Politics Are Damaging to Our Health

A study has found that 11.5 percent of U.S. respondents believe politics is damaging their physical health.

                                                                          Rosie McCall

                                                                          Newsweek September 25, 2019

Crazy uncle Izzy (the one with the plate in his head that allows him to get Conelrad and police scanner dispatches to his brain) is taking all us kids on a Sunday drive in his Ford Country Squire station wagon. It is 1957 and America is great for the first time. There are ten of us, and we are rattling around, climbing over each other, spilling our burgers and strawberry shakes as Izzy roars down the highway, driving (in his estimation) “perfectly” despite spending a considerable amount of time on the shoulder, then surprising other drivers by passing them on the right as we head for the far left lane. We often hit 90 mph “because speed limits are for squares.”  Why did our parents let us go? He promised a nice short, safe drive to get lunch.  Where are the police? 

Adam and Nancy are screaming for him to stop, which only goads him to accelerate and drive more recklessly.  Somehow a couple of french fries with ketchup get stuck in Izzy’s hair and he goes even more berserk.  His left foot on the gas, he is sweating, swearing and rooting around in the back seat trying to quell the rebellion. He seems genuinely hurt that we do not appreciate the burgers (although our parents supplied the money and he pocketed the change) or that no one has ever driven from the Twin Cities to Brainerd faster.  We are three quarters of the way there.  We have forced three cars off the road. Hundreds of drivers have honked at us. We and the naugahyde are covered in vomit.  Little Caroline’s shrieks and cries will haunt me into my forties.  If we get to Brainerd alive, we will kiss the ground and hug each other. Of course Izzy will want us to get back in the car with him for another term.  

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

I won’t pretend to know how this all ends or if it ever does.  My fantasy is based upon the last episode of Seinfeld.  Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer are called out on their lives of privilege and casual disregard for the feelings of others.  They face a jury of their peers; Babu (the failed restauranteur) and many more get to air their grievances in court.

Our democracy badly needs aPeople’s Court for this president.  An open hearing for those who have been personally cheated, violated, defrauded, intimidated and slandered. They would have an opportunity for a face-to-face redress of their grievances. We know the president lacks the empathy and self awareness found in most humans and higher animals; that is how we got into this mess in the first place. Of course he will not change. But this televised event (he will gloat over the ratings) will not be aimed at altering his behavior or seeking enlightenment or contrition. Funerals are for the living, and we need this catharsis.

The fairest way is to line everyone up chronologically, beginning with nannies and governesses he terrorized as a child. They can come forward and talk about his tantrums and cruelty. Classmates in private and military school can share stories about the “Richie Rich” bully and braggart.  Next would come tutors paid to do his work at Fordham University. Bribing his way into Penn and graduating without cracking a book did not happen without witnesses; they will be up next. Bone spurs is well documented. The Roy Cohn years are a cesspool of Studio 54 exploitation of young women. Let them have their say.  Next are the scores of plumbers, carpenters and laborers he refused to pay, including the honest contractors he drove out of business. “Sue me,” he would say. The women he grabbed, the contracts he defaulted on…  already there are hundreds of aggrieved New Yorkers and he is not yet thirty. There is even a book documenting his life-long cheating at golf. Coming up, The Art of The Deal, Atlantic City bankruptcies, German banks, Trump U. and Marla Maples!

We are going to need a bigger courtroom.

How many firsthand victims/survivors are there?  We must be well into four figures. The line would stretch double file from Congress to the White House.  Imagine the visual, and the interviews with those waiting to be heard. Franklin Graham would be called on to view the assembled mass of humanity and attempt to justify how these hundreds of people are all mistaken and the president really is a swell guy. Then he will be asked to name which of the seven deadly sins and Ten Commandments the president has not broken.    

Tom H. Cook would not be invited to this twisted This Is Your Life spectacle.  But every one of us who merely lost sleep, gnashed teeth, or saw our ideals shattered will be able to watch it on every channel except Fox.   

Pickle Ball

image by Tom Cassidy

Friend:  “So what you been up to?”

Me:  “I started pickleball classes.”

Friend:  “Congratulations!

