Author Archives: Tom Cook

What Me Worry?

Don’t worry, be happy.
-Bobby McFerrin

Keep Calm and Carry On
-Ministry of Information, British Government
June, 1939

No worries
—Australian/British/New Zealand expression (also Canadian)

What me worry?guy by Tom Cassidy
—Alfred E, Neuman (Mad Magazine)

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
—Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer (Alcoholics Anonymous)

I don’t know if I am a born worrier or if years of practice has helped me to perfect my craft. I am unable to refrain from fretting, speculating, and fixating on what might happen. My current conundrum is the coming election. Like many, I feel that Donald Trump may not represent the best interests of those of us who live on land. His poor showing in the recent polls would suggest that victory is unlikely and the billions of dollars in advertising and the thousands of pundit hours are unnecessary.

Yet potential voters will still be harangued by fresh faced canvassers, robocalls, TV ads, and glossy mailers. People other than me will accost their neighbors outside supermarkets, stuff envelopes, and hold bake sales, car washes, and fancy fund raisers. My job during elections is to read everything I can find, bother my few remaining friends, and worry.

I fear that if a chambermaid short-sheets Trump’s bed at a Best Western in Jacksonville, he may spend the entirety of a presidential debate complaining about it. (With most candidates “handlers” is just an expression.) Then I began to worry. What if Trump quits? Does he have the character and fortitude to stick it out and face a landslide, or is he more a “take his ball and go home” kind of guy?

What if RNC chair Wisconsinite Reince Priebus cooks up a deal with fellow Badger House Speaker Paul Ryan to run? Many differ with Ryan’s policies but most agree that he is not insane. Talk about a lowered bar. Trump is polling slightly ahead of Kim Jong-un among women 18-54. Do I need the frat boy bully to remain engaged, and just successful enough to make it to November? How exactly do you go about rooting for that?

I was in full worry mode when I happened to re-watch Bridge of Spies, a Cold War drama directed by Steven Spielberg. Set in 1961 at the height of the Red scare, it is the true story of the trial of Russian spy Rudolf Abel. Tom Hanks is attorney James Donovan, tasked with defending Abel. Mark Rylance received an Academy Award for his nuanced portrayal of Abel as more than a borsht slurping villain in heavy overshoes and a cheap suit. Donovan and Abel form a lawyer/client relationship of necessity that develops into respect and friendship. Early on Donovan informs Abel that he faces charges of espionage and that the death penalty is “on the table.” Abel responds drolly, ”That wouldn’t be my first choice.” Donovan appears more anxious than his client as the case unfolds. The lawyer envies his client’s composure. After a crucial ruling goes against them Donovan turns to Abel and asks, “Aren’t you alarmed?” Abel answers, “Would it help?”

This is my lesson!

Donovan escorts Abel to the exchange point where he is to be swapped for Powers. Now friends, the lawyer is fearful of returning Abel to the Soviets. With drawn machine guns everywhere, Donovan asks Abel what he is going to do when he gets back. Abel replies “Have a vodka.” Donovan tries again, “Are you worried they will kill you?” Abel responds, “Would it help?”

Am I worried the republic will crumble and we will be ruled by a madman and a party of spineless sycophants? Would it help?

Tom H. Cook ran a precinct for George McGovern in 1972.

Writing an Advice Column

I am living with my husband and ex-husband and their girl friends.  These women sneak their red underwear in with my whites in the laundry and now we all have pink clothing!  I try to talk to them but they gang up on me.  Don’t suggest I leave; it is my house! 

(signed) Pinky

One of the many ways I irritate those closest to me is by occasionally speaking with a heavy Scandinavian accent, though it is not my heritage.  I do it only as an homage to the original movie Fargo.  Think Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), trying to impress his wheeler dealer father-in-law with his business acumen:  “I tell you, Wade, this is really sweet deal.”

