Wednesday, December 31, 2008


So I walked into a bar last week. The bartender squinted her eyes and said, "Hey! Are you Joe Cottonwood?"


"I knew you from your book cover. I just bought Clear Heart to give my boyfriend for Christmas."

Now that's fame. Earlier this year, I got an email from a bartender in Liverpool, England who'd read Famous Potatoes.

And speaking of honors, I woke up this morning to read:
2008 Founders Choice Awards

This year’s five Founders Choice Awards for excellence in serialized audiobook production for titles here on go to:

About the Founders Choice Awards

The Founders Choice Awards are given annually — well, they will be given annually — to serialized audiobooks of impeccable quality.
Hey. My podcast wins awards. And bartenders all over the world are buying my novels.

Impeccable quality and a happy new year, everybody!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Joe the Other Plumber, Part 4 ... and Denis Shaw

I just stumbled upon this old picture that Denis Shaw drew of me.

It's in a book called Here We Come Again: La Honda Poets which is so thoroughly out of print that I couldn't even find a used copy on the internet.

The book, published in 1982, contains five of my poems, three of which are actually songs.

The book cover is another Denis Shaw drawing, this one depicting Apple Jack's, our local tavern which was originally built as a blacksmith shop during the Gold Rush. Limey Kay added a lot of brick and stonework there over the years, which is fitting since it was his second home.

Denis, by the way, makes teddy bears. Hundreds of them. Never the same bear twice. Works of art. Some are "real" bears and some are fantasy bears-from-another-planet. He designs them, then builds, leaving the head for last. When he applies the nose, he says, the bears can breathe - they come alive.

La Honda is the kind of town with the kind of economy where the stonemason trades work for beer and the plumber can be stretched out on the floor thinking about poetry with his head under a sink while the homeowner sits at his kitchen table sewing, giving life to a teddy bear.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Good Night, Gorilla Glue

Ask a carpenter to repair a book, and what does he reach for? In this case, Gorilla Glue and a Pony clamp.

The book is Tails by Matthew Van Fleet. It's my grandson's book, and fortunately he has two copies, so one can be in the shop while the other is in use.

His favorite book, by the way, is Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann. It's a wonderful story. We've read it over and over and over again, and it's still wonderful. And if it ever needs repair, I'll reach for - what else? - some Gorilla Glue.

I met Peggy at an Author's Day once when we both were visiting the same school. She's a talented and hardworking artist. Good Night, Gorilla is a marvel of color, story-telling, and psychology. The simplest books are the hardest to make - and of course, they aren't really simple at all. She's made some beauts.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Because it's cold out there. Just like saw blades and screwdrivers, they're tools, and we need more than one kind. For myself, I usually wear gloves with the fingertips cut off - but then I don't live in the Adirondacks like Ken, the owner of these gloves. (Ken, by the way, just had a pacemaker installed in his chest and is feeling much better - probably out splitting firewood at this moment, at age 94).

When my fingers get cold, I lose all sensation (except constant pain). I dream of a glove that keeps fingers toasty warm, allows me to feel what I'm touching, allows a good grip on a chainsaw or a wire nut, and allows me to pick up a 6d finish nail. And while I'm dreaming, how about one that allows me to touch a live 240 volt wire - or hold a demolition hammer without sending vibrations up my arm? I keep thinking there must be a better design for gloves, and maybe there is. What do you use?

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Joe the Other Plumber, Part 3

Lawrence Wright was an English architect and artist, according to the book jacket, who believed "More can be learned about past peoples from their bathrooms than from their battlefields.” From my experience as a plumber, I'd have to agree. Rummaging through somebody's medicine cabinet is for amateurs. You could learn more by ripping out an ancient vanity or lifting a toilet (someday, perhaps, I'll tell the tale of the toilet, the toothbrush, and the giant creeping fungus - but not today). My friends, it's the dark side of suburbia.