Me:  “It’s not a big deal…”

Friend:  It just means you are officially old.”

My friend may tease me all she wants.  We have been close since the mid-80s and she always has a spare bed or couch for me when I return to Minneapolis.  She is also right about the makeup of my classmates.  They are old but, as I learned, feisty and competitive.  Sharing informally before our first session almost everyone was describing and displaying the scars from their past life in real sports.  Most were former jocks: skiers, golfers, equestrians and tennis players, not to mention contact sport veterans.  All had succumbed to broken patellas, bad rotator cuffs, mangled meniscus’s, cracked ulna’s, slipped disks, hip replacements, fractured fibula’s, or pin-filled ankles.  The scars are their badge of honor.  They speak with an air of sadness and pride as they recount accidents and crazy risks undertaken in their ”hell for leather” days.

I started to say something about being a collection of broken toys but thought better of it.  Our pickleball class was a mix of beginners and intermediates.  It was high school all over again, and not in a good way.  Nothing like being tisk-tisked by a 75 year old grandmother because I was unable to learn the scoring system which was laid out by Hammurabi.  It became clear that I wasn’t there because of a competitive fire to compete. I never laid my body out on the gridiron for old Pennsauken High, reasoning that an institution that sanctioned bullying, assigned homework and detention was not going to get my 5’6” 125-pound body for practice fodder.  I hadn’t “earned my (bone) spurs” from a debilitating sports injury because I was always picked near the end. While decently coordinated, I was not as tough as my teammates even on our championship co-ed slow pitch softball teams in college.   

Our instructor (a former tennis player with an impressive scar running across her shoulder and upper arm) rode me pretty hard.  We were not just hitting a whiffle ball with a paddle.  Pickleball was a game of strategy, teamwork and occasional power.  After a miscue she raised her voice at me.  I didn’t respond, so she goaded me. “What’s the matter? Do I sound like your ex- wife?”  “No” I responded “You are actually much nicer.”  She smiled and while she continued to be firm it did not bother me. Besides learning to score, stay out of the kitchen (a pickleball court area), and move in tandem with a partner, I was happy to have the four week session end.  The group felt cold and unfriendly.

To my astonishment I re-upped for the second term in part because a friend was in it but I mostly because I wanted a Groundhog’s Day do over.  This group was much warmer and supportive.  They “got me.”  As I have done my whole life, I used humor to build bridges.  I was the foil for many of the instructor’s jibes: “Karen, come on, you’re hitting like Tom!  Racket up!”   A number of my fellow students spoke with me out of teacher earshot and thanked me for bringing lightness and humor to the class.  I am glad I stayed with it.   Perhaps some late life maturity is finally kicking in.

Tennis, while beautiful and requiring great skill, can be a bombastic grunting dialogue with an exchange of 100 mph serves.  It is often like cable news with two loudmouth blowhards trying to “hold serve” by screaming over each other.  Pickleball is a fun, challenging mental game.   A player may not cross the seven foot line (the kitchen) which runs parallel to the net and just slam shots back.  Pickleball is like the parry and thrust of fencing.  It is stimulating dinner party conversation with all participants encouraging each other.  After a long rally with many artful saves, all four players feel they have contributed and the point winner is secondary.  Pickleball is mysterious.  Every evening is not Camelot, but even the most competitive players seem to respond to the synergy that the sport provides.      

Tom H. Cook is always promoting something.  This month it is Netflix.  Huge in France  is a comedy series about a famous French comedian who seeks to escape the Parisian celebrity limelight.  He does too good a job and can’t get a break or a cab in L.A.  