While I was dining out with friends recently, the server offered us the Happy Hour Special (two for one hors d’oeuvres) despite it being 9:00 pm, three hours after the happiness was to have ended.  To the embarrassment and chagrin of all I replied in full accent, “That would be a really sweet deal.”

fixit

I have always thought writing a nationally syndicated advice column would be a really sweet deal.  I’d call it Talk to Tom, with an accompanying picture of me caring about others (it would need to be Photoshopped).  To get started, I planned to solicit or make up a few letters from troubled souls.  I’d have one a bit spicy (PG-13), such as an inquiry from a newlywed whose husband insists on bringing a pet goat into their bedroom.

Some letters would not even need much of a response.  Take “Marilyn of Widows Peak, Georgia.”  She enclosed a powerful poem she found tucked in a Gideon Bible at a truck stop motel where she was about to throw away her sacred vows and, as she put it, have “carnival relations” with a dried fruit vendor from Cincinnati.  I only need thank Marilyn, extol her bravery and reprint the poem in its entirety.  Boom, another whole column. (Ka-ching $$$)

I was getting excited about helping the downtrodden, lonely, and misunderstood. The rewards of syndication barely crossed my mind. A fancy degree is not required to give advice to the lovelorn, just a little common sense, which admittedly is not my strong suit.  Mostly you need to be kind, caring and genuine, which I can fake

Another helpful ingredient is a collection of wise but vague sayings and parables.   Don’t sugar coat the truth but wrap it in a pithy, humorous but knowing manner.  To close, suggest the writer seek out a therapist/counselor/clergy person.  That is the “playbook.”  The referral is the safe, middle of the fairway, don’t get sued response.

Before I could begin my venture I was disheartened to learn Dear Abby, Dr. Laura, Miss Manners, Dr. Ruth, Ask Amy, Dear Ann and the rest have large staffs working tirelessly to help lost souls. They have offices, copy machines, consultants, accountants, lawyers and a staff handling thousands of requests.  My bubble was burst.  Suddenly it was looking like a real job.  I opted to take a nap and remain a fan of the genre.

I enjoy my guilty pleasure, and freely admit to reading the Dear Abby letters in the newspaper on a daily basis.  To clarify, I call all the advice mavens Abby as Minneapolis’ Abigail Van Buren (Pauline Phillips) was the gold standard.  JoAnne and I attempt to guess “Abby’s” response and verbally craft a better one.  It is not one of my stellar traits but I feel a tinge of smugness comparing my problems to those who write in to the paper.  I do on occasion wonder where all of the concupiscent young women with poor judgement and raging libidos were when I was much younger.  They certainly didn’t live in Pennsauken, New Jersey in the 1960s and frequent the Cherry Hill Mall, or the Nassau Diner.  Unless my friends and I were not as cool…Nah.

When the upper crust mother of the bride thinks the new in-laws may be stealing her silver and it is a month before the wedding, I have to chortle.  One woman wrote that her boyfriend played around so much she did not know if the child she was expecting was his.  My favorite was a young man who rationalized that because he had delayed choosing a career; at 28 he worried that he was too old to start medical school and face ten years of training.  Expecting sympathy he concluded, “After all, I’d be 38 when I finished, isn’t that a little ridiculous?”  Dear Abby responded, “If you don’t go, how old will you be in ten years?”

I find myself muttering incredulously at the unfathomable and exasperating situations out there.  “No seventh chances!”  “Leave the lying weasel immediately.”  “Run!  As far and as fast as possible!”  I cannot believe some of the “writers” are in the same phylum as the rest of us.  It does however help explain the ascension of Donald Trump.

Tom H. Cook feels like he is playing “Whack A Mole” with the medical profession.  No sooner does he complete an appointment than another arises.  