An article in Paper Cuts, a blog of the New York Times, inspired me to return to Clean and Decent: The Fascinating History of the Bathroom and the Water-Closet, a treasured (and stained) book I inherited from my father, who was a scientist with many, uh, passions.

I'll be rereading it - and undoubtedly posting more as I go - but for today my eyes came upon this passage:

"That prolific inventor Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) in his proposal for Ten New Towns ... All the stairways in the tenement buildings were to be spiral, to prevent the insanitary misuse of stair landings. Leonardo invented a folding closet seat that 'must turn round like the little window in monasteries, being brought back to its original position by a counterweight'. For Francis I at Amboise Castle he proposed to install a number of water-closets with flushing channels inside the walls, and ventilating shafts reaching up to the roof; and as people are apt to leave doors open, counterweights were to be fitted to close them automatically.”

Just in case you think the closing of toilet seats is a new item in the gender wars.

Here's a link to a more recent edition of Clean and Decent, which can be accessed through Amazon and probably can be purchased without the stains.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Attention, shoppers...

For those of you who hate Amazon, I'm pleased that my novel Clear Heart can now be purchased at several fine establishments, including the San Gregorio Store in San Gregorio, CA (pop 287), serving the bicycle and surf trade. The store itself is well worth the trip. Good live music on weekends. You might even spot me somewhere near the bar, and you might spot my son playing guitar with John Fuller.
Mountain Made, seen in the above photo to the left of Alice's Restaurant in Woodside, CA, also has copies of Clear Heart. If you're out on your motorcycle and suddenly must have some good reading, stop by and check it out.
If your taste runs to the more conventional book store, Moon News in Half Moon Bay is a friendly, well-lit place which happens to sell Clear Heart. I go to the open mic there every couple of months and join other local writers for 10 minutes of whatever we feel like reading aloud.

I'd like to make my book available in at least one store in San Francisco, and the East Bay, and San Jose, and maybe in Marin - stores with friendly management who welcome local authors. Any suggestions on where I should go?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tom Dodd: Carpenter, Poet

Tom Dodd is one of the most generous and open-hearted people I've ever met. He's also a darn good carpenter. He lives in a tipi near Pescadero, California, which is near my town of La Honda. Right now he's foreman on the construction of a 4 story condo/retail building in Hunters Point, which means a long drive up the coast every morning and back every evening.

Tom's a poet, which seems to be an occupational hazard among some of the carpenters in this area.

Recently, an emu was wandering uninvited near Tom's tipi, lost but dignified, owner unknown, which has nothing to do with this topic but gives a sense of the daily strangeness in our neighborhood, perhaps the ghost of a Merry Prankster:
Anyway, here's one of my favorite poems written by Tom when he was living in a house, not a tipi, at Struggle Mountain:


Rough stone, smoke blackened,
time darkened mantel
and pale fire brick, chewed by near a century
of tree fall, building scraps,
old tool handles, broken furniture,
its looming dark mass anchors the house,
fixes the resident orbit,
draws us into its welcome grasp.

Katie could stretch out in its wide hearth opening,
stone cooled on a hot summer night,
but now we sit before the fire
bathing in warm woodglow
listening to embers talk:
the fir pitch cracking and spitting,
a fresh branch hissing,
the sound of logs suddenly settling to ash.

Cities of coals gilt vague memories
and dragon-tongued flames dance near
the curled hound’s sleep.
Here Jesse plots games and devices
and Katie dries and dreams after warm baths.
And I meet myself sitting quiet,
spellbound,beyond the limits of time,
at this same fire
in other places, in distant years,
amazed at this wealth.

Cigar Boxes - the Other Tool Chest

Just to keep things in perspective, we don't all need something like Henry Studley's tool chest. Here's how my hero, Ken Laundry, keeps small parts and tools. Ken was 11 years old, already helping to harvest lumber and saw blocks of ice, when Studley died in 1925.

