrections, resubmission, more proofreading, more corrections, resubmission, more proofreading... It's done. In a few days, I should hold the actual physical book in my hands. Here's the bookjacket:If you click on the image, you should get a larger view.

And something I just realized - there's no price on it. I think they were planning to charge $19.95, and yeah, I know the expense sounds high for a paperback. Even though it's self-published, the price is out of my control. The printer uses a formula based on what the fixed cost is to print it. Since it's print-on-demand, the cost of printing a single copy is higher (though surprisingly not much higher) than the cost of running off thousands of copies in a batch.

Still to come, they have to mail me an actual printed proof copy, and I have to approve it. (So far, I've been proofing PDFs.) Let's hope it's OK on the first pass this time (though given the record so far, it would take a miracle.) Nevertheless, I'm hoping that in a couple of weeks, you should be able to order it on Amazon. Or if you prefer, you could order it directly from me, and I'll be delighted to sign a copy and mail it. I'll set something up on my web site, though it will probably be extremely low tech - like, mail me a check for the price of the book plus $10 for postage and handling, tell me how you want it inscribed, and I'll send back a book.

For this moment, though, let me just glory in the pleasure of a job nearly done.


(Continuing my homage to hardware and hard work. You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hay Pulley

This one's more about farming than carpentry, but there is that auger bit along with the hay pulley, horseshoe, and bridle. And, most fascinating to me, there is the barn wood - texture, paint, notches - telling a piece of a story that covers three centuries.

(Continuing my homage to hardware and hard work. You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A 1954 Chevy Bel Air V-8

A couple of weeks ago, I posted this poem about my brother. It's about the night I got a call from an emergency room doctor telling me that my brother had suffered another stroke, and it's about how I was placed in the position of giving guidelines for whether to let him live or die.

He lived.

My brother is a long story, but the heart of it is that for the last 6 years I've been responsible for the care of and witness to the steady decline of a man I love, a man who knew a dozen languages, a philosopher who knew enough nuclear physics and computer code to make a tidy living while leading Sierra Club trips and pursuing his passion for trains - old trains, new trains, passenger trains, freight trains, real trains, model trains. He loved traipsing around the Sierra Mountains and the back roads of Italy.

When I presented him with a copy of a novel I'd written, he opened the covers, read the first page and threw the book against the wall. On page one I'd mentioned a 1954 Chevy Bel Air V-8. "They didn't make a V-8 in fifty-four!" he shouted. He did not suffer fools gladly, and often in his eyes I was the fool.

He sang in the Berkeley opera. He taught me to play guitar. He has a collection of old blues records that's like a field trip to the Mississippi delta.

He was a beatnik in an era of hippies, a cynic in an era of optimism, an alcoholic in an era of drugs. He supported every charity that came to his door.

A week ago, he had another stroke. I was with him yesterday. I am still the incompetent god, but still the only one on call. He is in hospice care. He has horrible infections in his skin and needs occasional morphine for pain. He fades in and out. Dementia has decimated his brain, but he still recognizes me and his old friends and - I swear - he understands what we say even if he can't respond. I am convinced that somewhere within all the confusion and incoherence of his mind there is still a kernel of clarity. I am convinced that he still wants to live and that he will let us know when he is ready to die. Until he is ready to accept death, I am not going to accept it for him. The hospice wanted to maximize his morphine and limit his other drugs, to limit his feeding, to consider what they view as a poor quality of life, to let him go. I disagreed, and by law I'm still the one in charge.

We were always telepathic. He came to me two weeks ago, inspiring me to read that poem. He spoke to me yesterday without opening his mouth. He still wants to live. I'm not making this up; it's too painful for fancy. He still wants to live.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Rope and Chain

(Continuing my homage to hardware and hard work. You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Clear Heart Podcast: Statistics and Thoughts

A year has passed since I started podcasting. It's time to look back, and look ahead.

In October of 2007, I began uploading episodes of Clear Heart. In January, 2008, I uploaded the final episode. So far, about 8000 people have downloaded at least the first episode, and about 4000 have downloaded the final episode. It appears that half the people who sample the podcast stick with it for the entire 17 hours. (Statistics are hard to gather and somewhat unreliable. I'm using only the most conservative numbers, which I can verify. The download number may in fact be much higher.) The listeners are spread all over the world. I've heard from Argentina, China, England, France, South Africa, Japan, Australia, Germany, Italy, and a sailboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Half the people who listen come to me through iTunes. The other half come through various web sites, but mostly through

I don't ask for donations directly, but Podiobooks attaches a request for donations to the podcast. From 4000 listeners who have heard the entire podcast, I've received about $80. My cost of making the podcast amounted to $128 for a good microphone (Samson), plus about 4 months of my life. So I have to conclude that:
1) People just aren't gonna pay for internet content.
2) I've lost money on the investment, if we're measuring by dollars.
3) I really don't care. I didn't go into podcasting to make money.

Though I haven't done any publicity for the last 6 months, people continue to download. I've been running steadily at about 200 new listeners per month, with about 100 per month sticking with it to the end.

Action/suspense podcasters claim to get 40,000 listeners. That's probably a first episode number, and I don't know what their last episode percentage is. As a "literary" podcaster, I'm at the upper end of the scale with 8,000/4,000.

Okay, enough statistics.

It's been gratifying. Web culture encourages feedback, far more so than book culture. I still get steady email from people who've listened and just want to say thanks.