Cook’s Codger Corner

By Thanksgiving Trump will lose interest or be injured while chasing a shiny object.
—Tom H. Cook           August 2015

 If Trump becomes president, Mexico and Canada will both construct (and pay for) walls to protect their borders from fleeing Americans.
—Ibid     May 2016      

Let us write to you in words you can understand. We are not displeased with your writing per se but our readership is becoming more mature and the pithy, hip, urban underground bling that you have been throwing down is too avant-garde for the speed bump lovin’ tweedy leaf rakers and corduroy cowboys we need to keep chill. The Board digs your vamping, but we will be unable to continue employing you unless you can help us skew older.  So Tom, you may be too hip for the room. Rock on and keep it real!  If you want to try an “oldster column” we will consider it.  Peace out.     —Editorial Board Hill and Lake Press

 

    Cook’s Codger Corner
Money saving tips and ornery observations buffalunatix

 Hey fellow seniors. Put on a flannel shirt because even though summer is coming it is still a bit chilly first thing in the morning.  WCCO says high of 70, but not in my pantry.

We are all concerned about money, what with property taxes and the like.  Fat lot of good it does to have a house that keeps going up in value if you are not going to sell it.  Who wants to leave the neighborhood and give it over to the hipsters?  Yeah, their kids are cute, but where am I supposed to go, to those chi-chi condos downtown?  Monthly association fees and people living on top of me, no thanks.

Well enough chatting.  Let’s get into the e-mail bag.

Dear Codger,
Do you know how much toothpaste is wasted every year?  Probably a lot.  Don’t throw out that nearly empty tube.  Cut it diagonally with a pair of shears (scissors).  There is another week’s worth of paste in there!                           Sharon M.      Girard Ave.

Dear Codger,
My kids want me to throw out all my maps and just Google or tell Siri when I want directions.  I need something I can spread out and look at and maybe write on. I want the big picture.  I can’t bring the computer in the car, and with all the traffic and horns, pay attention to a voice saying ”in four hundred feet merge left onto the Badger Creek entrance to I-94.”

I am going to AAA and see if they still have real maps like we used that summer to go to Mt. Rushmore. Hope they still lay out the route with those nasty smelling markers.
Linus E.      Chowen Ave.

 

Dear Codger,
All the grocery stores put the oldest milk in the front of the case.  Get on your knees and rustle around the rear of the cooler.  Someone with tats (tattoos) and piercings will come and offer to help.  Ask if they have a fresher container in the back.  Almost always the sell by date they find will be a week later!              Barb P.            Humboldt Ave.

 

Dear Codger,
I just had a check-up and my doctor said, “Don’t buy any green bananas.”  Is that bad?  I’ll hang up and listen.                                    Merlin G.         Irving Ave.

Tom H. Cook is a writer of sorts.  He serves at the pleasure (and whim) of the Executive Board

 

 

 

 

Turn Off the Phone Spam

Snapchat Betting On Bitstrips Appeal.  Firm reportedly plans to pay $100 million for app that puts avatars into emojis.

     —Los Angeles Times March 26, 2016

I take false pride in reading the daily newspaper cover to cover (by cracky).  In truth I gloss over articles that do not re-enforce my increasingly shaky world view.  I also give short shrift to subjects I do not understand. I read the LA Times business section story by Paresh Dave with my head cocked liked a large dog unsure whether he is about to go for a walk or to the vet’s office.  Emojis, which are an annoyance I have a superficial understanding of, are being customized and the resultant bitmojis will provide the user a unique way to pass on greetings, get well wishes, and eviction notices.  Somewhere bitmojis’ great grandfather (a circle with two dots and a dash) known as Smiley Face is looking on with pride and no doubt an insipid grin.

*                 *                  *                   *                   *                   *                  *fixit

A few years ago I was in a lengthy, pleasant, but ultimately futile discussion with Eddie, a service rep for an unnamed long distance carrier (all right, it begins with a V).  Eddie and I were laughing it up, talking about customizing and re-bundling my package so my monthly bill would not be mistaken for the national debt projections. We were being recorded for training purposes but I really thought we had a good rapport.  Since he was laughing at my jokes I never mentioned cord cutting or threatened to install aluminum foil wrapped rabbit ears on my roof. I offered to give up the Gardening Channel and 50 Croatian-Filipino stations in exchange for Showtime (so I could watch Homeland). This was a nonstarter. Looking for things to cut, Eddie mentioned offhandedly that I was paying two dollars a month to have an unlisted land line.  More on principle than actual cash savings, we decided to axe it.