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

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Henry O. Studley's Tool Chest

We need more nuts in this world. I say that because anybody who would put this much time, love, and work into building such an amazing tool box is, frankly, nuts.

Henry Studley was a Civil War veteran and a piano maker in Massachusetts. He built this tool chest using ebony, mother-of-pearl, ivory, rosewood, and mahogany, probably leftover scraps from building pianos. Wikipedia has an article about him.

I wonder what in his heart drove him to create such a wondrous work of art. It's owned by a private collector, but oh man would I love to see it in person, to touch it, to open one of those little drawers.

As a soldier, Studley was captured near Galveston, Texas in 1863. I know a lot of war vets, and they all find different ways to cope with the demons that war embeds in a man's soul. I suspect that this tool chest may have been Henry's way of coping: A world he could construct and control and make perfect, and perfectly wonderful.

Many of us, in our wood shops or on our jobs, do something similar in smaller ways.

Thanks to Eric Larsen of Key Knife, who turned me on to this marvel.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

It's Out!

It occurs to me that I never formally announced that Clear Heart is now published and ready for sale. Well, ta-da! it is. Okay. End of publication party. At this exact moment as I write this post, Clear Heart is ranked #224,628 in Amazon book sales. (Hey, yesterday it was up at 95,000).

Here's the link if you want to order Clear Heart from Amazon. And of course, they take credit cards.

Some people have asked for signed copies. Happy to oblige. Send a check for $23 ($15 for the book, $8 for packing and postage) to

Joe Cottonwood
PO Box 249
La Honda, CA 94020

Yes, it's low-tech, but it works. Make the check out to Joe Cottonwood. Sorry, I can't figure out how to process PayPal or credit cards. I mean, look, I'm just a writer, you know, living up in the mountains where I'm lucky to have electricity half the time (but we have a wonderful little post office). So, please: Checks. Or cash.

And pardon me while I shout a quick HOORAY!!! It's been a long time coming.

(As a side note, I originally scheduled my release date of Clear Heart to coincide with the announced release of Joe the Plumber's book. Alas, he seems to have missed the deadline. I guess we've all had the experience of a plumber not showing up when he's supposed to.)

Log Hook

As you can see from the comment to the previous post, what I (and my mentor, Ken) called a wood hook is commonly called a log hook. Thanks, Joe, for the pointer to Northern Tools where you can buy this baby for $23. Same price as my book, come to think of it, if you order by mail - and you can't use my book to grab and carry logs, so this tool is a much better deal. And unlike my book, a hundred years from now the log hook will still be useful to somebody just as Ken's "wood hook" is still ready for action.

It's interesting to read the comment page provided by Northern. Everybody says it's a great tool except they had to sharpen the point - so why don't they just sell it with a sharper point? It's bigger than it appears in the picture, about 16 inches, and seems rugged - if you accidentally ran over it with your tractor, the tractor would be the loser.

I want one. I shouldn't have one. My log-moving days are pretty much over, and just looking at that thing makes my lower back hurt. When I was younger I owned 40 acres in Mendocino County near the little town of Yorkville. Using downed redwood trees, I chainsaw-milled the lumber for a cabin - which is when I needed that tool. And this one, a log tong:

I had to sell that lovely piece of land when I was hard up for cash. It had meadows, an oak forest, and a lively little creek with a redwood grove. My kids and I had many an adventure there. Wild turkeys ran all over the place. Now it's an estate and a vineyard. (Sigh). I'm a beer guy, myself.

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

Monday, December 1, 2008

Wood Hook

Reminds me of a bird. It's a wood hook and it's probably a hundred years old. As Ken, the owner, explained, it's like an ice hook, only you use it to grab a log and carry it. Does anybody still use them? I can't even find a listing of one for sale anywhere.

This one's seen a lot of use. To me, it's a piece of history and a work of art. But I'm strange that way.

Here's a view of the whole thing:

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