There's no reliable filter or review process for podcasts. It amazes me that somebody hasn't started a web review of podcasts and established a standard. Instead of the New York Times Book Review we could have the Intergalactic Review of Podcasts.

Podcasting is coming to be seen as a desirable career move by young writers. Podiobooks now seems to release a new title every day. When I joined, it was about once a week. They have a mentorship program, a good one, full of wannabe podcasters who have the same enthusiasm (or desperation) I'm used to seeing in wannabe writers.

As a means of finding a publisher, the jury is still out. I'm now self-publishing Clear Heart. (Soon - real soon - I promise!) The podcast proved to me that there will be an audience if I self-publish. Now the printed book will have to prove there is an audience for a commercial publisher.

This project began as an experiment and an adventure. It grew into a love affair. I love the newly-invented, still-evolving medium of the podcast novel. It's more innovative and free-spirited than conventional audiobooks. It doesn't have the time constraints of radio. It takes the novel back to its roots: the oral storytelling tradition. It gives words their original power: their sound. The words enter directly, literally into the head of the listener wearing earbuds.

It's been a fun ride. The audience response is wonderful. My big disappointment was when it became clear that no print media - newspaper or magazine - had any interest or even much understanding of what it meant to podcast a novel. My big thrill was to get in on the ground floor of a new art form, one that is bursting with fresh energy and new ideas.

Would I do it again? I'm doing it right now, preparing another novel for podcast.

Good Tools and Good Luck

Stuff accumulates. Every once in a while you clean up your work bench and discover that somehow you ended up with 3 utility knives, a container for spare blades, 2 wire cutters, a pipe cutter, plus a single-edge razor holder that you don't remember buying but you save the package instructions in case you ever need it. And 3 horseshoes, so good luck might accumulate, too.

(Continuing my homage to hardware and hard work. You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Clean-up time

Today, the most important tool is the ballot box. And a few dust pans.

I'm on Wander Radio

An interview of me that was recorded back in July is now available on Wander Radio, "109.9 almost on your radio dial." The phone connection was kinda froggy, but it was a fun interview about my creation of Clear Heart which I started writing in 1997 with no intention of making a podcast. In fact, in 1997 there was no such thing as a podcast novel. You can listen on-line here or download it from iTunes by doing a search for "Wander Radio" and then selecting the "Joe Cottonwood interview."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Back Work

Resting in the light of a window, tools for a strong back.

(Part of my continuing homage to hardware and hard work. You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Tractor: Rope, Chain, Webs

1951 Ford tractor. Hasn't been out for a while, but the motor still purrs like a kitten. Stored in the "new" barn, which was built only 75 years ago using logs that were salvaged from an earlier, older barn. That stack of lumber next to the tractor was salvaged from a cabin that collapsed a few years ago. The lumber, now 90 years old, will come in handy for something, someday.

(Part of my continuing homage to hardware and hard work. You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Blog the Vote 2008

Somewhere in the clutter of our hearts, among the shovels and brooms, the empty cardboard boxes and extra pane of glass, somewhere deep inside we love our country. Not our politicians, not our foreign policy, not our taxes. The place is a mess, and yet... We love our land, our people. Our country.

Once every four years, we get out the brooms, the shovels and rakes. We try to clean up the place. That time is now.

(You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

My faith. My vote.

I've already voted. I mailed my absentee ballot a few days ago.

I don't want to talk about who I voted for, or who I think you should vote for. I just want to say thank you, America, for being here. Thank you for being a place where I can make a choice.

In my town (La Honda, California) we had a school board election that was a tie. The winner was determined by drawing straws. I wonder how many people didn't go to the polls that election day thinking their vote wouldn't make a difference.

My vote for president will be only 1/200,000,000th of the total vote, so probably the presidential election won't come down to a drawing of straws. My vote won't change the outcome of the big elections or change anything at all in a physical way. But my vote counts. It matters in a spiritual way. My vote is my expression of faith in Democracy, just as attending church is an expression of faith in one's religion. It's a ritual for me. It makes me feel good.

Two of my grandparents were immigrants to the USA. They arrived at Ellis Island seeking economic and social opportunity. They had political freedom of sorts in their old country, but they were strictly limited in what jobs they could hold or what people they could associate with. In their old country they were limited in how much schooling they were allowed. This is one of the least-talked-about freedoms in America: The freedom to learn. So in America they met new people, a vast polyglot of people. They made new friends and found new jobs and sent their children to school. They put their children through college in the midst of the Great Depression even though they had never attended college themselves, even though they were unemployed for part of the time.

My other two grandparents came from families that had been in the USA since before it was the USA. My grandmother's family came to the Massachusetts Colony escaping religious persecution in England. My grandfather's family came to New York in 1688 after their religion was banned in France (they were Huguenots). Their children fought in the Revolutionary War. Their grandchildren migrated west in step with Daniel Boone.

When I vote, I am expressing the will of my grandparents, the will of my entire family history. I'm celebrating freedoms we seem to take for granted: freedom to choose your job, your social circle, your education, your religion or even your lack of religion. And one more freedom: The freedom to move on. When your country is going down the wrong path, you can vote to change it. You shouldn't have to uproot yourself and move across an ocean when you can fix what's wrong with enough votes, enough common sense from enough people. You can mend this country right where you are. You can vote.