Did I mention that JoAnne (the editor) was not home when Eddie and I were doing our business?  When she found out a few days later, you would have thought I had unleashed the Hounds from Hell.  The unlisted number keeps the telemarketers at bay!  As she was near tears, it didn’t seem the time to bring up the two dollars.  We redoubled our efforts to get on Do Not Call lists.  At first I answered the phone and implored the solicitor not to call again.  Some I even told how my wife was becoming unbalanced and inexplicably agitated by the sound of a ringing telephone.

There must have been something in my voice that suggested I really do want aluminum siding, solar panels, or an interest free zirconium (plated) text activated debit credit card which if held under a strontium 90 light (sold separately) will correctly predict eight of the next ten winners of the Kentucky Derby.  Finally JoAnne and I stopped answering the land line and began relying on our cell phones.  Unfortunately solicitation calls are even beginning to creep onto our cells. I suggested we get “burners” and discard them regularly like on Homeland.  I believe JoAnne has forgiven me but is reluctant to take this large a step.  Besides, what would I tell Eddie?

Tom H. Cook is still laughing over a line on the radio: “Looking back on my life, I realize that quicksand has not been as big a problem as I thought it would be when I was a child.”     

Humor Snob

I never wanted to see anybody die, but there are a few obituaries I have read with pleasure.
—Clarence Darrow

Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped.
—Groucho Marx

They say such nice things about people at funerals that it makes me sad I am going to miss mine by just a few days.
—Garrison Keillor

My uncle Sammy was an angry man. He had printed on his tombstone: What are you looking at?
—Margaret Smith

As one of the few remaining newspaper subscribers, I feel a civic duty to start the day with the news of the night before. I feign surprise and pretend I do not own an iPad. Besides, events are not real until I have seen them in print. My routine has been the same for years. First the sport section, littered with DUIs, assaults, and occasional ball scores. Next the front section, currently featuring the antics of contestants vying for the office once held by Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

I have only recently become an avid reader of the obituaries. I read not just about the famous, but ordinary citizens. Obits of the well-known often have a bit of “Behind the Music” quality to them. The hint of graft, plagiarism, or sexual dalliance is included because their transgressions were too public and may be the main reason they are remembered. Note of their passing may offer a “perspective” on the deceased’s penchant for other peoples’ pensions.

Those of us who are less newsworthy have to buy our own space. The loving tributes suggest that in many cases either the will has not been read yet or the prime heir has the responsibility for crafting the final words. An obituary is clearly not the place for a roast or for settling old scores. I have met many dour, petty and dislikable people who, if the paper is to be believed, led a secret life of philanthropy, warmth and kindness.

I may have obit envy after reading about the great accomplishments and sterling lives of those around me. Please consider the following with a grain of salt: My quarrel with most obituaries is they will mention the deceased’s great sense of humor.

I was a not-too-successful stand-up comedian, public speaker and writer on the subject of humor. I admit to being a humor snob. Many alleged humorists are merely exchanging old bromides about Ole and Lena, making fun at the expense of others, or passing on “jokes” that unfairly target a group of people. Their anecdotes are formulaic, and older than they are, some tracing to Homer.

A humorist’s best subject is one’s own misadventures.guy2 by Tom Cassidy Self deprecatory humor is funny because we have all had a similar thought or experience. Another type, observational humor, features the weaving of seemingly unrelated events together. First there is a glint of recognition and then the satisfaction as we “solve” the joke and arrive at the punchline together.