Just One More Thing

Writing this has been so difficult, I almost feel nostalgic for the paper era with typed crumpled drafts littering the floor and discarded ideas scrawled and flung in or near my office wastebasket.  Tangible evidence of futile yet honest effort.  (My mother’s voice ringing in my ears, “You have to at least try.”)  Proof, like a runner’s sweat, that I labored, albeit in vain, to reach even my modest standard of journalism. I cannot tell you how many times I have begun this (all right, 15).  Now a click exorcises hours of folly. 
Why is this piece so hard?  In every draft I come off as preaching to my betters.  Shrill, sanctimonious, self righteous, and self serving.  Why bother?  Why not write about the mentally ill gaining easier access to weapons, or the “relaxation” of data privacy laws, or why reading the posts on Next Door in any neighborhood makes me want to move far away?  This is about a series of small gestures I have undertaken.  As a final disclaimer, I am not setting myself up as a paragon of generosity and I likely do less for my fellow man than you do, yet here is my very short tale.
I have always been lets call it frugal although those that know me have other names for it.  In the last few years I have begun to loosen up a bit.  This is not about writing checks to worthy organizations (see HLP/March 2004).  In non-tipping situations I have taken to rewarding people that have gone out of their way for me.  It seems like every minimum wage and a bit higher worker is being rated and evaluated by their supervisor who in turn must report up the ladder and ultimately to the head weasel.  This has produced a class of people subtly bullied into feeling grateful for the opportunity to do a difficult, monotonous, unpleasant, and/or dangerous job.  Then they must worry that I will turn them in for below average groveling and insufficient servility.  
My eyes have become further opened to the squeeze on the working poor.  They are “independent contractors,” which translates to no healthcare, seniority, retirement or sick leave. When I have had positive dealing with workers and service people who I feel deserve a bit extra, I help.  They do not have to give me a story, but often it flows freely.  I assure them that we are off the record and they will get all “5s” from me.  Like Studs Terkel, I ask,  “What do you do all day, and how do you feel about it? How are you treated by the company?”  I am just an old man asking gentle questions.  If they have quotas to meet and need to rush off, I let them go.  
Countless times I have received an extra coat of touch-up paint on a gate, a few extra feet of cable, or a tow to a slightly out of network repair shop.  We are enjoined in a conspiracy, if only for a few minutes.  We know I am being overcharged for the product or service and they are receiving a pitifully small percentage.  Their lives are far harder than mine (affordable housing may be 50 miles away from where their route begins) yet they see me as a fellow victim of the bureaucratic rules that bind us.  Since I don’t come off as an entitled homeowner, the service people I have met are astonishing.  This is not a tit for tat or a figurative back scratching.  These are good souls trapped in a piecework system with no safety net or union protection.  I could not even in my prime (May-August 1977) last a week in their lives. 
Often the repair person has fixed problems like mine many times.  Just by my offering a cold drink on a hot day they will show me tricks to head off future repairs.  I am not polite because of what I may gain, but I am genuinely interested and sympathetic.  I never lead with the promise of a gift.  Generally it is a Columbo moment (“Just one more thing…”). Often the tip is refused until I mention the extra service they provided me.  I don’t give a huge amount, maybe enough to take their family to dinner, pay a bill, or put gas in their vehicle (sadly not all three).  Invariably they are flabbergasted   The gratitude I receive is more valuable and feels better than what I would have done with the money. 
Tom H. Cook is now an occasional columnist.  He recommends The Despair of Learning That Experience No Longer Matters by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in the April 10, 2017 New Yorker.

Return To Our Home Town

I owe my life to the doctors, nurses, and support staff at the University of Minnesota Hospital.  My delicate and at the time pioneering emergency heart surgery was performed as JoAnne (the editor) was giving birth to our daughter Rachael at HCMC hospital. It was fall 1979, our second year in Minnesota.  I was teaching in Bloomington and we lived in a cozy house on 34th Street between Humboldt and Irving.  Thanks to new friends and neighbors, the three of us regained our balance. In the summer of 1982 we added (with considerably less chaos) another child, our dear son Ben.  In 1985, needing more space, we moved north ten blocks to a house again just off Humboldt, this time near Lake of the Isles.  That was the wonderful growing-up home that the kids remember.  We have happy memories, many centered around  Barton Open School, a K-8 adventure that provided Rachael and Ben with an excellent foundation of learning.

In about fifth grade our daughter began modeling for the Susan Wehmann agency near Loring Park. This lead, a few years later, to an introduction to a fairy godmother who provided her acting opportunities in Hollywood. Meanwhile Ben decided on UC Santa Cruz for college (Go Banana Slugs!).  JoAnne and I were frozen empty nesters.  Rachael settled in Los Angeles; with very little encouragement we followed.  In 2004 she married New Zealand actor Daniel Gillies.  Many years later, I am still writing for my dear friends, the writers and readers of the Hill and Lake Press, while living in southern California.