Those clumsily clever Toastmasters and Rotarians with snappy lines like “Cold enough for you?” and “Did you get a haircut or just have your ears lowered?” are not really funny.

As scary as death may be, I believe I am more fearful of being lumped in with everyone else who is said to have a good sense of humor.

Tom H. Cook is a former neighbor who, unlike Rhoda Morganstern, has decided that he will keep better in southern California.

Aging Perceptions

belanko by Tom CassidyDon’t worry; it gets worse.
—Barbara Amram (on aging)

Young women get changed in front of me.
—Jay Leno (on being old and invisible)

Why do seniors get a discount? They’ve had more time to make the money.
—anonymous (possibly Homer)

* * * * * * * *
“Are you comfortable?”
“I make a good living”

My very young dental hygienist (fresh from a small town in Idaho and trying to catch on in the glam world of L.A. dentistry) directed me into her chair and asked me the question. Granted, it’s funnier with a Yiddish accent, but it helps to be of a certain age to really sell the line. My response made her giggle and then laugh hard. There is a new audience, a whole generation that has never heard the classics. It is small recompense for getting liver spots, but too much is written about the downside of the whole aging process.

What is under-reported is the perks. I am no longer asked to help people move, (“We’re gonna have pizza and beer, its just a few things, it’ll be fun…”) I used to feel ethically challenged by party invitations. I was clumsy and awkward declining or accepting as I would almost always prefer to spend a quiet evening with dogs. Marginally interesting activities would torment me. I could go and be miserable, or stay home and feel guilty because I was not really too busy. Now I get far fewer social invitations and it is much easier to reject them. I politely but firmly say I am not coming, it is too far, too late, or I don’t want to.

Another advantage of aging is perspective. I was too often impulsive and short sighted throughout much of my life. I gnashed my teeth and lost sleep over roads not taken, mistakes I have made, hunches I did or did not follow, and decisions that, in hindsight, would have been better left to a ouija board. I am no Leo Buscaglia (how is that for a name from the past?) but I stress less and am more accepting. I did not get rich, but I never had to do hard time. The good news is that at a certain age it doesn’t much matter. My habits are set and more money would not appreciably improve my life. It is delightful to not be looking for a job, or answering to anyone.

People would rather be naked in front of each other than discuss their finances and I will not do either here, but the question that drives us most of our lives is “Why is there no parking at Trader Joe’s?” Oops I meant “How much money do I need to be able to live out my days warm and indoors?” I had always hoped that one of my splinter skills (writing, public speaking, stand up comedy) would thrust me into the public eye. I was never discovered but it’s nice not having to spend all that time in the harbor waiting for my ship to come in.

It is interesting to watch a coach who has prepared and practiced maniacally, forsaking friends, family, food, and sleep for a supreme effort in the big game. A close contest is more exciting but there is a melancholy bittersweet relief in a lopsided blowout. Up or down by thirty points in the waning moments, the contest is decided. It is time to be magnanimous: play the scrubs, avoid injury, don’t argue calls, congratulate your opponents, and let your players know how proud you are of them. My wins and losses have not been as dramatic. I never caught the brass ring, found the pot of gold, made it to Easy Street or [insert your favorite cliche here]. I hope to have many years left but I feel myself letting go of needing to keep score or watch the clock.

Tom H. Cook will likely have a third grandchild by the time you read this. He listens regularly to The Tony Kornheiser Show podcasts and is a “loyal little.”

Snippets

guy2 by Tom CassidyI am often asked (all right, twice) where my ideas come from. Much more frequently the question is why I still write for the HLP despite living two thousand miles west of Hennepin Avenue. It is a valid point, given the preponderance of young hipsters who could do a much more ironic job. Let me somewhat answer the former question and totally ignore the latter.

An event will trigger an idea, or a random thought will occur to me, and rather than trumble, flashstrip, or instasnap it to everyone I know (“Just had pancakes, yum!”), I will write it down on a scrap of paper and put it in my shirt pocket. When my column is due I need only go through my clothes and see if I am able to decipher what “people not a cucumber” means. Laundry day often wipes out much of my best stuff, but here are a few unrelated snippets that escaped the washing machine.