The Twin Cities Film Fest in St. Louis Park (October 18-28) is showing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Rachael plays Hermia.  She has been invited to the October 28th screening.  The Film Fest folks did not realize this would unleash a  Kunta Kinte Roots-like reaction in our family.  The adults have been back a number of times, but now there are fresh young eyes and two big new reasons to come home.  Charlotte is four and full of questions, and Theo at two is just full of… zest.  (I had to promise not to immerse the children in the lake before being allowed to come). We are very excited to show them where mom and uncle Ben grew up.

We hardly know where to start:  Uptown, skyways, bridges, Triangle Park, Lake of the Isles, the Sculpture Garden, Minnehaha Creek, our old house…  I am voting for train and bus rides and other unique non-LA activities.  If you see a winded older man chasing two children racing through the neighborhood while kicking autumn leaves, the old guy might be me.  We want to show the kids a land that is not palm trees and traffic.  And dare we hope for rain?  Whatever the weather, we are excited to introduce Charlotte and Theo to the town that nurtured us, and that we still call home.

Tom H. Cook is aware that his daunting and ambitious plans for the visit could be undone by crankiness and the need for naps.  Tom has vowed to do his best.

No Longer a Flip-Flopper

Remember when an almost unpardonable sin for a politician was changing their mind on an issue?  We called it flip-flopping: contradicting a previously stated positioguy by Tom Cassidyn because of additional information, polling data, party/peer pressure, or atmospheric change.  It was possible to evolve and have a paradigm shift, though you were sure to be scorned for at least two news cycles as a hypocritical opportunist, or at least wishy washy.  Either way, implied was a lack of leadership and fitness to be “on the bridge” making the tough decisions in time of crisis.  Mitt Romney was a prime casualty in 2008 and 2012, savaged for his fluidity by fellow Republican John McCain and a chorus of Democrats.  An enterprising shoe company even marketed a rubber beach sandal bearing his name.

Recently journalists, pundits and politicians seem to have tired of the term flip-flop.  Without a trace of irony they have abandoned it and begun to describe candidate vacillation as “pivoting.”  The pivot appears less derisive and is semantically nuanced to take advantage of an office seeker’s flexibility and lack of bothersome core beliefs and principles.

I am no longer a flip-flopper or indecisive, forgetful, and disorganized.  I am merely pivoting.  My pivoting is more personal and possibly a function of age.  I start for one room in our modest home and realize there is an item in the room I just left that I could take along and save myself a trip later.  Cunningly, I decide to double back for it.  Just as quickly I realize I may still need the item and it is best left where it is.  (We are talking about a sweat shirt here, not the nuclear code.)  Still, I have pivoted four times: bring it, leave it, etc.  If I plan to go out later, hence the need for a sweat shirt, what else do I need?  I am driving JoAnne (the editor) crazy and confusing my border collies who track my every step, all in an effort to save seconds in my busy day, which consists primarily of designing a helmet thru which to view the next solar eclipse as there is no way I can have it ready for this one.

Writing this, I became nostalgic for simpler times.  Al Gore inventing the Internet, cranky Bob Dole parodied as an old man chasing kids off the White House lawn if elected, Dan Quayle’s “potato,” Gerald Ford’s pratfall, George (“heckuva job Brownie”) Bush, Sarah Palin’s Russia vision.

Politics has always been a blood sport.  We are living in hell and fighting for our lives.  There is plenty to parody.  Buffoons and clowns abound.  There is an underlying sense of decay.  A tragically egocentric “comic” has commandeered the main stage.  The doors are locked.  A lone heckler is roughly escorted out. (“Lucky bastard,” we think.)  The rest of us sit nursing our drinks, desperate and alone, too embarrassed to make eye contact with each other.   The “performer” is after the crowd, and now insulting patrons nearby.  At least it’s not us.  Now he’s working blue—dirty, desperate stuff, slamming racial and ethnic groups.  The booing increases but most of us simply squirm, placing our drinks down a little harder on the table and coughing occasionally.  Not quite the acts of  revolutionaries.  There is a paralysis in the room.  Why are we still sitting here, and why are some audience members laughing and clapping?  Some of us exchange sly digs but the show continues…  Why don’t we rise as one, turn over our tables and storm out?

Tom H. Cook dreams of the day that Robert Mueller III, with the soundtrack The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (Gene Pitney) playing in the background, will ride into Washington D.C. with enough subpoenas and evidence to Lock Him Up

 

Codger’s Corner

Notes, observations, and subdued rants about aging without complaints about the metric system, young people, or liver spots.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.  This universal truth was originally scrawled by Piltdown Man, unearthed at Olduvai Gorge, and attributed to Hammurabi.   I remember it every time  I receive a mailer to come for a free dinner and coincidentally hear about a wonderful investment opportunity.  I suspect a conspiracy between my local pharmacist, AARP, and my subscription to a daily print newspaper.  I have been profiled.  They know the Internet for my crowd is unreliable, so it is a four color foldout in the U.S. mail.   They may be selling funeral plots, bit coins, eternal life through cryogenics, or space travel but

I rip up the brochures because they think I am an idiot.  The glossy invitation invariably features the juicy steak and potatoes I could be enjoying next Tuesday evening.  Am I living in a hovel eating cat food?  If so I do not have the money to “secure my children’s future”. Granted I am a vegetarian, but a giant picture of the dinner is supposed to entice me to invite the little woman out for a high class evening of sophisticated conversation and haute cuisine.  (Mother, put your teeth in we are going to motor off in our Olds Cutlass to sit in an overly air conditioned Days Inn in Temecula with 300 other rubes and learn the secret of biorhythmic investing).

Aging has made me more sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement and the horrors of segregation.  It is not that I have become wiser and more mature, I just need to go to the bathroom more urgently, unexpectedly, and frequently.  What do a local hardware store, a Jiffy Lube, and a mom and pop grocery have in common?  They each require pleading, cajoling, and groveling to allow a civilian to use their facilities.  Often I am directed to a latrine too far and I need to clarify the importance of my request.  It is then I imagine a sliver of what it must have been like to be black and the target of Jim Crow laws.

I am waiting for the day with impatience and dread when I care if a kid cuts across my lawn.  Are the Woodstock going, free lovin’, frisbee playing peaceniks I went to college with now sitting in folding chairs in their front yards with a hose just waiting for a young miscreant to attempt a slingshot ollie over their azaleas?

The big reveal may never come.  I guess this is a very sad one.  Many classmates, co-workers, neighbors, and acquaintances have been born again or found inner peace thru Transactional Analysis, Krishna, EST, Scientology, Bikram yoga, Reflexology, or selling Amway,  In my younger day well meaning folks (mistakenly as it turns out)  saw me as a seeker.   They urged me to read, experience, and be in the moment. I grudgingly agreed to attended mind expanding, grounding, enlightening ceremonies, lectures, and services as long as there was no cost, I could keep my shoes on, and it didn’t conflict with Hill Street Blues (Thursday at 9:00 PM).

My host would say, “Oh Tom, give it half a chance.”  Invariably that is what I give it.  I  am grateful, solicitous and genuinely interested on the way there.  I have a natural curiosity and I am good at asking questions and making people feel comfortable.  I tell myself not to be judgmental just let the experience wash over me.  If I am not converted, be an anthropologist and don’t poke holes.  This is the gist of my self-talk.

I fail to disclose that I am very irreverent and the more somber the occasion the more likely my cynical black humor will emerge. I am responsible, but almost powerless over it. I have to look behind the curtain and see the wizard. Every time I forget that I see comic potential in serious situations.  When my poop detector goes off, I will seek out an audience, a fellow infidel and convulse them in wicked concealed laughter.  Modesty aside, I am hysterically funny.   My “true believer” sponsors are mortified and the ride home is excruciating despite taking place at great speed with the wife screaming “faster” through clenched teeth.  There are no second dates.  JoAnne (the editor) will not accompany me and when I return home she gives me a credulous look that says, Didn’t you know you would do this?”  “I knew you would do this, you simply can not control yourself!”