* * * * * * *
Many political progressives of both genders use the term grandfathered (an action exempting a person or law from a new regulation). When I asked a PC friend why the gender specific word was still accepted, they stammered and finally said it must have been grandfathered in.

* * * * * * *
The phrase “I am/am not a(n)___________________person.” The fill-in could be animal, goat cheese, cucumber, or ragtime. It is very British, tweedy, snippy, and fussy. I do not miss it. “No worries,” which has a Jamaican, Rastafarian, island, Bobby McFerrin feel, is probably on the way out. My accountant used it when I forgot to provide a 1099 form.

* * * * * *
The last remaining group we are permitted to make fun of is the people of Appalachia. Within ten years the term “hillbilly” will not be acceptable. I won’t say the Beverly Hillbillies were Amos and Andy, but the still syndicated show from my childhood is embarrassing. Comedians and film makers still feast on the fodder of lower intelligence, inbreeding and promiscuity with resultant large families for cheap laughs. It must be tough for young people in that region to live down the media image. Isn’t it nice that we are running out of groups to stereotype and scapegoat.

* * * * * *
Every time there is a mass shooting we wring our hands and ask why it continues to happen. Even the hint of gun control legislation sends weapon sales sky rocketing. After each tragedy we shuffle into religious services, hat in hand, for the eulogies, sitting passively, mumbling platitudes, alone in our private thoughts. Along with the moment of silence to remember the fallen, why not an expression of rage at everything the victims lost and was senselessly taken from us all? This is not a call for vigilante justice or an Orwellian hate week, but a way to share our hurt. Rather than feeling like victims in our Sunday best, let us have a cathartic scream at the injustice and rail at the insanity the second amendment has wrought. I picture Howard Beale in Network: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it any more!” The uproar will go viral.

* * * * * * *

The massive denial of humanity’s role in climate change. Cigarette smoking and the link to cancer. Football on all levels and the increased risk of traumatic brain injury and resulting memory loss, depression, dementia, and death. In all three cases there has been an orchestrated cover-up to preserve company profits and our own naivete. We have made science the villain, proving what we already deeply suspected. The arguments of the “deniers” on all three causes are uncannily similar. Rooted in denial and nostalgia, we do not want to know the consequences of our actions. We cry out for our loss, curse the messenger and whoever changed the rules mid-game. Enjoying a Sunday drive with the whole family in the gas hog, relaxing with a cigarette (and a drink) while watching the Packers and Vikings knock each other silly seems like solace, and a well earned reward for raising a family, sacrificing, and working way more than 9 to 5. “Can’t I just watch the game?” I no longer can.

Tom H. Cook does not understand why his phone is more interested in his exact location than his wife is. He wishes all a happy and safe holiday season.

Every Year at this Time…

 

belanko 1 by Tom CassidyEvery year at this time the secret Hill and Lake Press offices buzz with good cheer. The floor to ceiling fireplaces cast images that are heightened by the elaborate chandeliers. Kenny G serenades each employee as they enter the opulent lobby. (I take the back stairs.) The second through sixth floor offices are furnished in Louis XIV decor with intricately patterned crushed red velvet wallpaper, gold statues, fountains, eighteenth century art, and yak skin carpeting.

Very few of us have seen the seventh floor offices of “The Board.” The smell of fish and saltwater is unmistakable. The rumor is there is at least one pool which may or may not contain between one and three dolphins. There are whole wings of the compound I lack the security clearance to enter. I have been allowed to visited what the board laughingly refers to as the “Rube Room” located in a deep basement annex. Furnished from garage sales and dumpsters, the space is arranged to look like a dining room where plucky “community” members are hard at work doing paste-up. The homey touch is a front for a media empire that makes Rupert Murdoch look like a newsy working out of a kiosk.

Since editor Jean Deatrick’s edict for December is “Pump up the schmaltz!” Star photographer Dorothy Childers must use her rose colored lens and capture locals in ski sweaters drinking hot chocolate eggnog with buttered rum while playing a multi-generational game of crack the whip on freshly frozen Lake of the Isles. There will also be classic pictures of a fairly famous person lured to the neighborhood and appearing to enjoy dinner at the home of a successful HLP couple and a few hangers on who promise to behave and not mention the uranium car they are designing.

Other stories feature nuptials of fresh faced young couples off to teach long division in Botswana for a year before buying an Amway franchise in Cedar Rapids. There are cautionary tales of HLPers who left the grid, moved to Patagonia or the north of France, played Frisbee with the most interesting man alive, but will now be living on Colfax. The issue rounds out with a collage of puppies frolicking in the snow, kittens by a cozy fireplace, neighbors caroling, children sledding, and decked out real estate listings that extol the many virtues of HLP Land.

Hill and Lake Press Inc. is a multinational corporate entity and privately funded LLC. Nonetheless, perhaps we ought to keep quiet about its vast resources as it may make it more difficult to sell $25 ads.

Tom H. Cook embraces the holiday rituals except for the Hobbesian football and its bastard offspring, Fantasy.

Autocorrect

There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.
—Steven Wright

There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.
—Simon Sinek

Tommy, how many times do I have to tell you? Do not interrupt when someone is talking!
—Mildred Cook (mother)

The no-longer-new technology can be flattering. After a few key strokes Amazon and their like are ready to make rather heavy-handed suggestions. One of the goals of living is to be understood, and they know me! Like a very solicitous butler, their educated guesses can be eerily insightful. Their memory is long and persistent. If you have ever, even in passing, considered a move to Buenos Aires to become a gaucho, or be in a gaucho-related field (rustling, branding or pampas real estate), beware. Years later, despite switching computers, changing passwords and altering my name, there are still sites convinced I need a bolo tie.

Autocorrect can sometimes produce strange results. A humorous example in “Damn You Auto Correct” is between brothers. One is asking to borrow $300 dollars for Mott’s Apple Juice. His sibling is ready to lend the money, but is concerned that there is an apple juice problem. Alas, the money was for a mortgage payment. Be very careful if you are writing about Swedish cars or pencils.

But this is not an anti-technology rant about privacy lines being crossed and trampled in the name of expediency and commerce.

After being presumptively bullied by my computer as if herded by a border collie (if you have one, you know the feeling), I began thinking about how I often steer conversations with friends. The more I reflected on it, the more uncomfortable I became. I often interrupt, under the guise of empathy and identifying with the story or emotion. I try to be an active listener. (“Wow I would have been terrified if I’d been there!”) Sometimes I am viewed as a true friend, someone who understands a fear of rodents or lavender soap. Too often, however, I have acted like a rabid autocorrect, finishing sentences for others and leaping to conclusions the speaker was fully capable of reaching without my help.

I am likely to volunteer the name of the actress, restaurant, or song before my friends can come up with it. It is a bad habit to presume where a story is going and beat the teller to the punch to show off under the guise of being helpful. I have made progress in letting others finish their own ideas and anecdotes. In a group setting it has been interesting to purposely step back and let the conversation go in a different direction. I still step over the line and become a nudge now and then, but any progress I have made is attributable to the example set by the bossy people at Amazon.

by Tom Cassidy

Earby owl by Tom Cassidy

Tom H. Cook has two border collies and has not had to make an independent decision in four years.

Cedar Water

The swimming season is coming to a close. Whether in Cedar Lake or the Pacific Ocean, the subtle shift has begun. Pockets of very cold water, previously a refreshing anomaly, are now asserting themselves like Trump followers. The vanguard will soon become the establishment and while “The Donald” will likely leave the race entranced and distracted by a new shiny object, the water will turn cold.