Tom H. Cook has signed on at least long enough to see the current president living in a Winnebago with his fourth wife Candi, hawking Ginzu knives at the Minnesota State Fair.

Kakistocracy

What fresh hell can this be?*

                                —Dorothy Parker

 

But who will bell the cat?

                                —Ancient fable (predating Aesop)

 

Stupidity does not consist in being without ideas. Such stupidity would be the sweet, blissful stupidity of animals, mollusks and the gods. Human stupidity consists in having lots of ideas, but stupid ones. Stupid ideas, with banners, hymns, loudspeakers and even tanks and flame-throwers as their instruments of persuasion, constitute the refined and the only really terrifying form of stupidity 

                                 -– Henry de Montherlant, Notebooks, 1930-44

 

Kakistocracy— government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens,

                               —Thomas Love Peacock, English novelist 1829

 

 

It is meager solace having a name for the condition that is afflicting 63,000,000 of us.  Like chronic fatigue syndrome or sleep apnea, a diagnosis may help provide understanding and treatment.  Knowing you are not just a lazy person who snores loudly is some comfort and legitimacy.  Months after the election our nation is still in shock.  Many of us have physical symptoms like sleeplessness, irritability, and free floating anxiety,  We are worried, and feel powerless, cynical, and pessimistic.  We compartmentalize and become tearful thinking about the future. Literate readers of this space (oxymoronic) may already know the term kakistocracy.

 

Amro Ali a Middle Eastern scholar at the University of Sydney, posted a blog entitled “Kakistocracy:  A Word We Need to Revive.”  (Gotta love that Internet.) He encourages a more widespread application of the word kakistocracy to describe the current government of the United States.  Professor Ali warns that an overuse of the term by applying it to any unpopular government weakens its meaning.

 

Sadly that day is here.  We are full-on Captain Quieg, and James Comey smells of strawberries. We have forsaken democracy and its ideals and are currently living under a kakistocracy.  In further bad news, we likely have a comorbid condition kleptocracy, or rule by thugs and thieves.  Russia, always in the news, is a kleptocracy.  Putin and his cronies are amassing vast sums of money and precious resources but they are not stupid, they are not kakistocrats.


This is not a sore loser, aw shucks, “get ’em next time” partisan rant (see Bush v Gore HLP March/2001).    We have endured the leadership of racists, paranoiacs, simpletons and jingoists while still cramming ourselves into the bulging leisurewear of democracy.  Now we have split our pants.


How we got here is for better minds.  What happened to the Constitution?  Checks and balances?  Our current state is horribly embarrassing, like borrowing money from a relative, having a credit card refused at a busy supermarket, or making body noises on a first date.  We do not have death squads, though Attorney General Sessions is ramping up the penalties for drug offenses. We are closing the gap on the banana republics we once scorned. First World nations are treating us as if we have ceased bathing regularly.  

 

When I was a kid I wondered what color the sky was during The Great Depression, because all the newsreels and pictures were in black and white.  I catch myself feeling happy and then I remember the president and his minions are oblivious to the principles of Jefferson, the life of Frederick Douglass, and the sacredness of democracy.  Our past and our future are being looted.  Steve Bannon lurking around the White House is a greater threat than voter fraud or even foreign terrorism.  We are living under a kakistocratic form of government.  It is mind bending; the sky is still blue but we have all been diminished.  

 

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer still spry, terrified for the republic, and writing from a beach in California. 

 

Learning to Share

Sand Upon the Waters

By Tom H. Cook

Writing this has been so difficult, I almost feel nostalgic for the paper era with typed crumpled drafts littering the floor and discarded ideas scrawled and flung in or near my office wastebasket.  Tangible evidence of futile yet honest effort.  (My mother’s voice ringing in my ears, “You have to at least try.”)  Proof, like a runner’s sweat, that I labored, albeit in vain, to reach even my modest standard of journalism. I cannot tell you how many times I have begun this (all right, 15).  Now a click exorcises hours of folly.

Why is this piece so hard?  In every draft I come off as preaching to my betters.  Shrill, sanctimonious, self righteous, and self serving.  Why bother?  Why not write about the mentally ill gaining easier access to weapons, or the “relaxation” of data privacy laws, or why reading the posts on Next Door in any neighborhood makes me want to move far away?  This is about a series of small gestures I have undertaken.  As a final disclaimer, I am not setting myself up as a paragon of generosity and I likely do less for my fellow man than you do, yet here is my very short tale.

I have always been lets call it frugal although those that know me have other names for it.  In the last few years I have begun to loosen up a bit.  This is not about writing checks to worthy organizations (see HLP/March 2004).  In non-tipping situations I have taken to rewarding people that have gone out of their way for me.  It seems like every minimum wage and a bit higher worker is being rated and evaluated by their supervisor who in turn must report up the ladder and ultimately to the head weasel.  This has produced a class of people subtly bullied into feeling grateful for the opportunity to do a difficult, monotonous, unpleasant, and/or dangerous job.  Then they must worry that I will turn them in for below average groveling and insufficient servility.

My eyes have become further opened to the squeeze on the working poor.  They are “independent contractors,” which translates to no healthcare, seniority, retirement or sick leave. When I have had positive dealing with workers and service people who I feel deserve a bit extra, I help.  They do not have to give me a story, but often it flows freely.  I assure them that we are off the record and they will get all “5s” from me.  Like Studs Terkel, I ask,  “What do you do all day, and how do you feel about it? How are you treated by the company?”  I am just an old man asking gentle questions.  If they have quotas to meet and need to rush off, I let them go.

Countless times I have received an extra coat of touch-up paint on a gate, a few extra feet of cable, or a tow to a slightly out of network repair shop.  We are enjoined in a conspiracy, if only for a few minutes.  We know I am being overcharged for the product or service and they are receiving a pitifully small percentage.  Their lives are far harder than mine (affordable housing may be 50 miles away from where their route begins) yet they see me as a fellow victim of the bureaucratic rules that bind us.  Since I don’t come off as an entitled homeowner, the service people I have met are astonishing.  This is not a tit for tat or a figurative back scratching.  These are good souls trapped in a piecework system with no safety net or union protection.  I could not even in my prime (May-August 1977) last a week in their lives.

Often the repair person has fixed problems like mine many times.  Just by my offering a cold drink on a hot day they will show me tricks to head off future repairs.  I am not polite because of what I may gain, but I am genuinely interested and sympathetic.  I never lead with the promise of a gift.  Generally it is a Columbo moment (“Just one more thing…”). Often the tip is refused until I mention the extra service they provided me.  I don’t give a huge amount, maybe enough to take their family to dinner, pay a bill, or put gas in their vehicle (sadly not all three).  Invariably they are flabbergasted   The gratitude I receive is more valuable and feels better than what I would have done with the money.

Tom H. Cook is now an occasional columnist.  He recommends The Despair of Learning That Experience No Longer Matters by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in the April 10, 2017 New Yorker.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thief River Falls Chronicle

Dear Flo,
I’m a proud rural single mom with a problem. I wrote to you two decades ago, saying that although “Floyd” and I were still in high school, we had found true love. You told me love is a rare dove that some search the world over for and never find. (I thought you might have been talking about yourself.) Well, Floyd was a bird alright and he took flight. Off and on he’d come back to the nest (my parents basement) ‘til my daddy finally ran him off at gunpoint. (Thank you Second Amendment! ) Money is tight but I have three wonderful children. I don’t know how any God-fearing woman could do it any different. My choices are my own. But that is not why I am writing.

My growing up years were wonderful. Daddy worked maintenance at the Northland Community Vo-Tech in Thief River Falls. He’s gone now, as is the union. I could have basically gone to school for free but that’s another story (thank you Floyd Jr.). Muslims and Mexicans (I’m not prejudice) who don’t speak English and work cheap have all the jobs and I don’t feel safe on campus. Thanks to Obama, men can dress up as women and rape you in a public restroom, and Beyonce is telling me how to vote. (Whew, don’t know where all that came from!)