This saddens me because swimming is what I laughingly refer to as my exercise. I splash, guy4paddle, and tread water with joyous abandon. Between pretending I am Lloyd Bridges in “Sea Hunt” and frolicking underwater, I feel energized, youthful and refreshed. A jogger friend scoffed at the number of carbs I burn and how little cardio effect I gain from my water play. I was going to let his criticism pass or more correctly roll off my back, but when he added I looked childish, I was stung enough to retort, “At least when I finish my workout I’m not all sweaty.”

One of the few things I took from Camp Ockanickon (aside from a lifetime hatred of oatmeal and singing “Mamma’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin‘ Bread”) is feeling comfortable in the water. Camp was deep in the pine barrens of southern New Jersey on a dark, picturesque, spring fed cedar lake. Even at 4’ 4” I could not see my feet standing in waist deep water. This unnerved me and I failed the deep water swimming test (jump in and swim 25 yards any stroke) I was sent to remedial swim class every day after breakfast. As a non swimmers I could not join any other activity until I passed. Too terrified to leap into the ink colored water, I generally needed to be pushed. After splashing around frantically I would grab the pole and be fished out in tears.

In the afternoon during compulsory free swim time my stigma, wearing a red non-swimmer string around my wrist, confined me to the shallow area. Much worse, the caste system carried over to the mess hall, the cabin, and all non-water activities. Blue stringers (50 yards) and white stringers (100 yards) heaped scorn on us (“Red stringers, red stringers why are you here? Red stringers, red stringers have some beer!”). We would then be doused with whatever non-beer beverage was available.

I have been dancing around the most embarrassing part. I was the lowest of the red stringers: I wore nose plugs! Decades later I have difficulty admitting it. Even other non-swimmers scorned me. The plugs, pink to simulate a flesh tone I have never seen on a living person, was the only way I could navigate in the water. Blue and white stringers might deign to come into the shallow end but I quickly and painfully learned they were on a mission to pull back and snap the rubber strap. The sting subsides long before the red mark on the back of my neck. Perhaps that is why I never became a bra snapper in my adolescence.

Some of the counselors were college kids ready for “Hi Jinx” (it was the 50s) like sneaking out to the girls’ camp across the lake after lights out, then regale us with their exploits the next morning. Joey was different. He was an east Camden (N.J.) tough guy who someone (possibly a judge) thought could benefit from a summer of sunshine and fresh air. Even as a child I sensed his anger and despair marooned in a wholesome woodsy setting with a cabin full of brats. His surliness made what happened all the more surprising.

Joey was on lifeguard duty, supervising the shallow (red string/loser)area. Standing on the dock he beckoned me over. I’ll never forget his words. “Hey squirt! Yeah you, dum dum with the nose plugs. Blow a little stream of air out your nose when you go under. Just a trickle. Then you won’t need that stupid s_ _ _ on your nose.”

It was not a Hallmark moment, but I did it and it worked! It might have helped knowing Joey couldn’t care less. Other counselors had more patiently told me to blow air out. When I tried for them, I either panicked and, seeking to please them, blew all the air out at once, or I accidentally inhaled. With the breathing mastered my fear diminished and I was able to enjoy the water. Thanks to Joey I left camp a blue stringer.

My “instruction” was a momentary distraction for a bored, sullen teenager. Joey, if he is living could not possibly comprehend that I still give him thanks every time I wade into the water. “Blow it out your nose slow, dum dum!”

I am not talking about mentoring, adoption, or huge life changing sacrifices and good deeds. My focus is “Joey moments.” Serendipitous chance encounters where a word, an act, a small gesture made a huge difference. The classic is “The Lone Ranger” leaving before he can be thanked unaware of how he has altered history. I am not so grandiose but I really hope I have done small anonymous kindnesses that have been meaningful to others.

Tom H. Cook has often imagined writing a letter of support for Joey to his probation officer or appearing in court on his behalf