Here’s my reason for writing. I had a friend “Lynne” in high school. I was homecoming queen and she was in my court. She went right to the Twin Cities after graduation and I stayed up here for my boys. Fast forward twenty years and I run into Lynne at the market! I may have come on a bit strong but I was so excited to see her. I asked her if she is moving home. First she laughs and then looks at me like I had stepped in something (I hadn’t, I checked). She let me know that she and her husband are both doctors in Minneapolis and their kids are in prep school out East. They have purchased some property here, a little getaway from their stressful careers.

I figure even a part-time friend is better than nothing. I kidded her about how she couldn’t get out of here fast enough back in the day. I told her about my oldest starting technical school over in town. I’m babbling and flustered cause she doesn’t volunteer anything about herself or ask about me, not that there’s much to tell. While I’m in the middle of trying to catch her up on the old gang, she’s getting nervous about her frozen food. I suggested she and her hubby come out to visit. After that she ran out to her fancy Lexus.

A week later I drove out to her new lake “cabin” (a three story monster house) to take her some homemade brownies. There was no answer but I thought I heard whispering. I tried friending her on Facebook and no reply.

Should I try again to make contact, let her know how insignificant she made me feel, or just ignore her?

P.S. I left the brownies on my best tray on her porch, and I would like it back.

Proud Maryguy by Tom Cassidy

Dear Flo,
I have a problem and I remembered your homespun country wisdom when I was a girl. I had written you a turgid, vitriolic condemnation of my hometown dubbed “Gopher Flats.” You advised me to spread my wings and move to the city. Thanks to some government grants, scholarships, and working three jobs I completed med school at the U, where I also met my future husband, Arthur (not his real name). We have a nice home on Lake of the Isles and have two exceptional children.

Arthur teases me about being Homecoming Queen of the Corn. We came back up north (something I vowed never to do) for my uncle’s funeral. Arthur, who grew up in a big city, fell in love with the area! I showed him the lake where a bunch of us used to skinny dip. As a surprise, he bought the lake, or most of it. He would hum the theme from “Green Acres” and threaten to open a practice up here. I asked him if he would be willing to accept chickens as payment as no one here has any money or insurance!

The compromise Arthur and I struck was to use the land to build a holistic retreat center. I can continue my volunteer work with domestic abuse victims and Arthur and his colleagues can use it to conduct seminars. We can do some good and at the same time gain a significant tax advantage. I have agreed to come up one week a month.

Fast forward to this month: the construction is done and I am grocery shopping to pick up items the caterers missed for our housewarming/Hillary fundraiser for eighty people. I am running around the store like a mad woman and who starts hugging me but “Easy Susie” from high school! No tiara but same hairdo, plus 30 pounds. (They must not have pilates in the woods.) She starts yakking like I’m back home to stay and we can be “buds.” She is dangling participles, saying “these ones,” and beginning every sentence with the word “actually.” She goes on about her oldest child. I have no idea how large her brood is, but I am starting to hear banjo music and the sorbet is melting. She invites me out to see her double-wide and bring “the old man.”

On reflection I treated her brusquely. If I am honest, she reminds me of a vulnerable time in my life. I witnessed abuse here as a child and I vowed to get as far away as possible. My professional status and money is a firewall as much as the 300 miles. Susie was sweet but she crashed through all of my defenses and now I cannot face her. Arthur, bless him, still does not understand why I freaked out when he bought the property.

Susie knows where I live and has started leaving unwanted food on my doorstep. She is harassing me on-line about wanting her valuable tray back (it’s silver plate). A lawyer friend has offered to draft something but I think that is overkill. The simple truth is we live in different worlds and have nothing in common. How do I say that nicely?

Blue Lady

Dear Mary and Blue,
Mary, you are correct, I think of my readers as my children! I will confess that you have always been two of my favorites and I am very proud of you. I am publishing both of your letters together and hoping you can bridge this gap between you.

Much love,
Flo

Tom H. Cook is a writer on occasion and not a political savant.

Don’t mourn; organize.
—Joe Hill, labor organizer, executed by Utah firing squad 1915

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.